With his baby face and unassuming way, Flushing resident Li Hongzhi does not seem any threat to a world power, much less the leader of a spiritual movement with millions of members.
But the 48-year-old Li, a man who says he's never been upset with another human being, has become a thorn in the side of Chinese officialdom. In the seven years since he founded Falun Dafa [Law Wheel Great Way], a spiritual discipline that draws from Buddhism and Taoism, his devoted following in China has grown as high as 70 million, according to the Chinese government.
His followers are not afraid to protect their beliefs and have staged huge demonstrations that led the Chinese government last week to ban the group, claiming it undermines the country's stability.
Catapulted into the international spotlight, Li's elusiveness with the media has only heightened the mystery surrounding the man. He agreed to a rare interview with Newsday earlier in the month but asked that he not be questioned about the events in China.
The interview, held in a follower's Manhattan apartment and conducted in Mandarin, provided insight into a powerful man whose strength is underscored by his modest appearance, controlled emotions and carefully crafted responses.
I'm the same as other people, but the cultivated part of myself is different from others, said Li, who came to the United States last year because of Chinese government pressure and made his home in Flushing with his wife and high school-aged daughter. I'm not saying I'm two people. I'm saying that I'm a cultivator.
By this, he means that he helps his followers grow morally andspiritually.
Li is quick to say that his philosophy is not a religion or a cult and is not practiced and studied in a temple or a church. Instead, Falun Dafa (known as Falun Gong in China) strives to help people reach a higher level of morality and eventual enlightenment, Li said. He teaches members to strive for truthfulness, benevolence and forbearance.
He says there are physical and psychological benefits as well, with some people cured of illnesses.
I have never gotten upset with human beings, he said. I have never been to hospitals, never been ill.
His teachings incorporate a system of exercises based on the age-old Chinese practice of qigong, a combination of meditation and martial arts movements. Locally, thousands of adherents faithfully meet at dawn in parks throughout New York and Long Island to run through the yoga-like, slow-motion exercises Li has taught them. The same scene repeats each day in the parks of Beijing and other Chinese cities. Everyone who wants to learn can learn, said Li, whose responses never stray far from the philosophy he teaches. I have never imposed on people to learn.
Li said he was born near the northeastern Chinese city of Changchun to parents who were doctors. As a child, he spent a lot of time with his grandmother.
Near her home was a Buddhist temple, where the senior monk took a special interest in Li, he recalled. As a boy, he practiced simple exercises the monk taught him.
Ever since that time of cultivation, it's been with me until now, he said. I was very young and I didn't quite know about the cultivation practices the master was teaching me, but I learned the simple exercises.
Li said he continued his studies later in life under Taoist masters.
What I had learned could only be taught to one disciple, and it couldn't be passed on to the public, Li said. Therefore, I had to make adjustments to the practices so more people can benefit from it and learn from it. I called it Falun.
As an adult, Li did not immediately devote his life to teaching. He worked as a clerk in Changchun and was a trumpet player with the song and dance troupe of the forestry police.
In the late 1980s, his spiritual masters encouraged him to teach qigong, he said.
They told me that what they did was pave the road for me to come out, Li said.
Starting in 1992 with small gatherings, he began spreading his philosophy. Word spread, and he spoke at stadiums across China to crowds of thousands. In 1996, he published Zhuan Falun (Revolving Law Wheel), which practitioners seized as their spiritual guidebook. It has sold nearly a million copies.
Today, Li travels around the world, from Canada to Australia, giving lectures. He lives off the royalties to his book and lecture tapes.
He sees his message as unique.
What I say, no one has known historically, said Li, whose youthful, round face is highlighted by his dark hair and thick eyebrows.
As part of his teachings, he plants wheels, figuratively, in followers' lower abdomens. The wheels, or Falun, spin constantly and are said to direct energy from within and without the body for the followers' health, to heal others and even to give them supernatural powers.
The group estimates that it has about 100 million members worldwide; the Chinese government believes that about 70 million of its citizens follow Li's teachings. (The ruling party in China has about 60 million members, and party officials worry that some in their ranks are joining the Falun Dafa movement.)
Tensions between Falun Dafa members in China and the government there have been building since April, when 10,000 of Li's followers staged a sit-in in Beijing protesting the arrest of others in the group for illegal assembly. The demonstration was the largest in the Chinese capital since the democracy movement in Tiananmen Square 10 years ago.
Last week, there were news reports that 70 group members were being detained by the government, sparking a protest by as many as 30,000 people in Chinese cities.
Scholars who have studied China believe that in part, the sheer number of Falun Dafa followers in the country has raised the government's defenses.
It is a threat because this is occupying tremendous space in the civil society, which they [the ruling party] have never tolerated in the past, said Peter Kwong, director of Asian American studies at Hunter College in Manhattan.
Scholars also said that given rapid changes that allowed more freedom in China but also created a spiritual vacuum, they are not surprised at Falun Dafa's quick growth and the booming interest in other qigong schools.
The reaction is a return to a Chinese, mixed-religion background in response to the chaos going on around them, said Murray Rubinstein, a history professor at Baruch College in Manhattan.
The phenomenal growth [of qigong schools] has a lot of nationalistic aspects to it, Kwong said. A lot of people believe western culturalization is overwhelming China. It [qigong] becomes a cultural re-assertion in China.
Kwong and other academics say that the rapid surge of a group like Falun Dafa in China reflects the cyclical nature of the country's history.
In 1900, the bloody Boxer Rebellion in northern China was the climax to a movement eschewing Western and Japanese influence. The movement was started by a secret Chinese society, and its members were nicknamed Boxers because they practiced gymnastics and calisthenics.
In the 1850s and part of the 1860s, the Taiping Rebellion attracted large numbers of disaffected peasants in southern China. The leader of the movement, in which 20 million Chinese died, purported to be the younger brother of Jesus.
Though Falun Dafa members do not consider it a religion and Li has not come out overtly espousing any political beliefs, scholars view the group as having religious overtones and unquestionable power in its numbers.
The Chinese government is secular and atheist, Kwong said. The existence of religion is a threat to their interpretation of nature. If it is not controlled, it could attract people away from being Communists.
The perceived threat may be even more pronounced as the country prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China in October.
Li tried to extinguish fears last week, after China announced its ban of the group, by releasing a written statement saying We are not against the government now nor shall we be in the future. . . . Falun Gong is merely a popular qigong practice by the general people in China. It is not political.
During the interview, Li's only acknowledgement of the growing tension in China came when he said, The Chinese government doesn't believe there are that many good people doing good deeds.
He quickly reiterated that despite this, he has never been upset with human beings.
I teach everyone to be a good person, Li said. What happens eventually I never think about what happens eventually. I just want people to learn about Falun Gong.
(Newsday, July 25, 1999)