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Spiritual CULTivation 

In China, Falun Gong practitioners are beaten and persecuted, so the U.S. is granting them asylum. But is this movement as harmless as it seems?

Wednesday, Mar 15 2000
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Falun Gong followers vociferously deny the government's claims as propaganda. But Chen says she does not find the figure of 1,400 deaths baseless or necessarily inaccurate. Even Master Li's own writings address the possibility of demonic and animal possession during meditation, telling cultivators what to watch out for. "The phenomenon I saw presented itself in the clinics without any state intervention," Chen says. "The doctors weren't reading state propaganda. They were struggling to understand a new category of mental illness. Of course, the government would use the information as a platform, but that occurred much later."

Chen says she believes there are dangerous and manipulative aspects to Falun Gong -- and Margaret Singer, a clinical psychologist and professor emeritus at UC Berkeley, tends to agree. She is an expert cult deprogrammer and the author of Cults in Our Midst. "Some will say it's not, but Falun Gong looks like a cult to me," she says. "My criteria is a self-appointed person with secret knowledge to share, who gets his followers convinced he is the pipeline to the eternal good life. Doesn't that sound like Master Li?"

But unlike other cults, Falun Gong does not compel its members to completely break away from the outside world, or sign over their material wealth to a leader. In fact, other than reading his books and looking at his picture, Falun Gong members have hardly any interaction with Master Li. Followers insist that Falun Gong cultivation is a voluntary act that they can pursue as much or as little as they desire.

"No structure, no donation, free will, on your own -- I hate to be cynical, but I've heard the same story so many times before," says Singer, who has interviewed more than 4,000 former cult members of various groups. "The manipulation is not overt; it is subtle, social, and psychological. But the bottom line reads: 'Give your life to us.'"

Falun Gong claims it is not a religion -- only a belief -- since it has no churches, scheduled services, or organized hierarchy. Li Hongzhi does, however, have a spokesperson in a New York public relations firm. Thousands of journalists from around the world have been denied interviews with Li, who has been in seclusion since last July. But faxed press releases about Falun Gong persecution continue to arrive from Rachlin Media Group in New York. There is also an official Falun Gong Web site that is filled with comprehensive content and updated daily. Though Master Li's books are free to read on the Internet, blue-covered paperbacks are sold in stores.

Chen is dubious of Falun Gong's avowed lack of organization and financial obligation to members. "Somehow Master Li managed to get to the U.S. and live here," she says. "The hardest part is following the money because he profits in ways other than monetary donations. You can practice Falun Gong for free, but once you are hooked, you incur a lot of expenses donating time, labor, and material resources to expand the group." A lot of Master Li's earnings are in social capital, Chen says. With Web sites to maintain, books to publish, and numerous Falun Gong conferences to set up around the world, there seems to be a network of free goods and services provided by members.

In recent months, Singer says she has gotten calls from 45 Bay Area families concerned about relatives living in the U.S. who have converted to Falun Gong. "They are very worried, because it is not as if their mother or brother or daughter is only doing simple exercises in the park," Singer says. "There is a feeling of detachment, that attention to family has shifted to Falun Gong and Master Li. And I'm talking about Asian families, which normally keep very close and intense ties. I've listened to sisters weeping over their lost siblings."

The scenes at Falun Gong conferences at which converts are invited onstage to talk about how Master Li's teachings have changed their lives make Singer sigh. One after another, for hours on end, converts take turns telling their personal stories of spiritual renewal and physical healing. "I can feel the little faluns coursing through my body, cleansing me," 26-year-old Gina Sanchez told the crowd of mostly Chinese immigrants at the Caltech conference last month. "My thoughts and heart are being watched, and someone is guiding me. I am grateful Master Li is so merciful to do that for me. It is something I wanted my whole life."

Sanchez and others at Caltech, like 28-year-old Ed Aikens, represent a growing number of non-Chinese converts who have discovered Falun Gong and read the English-language versions of Master Li's books. "I know what Master Li talks about is true. It doesn't matter if others believe it, because I've seen it," Aikens said, as a translator repeated his words in Chinese for the audience. "I don't question we have these powers locked away in our brains. We just have to deprogram ourselves to unlock them."

The INS has had a difficult time classifying Falun Gong, especially when members deny the group is political or even a religion. But since China has clearly targeted and persecuted the group, the INS allows Falun Gong followers to file for asylum under three categories: religion, political opinion, and social group. "Blanket asylum for any Falun Gong member is not done," says INS spokesman Bill Strassberger. "They have to demonstrate persecution, or a well-founded fear, on an individual basis."

Getting asylum isn't easy, for any reason. Of more than 4,000 new Chinese applications filed last year, the INS approved fewer than 1,000. The INS does not keep a specific breakdown of Falun Gong cases, nor does the INS concern itself with what Falun Gong believes. "It doesn't matter so much whether it's a cult or not," Strassberger says. "We grant asylum based on how much a member of a particular group is being persecuted, without passing judgment on the group."

About The Author

Joel P. Engardio

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