SAN FRANCISCO—Lily Zhang, a Chinese-American woman in her 50s, said that while growing up in communist China, she used to be "a classic Ironwoman." The idea connotes a flinty disposition, a hatred of class enemies, and a willingness to sacrifice for the "revolution."
But in a conference held at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in downtown San Francisco on Oct. 24, Zhang and thousands of others, of various ethnicities and from all around the United States and the world, reflected on what it means to have embraced a traditional Chinese spiritual discipline.
Falun Gong, or Falun Dafa, is the name of the practice that the attendees came to discuss. It involves practicing a set of meditative exercises and living according to the principles of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance. Every year, Falun Gong practitioners on the west coast of the United States hold an experience sharing conference of this kind, where they reflect on how they have grown in their spiritual practice.
Falun Gong was the most popular meditative practice of its kind throughout the 1990s in China, with the regime estimating that there were 70 million citizens practicing it by the end of the decade, including many influential government officials; Falun Gong sources have pegged the number at over 100 million. The practice spread rapidly by word of mouth, as those who took it up reported extraordinary improvements in their health, sense of morality, relations with family and co-workers, and stress levels. Many experienced a better sense of purpose in life.
The large number of people practicing Falun Gong scared former Communist Party chief Jiang Zemin, who set out to eradicate the practice and began one of the most severe, ongoing human rights crises in the world today.
Many of the speeches given at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium discussed efforts to expose and stop the persecution, and the obstacles therein.
Susan Williams, 56, from Halifax, Nova Scotia, has been practicing Falun Dafa since 2009. She came to the conference, first of all, to see how she could improve herself internally—practitioners of Falun Gong see this as one of the pillars of their spiritual discipline—and also to participate in related events, including parades, protests, and outdoor group meditation.
Williams was particularly eager to use the opportunity to talk to the many Chinese tourists coming to San Francisco, who may have had little chance to hear about Falun Gong apart from the official Chinese propaganda. Given the sparseness of the population in Halifax, it's an opportunity that she treasures. "People coming from China should know that Falun Gong is good," Williams said.
Chow Wai-dong, who came from Hong Kong for the San Francisco conference, delivered one of the final speeches of the day. He said he first came into contact with the practice by receiving literature handed out by volunteers in the street. He then recounted some of the history of Chinese Communist Party influence in Hong Kong, which is often aimed at disrupting peaceful Falun Gong events there. The current Hong Kong leadership, which is thought by analysts to be connected to Jiang Zemin, "brought the gangster element to Hong Kong," Chow said.
Yet, he noted, the more poorly the communist-backed thugs behaved, the greater the interest generated in Falun Gong's own story. "People would queue up for the Minghui newsletter and even grab them off the rack without waiting," Chow said, referring to a publication run by volunteers that carries news about the situation of Falun Gong in China and articles about the self-improvement reported by Falun Gong practitioners.
Jim Battaglini, a Falun Gong practitioner from Minnesota, was attracted to the practice after reading about the spiritual journey of the historical Buddha, known as Sakyamuni in Chinese. "I was looking for a way or method, but I couldn't find any instruction. Then one time I was at the public library, and I found the main text of Falun Gong. I read the first sentence, and I said, 'This is it.'" He noted that the focus of his life has changed significantly as a result of his practice.
Battaglini remarked on one of the papers read at the conference, which discussed successful efforts at bringing information about the persecution of Falun Gong to elite members of society, including policymakers and financiers. "The practitioner [speaking] explained his successes, but it wasn't with the idea that 'I'm great.' It was about conscientious effort, looking at his own self, and explaining what led to the success."
Li Mengfei, from New York City, spoke of how she grew up in a family in which Falun Gong was simply a part of life. She spoke about how she applied its lessons, in particular those about looking internally and overcoming psychological obstacles, in her work in sales in Manhattan.
Lily Zhang, of San Francisco, said she was able to overcome her fear of driving, a skill she had never learned in China, when she was well past middle age. Now she drives nearly every day, ferrying other Falun Gong practitioners to events, holding meetings with government officials, and trying to put an end to the persecution in her homeland. She named her vehicle, a black Honda Accord, "my black Prince Charming."'
With reporting by Petr Svab and Larry Ong