WASHINGTON—On the afternoon of June 21 at the Capital One Arena, Mr. Li Hongzhi addressed more than 9,000 Falun Gong practitioners attending an experience-sharing conference.
Mr. Li is the founder of Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa. In an environment complicated by the Chinese Communist Party’s unremitting hostility toward the spiritual practice, he rarely makes public appearances.
In Chinese, Mr. Li is often referred to as “shifu,” a term of respect for a great teacher. Upon his appearance on stage, Mr. Li was greeted by a standing ovation that lasted several minutes.
Mr. Li spoke for about two hours, discussing challenges Falun Gong practitioners face in their efforts at self-improvement and the need for practitioners in China to make safety a priority. After his address, which was delivered without the use of notes, he answered questions from the audience.
From All Over the World
Organizers for this ticketed event said there were more than 9,000 attendees, who came from all over the world. Simultaneous translation was offered in 10 languages. Korean ladies in traditional garb could be seen sitting near stylishly dressed men and women from Italy. As diverse as the group was, they were united by one thing: their devotion to Falun Gong.
Falun Gong is an ancient cultivation practice. In China, spiritual practices have often been passed down in lineage form, from master to student, across the generations. Mr. Li brought this practice to the public in May 1992 in the northeastern Chinese city of Changchun.
In Falun Gong, one cultivates the body, mind, and spirit. The practice teaches that the fundamental principles of the universe are “Zhen, Shan, Ren.” “Zhen” translates as truth and truthfulness, “Shan” as compassion, benevolence, and goodness, and “Ren” as tolerance, forbearance, and endurance.
“Zhuan Falun,” the main text of the practice, elaborates on these principles, presenting a set of moral teachings that practitioners seek to live by. Practitioners also do five sets of meditative exercises, four of them performed while standing and one while sitting.
Early Days and Persecution
After initially teaching the practice in Changchun, Mr. Li traveled all over China through the end of 1994, giving 54 lectures series that each lasted eight or 10 days.
The lecture halls held at most several thousand people, but the number of those practicing Falun Gong quickly swelled far beyond those who had attended Mr. Li’s lectures.
Those who began practicing reported improvements in their health and stress levels, better relations with family members and colleagues, and a stronger sense of purpose in life.
News of the practice spread by word of mouth, from one family member to another, from friend to friend, and from colleague to colleague.
Falun Gong soon had a presence in every corner of China, with an appeal that cut across all social strata. People of all backgrounds, from the poorest farmers to the top intellectuals to members of the regime’s elite security forces and military units, were reading “Zhuan Falun” and practicing the five sets of exercises.
At the same time, the regime gave awards to the practice for its contributions to society.
By early 1999, Western news media were reporting that according to the regime, between 70 million and 100 million Chinese were practicing Falun Gong. Practitioners say the number was actually over 100 million, or 1 in 13 Chinese.
The then-paramount leader of the Chinese Communist Party, Jiang Zemin, viewed these developments with fear. On April 25, 1999, he sent a letter to the Politburo arguing for a campaign against Falun Gong. He feared that the practice’s traditional moral teachings would prove more attractive to the Chinese people than the Party’s atheistic and materialist doctrine.
On July 20, Jiang launched a campaign to eradicate the practice. Mass detentions, forced labor, brainwashing, and torture followed. The website Minghui.org, which serves as a clearinghouse for news about the persecution, can confirm the deaths from torture of 4,226. The real number is believed to be far higher, due to the difficulty of getting information out of China.
In addition, the practice of forced organ harvesting, in which Falun Gong practitioners are the primary source of organs for China’s large transplantation industry, has killed large numbers.
David Kilgour, a former Canadian crown prosecutor and secretary of state for the Asia-Pacific, has co-written a report and two books on forced organ harvesting; he terms it a “genocide” of Falun Gong in China.
Before and after Mr. Li’s speech, Falun Gong practitioners gave speeches about the difficulties and triumphs they have experienced in their cultivation.
Benjamin Maloney from New Jersey recounted how he began practicing Falun Gong in college and how it turned his life around. Graduating near the top of his class, he quickly got a plum job with a Fortune 500 company.
Falun Gong practitioners speak about the importance of looking inward—if something negative happens in their lives or they find themselves in a conflict, they first should look at their own behavior to understand what they contributed to the situation.
Maloney spoke about the lessons he had learned about looking inward, as in doing so, he was able to set aside a certain arrogance he’d held and begin to appreciate the hearts of his co-workers, with the result that projects he was working on were more successful.
Chen Yingting from Taiwan spoke about lessons she learned in coordinating a translation project.
Falun Gong practitioners take as a maxim that they should think of others first in all that they do.
Chen learned that a good coordinator needs to serve the needs of her team members, rather than setting herself above them. She said, “A coordinator is like a rope connecting [her colleagues], who are like pearls.”
After she learned this lesson, her work went smoothly, she said.