NEW YORK—For about 140 minutes on a clear Thursday morning, another sign appeared next to the iconic Pepsi Cola neon structure in Gantry Plaza State Park.
Clad in bright yellow collar shirts and caps, over a thousand practitioners of Falun Gong, from half a dozen countries, occupied the dewy lawn to form four Chinese characters: “法輪大法,” or Falun Dafa. Sitting, and then standing practically shoulder to shoulder, the practitioners serenely moved their arms in unison to traditional Chinese music against the backdrop of the East River and the Manhattan skyline.
Organized by New York Falun Gong practitioners, the character formation at Gantry Park is one of several large-scale events that close to 10,000 practitioners from around the world will partake in this week to commemorate World Falun Dafa Day—marking the day on which the practice’s teachings were first disseminated to the public—on May 13.
To the practitioners gathered at Gantry Park, character formation is much more meaningful than what it implies; it’s an opportunity to show what being a Falun Gong adherent means, raise awareness about a brutal persecution in China, and provide testament that the spiritual discipline has not only persevered in the face of suppression and slander, but thrived.
‘Everyone Manages Themselves’
Falun Gong, or Falun Dafa, is a spiritual practice whose adherents perform slow, meditative exercises, and live by the teachings of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance. Founded by Changchun native Mr. Li Hongzhi in 1992, an estimated 70 to 100 million Chinese citizens were practicing Falun Gong exercises in parks and other public spaces in 1999, and there were practitioners in over a hundred countries and nations.
Because practitioners everywhere share the same principles and understand the significance of the World Falun Dafa Day events, getting them organized is a breeze for the nine character formation coordinators in New York, said Ma Lijuan, the chief event coordinator.
Practitioners may speak different languages, but “everyone just manages themselves,” said Ma, who lives in Yonkers.
About an hour before daybreak, the coordinators marked out Chinese characters with measuring tape. As practitioners from New York and Asian countries like Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam streamed into the venue at about 7:00 a.m., they were handed round plastic mats and bright yellow caps, and directed to fill up the spots.
“There are more Falun Dafa practitioners in Taiwan, so we can form more complicated characters,” said Li Yi-jing, a patent engineer in Taiwan. At Gantry Park, the over 350 Taiwanese practitioners present—one of the largest practitioner contingents in New York this week—were tasked with forming the intricate and manpower-intensive Chinese character “lun,” or “wheel.”
By 8:00 a.m., everyone was precisely where they should have been, and after two-and-a-half hours of picture taking and Falun Gong exercises, the event was wrapped up. The coordinators swiftly removed the markings and packed up the audio equipment, and the lawn was back to its pristine state within minutes. Meanwhile, the over 1,000 practitioners ambled off with their family and friends to other events in the city.
“We came to the United States because the persecution in China is still happening, and we hope to raise awareness of this issue to the international community here,” said Li the Taiwanese practitioner. “If you’re not in China, it’s sometimes hard to imagine how terrible the situation is, and how badly the Chinese communist regime is treating practitioners.”
Threatened by the popularity and numbers of Falun Gong, former Communist Party chief Jiang Zemin on July 20, 1999, ordered the regime’s security apparatus to “eradicate” the practice.
Over 17 years since, over 3,900 practitioners have died from abuses and torture, while hundreds of thousands others have languished in detention. Researchers later found that the regime was running a transplantation industry using the organs harvested from still living Falun Gong practitioners, and estimate that hundreds of thousands of practitioners have been killed in this trade.
Given that practitioners in China can be arrested for handing out something as innocuous as a brochure with unfiltered information about Falun Gong, 63-year-old Zhang Guanghua feels “fortunate and honored” to join her fellow practitioners in a character formation, performing the exercises and wishing Falun Gong founder Li Hongzhi a happy birthday. (His birthday falls on May 13.)
“Many practitioners in Beijing want to be here, but can’t,” said Zhang, a native Beijinger who managed to escape China in February last year. For petitioning the Chinese regime to call off the persecution, Zhang was arrested four times, became homeless for six years, and was detained for six to seven years in prison or labor camps. She suffered from poor health in detention because she was constantly deprived of sleep and had to work long, strenuous hours each day.
Another recent immigrant, Li Linlin from the eastern Chinese province of Shandong, started to tear when asked about how she felt to be part of the character formation.
“This is very solemn,” said Li. She had to first flee to Thailand in 2015 with a young child before moving to New York. “We don’t have this sort of environment in China … the freedom.”
Unlike Zhang, Li didn’t even get the opportunity to petition the Chinese regime to end the persecution of Falun Gong—a police officer stopped her before she arrived at Tiananmen Square and took her away. While working as a website designer in China, Li was arrested in 2003 because her coworker reported her. In 2005, she was again arrested and imprisoned for three-and-a-half years for downloading and distributing CDs containing Falun Gong information.
Now in New York, Li hopes that “people can see this grand sight and dispel their negative thoughts about Dafa, and truly, seriously learn what it is.”
Showing the Grandeur
Despite the Chinese regime’s persecution and sweeping efforts to paint Falun Gong in a bad light, no other country in the world has banned the practice, and people are still adopting it.
“The Chinese Communist Party has persecuted Falun Gong for 17 years, but Falun Gong continues to spread around the world,” said Kurebayashi Mitsuhiro, a Chinese-Japanese who has been practicing Falun Gong for 20 years. The character formation, to him, is an “opportunity to show the grandeur of Dafa to the American people.”
Tran Thi Trang, a Vietnamese practitioner who picked up Falun Gong in 2013 after learning about the practice through this newspaper, said that she has started performing better in college and has experienced better health.
Choi Kyung-soon, a 48-year-old housewife from South Korea, started learning Falun Gong from her neighbor in 2014. For years, Choi had suffered from poor health and had gone under the knife several times, but says she experienced remarkable improvements after practicing.
Some of the best benefits of the practice are more fundamental, though.
“I used to have a fiery temper,” said Choi, speaking through a translator. “But now my temper has improved, and I feel more compassionate.”
Frank Fang and Eva Fu contributed to this report.