LONDON—It is a day of contrasts. Slow-moving qigong exercises performed by a yellow-suited troupe bring calm to London’s Trafalgar Square. Then come Chinese waist drummers, beating an energetic, synchronised pulse in the May sunshine, under an arc of colourful balloons in the shadow of the National Portrait Gallery.
Yet this lively celebration of Chinese culture is juxtaposed with what participants say is the most under-reported and brutal human rights tragedy in the world today.
This is World Falun Dafa Day, held every year to commemorate the founding of the Chinese meditation practice whose roots lie in ancient traditions of cultivation of virtue.
“Falun Dafa is a qigong, meditation and exercise,” said organiser Michael Lee, speaking at the event in the capital on Saturday. “Falun Dafa day is officially on May 13th—the birthday of founder master Li Hongzhi—but we’re celebrating it today, on Saturday, because there are more people here to join the celebration.”
Falun Dafa, or Falun Gong as it is more widely known, was introduced to the Chinese public in 1992 by qigong master Li Hongzhi. It came at the peak of what was then a “qigong craze”, with hundreds of varying styles of these slow-moving, meditative exercises being practiced across China.
“There were many Chinese people who came to learn Falun Gong in the early 90s,” says Falun Gong Association spokesman Wei Liu. “That was the starting point for Falun Gong. Then it spread through China and the rest of the world.”
In 1999 a government survey estimated the number of Falun Dafa practitioners in China at 70-100 million.
However, in July 1999 the then head of the communist party, Jiang Zemin, initiated a brutal campaign of persecution against the practice, which has seen thousands of Falun Gong tortured to death.
The true scale of the persecution of Falun Gong is still unknown, because China’s communist regime is notoriously tight-lipped. UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Dr Manfred Nowak, estimates that there are between three and six million people currently in “re-education through labour” camps, of whom two thirds are Falun Gong practitioners.
Falun Gong was not always so unwelcome in China. Before the persecution, Falun Gong was endorsed even by the Chinese communist regime for its health-giving benefits.
But many of those joining the celebrations on Saturday emphasised not only the health benefits of the practice, but also its underlying values.
“Master Li teaches that the values of truthfulness, compassion and tolerance are as important as the exercises we do," says Michael Lee, referring to the three fundamental principles of the practice, displayed above him in large letters on the banners in Trafalgar Square.
Michael says he has practised Falun Gong for 12 years. He explains his own experience with following these principles: "Because you tell the truth, you don't worry about people coming to tell you off. So you always have a peaceful mind. You are kind to people, so people are kind to you back.
"Master Li teaches us to always look inside so that you can see what problems you have and you know how to improve," he adds. "And that's why I say Falun Gong is very good.”