Student group practices despite controversy

Some students still practice Falun Gong, a Chinese spiritual movement, despite opposition by the Chinese government.

by Kathryn Nelson

On the third floor of Coffman Union, eight people move fluidly to the calming sounds of wind instruments and bells.

Though it seems peaceful, the spiritual practice has a history of controversy, including one University graduate who fears for his mother’s safety abroad.

University graduate and Falun Gong student group member Cheng Wan was introduced to the practice by his mother in 1996.

Wan’s mother had been battling a chronic illness for many years and had found that neither Chinese nor Western medicine helped her symptoms, but her health drastically changed when she began practicing Falun Gong, he said.

“She was a new person.”

The change in his mother sparked Wan’s interest in Falun Gong, a spiritual and physical exercise that teaches the ideals of truthfulness, compassion and tolerance, which Wan said helped him answer some of life’s biggest questions.

But soon after Wan left China for the University in 1998 to pursue further education, the Chinese government began a brutal supression of the spiritual movement.

Wan’s mother, who remained in China, was arrested In 2000 and placed in a “re-education camp” where she was subjected to hard labor for several weeks, he said.

Still, she insisted on practicing Falun Gong.

In 2001, police broke into her home, arrested Wan’s mother and put her in jail for three years for possesing Falun Gong fliers and “ruining social order,” Wan said.

During her time in jail, Wan said his family was able to contact her occasionally, but they were warned their conversations were taped by the government.

Between jailings, Wan said he noticed his mother’s hearing had deteriorated and she refused to talk about her experience in the camp. Wan said she didn’t want to scare him from continuing to practice Falun Gong.

After being released from detainment, Wan said his mother couldn’t return home because she was being watched by the police.

Even now, Wan doesn’t know the exact location of his mother and only receives occasional e-mails or phone calls from her.

History professor Edward Farmer said China has a long history of suppressing religious movements, which sometimes agitates groups into becoming more radicalized.

Falun Gong practitioners have been outspoken about their beliefs, staging peaceful protests and public practicing which alarms the Chinese government, Farmer said.

And because some practitioners have become more outspoken, he said, the Chinese government has labeled Falun Gong a cult and has outlawed its practice.

Clear estimates for the number of Falun Gong members are unknown but may be somewhere between 20 million and 100 million.

Though Falun Gong may be a newer movement, Farmer said programs such as re-education camps, like the one Wan’s mother was kept in, have been present for at least 50 years.

Human Rights Watch and other human rights organizations have reported instances of torture, forced conversion, organ harvesting and murder of Falun Gong members while in detainment during the past few years.

Ming Wei Shu, a member of the Falun Gong student group at the University, came to the United States in 1996 and began practicing two years later.

Shu said she believes the Chinese government feels threatened by the movement because the number of members grew so quickly.

Shu said the government disperses misleading information to crush the group.

Regardless of the validity of the movement, some members of the University’s Falun

Gong student group see Chinese suppression as a real threat and therefore will not return to China.

Wan said he still received threatening phone calls from Chinese officials while in the United States.

“As long as I stay (in the United States), there should be no problems,” Wan said.