The mother of University graduate student Cheng Wan has been arrested twice in China for practicing Falun Gong, a physical and spiritual exercise program deemed illegal by Chinese authorities.
The first time she was arrested, Chinese government officials detained her for about two weeks. They held her for a month after her second violation.
Yet Wan’s mother refuses to abandon the program.
“When I call home, my parents warn me that the phones are probably tapped,” Wan said.
Wan and other members of the Falun Gong chapter at the University have been concerned for their fellow practitioners since Falun Gong was banned in China on July 20, 1999.
Falun Gong is a one approach to the ancient martial arts practice of qi gong, the cultivation of the body’s life force or vital energy by physical exercises.
Qi gong is part of Chinese traditional medicine and incorporates spiritual principles of truth, compassion and tolerance.
Since Falun Gong was banned, thousands of practitioners like Wan’s mother have been arrested. Hundreds have been sentenced to prison, mental institutions or labor camps, and at least 68 have died while in custody, according to a Web site on Falun Gong.
The practice has grown in popularity since it was introduced in China by Li Hongzhi in 1992. Estimates of how many members there are vary: According to a group Web site, there are more than 100 million followers, but the publication AsiaToday indicates there are 2 million members, one-third of them in China.
The recent National Day demonstrations in Tiananmen Square on Oct. 1 by Falun Gong members aroused an angry response from the Chinese government. Reports from the official Chinese news agency refer to Falun Gong as “an evil cult” and claim that the organization has carried out sabotage.
John Nania, a Twin Cities-based Falun Gong practitioner, denied those reports.
“We don’t advocate any political agenda,” he said. “All we ask is that the Chinese government obey its own constitution.”
Nania said Falun Gong members are not legally allowed to protest their treatment in China. In fact, in many cases no lawyer is allowed to represent them when they are arrested. The October demonstrations in Tiananmen Square represented a “last resort” to protest for the Falun Gong, Nania said.
Jingxun Li, a University mass communications graduate student who has researched the Falun Gong in Beijing, explained the group’s rise.
Li said economic changes in China such as increased unemployment, company bankruptcies and an inadequate welfare system accounted for the increased popularity of Falun Gong.
“(In the United States), people can start their own religion, but this is not allowed in China,” he said.
Hongzhi disputes government claims that he is a kind of god and that people will get sick if they practice Falun Gong, Li said.
Still, he said, the government was not wise to ban the practice. The harsh treatment, he explained, would only increase people’s mistrust of the government.
Y. Joseph Zhao, associate professor in the aerospace engineering and mechanics department at the University and practitioner of Falun Gong, agreed that the Chinese government is mishandling the Falun Gong practitioners.
“The world is changing,” Zhao said. “Brutality will work in the short term, but in the long term it is the people’s will that prevails.”
Zhao also pointed out that a 1998 Chinese government study of 12,000 Beijing practitioners described Falun Gong as beneficial. The study concluded that Falun Gong improved mental and physical health, and saved medical expenses.
Wan speculated the reason for the crackdown is not the group’s action, but its success.
The government has become uncomfortable with the group’s popularity, he said.
“They want people to believe in the Communist Party and nothing else,” he said.