China's 10-year campaign to crush Falun Gong drives movement underground

Beijing, China - Now entering its second decade, China's relentless drive to obliterate the Falun Gong spiritual sect has left a human toll ranging from the deaths of followers in custody to the self-exile of others and the beatings of their lawyers.

Saturday marks the 10th anniversary of a protest by an estimated 10,000 practitioners who stood silently around the Communist Party leadership compound in Beijing, alerting the government to the group's strength and wide appeal.

The April 25, 1999, demonstration was intended to show how Falun Gong believers had learned compassion, forbearance and tolerance, said practitioner Bu Dongwei in a telephone interview from the United States, where he fled six months ago.

But the size and discipline of those who gathered unsettled the communist leadership, ever wary of independent groups that could threaten its authority.

Two months later, the group was labeled an "evil cult" and banned, its leadership arrested, and a campaign launched to forcibly reconvert millions of believers. Anyone practicing Falun Gong or even possessing materials about it could be arrested.

Followers say the crackdown cost the lives of 3,200 practitioners, including 104 last year.

The government says some Falun Gong followers have died in detention because of hunger strikes or refusing medical help. But it denies any have been intentionally killed.

U.S.-based spokesman Levi Browde said since 1999 the group has recorded more than 87,000 cases of torture and estimates that anywhere from 200,000 to 1 million practitioners have been detained for various lengths of time.

Though less visible now that Falun Gong has been driven underground in China, the crackdown remains as vicious as ever, he said.

"The brutality continues and the systematic nature is the same and may have escalated a bit," Browde said.

At a highway off-ramp on the outskirts of Beijing, Yu Qun, a non-practitioner, reluctantly met an Associated Press reporter to show pictures and tell the story of her younger brother, Yu Zhou, a folk musician and a practitioner who died last year in police custody.

Tall and musically gifted, Yu Zhou studied French at the elite Peking University and later lived a Bohemian existence in China's capital with his wife, an artist and poet.

"Really happy, funny. He really liked people, whether they were strangers or people he knew well ... He had a gentle personality and was always thinking of other people," she said, cradling a small collection of his snapshots in her lap.

Yu, 41, and his wife were stopped, allegedly for speeding, as they drove home from a concert. Police detained the couple after finding CDs and printed material about Falun Gong in their car.

Ten days later, Yu Qun was called to the detention center's hospital. Her brother had died but authorities were unclear about the cause. More than a year later, the case remains unresolved.

Yu Zhou's wife, Xu Na, is serving a three-year sentence at a reeducation through labor facility.

The Chinese government contends Falun Gong brainwashes people into believing the practice can cure them of illness. It also alleges the movement convinced several members to self-immolate at Tiananmen Square in 2001, where a mother and her 12-year-old daughter died.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said at a regular press briefing Thursday the movement was harmful because it caused "illness, disablement and even death of many innocent people," but she did not give specifics.

"The Falun Gong cult violates human rights by controlling people's minds," Jiang said. "We encourage the entire society to help those practitioners who have been taken in."

Falun Gong attracted millions of followers in the 1990s with its program of traditional Chinese calisthenics and philosophy drawn from Buddhism, Taoism and the often-unorthodox teachings of founder Li Hongzhi, a former government grain clerk who now lives in hiding overseas. Organized by volunteers, the group claims to have no political agenda.

International human rights groups, the United Nations and numerous Western governments have criticized China for its crackdown, particularly its reeducation through labor, a system that allows authorities to imprison practitioners without trial.

In recent years, a handful of Chinese lawyers have begun taking Falun Gong cases. Cheng Hai, a self-trained Beijing lawyer represents Yu Zhou's wife and family, as well as six other practitioners. He says he was beaten earlier this month while trying to visit the home of another Falun Gong client.

"In China, a lot of people feel it's not worth fighting for their rights because they are so likely to fail," Cheng said. "They don't know that the big victories are won by adding up many, many small wins and actions."

Bu, the practitioner who took part in the 1999 demonstration, was sent to a labor camp for 2-1/2 years after a search of his home in 2006 turned up Falun Gong books.

In November, Bu and his young daughter boarded a plane for the United States, knowing if he stayed he would continue to be persecuted. He now lives with his wife and daughter in Los Angeles.

"I hope I can go back. I am sure I will go back soon after, you know, the Communist Party is over," he said.