As fears of increased religious persecution grow for China's Christians, human rights advocates often point to the iron-fisted attack that the country has waged on a peaceful exercise movement called Falun Gong, a group the country says is a "cult."

In 1999, China banned Falun Gong and has since launched a campaign of violence and propaganda far worse than its crackdown on other unregistered "cults" and "sects." But why is the Falun Gong a target of the government?

Falun Gong and Falun Dafa

The name Falun Gong (the practice of the wheel of Dharma) refers to five sets of lotus postures and hand movement exercises set to Chinese music. Routines have names like "The Falun Gong way to heavenly circulation" and "Buddha showing the thousand hands." The spiritual movement was originally called Falun Dafa (the great law of the wheel of Dharma) but in recent years, it is more commonly called by the name of its exercises, Falun Gong.

The movement grew out of a larger exercise practice call qigong, a Chinese art of breathing exercises and meditation. Falun Gong's founder, Li Hongzhi, says he learned qigong from masters at two undisclosed schools in the mountains of China beginning at the age of 4.

Li says his qigong mentors chose him to learn the secret Falun Gong exercises and to spread them to the world. In 1992, he founded Falun Dafa and began teaching its principles.

"The Purpose of Falun Gong is to cultivate a person's higher energy or 'gong,'" said an article in the April 2001 International Religious Freedom Report (pdf). "This is done not only through physical exercise but more importantly through the development of a person's xinxing (or mind nature). It is this emphasis … on a non-material energy that differentiates Falun Gong from other forms of qigong."

Because Falun Gong has spiritual elements not found in qigong, it left the national confederation of qigong groups shortly after its formation. It was clearly different. While some practitioners claim to only follow the exercise side of Falun Gong, many say it is a "path to enlightenment." Li says the movement allows one to develop "supernormal powers."

Who is Li Hongzhi?

Little is known about Falun Gong's leader. Information on his life is largely clouded by discrepancies. Most of this can be attributed to propaganda campaigns by both the Falun Gong and the Chinese government. Even his exact birth date and age vary by report. He is apparently in his early 50s.

Before founding Falun Gong, Li worked as a grain store clerk, a guesthouse attendant, and a trumpet player. At some point in the 1990s (reports vary), Li moved from China to New York City under increasing pressure by the Chinese government. He apparently lives on the profits of his instructional tapes and books.

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He claims a superior power sent him to Earth to fight the evils of science and aliens. In 1999, he told Time Asia, "You can think of me as a human being. I don't wish to talk about myself at a higher level. People wouldn't understand it."

Li teaches that the Falun Gong symbol, the "law wheel," is a spinning mini-replica of the universe that only he can place in each practitioner's lower abdomen. As it spins inside them, it absorbs the universe's energy. Access to one's law wheel is gained by practicing Falun Gong.

Last summer, Time Asia reported that such odd claims are frequent in his book Zhuan Falun, which Li wrote in 1995 to explain Falun Gong's main principles:

Li writes he can personally heal disease and that his followers can stop speeding cars using the powers of his teachings. He writes that the Falun Gong emblem exists in the bellies of practitioners, who can see through the celestial eyes in their foreheads. Li believes "humankind is degenerating and demons are everywhere"—extraterrestrials are everywhere, too—and that Africa boasts a 2-billion-year-old nuclear reactor. He also says he can fly.

According to an extensive report published by the Christian Research Institute (CRI), followers consider Zhuan Falun to be a sacred text. An advertisement for the book said, "No matter how many books of scriptures are published, all are materials of assistance to Zhuan Falun. It is only Zhuan Falun that is genuinely guiding cultivation."

CRI reported that Li often uses an exclusivist tone in his teachings: Zhaun Falun is the only text needed for proper enlightenment, he is the only teacher, and a practitioner cannot practice any other religion. He warns followers of "deceitful masters." He says many spiritual leaders are demons and other qigong leaders are possessed by spirits.

The CRI said Li also teaches that different races have individual "biospheres" that should not be mixed. Children of mixed-race are defective and heaven itself is segregated, he says.

The Chinese crackdown

On the morning of April 25, 1999, 10,000 practitioners of Falun Gong arrived on the Beijing compound that houses China's communist leaders. Their peaceful, silent protest was in response to an article in a government-owned magazine they found slanderous.

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This proved what the government was afraid of—that the growing movement of loyal adherents could turn into a political threat. The government took little notice when Falun Gong formed, but as it grew to an estimated 60 million followers the nation's leaders became wary. "What the communist leaders saw looked eerily like the party itself in its heyday," said a Time Asia article last summer. "The organization was hierarchically structured, with neighborhood groups, like cells, acting autonomously but in contact with higher levels."

On July 22, the Chinese government banned the Falun Gong and began an intense campaign of violence, expulsion, and imprisonment to break the group. Yet, Falun Gong remains in China. Though now more secretive, Falun Gong's public protests and self-immolations continue to bring the battle back to the forefront.

"The Government is insecure of its hold of the country," said Dr. Brent Fulton, President of China Source, which provides information and resources for people who serve China. "As it opens up and joins WTO, it sees any organization that it cannot control as a defacto threat. When discovered, this organization was capable of grabbing the hearts and minds and loyalty of millions."

Fulton said China is wary of such groups because the country has a history of quasi-political groups toppling governments. But does Falun Gong pose such a threat?

"Giving what they were doing when the government noticed them, no," Fulton told Christianity Today. "But through persecution, the government has now made them into more of a threat."

China's offensive on the Falun Gong has been a multi-front attack. Stories of persecution, torture, and police brutality are widespread. The government has also launched an extensive propaganda campaign.

Schoolchildren attend lectures on the evils of the Falun Gong and sign pledges that they oppose the group. A variety show at a Beijing theater shows "educational entertainment" to audiences bused in from companies across the country. In the show, women sing about people going crazy because of the Falun Gong, and an Elvis impersonator sings that "Li Hongzhi is a poisonous snake."

Perhaps the most effective tactic has been China's "responsibility system." Instead of using excessive governmental resources to hunt down practitioners, it enlists citizens to do it. "Bosses faces fines or demotions when their workers protest," Time Asia reported last year. "Police officers face heavier penalties for allowing people under their watch to demonstrate than for beating them to death."

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According to Time Asia, such pressure has sent more than 10,000 followers to labor camps and accounted for more than 220 deaths. The Falun Dafa Information Center puts the death toll at 358 and alleges that government officials claim more than 1,600 deaths. The center says over 100,000 practitioners have been detained, with more than 20,000 being sentenced to forced labor camps without trial.

"In practice, the government is putting much more weight against the Falun Gong than against Christian house churches," Fulton told Christianity Today. "The government will go after house churches when they can get to them, but not with the intensity of their hunt for Falun Gong. The government's propaganda attack of Falun Gong has not been equaled by their treatment of anyone else."

However, since some Christian groups are also listed as cults in China, this kind of attack could be launched against Christians as well. "The way this group has been singled out and treated should be a concern," Fulton said. "But maybe the biggest concern to Christians is how big Falun Gong was among the people. It did not only attract peasants but former members of the party and the educated."

He said that Falun Gong's roots in ancient Chinese teachings mixed with modern communication technology such as the Internet helped it grow quickly and appeal to many.

"The church in China is not up to that level," Fulton told CT. "Falun Gong's success is in fact a wake up call to Christians. It shows how an indigenous movement with sophistication has attracted a lot of followers. The church needs to ask, 'What do we need to do to make an impact?'"

Todd Hertz is assistant online editor of Christianity Today.