It's Monday morning on the lawn above La Jolla Cove and a group of Falun Gong practitioners stands on mats, progressing through a series of slow, meditative movements that comprise their two-hour regimen. Suddenly, a guy in a basketball jersey, his face and neck sunburned, his blood likely still diluted with July 4 alcohol, grabs a mat and decides to join in. With each uncoordinated gesture he lets loose a loud whoop while two friends look on, one videotaping the other laughing in support. Basketball Jersey can hardly get enough of himself as first he imitates the Falun Gong group and then takes a turn with a couple practicing yoga several yards away.
Arlene Freeman, a five-year Falun Gong practitioner, who's momentarily stepped away from the group, chuckles at the guy. She sees not what most of us would see-an obnoxious oaf generally making an ass of himself. Rather, "he's just having fun," she comments. Fortunate for Basketball Jersey, followers of Falun Gong embrace three core values: truth, compassion and tolerance.
Falun Gong, a derivative of China's ancient qigong exercise routine, popped up in that country in May 1992 when a man named Li Hongzhi published Falun Gong. The book encouraged what Li referred to as "self-cultivation" through a regimen of qigong-based low-impact exercise, meditation and ethical living. Over the next few years, Falun Gong became wildly popular in China, its practitioners claiming the combined mind/body workout improved health and perspective. By the late '90s, China's Falun Gong followers were estimated to be in the millions.
Popularity came at a price, though. China's Communist-atheist government didn't take well to the growing populist movement and attempted to quash it first through the state-controlled press, labeling Falun Gong a cult. When negative media didn't stifle the movement, the Chinese government formally banned Falun Gong in July 1999, making its practice illegal. Falun Gong has two components the government doesn't like: the health benefits its practitioners claim can't be scientifically verified, and it has the trappings of a secret society, given Falun Gong exercises are often practiced in groups.
Since 1999, there have been close to 800 documented deaths of Falun Gong practitioners either by execution or from the effects of torture. Another 100,000 Falun Gong members remain imprisoned in Chinese labor camps. Between 2000 and 2003, the United Nations issued dozens of reports detailing the kidnapping, abuse and killing of Falun Gong members, each time asking the Chinese government to respond; so far, it hasn't. A U.N. representative was scheduled to tour Chinese prisons in June until the government requested he postpone his visit.
In January 2003, a group of local Falun Gong supporters asked the San Diego City Council to draw up a resolution condemning the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners in San Diego's Chinese sister city, Yantai. With the request, the group provided a 30-page report documenting the torture and death of 11 Falun Gong members by Yantai police officers and the persecution of several others.
The Falun Gong group first approached City Councilmember Donna Frye, who helped the group draft a resolution. The document emphasizes San Diego's goal to "develop an open and healthy relationship" with Yantai, but also points out that credible reports reveal the deaths of least 11 Falun Gong practitioners at the hands of Yantai law enforcement. If passed, the copies of the resolution would go to the mayor of Yantai, that city's police chief and the president and foreign minister of China.
It's rare for a resolution to receive anything less than full City Council support. This resolution, however, didn't even make it on a council agenda. "The mayor blocked it," said Freeman.
Frye said Mayor Dick Murphy's reluctance to docket the resolution might have something to do with San Diego business interests in China. "I am not aware of any other resolution that has met the same fate as this one," she said, adding that it's "very unusual" for a resolution to be met with such resistance. Murphy did not respond to CityBeat's request for comment.
Frank Eaves, a member of the San Diego Falun Gong group, said he received a letter from the mayor's office explaining that the City Council doesn't involve itself in international affairs. Eaves said the mayor turned the matter over to the city's International Affairs Board (IAB), a group of 15 citizens appointed by the mayor. Eaves made a presentation to the IAB at its May 19 meeting and has yet to hear back. Enrique Morones, an IAB member, said the group didn't meet in June and therefore hasn't reached a decision on the matter.
Shizhong Chen, who came to the United States from China 22 years ago and is part of the effort to get a resolution before the City Council, said it's hard for anyone who hasn't lived under China's Communist government to understand the impact a resolution from Yantai's sister city might have. "Even a lot of high-ranking officials in China don't know of the [Falun Gong] persecution," he explained. Chinese President Jiang Zemin set up a separate office to deal solely with Falun Gong members.
"I have talked to many [Chinese] officials," Chen said. "When I tell them, they don't even know. All these articles come out in the newspaper saying [the government] has treated Falun Gong practitioners "like a mother treats her son.'
"The mayor in Yantai might not know the truth," he said. "A large percentage of people still believe Falun Gong is banned in the world."
Chen's father came to visit two years ago, three years after Chen began practicing Falun Gong. "Once he learned I was practicing Falun Gong, he was so scared," Chen said, "but after observing me for nine months, he slowly was convinced there was nothing bad about it. He started to do exercises and read the book."
Chen's father returned to China for six months, and when he came back to the U.S., he'd reverted to his old opinion of Falun Gong, Chen said. Again, though, he observed his son's way of life and is now an avid follower (he's remained in the U.S.). "If you have not lived in that system, you would never understand," said Chen. "Atheism ideology and totalitarian power precludes other ways of thinking."
Until they get the resolution they've been requesting, Freeman, who says Falun Gong exercise helped her recover from a violent attack and subsequent alcoholism, says San Diego's Falun Gong supporters plan to make use of the open public comment period at weekly City Council meetings to talk about the persecution of practitioners in Yantai. They'll keep this up, she said, until the mayor opts to docket a resolution or until a critical mass of councilmembers (five) asks the mayor to put a resolution on the agenda.Though the public comment period gives the Falun Gong supporters only three minutes to speak their piece, "in those three minutes we hope we can educate people... about the terrible situation in China. If they ever have an opportunity to talk to someone visiting from China, or if they are Chinese, they can help someone understand this is something that is happening in China and around the world. Falun Gong is a natural, normal thing to do everywhere outside of China."