By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
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By Craig Malisow
"It's a very serious violation of human rights," says Jim Zimmerman, an expert on China for Amnesty International. "It's a denial of the fundamental right to religious freedom."
Jason and his fellow protesters are the ones who need to be stopped, says Zhuofan Yang, spokesperson for the consulate. The Chinese government discredited Falun Gong, deemed it a cult and banned it three years ago, Yang says. "He should abide by the Chinese law," Yang says.
The consulate refused to renew Jason's passport because he refused to renounce Falun Gong. Last month, his student visa expired; without a valid passport, he cannot obtain a work visa.
The Chinese government refers to Falun Gong practitioners as "victims" or "addicts." Government officials maintain that Falun Gong was outlawed as a response to public outcry for protection from this evil cult.
Despite the Houston Press's leaving five messages a day (until the embassy's media officer's voice-mail boxes were full), phone calls and requests for interviews about Falun Gong were ignored.
When I stopped by the Chinese consulate and asked to speak to someone about Falun Gong, the man at the front desk laughed nervously and looked frightened. He had hurried discussions in Chinese with several other men, who each looked worried and said that Falun Gong was a bad, evil, illegal cult and other than that, they didn't want to comment.
When the consulate's spokesperson was finally contacted, he knew exactly who Jason was. "This is old story," Yang said. "Do you want to write something? Or do you want to learn something?"
Both, I said. And asked Yang if he was free to meet in person.
When? Yang asked.
Seven minutes later, when I arrived at the consulate, the man behind the front desk said that Yang wasn't there.
He left, the man said. And he didn't expect him back.
I called Yang as soon as I returned to the office, two miles away. Yang answered the phone. He said he had suddenly left the building and was suddenly very busy. He said he would call back, but he didn't. I called him again and again; each time he said he was busy, maybe for the next three days, maybe for the next week. He promised to call back, but he never did.
Official memos posted on the Chinese embassy's Web site declare that Falun Gong has "ruined lives, destroyed families and harmed society."
The Web site states that Falun Gong fanatics have plotted more than 100 sieges, planned to overthrow the government, and tried to kill family and friends. The site proclaims that practicing Falun Gong has warped minds, caused 650 cases of mental illness and disabled 144 people.
On July 22, 1999, China's Ministry of Civil Affairs declared the Falun Dafa Research Society and the Falun Gong organization illegal. Li fled the country and now lives in hiding in Queens. An international warrant was issued for his arrest.
The Chinese government first became aware of the mass Falun Gong movement when 10,000 people peacefully demonstrated the exercises in Beijing. By then, the Falun Gong Society claimed to have more than 70 million members. Time magazine reported that government officials felt threatened because membership rivaled the number in the Communist Party. Plus, Chinese officials discovered that former high-ranking party leaders and military officials practiced Falun Gong.
Party leaders were wary because quasi-religious groups have previously tried to overthrow the Chinese government. Most Falun Gong practitioners maintain that it is not a religion, but that's not how the Chinese government sees it. Technically, China's constitution guarantees religious freedom, but most Chinese citizens are atheists, because religion is considered antisocialist. When the party took over 50 years ago, Buddhist temples and Christian churches were closed.
The Web site says Li's doomsday prophesies caused mass panic, and scared the public into submission. Fearing the apocalypse, practitioners turned to Master Li to lead them to safety. "He declared that the earth was going to be destroyed, and only he could delay the time of the explosion and take the people to Heaven," the Web site says.
Furthering the premise that Falun Gong is harmful, the Web site says Li's claim to cure and eliminate illnesses in the process of purifying the body was read by seriously sick people to mean that they don't need medical treatment, an error the government says has claimed 1,600 lives.
As a graduate student, Jason had piles and piles of required reading. But reading made his eyes hurt so badly he couldn't concentrate for more than 15-minute intervals. Student-health physicians referred him to specialists in the Medical Center. Jason says ophthalmologists couldn't determine exactly what was wrong with his vision and told him to come back when the problem got worse.
Crying, Jason told his wife he didn't know what he was going to do. Then he saw an ad for a free nine-day Falun Gong class in Chinatown. After two weeks of doing the exercises, Jason says, his eyesight improved and he could read for four-hour stretches. Armed with his personal testimony, Jason recruited his wife and mother. His brother, a computer scientist, said he didn't believe in Falun Gong's supernatural, superstitious aspect. Jason's father resisted until after a stomach- cancer operation, when Jason convinced him that Falun Gong could help him to heal.