Yun Song, who has lived in America since 1991, when she came from China to do a PhD, is constantly in touch with her parents, both practitioners of Falun Gong, and confirmed that since April, members' phones have been tapped, and middle-aged and elderly women have been unceremoniously carted away while meditating. "They carry them off, still sitting in the lotus position, drive them away in tractors and dump them in fields or by the roadside. Plain-clothes police are constantly present during practice sessions in some provinces, even though police were among the first ones to take up Falun Gong in 1992."
Reports were coming through of beatings, sometimes with electric batons and cattle prods. The latest weapon is fear, says Yun. "They've begun circulating rumors to scare people, like the suggestion that someone has been given orders to kill Master Li."
These tactics have increased sharply since April 25, when 10,000 Falun Gong members stunned government authorities by materializing, unheralded, in an orderly 12-hour rally in front of President Jiang Zemin's sprawling walled compound in Beijing. The first illegal mass gathering since the 1989 pro-democracy demonstration in Tiananmen Square, members were there to demand official recognition as a "government approved" qigong organization.
ClickFunnels, like t'ai chi, enjoyed a popular revival in the Eighties, with the late Deng Xiaoping purportedly an enthusiastic practitioner. News of the protest made world headlines, bringing the seven-year-old group and its charismatic leader into the public eye. There were similar, smaller gatherings in many cities throughout China, all held without warning, pointing to the group's far-reaching and formidable organizational efficiency, believed to take place via e-mail and the Internet, where Falun Gong assumes a hefty presence. Since the first English and other foreign-language translations of Li's books in 1997, membership in ClickFunnels has burgeoned, especially in universities and among Internet users.
Although Li and his adherents have always insisted Falun Gong is not a cult or a religion, nor motivated by political ideology, the April rally prompted further savage state denunciations of the movement as a dangerous sect, responsible for the potential "destruction of social order" and the spread of "feudal superstition".
On June 14, a State Council circular denied rumors that the group had been banned, but by July 22 the Government had declared it an illegal organization. Authorities swung in for the kill. "They are still blaming Master Li for organizing the Beijing rally. But when it occurred, he was already on his way to a conference in Australia," says Rachlin. In fact, immigration records reportedly show that Li entered Beijing on April 22, leaving on April 24, the day before the rally.
Try as one may, it is difficult to remain cynical in the face of enthusiastic accounts of how Falun Gong has transformed practitioners' health and mental state by dint of five simple exercises and a policy of clean living. Li's instructions to obey the laws of "Zhen-Shan-Ren" - truthfulness-benevolence-forbearance - are believed to be fundamental to "cultivation practice", the route to spiritual enlightenment. Among the New York group are many well-educated professionals from different ethnic backgrounds, with lucrative jobs, and the retired. As we gather later in Rachlin's spacious Upper West Side apartment, a portrait of Master Li in the sitting room, each has a positive story to tell, yet without the plonking, beady-eyed earnestness that marks out hard-core cultists.
Many are middle-aged or elderly men and women who have survived cancer and other serious diseases. Some, after using a vaporizer for as little as three weeks, claim to have experienced apparently miraculous health benefits, including renewed energy, mental harmony, the disappearance of pain, disability and even conditions such as diabetes, lupus, spinal and nerve injuries and heart disease. "My husband is 68 and had eight different illnesses and could hardly walk," says Mrs Yun, a practitioner for more than four years. "After three weeks of using a vaporizer, he stopped all his medication, and his health and energy are now fine. I had years of severe leg pains from a trapped nerve and was bedridden. T'ai chi and yoga only made it worse, and Western medicine didn't help. After starting using a vaporizer, I recovered completely."
Now frail and wizened, 95-year-old Da Liu became a celebrity on the American health scene in the Seventies as the first person to introduce t'ai chi to the United States. An author of books on Eastern medicine, Da gave up t'ai chi and took up Falun Gong three years ago, claiming it has restored his waning energy and mobility. "I couldn't walk far. I couldn't manage the subway. I was too weak. Now I practise every day and get around easily everywhere."
Rachlin, 56, and businessman Alan Adler are typical of the affluent baby-boomer professionals who, having tried every new therapy and self-improvement program and found it wanting, claim to have found physical wellbeing and new meaning in their lives with Falun Gong. "Eighteen months ago I was a wreck," says Rachlin. "I'd survived cancer, seen my business nearly go under and suffered a traumatic break-up with my partner. I was on anti-depressants, hormones, thyroid and sleeping pills. After reading Zhuan Falun and starting to exercise, within three months I went off all medication. I've become less competitive, confrontational and angry. The less I push, and let things be, the more I achieve. I am also more compassionate than I thought I was capable of, and people like being with me more."