Religious group banned in China brings case to U.S.

WASHINGTON -- Former Chinese president Jiang Zemin, or rather a padded cardboard box wrapped in a black T-shirt that is representing him in effigy, is getting a lecture on the details of human immolation: "We all know that hair is one of the first things that burn on a human body," says a woman, called as a witness in a mock trial Tuesday at the Capitol's west lawn.

This little fact about self-immolation matters at the moment because the Chinese government has accused the Falun Gong spiritual movement of (among many other crimes) inciting its members to burn themselves in protest.

Falun Gong members, who met in Washington over the past few days to mark the fourth anniversary of a brutal repression that began under Jiang's rule, deny the charge. And in Tuesday's mock trial they produced a videotape they claim shows, among other inconsistencies, a victim whose hair isn't burning the way one might expect.

Conclusion: The self-immolation incident, which was widely broadcast (with devastating effect on Falun Gong's popularity) on Chinese television, had nothing to do with Falun Gong and may have been set up, misrepresented or somehow faked.

Understanding the 'cult'

If the hundreds of people in yellow T-shirts, sitting cross-legged in neat rows underneath Tuesday's braising sun, feel wounded, it's because "cult" is a label that sticks very easily. It was unveiled, in earnest, four years ago when large Falun Gong demonstrations in China so unsettled the Chinese government that it began an often-violent crackdown. But even if Jiang Zemin was on trial Tuesday for the crackdown -- accused of torture, economic repression, even, say his accusers, genocide -- he has also put Falun Gong on trial in the court of public opinion.

"Falun Gong has been outlawed by the Chinese government," says Sun Weide, spokesman of the Chinese Embassy. "The reason for this is that this evil cult has committed many crimes. It has caused over 1,700 deaths, including those people killed by Falun Gong practitioners, including people who have burned themselves."

Cult is a word without much use outside the realm of religious mudslinging. Falun Gong certainly doesn't qualify in the limited, pernicious sense of the word: It does not coerce obedience, brainwash its members, gouge them for money or compel worship of its founder, Li Hongzhi. It doesn't wear down their egos, then build them up in the new image of the spiritually transformed.

Most of the writings of Li Hongzhi, who now lives in the United States, are expressly apolitical. The basic Falun Gong motto, "Truthfulness-Compassion-Forbearance," couldn't be less threatening.

But Falun Gong isn't just about these pleasant generalities. Its specific beliefs about how the body works, how science intersects with spirituality, and the benefits of practicing Falun Gong, are more controversial.

Practitioners generally describe Falun Gong as a fusion of traditional Buddhist and Taoist elements.

Orderly ways

Around 11 a.m. Tuesday, before the mock trial began, a little breeze came over the Capitol lawn, a short burst of music sounded from a loudspeaker, and suddenly the crowd that had been standing for pictures, distributing signs, was quiet. From hubbub came silence and as if on cue, people were seated, hands together, faces serene.

There's something uncanny about large groups of people doing things in precise, orderly ways. Falun Gong may have terrified the Chinese government not so much because of an explicit threat to its control but because it moved and operated by principles that mystified officialdom.