How do you make the government of the world's most important rising power quake in fear? You hold a few signs, pass out brochures and engage in peaceful street theater half a world away.
That is what practitioners of Falun Gong have been doing in the streets of New York, San Francisco, Chicago and other cities, protesting their persecution in China. The demonstrations have prompted the Chinese government to try to export as much of its ham-handed repression to our shores as possible. For a little whiff of the people's power revolution that is convulsing Ukraine at the moment, and has brought democracy to places as far-flung as the Philippines and Eastern Europe, consider a street corner in any American city where Falun Gong has set up shop. They aren't going to topple the Chinese government, but the theme is the same -- individuals confronting a brutal state in a nonviolent manner.
Falun Gong is a form of an ancient Chinese practice of breathing exercises, with elements of Eastern religion and some downright bizarre beliefs tossed in. It shouldn't be the least bit threatening to a rational government, but Beijing has a communist dictatorship's traditional distrust of any organization outside the control of the government. It is still on edge from a peaceful demonstration in 1999 that had 10,000 Falun Gong demonstrators suddenly show up one day outside the compound in Beijing where the communist leaders live. A five-year-long crackdown on what the government invariably labels "an evil cult" has seen practitioners killed, tortured and sent to labor camps.
The latest protests, with a particular focus on New York City, are an attempt to remind people of what's happening in China. "We focused on New York because it's the media center of the world," says Falun Gong's unofficial spokesman here, Gail Rachlin. The seemingly ubiquitous demonstrations are like Falun Gong itself, earnest and a little strange, often featuring someone sitting in a small cage or in chains, dabbed with fake blood to re-enact the torture faced by practitioners in China.
For the Chinese government, what's most disturbing is just how attention-grabbing the demonstrations are. Try as it might, the government can't crush Falun Gong. In fact, in exquisite demonstration of the law of unintended consequences, the government crackdown has coincided with the creation of a worldwide Falun Gong movement. "It's like they've stepped in chewing gum," says journalist Danny Schechter, author of "Falun Gong's Challenge to China." "They can't get rid of it."