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."
Chinese officials in the United States have reacted with bluster and thuggery. "Chinese diplomats spend a lot of time writing letters and making visits to governments, local newspapers and television outlets, politicians and others, warning them about the movement," according to The Wall Street Journal. Chinese officials have attempted to shut down Falun Gong-related conferences, art exhibits and movies here in the United States. Falun Gong sympathizers tell darker tales of cars being burned and apartments being broken into.
A recently passed congressional resolution deplores the harassment of Falun Gong in the United States. It mentions a beating of practitioners outside a Chinese restaurant in New York by men allegedly connected to the Chinese government; an assault against protesters outside the Chinese consulate in Chicago, which led to the conviction of two individuals with ties to the consulate; and the physical abuse of Falun Gong practitioners in San Francisco by men later seen at the San Francisco consulate. "People don't realize what is going on here in America," says Rachlin.
"Chinese officials are completely not used to protests," says Schechter. "When they see a bunch of people outside their consulate, consular officials get freaked out."
Falun Gong is not a political movement. All its practitioners want to do is live peaceably in accord with their beliefs. For anyone near a Falun Gong protest in the United States, the imperative is clear: Annoy the Chinese government -- take a brochure or exchange a kind word.