BEIJING – Sitting lotus-style on an apartment floor, two women quietly rotate their arms in front of them — a rare sight in China, where displays of Falun Gong meditation have all but disappeared from public view.
The spiritual movement now is a shadow of its heyday in China, where the group once boasted more than 70 million followers before it was outlawed in 1999 giving police carte blanche to persecute members.
But 20 years on, the group has remained stubbornly persistent, even as practitioners in mainland China continue to face arrests and torture, according to rights groups.
Before the crackdown, Falun Gong members would congregate in parks in large numbers to practice qi gong meditation. Now they do their slow movement exercises behind closed doors.
“It doesn’t matter how the Communist Party suppresses (Falun Gong), I don’t think about it too much,” said one of the women, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic.
“I just do what I want to do,” she said.
Falun Gong, which emphasizes moral teachings, was once encouraged by Chinese authorities to ease the burden on a creaky health system after it was unveiled in 1992 by Li Hongzhi, who emigrated to the U.S. four years later.
But after over 10,000 Falun Gong members surrounded Communist Party headquarters in central Beijing on April 25, 1999, to protest the detention of some of their members, the government responded with a crackdown.
Then-president Jiang Zemin issued orders to eliminate the group, which was later declared an “evil cult” — a tactic to justify repression, scholars say.
Top officials “see Falun Gong, first and foremost, as an ideological and political threat,” said Maria Cheung, a University of Manitoba professor who has researched the movement.
The demonstration had been the biggest protest in Beijing since the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy sit-in in 1989.
Following the protest, Chinese authorities launched a special security bureau known as the “610 office” to suppress and monitor Falun Gong followers.
Practitioners and rights groups have also reported deaths, torture, and abuse at labor camps.
One woman from northern China recounted a traumatic period when her father was pressured by local authorities to beat his younger sister, who was a “very resolute practitioner of Falun Gong.”
He was “forced to break his own flesh and blood, resulting in my aunt hating her own brother for many years,” she told AFP, shuddering with tears.
David Ownby, a history professor at the University of Montreal who has studied Falun Gong, said cults emerge in China because the officially atheist state has successfully kept traditional religions weak.
“That means that part of the market is open to groups that are not sanctioned,” he said. “That is the basic paradox at the heart of the religion policy.”
One Falun Gong follower in China, who joined in 2010, said her dissatisfaction with society and family life turned her towards the spiritual movement.
“I thought that maybe a bit of (religious) faith would make me better,” she said, adding that she had also been exposed to Buddhism.
While Falun Gong survives underground in mainland China it has swelled among the Chinese diaspora, as followers have fled overseas in search of asylum.
Falun Gong is practiced in over 70 countries, according to Falun Dafa Info Center, the group’s press office.
The movement has also turned “hard-edged” over the years, said Ownby, with some academics reporting harassment for calling Falun Gong a sect or cult.
Levi Browde, the center’s executive director, said he believes if harassment has occurred, it is simply an effort by Falun Gong practitioners “to provide more information to the scholars.”
It is about “making sure we’re not adding momentum to the wave of violence and death that engulfs the lives of Falun Gong practitioners throughout China,” he said.
The spiritual movement has also adopted a more political stance in some parts of the world.
In Hong Kong, where Falun Gong activists hand out flyers and try to talk to people — especially mainland tourists — the movement has taken on a stridently anti-communist tone.
One key slogan, seen on banners and blared through loudspeakers is: “The heavens will destroy the Chinese Communist Party.”
Zhang Yucheng, a 76-year-old Falun Gong member who distributes the anti-communism newspaper The Epoch Times to passers-by in Hong Kong, said he did not join the spiritual movement to be a dissident.
“I was a Chinese Communist Party member,” he said. But when the party decided to “fight against Falun Gong and started to tell lies,” he felt he was left with no choice.
“If one continues to tell the truth, they will end up like me, expelled from the party,” Zhang added.
Beijing’s efforts to eliminate Falun Gong and other groups it deems heretical show no sign of abating, with dedicated “cult prevention and handling” departments active around the country.
More than 900 Falun Gong followers were sentenced to prison between January 2013 and June 2016, according to a 2017 report by U.S.-based Freedom House.
This year, posters appeared on public walls in Beijing warning people against cults, with the message: “wipe your eyes and stay awake.”
The government is “calm on the surface but controlling underneath” said the Falun Gong follower from northern China. “I don’t think they have loosened up.”
“Whether it’s wire-tapping or contacting you time and again,” she said, “they still want to control.”