Supporters and followers of Falun Gong from across the country and around the world yesterday marched from the Washington Monument to the steps of the U.S. Capitol for a rally that called on China to stop persecuting practitioners of the meditation sect in China.
The demonstration, which coincided with the two-year anniversary of the Chinese government’s violent crackdown on the practice of Falun Gong, was held in the wake of the International Olympic Committee’s decision to award China the 2008 Games.
“With the Olympics, China is going to become a focus of the world,” said Yan Liu, 32, who has traveled from Arizona to join the rally and has practiced Falun Gong since 1996. “We’re calling on the international community to make them cancel the Games if they don’t improve human rights conditions.”
“We’re trying to raise awareness,” Mr. Yan said. “The international community can give some pressures to the Chinese government — condemn them for human rights violations.”
Falun Gong was founded in China in 1992 by Li Hongzhi, who is living in exile in New York. Practitioners say Falun Gong is a form of refining the body and mind through special exercises and meditations. Followers, many of them women, gather in parks to meditate and do yogalike exercises.
In the District, followers often can be seen performing daily meditations on the Mall or in front of the Chinese Embassy to protest persecution of the group’s members half a world away.
Mr. Yan, 32, said he practices Falun Gong because it has improved his health and makes him feel more spiritual and relaxed. “It’s something like tai chi,” he said. “But it also has the main principals of truthfulness, compassion and forbearance.”
The Chinese government banned Falun Gong in 1999 and arrested dozens of its leaders after weeks of demonstrations throughout China and Taiwan. Chinese state television dubbed one gathering — at which 10,000 followers massed outside the main leadership residential compound in Beijing — the most serious demonstration since the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square that ended in a bloody military attack.
During yesterday’s rally, D.C. police cleared one lane of traffic along 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue for the estimated 2,000 Falun Gong supporters carrying signs with such slogans as, “China: Stop Killing!” and “In most nations practicing your spiritual faith is a right. In China it’s a crime.”
The marchers were greeted at the Capitol by leaders of advocacy groups and members of Congress. Sen. Paul Wellstone, Minnesota Democrat, said he joined the rally “to send a message to China and Beijing.”
Mr. Wellstone said he was appalled by reports that during the past two years, “250 Falun Gong practitioners have be killed, 50,000 have been detained and 10,000 more have been sent to labor camps without trial.”
Between now and the 2008 Olympics, Mr. Wellstone said, “the whole world will be watching. We will be over and over again calling on the government of China to respect the rights of all people.”
Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman, New York Republican who also spoke at the rally, said, “We hope that one day the Chinese government will be run by democratically elected officials. Only then will China join the community of civilized governments around the world.”
Feng Yuan, 30, a practitioner of Falun Gong who emigrated to the United States from China in 1991, traveled to the rally from New York. She said her 58-year-old mother, who still lives in a suburb of Beijing, has been detained in a labor camp for supporting the movement.
“My mother was arrested from home because she wrote a letter to the Beijing municipal government supporting Falun Gong,” Miss Feng said. “One year ago, police came to her house and she was detained. We didn’t know anything about what was happening to her for two months.
“My father was contacted by a government labor camp where my mother was being held. They said the weather was changing and it was time for him to bring her warmer clothes,” Miss Feng said. “My mother was released and now she’s under house arrest.”
Miss Feng, who works as a computer consultant in Manhattan, said “the reason this issue has been politicized is because the Chinese government sees Falun Gong as a threat to the totalitarian regime.”