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Into Thin Airwaves

How a handful of unknown Chinese martyrs aided the cause of freedom around the world

Dec 6, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 12 • By ETHAN GUTMANN
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Changchun lies in the center of Northeast China. And in the center of the city, just south of Victory Park and north of Liberation Road, lies the concrete-tiled expanse of Changchun City Cultural Square. Below the faux-soaring modernist arch, a cast iron socialist-realist muscleman throws up his arms in triumph, or perhaps despair. Few Westerners see him; foreigners seldom sightsee or invest in this city of more than seven million. Yet just as there is a certain gritty security in Changchun’s role as a “pillar industry” town—the cradle of the state-owned Chinese automotive industry—there’s a certain native freedom in not having to perform for outsiders either. For Cultural Square, in all other respects a monument to the ascendancy of the New China, also served as the birthplace of Falun Gong. 

It was there in 1992 that one Li Hongzhi, who lived a few blocks away in a rundown apartment block, chose a neglected leafy corner and began teaching meditative exercises to anyone who was interested. In the wake of the 1980s qigong exercise craze, there was nothing about this to catch the eye of the authorities, particularly as money didn’t seem to be changing hands. But something about Li inspired unshakable loyalty among his first students, and underneath the baby-faced appearance of the man and the apparent simplicity of the movements lay a deep coding: a hardcore Buddhist morality system of compassion, truthfulness, and forbearance. The novel twist was that these moral precepts were to be carried out in Changchun, rather than a monastery. And Li didn’t attract a narrow market segment, like most qigong spiritual masters, but individuals from all walks of life: old ladies and young soldiers, wealthy industrialists and illiterate unemployed wanderers from rural villages. As their numbers grew, they moved out from the leafy corner. 

Liang Zhenxing lived a block away, just across Liberation Road, in comfortable housing. Sometimes, in the half-light of an early winter morning, he would watch the masses of down coats and mittens hypnotically swaying in unison, right below the naked muscleman, while frigid winds whipped trash across the square. One cold morning in 1996, Liang woke up, threw on his coat, and walked over. Initially, the practitioners were nervous about Liang: his paunch (his full-lotus was considered comical), his brash way of speaking, and his skeptical wife. But within a month Liang started bringing in recruits: family, real-estate contacts, intellectuals he met in the park, and working guys he met in dark clubs. Whatever passed for a hierarchy within Falun Gong quickly agreed to make Liang a coordinator, free to teach the exercises and run his own study group. Some practitioners whispered that Liang hadn’t read enough or didn’t have experience, but he was immune to gossip; he told a friend the great thing about Falun Gong is that after three months you don’t care about power anymore. 

Yet in the eyes of the party, even the desire not to have power, if shared by enough people, becomes dark matter—a hidden gravitational force that pulls state enemies and party members alike into its orbit. So a few years on, when Chinese internal intelligence revealed that Falun Gong had reached 70 million followers, 5 million more than party membership, traps were laid. Plainclothes agents appeared at practice sites, critiques were planted in state papers, and silent makeshift demonstrations were documented and interpreted as treason. On July 20, 1999, the arrests began in Beijing. Three days later, as the sun rose over Changchun’s Cultural Square, Liang looked out. Only policemen stood beneath the triumphant muscleman. 

Two months later, Liang made the acquaintance of his first interrogation room. Many Changchun practitioners had been there by now. Liang had held back from public action, reasoning the Master Li legacy meant Changchun security was abnormally high. Instead, Liang and a hundred other practitioners planned to go to the Beijing appeals office—the only legally permissible action available to a Chinese citizen—on October 1, National Day. Such a large group was easily infiltrated, and the police rounded them up before they boarded the train. 

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