Falun Gong ("Law Wheel Cultivation") was unveiled in China in 1992 by its enigmatic creator, former police band trumpeter Li, and has spread rapidly since. Formally known as Falun Dafa ("Great Law of the Law Wheel"), the practice is essentially a revivification of qigong, an ancient Chinese tradition involving regulated breathing and movement, which draws on Buddhist and Taoist traditions. Practitioners seek to "cultivate" themselves through gentle, meditative exercises, improving their character according to the movement's guiding principles of "truthfulness, compassion and tolerance".
Li claims supernatural powers, developed through training with spiritual masters in the mountains from his youth; his book, "Zhuan Falun" ("Turning the Law Wheel"), posits that he can treat disease more effectively than medicine, and can telekinetically implant the falun, or law wheel, into the abdomens of his followers, where it absorbs and releases power as it spins (other beliefs attributed to Li are that he can fly, that Africa has a two billion-year-old nuclear reactor, and that aliens invaded Earth about a century ago, introducing modern technology; one type, he told Time magazine, "looks like a human, but has a nose that is made of bone").
Li has lived in exile in New York, the movement's base, since 1998; the China government's crackdown did not begin in earnest until a year later, when 10,000 Falun Gong practitioners protested outside the Communist Party's Beijing headquarters. Displeased by the challenge, the government responded with a brutal campaign, vilifying the movement as a dangerous, anti-Chinese doomsday cult.
Powerless to fight back in China, the global Falun Gong community has mobilised in a concerted, centralised effort to draw attention to their plight and agitate against the Communist regime; it has engaged in a proxy war of information through an interconnected set of front organisations established to influence public opinion.
Falun Gong claims 100 million adherents around the world (Victoria University religious studies head Paul Morris pegs the number "in the hundreds of thousands"). In New Zealand, the community numbers somewhere between 200 and 300, about 90% of whom are ethnically Chinese; the rest are people like Chris Thomas, a music producer from Wellington who tried Falun Gong after seeing an advertisement on a community noticeboard.
"I was having a tough life I was dealing with a lot of losses, couldn't sleep, had drug problems and I was looking for a way to look after myself better," he explains.
You've probably seen Falun Gong; they march in Christmas parades, demonstrate outside Chinese diplomatic offices, engage in macabre street theatre dramatising China's alleged organ harvesting of practitioners.
Last week they made headlines when the Wellington City Council stopped them displaying a banner during their weekly meditation sessions opposite the Chinese Embassy, an action that breached a rule prohibiting political activity in parks.
Less visibly, Falun Gong has advanced its cause through a free newspaper, "The Epoch Times", distributed around the country, and a globetrotting cultural showcase by the "Divine Performing Arts troupe".
Both operations downplay their links with Falun Gong, with Epoch maintaining it has no special relationship with the movement. Equally unsustainable, but just as insistently asserted by Falun Gong internationally, is the claim that the movement is not political. Auckland spokeswoman Charmaine Deng is almost insulted by the suggestion, as it is one of the allegations levelled at them by the Chinese government to justify their persecution.
Acknowledged or not, political agitation, with the supreme goal of bringing about the demise of Communist rule in China, has become one of the movement's core activities. Its political impetus is unsurprising, given the Chinese persecution is deeply felt by practitioners here, some of whom have experienced it first hand and many of whom have family and friends in China.
The doublespeak around these issues has done the movement no favours as it engages in heated political battles with the Chinese embassy to the widespread incomprehension of local observers.
"They've done little to help their own cause," says Michael Barnett, Auckland Santa Parade Trust chairman, who had to hire security when Falun Gong picketed his office last year in response to his banning the group's 70-piece marching band from the parade.
He had been warned by other parade organisers of issues with Falun Gong: in particular, their distribution of flyers depicting the mutilated bodies of allegedly organ-harvested practitioners. "I told them the parade was about children, about Christmas, about fantasy. I didn't want to see it turned into a political wheelbarrow," he says. "They said that wasn't what they wanted, but couldn't guarantee the performance of various people. On that basis, I wasn't prepared to allow them."
The parades have become an important political platform for the movement, with practitioners converging from all over the country to perform. There have been problems elsewhere. Hamilton's city council describes Falun Gong's relationship with the city's Santa parade as "fraught", while Dunedin banned Falun Gong after issues in 2005.
"They totally lied," says parade trust chairman Malcolm Dodds. The group had marched under a banner bearing Chinese characters, telling organisers it was "a Chinese greeting for Christmas spirit". "We later discovered it was something to the effect of `Celebrating the end of years of persecution under the Chinese regime'. It was totally embarrassing because we had taken them in good faith."
When the Wellington City Council told Falun Gong last year that its participation would breach a council ban on political content at its events, the movement engaged human rights lawyer Tony Ellis to take their case to the High Court, arguing the decision contravened their civil rights. The council decided to suspend its rule and allowed Falun Gong to march "as a show of good faith".
There were no problems; Falun Gong toned down the political element, and did not distribute flyers.
But no invitation was made to participate in Wellington's Chinese New Year parade last month, which Falun Gong had gatecrashed the previous year, one zealous practitioner driving a van through the security cordon.
The claim that Falun Gong was banned from Santa parades to appease China appears paranoid; the group seems to have been excluded because its actions were deemed inappropriate.
But in the case of Wellington's Chinese New Year parade, sponsored by the Chinese Embassy and the council, politics was clearly at play. Organisers wouldn't comment, but sources said "there was no way in hell" the embassy would allow Falun Gong to participate.
Founded in New York in 2000 with the stated goal of providing uncensored coverage of China, The Epoch Times now claims a circulation of 1.4 million in 30 countries. The slim broadsheet began publishing a weekly Chinese-language version here in 2002; a fortnightly English version appeared in 2005. The paper now boasts a handful of local reporting staff, and distributes 17,000 copies for free on news stands in dairies and supermarkets around the country; they are routinely distributed by practitioners.
Along with local and international coverage, the latter often focusing on human rights in China, each issue invariably features an extract of the newspaper's Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party, an indictment on the regime which it claims is "disintegrating communism in China".
The US views Epoch as "affiliated" with Falun Gong, and Li himself has been reported as saying the paper was founded by his followers; despite this, Epoch's advertising manager, Shelley Shao, insists the only connection between the newspaper and Falun Gong is that one reports on the other.
Shao is a Falun Gong practitioner (she has been quoted in her own newspaper as a "Falun Gong spokesperson") but refuses to discuss whether other staff are Falun Gong practitioners. She suggests I have been put up to write the article by the Chinese Embassy.
Sarah Matheson, Epoch's chief reporter, is more forthcoming. The most formally qualified member of her team, with a journalism diploma from Aoraki Polytechnic, Matheson became a practitioner two years ago. Matheson, 25, made the news in September when she was escorted from an Apec media session in Sydney at the behest of Chinese security agents who feared she would shout at Premier Hu Jintao (the previous year, Epoch reporter Wenyi Wang had heckled Hu as he spoke at the White House).
"Australia is supposed to be a democratic nation," says Matheson, adding she had no intention of disrupting proceedings. "Why did they even give me accreditation? It's ridiculous because they know... what our goal is. We're trying to dismantle communism in China."
Despite the strident statement, Matheson insists Falun Gong is not political, maintaining the distinction between Falun Gong and Epoch.
Sydney was not her first brush with Chinese officials; she says embassy staff routinely phone the newspaper's distribution outlets, urging them to withdraw it. Chinese interference goes beyond efforts to disrupt the movement's media activities, she says, to surveillance and harassment.
Her account of being photographed by a man she believed worked for the Chinese Embassy echoes stories from other practitioners: Huang believes his house has been vandalised, Deng believes Chinese agents posing as international students have infiltrated meetings, Shao says her phone has been bugged and her family in China instructed to urge her to change jobs.
Their claims may smack of paranoia, but appear more reasonable in the context of claims by Chen Yonglin, a former diplomat at the Chinese consulate-general in Sydney who defected in May 2005, that there was a network of 1000 spies operating in Australia; Chen claimed to have been responsible for monitoring dissidents, particularly Falun Gong. Last year he claimed a Chinese woman was abducted and extradited by agents in Auckland.
Another defector, Hao Fengjun, who claimed to have been a member of the 6-10 Office, alleged a spy had infiltrated an Auckland church.
The New Zealand government will not comment on these matters, but the SIS reports that spy activity remains an issue. Former Auckland University academic Paul Buchanan estimated there were probably 50 Chinese operatives gathering intelligence locally.
Chinese Embassy spokesman Zeng Yun says he is unable to discuss claims of interference with Falun Gong's media efforts, but refutes the allegations of spying and harassment. "Anyone with common sense will know the answer to this kind of claim."
THE STAGE SHOW
A recent case of interference by the Chinese Embassy occurred last April, when Divine Performing Arts brought its musical roadshow to Auckland.
In a dynamic that resembles Taiwan's tit-for-tat skirmishes with its giant rival for diplomatic recognition, Divine's goal appears to be to entice "influential" figures such as politicians, media and academics to the show, recording and trumpeting their endorsements as a coded display of political support. Chinese officials, for their part, dissuade people from attending.
Last year, seven mayors in the Auckland region were invited but did not attend; George Wood, North Shore mayor at the time, rescinded his acceptance after a call from the Chinese consulate, saying he felt uneasy about being "the meat in a sandwich". The troupe will return to New Zealand for four Auckland performances next month; Matheson is sending out invitations with no mention of Falun Gong.
One Auckland journalist, who did not want to be named, attended last year with complimentary tickets. He had not realised the show's Falun Gong affiliation, but became aware of something unusual when he was welcomed by a camera crew, who harried him to agree to give his impressions after the show.
The man said he "felt used", and implicated into some sort of propaganda. He left during intermission.
The New York Times last month reported similar responses to a Divine performance in Manhattan with moments of heavy-handed propaganda. Epoch, a sponsor of the show, reacted angrily, saying the Times' "unwarranted criticisms... clearly reveal[ed] a darker side" of the newspaper; one Epoch article, under the headline "New York Times Parrots Communist Party Line", asserted "the response to the show, confirmed by The Epoch Times reporters in over 1000 interviews with audience members, was overwhelmingly positive".
Epoch also points out that the New York Times story was, unusually for a Western article, immediately reprinted by Xinhua, China's state media agency, and propagated widely. The propaganda battle between Falun Gong and the Chinese government is a zero-sum game, accounting, perhaps, for the movement's propensity to overreact to criticism; any critique of one is celebrated as a vindication by the other.
Political scientist Maria Hsia Chang of the University of Nevada, Reno, author of a book on Falun Gong, says the movement "seems to be treating organisations it has created, such as The Epoch Times, as front organisations to influence public opinion via a concerted information-PR-propaganda campaign".
The most charitable explanation she is able to offer for this strategy "is that Falun Gong's decision-makers are products of the political-social environment in China", where to survive, the movement has to create organisations that are publicly unaffiliated with it.
Such strategies are counterproductive in democratic societies.
"Being secretive and deceptive will just play into the image they're a kooky group with something to hide," Chang says.
As a movement, Falun Gong displays the paranoia of the genuinely persecuted. Sometimes its suspicions are justified; clearly some of its activities are subject to Chinese interference. Other times, it perceives threats that are not there.
In a year when China's appalling human rights practices should be squarely in the spotlight ahead of an Olympics which China's leaders had once hollowly promised would usher in a new era of political freedoms Falun Gong's misguided strategies may instead be turning off its potential audience.
Chang says that like many she sympathises with the movement's goals, particularly given the way China's human rights conduct has fallen off the West's agenda. "I just wish Falun Gong would use better tactics."