In the shadow of the Olympic Committee's decision for Beijing, China, to host the 2008 ceremonies, human rights advocates are wondering whether this will be the moment for China to reform their abusive treatment of certain groups. Others fear that the international honor does nothing more than encourage and exacerbate China's politically repressive environment. The Chinese group arguably feeling the brunt of their government's paranoid fear of organized groups are practitioners of Falun Gong, a set of exercises and teachings outlawed in 1999, resulting in the imprisonment and torture of thousands, and a grisly, mounting death toll. A 2001 Amnesty International report on torture in China found that "By mid January 2001, at least 120 Falun Gong practitioners (62 women) were reported to have died since the beginning of the crackdown on the group in July 1999."

For some of Minnesota's residents, the human rights issue hits home.

Cheng Wan, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Minnesota, is plagued by the thought of his mother, a 53-year-old Falun Gong practitioner, serving three years in the HanXi female labor camp, where she works in the fields every day.

Wan and his parents began practicing Falun Gong five years ago. His mother, suffering from many debilitating diseases, was in constant consultation with doctors. "But since she began practicing Falun Gong," said Wan, speaking about his family's experience at a recent press conference, "her diseases have just disappeared." And, what's more, she has become "more peaceful and more considerate to other people, which was very hard for her to do before she practiced Falun Gong," he observed.

In 1999, things began to change. On April 25, 10,000 practitioners traveled to Beijing and surrounded the leadership compound in silent protest. A few representatives spoke to government officials to express their concerns that Falun Gong was being misrepresented in the state-run press. They requested that Falun Gong practitioners be left in peace. Instead of granting this wish, the government took action to criminalize all acts of Falun Gong, cracking down on practitioners with severe punishment for anyone refusing to renounce the practice.

Once this crackdown was in full swing, Wan's family had no personal privacy, he said. Local police verbally intimidated them and their phone conversations were monitored. By 2000, his father had been demoted at work and his mother had been forced to take "transformational classes," made to read government propaganda and sign a "letter of promise," stating that she supported the government's judgment to forbid "an [slanderous word omitted]"- words written in intentionally ambiguous language.

In January of 2001, Wan's mother was arrested after police found Falun Gong flyers in their home and sentenced to the work camp where she is currently serving time. His father was finally able to visit his mother, he heard, but only after she buckled under the pressure of labor camp employees "and wrote a letter, against her will, saying that handing out flyers about Falun Gong is illegal."

"They don't have the right to choose their own belief," said Wan. Though he is angered at the repression, he maintains that he is not against the government. "I just want them to release my mother," he said. Compared to many, Wan's mother has perhaps dodged much abuse that some experience daily. The Falun Dafa Informational Center reports more than 40 types of typical torture methods regularly used against female Falun Gong practitioners-electrical stun devices on women's genitals, breasts and mouths, prolonged hanging from wrist shackles, forced standing in freezing temperatures while drenched in ice water, and forced abortions. Some women are thrown, naked, into cells with several male prisoners. Daily beatings are common. Recently, 10 male Falun Gong practitioners were reportedly beaten to death in Changlinzi, a labor camp in Harbin, a sister city to Minneapolis.

So what is it about Falun Gong that China finds so threatening that would mandate such a severe crackdown?

According to practitioners, Falun Gong, (also known as Falun Dafa), is itself apolitical, an act that does not speak to or against the government, nor is it considered a religion. One definition by practitioners is "the practice of refining the body and mind through special exercises and meditation."

Li Hongzhi, or Master Li as many call him, publicly introduced Falun Gong, a form of qigong, in 1992. It mushroomed in popularity over the next six years, becoming the most popular form of qigong in China. Today, there are more Falun Gong practitioners in China than members of the [party name omitted] Party.

Part of its popularity stems from the simplicity of the exercise. Falun Gong consists of only five separate exercises (four standing and one sitting), and all are simple, slow and gentle movements, with names like "Buddha showing a thousand hands" and "Two dragons diving into the sea." Some say the movements are more for channeling energy than physical exercise.

The second piece of Falun Gong is the teachings, which are written in Master Li's Falun Gong (Law Wheel Qigong) and Zhuan Falun (Turning the Law Wheel).

The teachings are simple, as well, adhering to the three main tenets of truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance.

The texts of Master Li's books are available free online, illustrating another reason why Falun Gong is now so popular; Falun Gong is affordable to anyone who wishes to practice. Many classes, including those in the Twin Cities (and in China before the crackdown), are free in public parks, in keeping with the spirit of Falun Gong, as practitioners interpret it.

Practitioners also believe Falun Gong is preventive and saves them money in medical bills down the line. Many, like Cheng Wan's mother, believe it actually cures illness, a notion that at first pleased the Chinese government for its thrift, but is now used to condemn it as a [slanderous term omitted] in the media.

On July 19, two years after of the start of the Chinese government's persecution of Falun Gong, many will be walking, biking and driving to Washington, D.C., to rally at the Capitol and ask the United States government to speak out against these human rights violations, particularly before Beijing assumes center stage for the Olympic Games in 2008.