TOWN OF MADISON - As a successful young academic at one of China's most prestigious universities, Sunny Hu thought she had all she could want. Her husband worked a well-paying job at a U.S.-owned company in Beijing. Materially, they had everything they needed.

But something was missing, Hu says. "Everything was OK, but we were not very satisfied."

In 1998, an aunt told the young couple about a book she had read. She said that this book had helped her understand her purpose in life and even aided her recovery from a serious illness.

The book was called "Zhuan Falun." Written by a former clerk named Li Hongzhi, it espouses a spiritual practice that involves meditation, a set of gentle exercises, and cultivating what it calls "the universal principles" of truthfulness, benevolence and forbearance.

"It was like the book revealed a whole new world to me," Hu says. She and her husband soon became adherents of the religion [editor's note: Falun Gong is not a religion] it describes, Falun Gong.

[...] Since Hongzhi began teaching Falun Gong in 1992, its popularity has spread through much of China and around the world. The Chinese government says that the spiritual practice has 2 million devotees, while adherents themselves give a much higher estimate of 100 million, with 10 percent to 20 percent of those residing outside of China.

The actual numbers are unknown, since Falun Gong organizations do not keep membership rosters.

Even here in Madison, Hu says she is unsure how many practitioners there are. Half a dozen individuals regularly attend the semi-weekly study groups that she organizes, but she hasn't tried to count the number of those who drop in occasionally. "We do not keep track of our members. People come, people leave," she said.

Hu considers herself lucky to be able to practice her religious beliefs freely in the United States. She moved to Madison just before the Chinese government banned Falun Gong. [...] But Falun Gong practitioners say that they have no political agenda outside of wanting to practice their beliefs freely, and point out that the ruling [party's name omitted] generally promotes atheism as preferable to religious belief.

Hu and her husband, Lianghua, spend much of their time telling others about Falun Gong and its suppression by the Chinese government. They give lectures to community groups and give a presentation to UW-Stevens Point philosophy students each semester.

Since July 1999, China has arrested and detained countless practitioners and sentenced thousands to labor camps. Falun Gong and human rights groups have reported the deaths of over 200 practitioners while in government custody.

Hu believes that the Chinese government fears Falun Gong because it offers a sense of purpose to people's lives. "Maybe the government fears not being able to control people's minds," she said.

Lianghua was still in China when the government began to crack down on Falun Gong practitioners. He was detained and told to write a letter renouncing his beliefs, but he refused because doing so would violate the principle of truthfulness.

"Zhuan Falun truly answers my questions," he said earlier this week from his town of Madison home. "As a Chinese young man, I was educated to believe that there is no god. However, as I grew older, I began to doubt this. Why are there so many people all over the world who have believed in the existence of gods throughout history? All I want is to follow the principles of truthfulness, benevolence and forbearance to return to my true self."

Sunny Hu said she isn't sure why her husband was released. "I think he was luckier than most practitioners because he had lived in America and worked for a U.S. company," she said. The Chinese government generally treats employees of foreign companies better than the rest of its citizens, she said.

Today, both Hus live in the town of Madison while Sunny Hu completes a graduate degree in business. They have lost touch with many of their friends back in China who practice Falun Gong, because practitioners have to move often in order to avoid being turned in to police by their neighbors, she said.

Hu says the principles of truthfulness, benevolence and forbearance have made a profound difference in her life. She remembers telling her sister when they were younger that "you cannot be too nice to others, others will treat you badly. After I learned about Falun Gong, I felt ashamed that I had told her that."

She said even her acquaintances who have been detained were kind to their jailers. "None of the prisoners fights back. If others treat us badly, we cannot treat others the same."