As he stepped off a plane in the Guangzhou airport in China on Jan. 22, Charles Li expected to bring his parents news of his recent engagement. Instead, Li, a University alumnus, was immediately arrested and taken to a prison in Yangzhou in the Jiangsu Province of China.

Forty-four days after his arrest, Li's friends and fellow Falun Gong practitioners are gathering today outside the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C., to rally for his release.

[...] Many people, however, believe Li was arrested because of his spiritual practice, Falun Gong or Falun Dafa.

Falun Gong is a spiritual practice best known for its five positions of daily exercises to improve the body, mind and spirit, said Dongdong Zhang, a doctoral student at the University who has practiced Falun Gong for eight years. Although these exercises are backed by teaching the principles of truthfulness, compassion and forbearance, Zhang said Falun Gong is not a religion.

"These principles are similar to those in Daoism or Buddhism, but it's something rooted in history and not taken from either or combined," Dongdong Zhang said.

Falun Gong was outlawed in China in 1999, where there were at least 70 million Falun Gong practitioners, Dongdong Zhang said.

"Practitioners were forced to sign a paper to give up the practice," she said. "There are about 1,000 people now in prison, some for up to 28 years, because they won't give it up."

Dongdong Zhang said all books and tapes about Falun Gong were destroyed in China and practitioners faced "persecution of unprecedented brutality from the Chinese government."


Li earned a master's degree from the University in 1995 in physiology and later worked in the Massachusetts Hospital of Harvard University. Li is now a U.S. citizen and manages his own business in California.

Champaign resident Diana Lenik said Li rented a room in her house when he was earning his doctorate at the University. She said she would be shocked if the claims against Li were true.

"He is a wonderful guy. I feel so bad about this," Lenik said. "He was respectable, quiet and intelligent."

Dongdong Zhang and two other practitioners collected signatures at the Union this week to urge the government to demand Li's immediate release. A group from Chicago will present signatures collected at the University to State Department officials today.

Dr. Lilly Zhang organized the Chicago trip to Washington, D.C., to attend the rally and said she expects a variety of supporters to attend, not only Falun Gong practitioners.

"We're all volunteering to work for rescuing him because every American is responsible for rescuing fellow Americans who are in danger," Lilly Zhang said.


The Illinois House of Representatives passed a resolution last year in regards to Falun Gong that said "tens of thousands of people (Falun Gong practitioners) have been tortured and sent to labor camps, and property owned by those who follow this discipline has been destroyed or confiscated." The resolution urged the U.S. Secretary of State to "increase efforts to urge the People's Republic of China to recognize and protect the human rights of its citizens and halt the persecution against practitioners of Falun Gong."

State Rep. Art Turner (D-Chicago) sponsored the bill and represents 50 percent of Chicago's Chinatown. He said he felt this resolution was necessary after hearing his constituents complain about the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners.

"The practice of persecuting people is a dangerous practice," Turner said. "I would not say anyone has been hurt by the practice of Falun Gong."

The Chicago City Council, State Senate and the U.S. Congress also passed similar resolutions last year. Urbana even declared a Falun Dafa Day, a synonym for Falun Gong, last May.

Yu Zhou, a Falun Gong practitioner from Chicago, said he and at least 14 others will drive to Washington, D.C. to join the rally for Li. Zhou said he believes the Chinese government fabricated its claims about Li's crime.

"When a person is inside China, the government can do anything," Zhou said. "It can make black look white, it can make life into death."