By Winston Skinner

A decade ago, the Chinese government's persecution of followers of Falun Gong made headlines.

The media coverage has largely gone away, but followers of Falun Gong--and supporters of religious freedom--say the persecution continues. Dr. Yang Jianli, founder and president of Initiatives for China, is currently walking across the northeastern United States to draw attention to the persecution of Falun Gong and other religious movements in China.

There is no known Falun Gong group in Coweta County, although Atlanta practitioner Robert Lu lectured on Falun Gong and demonstrated the spiritual practice at the Newnan-Coweta Public Library in December 2000. At that time, Lu said the "cultivation practice" was begun in China in 1992, though its roots go back much farther.

The practice, which has its roots in Buddhism, was begun by Li Hongzhi in China. Within a few years, Falun Gong had gained millions of adherents--and the ire of Chinese government leaders.

Yang, who graduated from Beijing Normal University and holds two PhD degrees--one in mathematics from the University of California at Berkeley and another in political economy from Harvard--announced plans for his 500-mile GongMin (Citizen Power) Walk to Washington on April 1 in Boston.

Speaking at the historic Massachusetts State House, Yang said, "I stand here today, knowing that the Chinese Olympic slogan, 'One World, One Dream,' is the furthest thing from the truth in China.

" He then proceeded to speak about people imprisoned for protests against forced abortions and about "Tibetan monks, with unknown numbers slaughtered just last month.

" He asked, "What is their dream? Is it the 'one dream' of the Chinese government? No. That is not their dream. It is their nightmare."

Yang began his GongMin Walk on May 4 in Boston. His itinerary included Wellesley, Providence, New Haven, Bridgeport, New York, Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore. This coming Wednesday--on the 19th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre--he will conclude his journey in Washington, DC.

Yang witnessed the horrors of Tianamen Square. While studying labor unrest in northern China, Yang was arrested and held incommunicado for more than a year before he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to five years imprisonment for "espionage." While he was in prison he was tortured and put in solitary confinement for long periods.

He was released in April 2007 following a United Nations Resolution and support from both houses of the United States Congress.

People have joined Yang for various portions of the walk. He reached Manhattan on May 17 and spoke at a rally. "The issue of human rights is not political. It is not situational. It is not fashionable--something that can be given and taken away by whim. It is the very bond between humans and their Creator. Human rights give us dignity and purpose," Yang said at the New York rally.

"The protection of these rights, for all its citizens, is the first responsibility of any government. Any government that does not protect the God-given rights of its citizens is irresponsible. Any government that actively denies human and political rights for its citizens cannot have any claim to legitimacy, regardless of its wealth or power.

"There are no human rights for Chinese citizens. There are no civil rights for Tibetans. There are no religious rights for Falun Gong practitioners."\

"My brothers and sisters, I pray that citizen power will come to all of us. I pray that it will bind us together as friends, as brothers and sisters, living under the blue sky of a free China, speaking freely, worshiping freely, respecting our mutual dignity, and seeking our own chosen path to happiness.

"For this I pray. For this I walk. For this, I will not rest until I embrace you all in a Tiananmen Square that is free," he concluded.

Jim Geheran, director of international programs, has traveled with Yang during portions of his walk and helped with arrangements for the event. He talked about the role of the persecution of Falun Gong in the current efforts to promote human rights.

"I am very close to the Falun Gong community in Boston," Geheran said. The persecution of people of faith around the world is "something we really need to raise the visibility on."

"It's really dreadful what these people have to go through," Geheran said. "The persecution of religion is pretty widespread."

In the early days, word about Falun Gong "just spread by word of mouth," Lu said in a 2000 interview with The Times-Herald. He said that when a person who had previously been ill or immoral had a major lifestyle change because of Falun Gong, friends and family took notice.

Many began following Falun Gong teachings themselves. In the first seven years of its existence, Falun Gong grew to an estimated 100 million practitioners. "Because of the large number, the Chinese government feels threatened. It's actually more than the number of Party members," Lu said.

Chinese media reportedly began attacking Falun Gong in 1996. Efforts by Falun Gong followers to explain the practice two years later were ignored.

"In China, they don't allow anyone else to speak out," Lu said.

On April 23,1999, Falun Gong practitioners were beaten by government forces. A group of 10,000 practitioners subsequently went to Beijing. "They tried to appeal to the government leaders to get this resolved," Lu said, but were not successful.

In 2000, Lu said he believed Falun Gong was chosen to be made an example of. "They wanted to use this to solidify their power. Because Falun Gong is a peaceful group, they will not return a fist or even say a bad word back."

This pacifist stance, Lu said, made the group attractive to some opportunistic government leaders. Rather than seek to squelch a true dissident group, which might respond with terrorism, they chose to attack a peaceful movement without political aims.

Lu, who grew up in China, described Falun Gong not as a religion but as a "high level cultivation practice system." Falun Gong combines physical exercises with readings that have a spiritual component. "The principles in Falun Gong are 'Truthfulness, Compassion and Forbearance,'" according to Lu. The practice teaches people "to try to do the best you can," he said.

Lu said it may be hard for people from a belief system other than Buddhism to focus on Falun Gong, but noted people from many different backgrounds have followed the practice. "Some people believe in Buddha. Some are Christians. It will bring people closer to God," he said.

Source http://www.times-herald.com/religion/500-mile-walk-protests-Falun-Gong-persecution--475875