December 29, 2001

TAMPA -- John Nania stood motionless in the parking lot beside the Days Inn on Fletcher Avenue, eyes closed, feet splayed, arms gently outstretched.

It was a moment of meditation. It was an act of rebellion.

"This is what the [Jiang Zemins's] government is so threatened by," Nania had just explained.

Falun Gong, a spiritual way of life that includes the slow, deliberate movements Nania practices, has been outlawed for several years in China, its birthplace. Practitioners have been detained, some tortured, others killed.

After staging a peaceful protest in Beijing in the name of Falun Gong last month with 35 other foreigners, Nania, too, was detained.

"I didn't plan to get arrested," said Nania, a Minneapolis computer consultant, "but that's what happened."

Nania, 43, flew to Tampa as a featured speaker at a conference this weekend on Falun Gong at the University of South Florida.

In accordance with the Falun Gong philosophy, there is no fee for participants and no registration for the two days of events at the USF Special Events Center that include demonstrations, lectures and practice.

Falun Gong was born 10 years ago [...]. By the mid 1990s, Falun Gong had millions of adherents in China.

Master Li, as he became known, lectured widely about how to lead a moral life. Parks were crammed with daily practitioners.

At first, the government supported its practice. But its mass appeal soon worried Chinese authorities bent on safeguarding [the party's ideology name omitted]. Falun gong was declared an "[Jiang Zemin government's slanderous term omitted]." Practicing it became a crime.

"The emphasis in this practice," Nania said, "is to free the mind from attachments" such as fame and money. "The idea is very foreign to Westerners."

Even as Falun Gong was outlawed in the East, its appeal has spread to the West. In most major cities, adherents practice quietly in parks, at YMCAs or on college campuses. The Tampa Bay area has several small groups, including two in St. Petersburg and two in Tampa.

Last month, Nania sent e-mails to seven friends and family members, explaining why he was going to Beijing for five days in order to practice Falun Gong for a mere 15 minutes in public. The goal was to regain acceptance for the movement among the Chinese.

"Oh! You're going to be thrown in jail!" warned Nania's sister, "but at least it will be for a good cause."

In Tiananmen Square last month, the group of foreigners sat down and quickly adopted a Falun Gong posture. A few unfurled a banner. Written in Mandarin and English were three words: Truth, compassion, tolerance. They are the Falun Gong principles, the stuff, the [Jiang Zemin's] government fears, of revolution.

"We had the banner up for 30 seconds before the police were there," said Nania. One man who resisted had his finger broken, Nania said. All but one were hustled to a police station.

"We were interrogated one by one," Nania said.

"Are you a Christian?" Chinese police wanted to know of Nania, who was raised in a Catholic home.

"Do you see any conflict?" they asked.

And later: "Do not lie!"

Still, said Nania, "I was treated with relative respect." He was detained for 17 hours. There was no torture or even much discomfort. The international press was covering the detentions, he said, and the world's eyes were on China.

"We did something really noble and righteous." Sharing those experiences, he said, is a responsibility.