Wall Street Journal's Pulitzer winning backgrounder on the political nature of Falun Gong
By early June, the number of protesters outside Beijing TV had grown to 2,000 – all peaceful and orderly but shocking to authorities in Beijing, which hadn't seen a significant demonstration since the student protests in Tiananmen Square a decade earlier. With the ninth anniversary of those demonstrations rapidly approaching -- still a sensitive time on China's political calendar -- leaders ordered the television station to end the Falun Dafa protest at any cost.
The station quickly complied. To show goodwill, it handed out 2,000 boxed lunches and promised to air a sympathetic portrayal of the group. The next day, the show ran as promised, the protests dispersed and quiet returned to the Chinese capital.
Mr. He was incensed at the acquiescence. He did more research and found out that the party had regularly yielded to Falun Dafa protesters. Several media outlets -- estimates range as high as 14 -- had been besieged by Falun Dafa adherents angry at reports casting doubt on its claim to foster good health through exercise. In almost every case, the media had backed down, printing or airing apologies to Falun Dafa.
Falun Dafa enjoyed a banner year in 1998. Though its founder, Mr. Li, had emigrated to the U.S., he returned often to coordinate activities and stayed in close contact with practitioners through a tightly knit organization. Critics such as Mr. He continued their pinprick attacks, but the party's do-nothing policies coupled with Falun Dafa's militancy had marginalized them.
"The government was mostly supportive of us," says Zhang Erping, a Falun Dafa spokesman who lives in New York. "Many top leaders seemed to support us."
This impression was understandable but wrong. Most of China's leaders didn't accept or agree with Falun Dafa; their crude governing apparatus had simply kept them in the dark. That was about to change, not because leaders had become wiser, but because Falun Dafa was to make a tactical mistake.
As 1998 wound down, Mr. He decided to write a short commentary for a small student magazine called Science and Technology Knowledge for Youth. The article, "Why Young People Shouldn't Practice Qigong," was one of his typical blasts at all forms of qigong, which he said was more suitable to older, less-active people. Halfway through the article, he mentioned Falun Dafa and then, in a key phrase that angered the group, referred to Mr. Li in a mildly derisive term as its toutou, or "boss."
The response came quickly. The day after the magazine was printed, protesters arrived at its offices on the campus of Tianjin Normal University, located about 100 miles east of Beijing. From April 20 to 23, as many as 6,000 occupied the university, demanding a retraction. "The publishers called me," Mr. He says, reaching over to touch his green plastic rotary phone. "And asked me what was going on. I told them that as a science publication, they had better not print a retraction."
The magazine stood firm. Angry Falun Dafa members then made their fateful decision to seek help from the very top echelons of the party.