Lloyd Evans joins the dissident movement in a ritual exercise near the Chinese Embassy. He is unsettled to find himself understanding why China’s rulers get so paranoid about them

Bong. Up go our hands. Bong. Down come our hands. Bong. We bend our knees. Bong. We crouch down slowly. Bong. We sweep our hands around our feet. Bong. We pass our hands behind our shoulder blades. Bong. We straighten up. Bong. We make hollow fists. Bong. We release the energy. Bong. Up go our hands again. Bong. And down come our hands. And so on. It was a sunny morning in Regent’s Park and I’d joined a circle of Falun Gong practitioners as we indulged in a spot of communal aerobics. The chimes came from a small loudspeaker on the grass which relayed plinkety-plonk music and instructions in Chinese. Falun Gong was founded in China in 1992 by Li Hongzhi, an amateur trumpeter and former stud-farm worker. Falun means ‘law wheel’ and Gong means ‘work’ or ‘practice’, and the movement encourages cultivation of both mind and body. It grew rapidly and within a few years its devotees outnumbered the Chinese Communist Party. Following a 24-hour mass demonstration in Tiananmen Square in April 1999, Falun Gong was outlawed by President Jiang Zemin and denounced as an ‘evil cult’. Since then its followers have been harassed, arrested, mistreated and, according to their website, sent to forced labour camps. So those plastic bricks you buy for your kids may well have been manufactured by a convict whose only crime was to meditate.

There are suggestions that Beijing is using the Olympics as a pretext to intensify its campaign. According to Amnesty International a secret order was issued last February by the then public security minister Zhou Yongkang. ‘We must strike hard at hostile forces at home and abroad, such as ethnic separatists, religious extremists… and Falun Gong.’ At least 200 followers have been arrested this year.

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Chinese officials routinely deny allegations of persecution and explain the evidence of torture as ‘self-mutilation’. The movement doesn’t feel particularly cultish or evil, even though the practitioners refer to Li Hongzhi, slightly creepily, as ‘the Master’. Their chief interest lies in the three principles of truth, compassion and tolerance. They insist they are entirely nonpolitical. There’s no sec-recy, no exchange of money, no organisational structure, and the classes, like the one I attended, are cheerily informal. Anyone can show up. Before we began I was welcomed by the teacher, Debbie, who apologised for being late. ‘I was just finishing a bacon sandwich.’ She gave me some tips. My mind should be clear while performing the exercises and I should avoid pursuing negative thoughts. I might feel discomfort in my feet and arms owing to ‘major energy channels being blasted open’. Then we were ready. We arranged ourselves in the shade of a chestnut tree and piled our bags and rucksacks in the middle, like girls at a disco. An English chap next to me was dressed in a T-shirt blazoned with shocking statistics about the persecution of Falun Gong. A younger man with a rich brown tan looked like an apprentice yogi in a maroon T-shirt and orange breeches. On my other side an elderly Chinese woman removed her shoes and stood on a mat of bright-green bubble-wrap. The exercises began. Arms up, arms down, bend your knees, extend your hands. It was like a slow-motion hokey-cokey lasting 90 minutes and requiring so little exertion that it’s hard to see who would benefit apart from the elderly and the convalescent. The only arduous part was the ‘standing meditation’, an ordeal that obliged us to hold our hands in the air, in three different positions, for half an hour. This was almost unbearably painful. The blood drained from my fingers. My hands went white and my muscles ached and burned, and though I was free to lower my arms at any point some devilish competitive spirit kept them aloft. Male pride, combined perhaps with a wholly inappropriate sense of Western jingoism, forbade me from relieving my agony while beside me a frail old Chinese woman stood as still as a No Entry sign with her hands upraised and her furrowed face devoid of emotion.

I found the exercises dreary and fruitless. Maybe my Gong wasn’t on song but I left the class feeling drained and bored and with no inclination to return the following week and lower my consciousness to robot level. It seemed life-denying and pointlessly sacrificial. And if it requires a degree of meekness that’s alien to my nature, then I can’t help pointing out that Falun Gong’s brand of humility is tinged with egoism. They enjoy attention. Why else would they exercise outdoors and in public? We got plenty of stares from passers-by who looked on, amused or faintly disturbed by the sight of 15 mechanical figures moving in slow unison accompanied by eerie musical chimes that seemed to waft through the air from nowhere. It’s not too fanciful to imagine that President Zemin watched the mass demonstration of 1999 with a similar sense of alarm. This wasn’t some accidental confluence of eccentric pacifists. The protest was co-ordinated over the internet. The location, Tiananmen Square, was deliberately provocative and the date was uncomfortably close to the tenth anniversary of the pro-democracy demonstrations of 1989. It came as a shock to the Chinese authorities that such a large and orderly demonstration could be organised without their knowledge. The crackdown on Falun Gong coincided with rigorous censorship of the internet in China.

Falun Gong maintains its habit of meekly ostentatious protests. Not far from Regent’s Park you’ll find the Chinese embassy, a grey brick fortress with surly curtained-off windows and sloping roofs topped by a mad frizz of radio aerials. Directly opposite, Falun Gong perform their exercises around the clock. There’s a placard, a petition, a prayer-mat and, according to one protestor, a secret stash of biscuits to nourish overnight protestors. They do shifts of five hours each. I spoke to Lilla, an Israeli, who wore a jumper and anorak even on a July afternoon. Were there any plans to demonstrate against the Beijing Olympics? She shrugged and said that any protest would be turned into negative propaganda by the Chinese authorities. Later I met Tina, an exile from China, who works in TV marketing and was spending her Saturday night meditating outside the embassy. Was she afraid of the Chinese secret service? ‘No. Because they are weak. They have the army and all that but what they are doing is not right. So they are weak.’ The late shift was taken by another Chinese exile. Wrapped in a yellow cagoule and a tartan blanket she expressed the same mood of laboured optimism. ‘For us the Olympics are a chance for the world to see our protest. Things won’t change. But still we hope.’

The embassy takes a completely different view. I asked them if it was true that Falun Gong are persecuted in China. I got a shirty brush-off. ‘I am surprised you are interested in this group which is a cult banned in China by law. This organisation has become a political one which is involved in anti-China activities.’ I was directed to a website, www.facts.org.cn, full of claims that Falun Gong break up families, deny the efficacy of modern medicine and spread treasonable messages on banknotes.

Reluctantly, I have to agree with one part of the embassy’s statement. Falun Gong is political. It aims to modify the policy of a government and it applies concerted pressure in order to bring about that change. And in that sense one can, just about, understand the paranoia of China’s dictators.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated