Followers persist in practicing, many in private, some openly. They have staged peaceful protests daily in Tiananmen Square, China's political heart, with police detaining 40 to 50 followers a day, said a Communist Party official who spoke on condition of anonymity. About a dozen were arrested Monday.
An amalgam of traditional Chinese Taoist and Buddhist beliefs, New Age thinking and slow-motion meditation exercises believed to promote health and morality, Falun Gong has infiltrated the fabric of Chinese society. While popularly thought to be filled with legions of retirees, the group has attracted university professors, military officers and government officials--the very elite that the Communist Party relies on.
According to Wang, and others in the party and government who asked not to be quoted by name, Falun Gong counts more than 150 top-level bureaucrats among its followers. They include Propaganda Ministry functionaries, aides to the Cabinet, two staff members to the national legislature, even an assistant to Wei Jianxing, the sixth-highest official in the ruling inner circle in charge of enforcing party discipline, the sources said.
"These are all people who can communicate directly with the top," said Wang.
For a decade, Wang helped the government monitor the many health and exercise groups that fall under the rubric of "qi gong" (pronounced chee-gong). Long an avid practitioner of T'ai chi, the traditional slow-motion exercises that aid meditation, Wang took up Falun Gong four years ago.
He was smitten by its discipline, its demands for moral living, honesty, and spiritual cultivation. Soon, he began urging that the officially atheistic government do more to promote Falun Gong, despite a growing wariness among lower-level officials about the group's soaring popularity.
Then a year ago Tuesday, 10,000 followers surrounded the communist leadership compound and silently meditated to protest growing official harassment. It was the largest protest in Beijing since the crushing of the Tiananmen Square democracy movement in 1989.
Some protesters, invited inside to air grievances, said Falun Gong and not communism held the remedy for China's ills.
Incensed and alarmed by the group's organizational skill, President Jiang Zemin ordered a full crackdown, although the official ban did not come until July.
As many as 15 members have reportedly died while in custody.
Chinese leaders are leery of Tuesday's anniversary. Police in Beijing have stepped up surveillance of Tiananmen Square and railroad and bus stations, and officials elsewhere are under orders to keep believers out of the capital, the government sources said.
"The Falun Gong evil cult still has the ability to stir up trouble," the government's Xinhua News Agency warned last week. Group leaders "have ceaselessly incited Falun Gong stalwarts to provoke quarrels and spread trouble," it said.
Many jailed Falun Gong followers have brought out tales of abuse. Wang Yufeng, detained with 139 other adherents on their way to Beijing from Jiamusi city in the northeast in November, said half her group was sent to a labor camp after they refused to pay 5,000 yuan ($600) and renounce Falun Gong in writing.
Compelled to work 13-hour days, dozens went on a hunger strike last month for three days or more, until guards force-fed them, Wang Yufeng said. Guards used electric prods to beat those who did not obey, she said.
Wang Kai, the disgraced sports official, was spared the worst of abuses, partly because he persuaded police he was never an organizer and partly because of his position. Still he was arrested July 20, two days before the official ban on Falun Gong, and held for more than five weeks.
His interrogators kept him sleepless for 10 days and questioned him for 30 hours straight at one point, he said.
Wang's superiors have since lectured him to recant, and he was removed from his post overseeing qi gong groups and put in charge of a small storeroom holding notebooks and other office supplies.
"I'm still better off than many," Wang said. "We hope that time will show people that we have done nothing bad."