Falun Gong has its origins in Qi Gong (Chinese: "Energy Working"), the use of meditation techniques and physical exercise to achieve good health and peace of mind, which has a long history in Chinese culture and religion. However, practitioners in modern China present these techniques as purely secular in an effort to escape official restrictions against independent religious activity.
But in the late 20th century, new masters appeared who taught forms of Qi Gong more clearly rooted in religion. The most influential of these, Li Hongzhi (born May 13, 1951, according to followers, or July 7, 1952, according to critics who contend that Li adjusted his birthdate to be the same as the Buddha's), worked in law enforcement and corporate security before becoming the full-time spiritual leader of Falun Gong in 1992.
After gathering a large following in China (100 million according to Falun Gong, or between 2 and 3 million according to the Chinese government), Li took his movement abroad in the mid-1990s, settling permanently in New York City in 1998. The next year, a massive campaign was launched by the medical establishment (including both practitioners and academics) and the Chinese government to denounce Falun Gong as a xiejiao ("false teching" or "cult").
Unlike other Chinese organizations, Falun Gong responded strongly, staging a demonstration of more than 10,000 followers in Beijing on April 25, 1999, which prompted an even greater government response. The movement was condemned and outlawed by the Chinese authorities, who identified Falun Gong as the latest of many Chinese religious societies that have combined religious assurance with political dissent. In October the enforcement of a new anticult law led to the arrest of 100 Falun Gong leaders (joining 1,000 members who had been arrested earlier). Public trials began in November and continued into the 21st century, with many defendants receiving prison sentences of up to 12 years.1
While the Chinese government gained the cooperation of some Western anticult groups in its campaign to expose Falun Gong as a "cult," it was also criticized by human rights organizations who denounce the suspicious deaths, allegedly by accident, of some Falun Gong members detained in Chinese jails. According to FalunDafa.org, "To date [December 2005], there are more than 2794 documented cases of otherwise healthy practitioners being beaten and tortured to death while in detention."
In the meantime, Falun Gong has attracted followers from around the world, and Master Li claimed in 2002 that the spread of Falun Dafa for 10 years had averted major cosmic catastrophes.2