Hong Wang used to have a lot of pimples and was "very sharp-mouthed, very picky."
But three years after discovering Falun Gong, the Gaithersburg resident is a new woman.
The spiritual movement's meditative techniques, said Wang, 35, have helped clear up her acne, and "my friends saw a change in my character. I've become calm and I'm happy about it."
That's why Wang joined 100 other Falun Gong adherents outside the Chinese Embassy in the District yesterday to protest the Chinese government's increasingly harsh crackdown on the movement. Following the arrest of more than 100 supporters and demonstrations in more than 30 cities, Beijing yesterday banned Falun Gong, which it considers a cult.
Standing in neat rows, the demonstrators moved their arms to the strains of tape-recorded music as they silently performed the five meditation exercises said to bring physical health and moral upliftment.
Spokesmen for the protesters, who came from as far away as Georgia and Missouri, demanded the release of detainees and legal recognition for Falun Gong.
"Chinese citizens' human rights should be respected," said Keran Feng, 27, a student from New Jersey who was standing near a sign that read "Return Our Freedom of Belief."
Embassy spokesman Yu Shuning had a different view of Falun Gong, which has swept through China and by some estimates rivals the 55 million-member Chinese Communist Party.
"This is a cult, which is trying to spread superstition," Yu said. He added that the government distinguishes between its followers, who are mostly "innocent," and its leaders, who "would like to disrupt social stability and already have succeeded in hoodwinking great members of the public."
Yu passed out a government news release that called Falun Gong's founder, Li Hongzhi, "an evil figure" who "has been seriously disrupting social order."
The embassy official said his government "does not ban activities for fitness" like qigong, the centuries-old Chinese practice of harnessing energies to improve one's physical and mental health. "But this cult is a different story."
The Chinese government was taken aback April 25 when thousands of Falun Gong followers surrounded the compound where Beijing's leadership lives, demanding removal of a ban on Li's writings.
The unexpected rally was the largest since the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations.
Falun Gong, which means "Wheel of the Law," is a kind of New Age self-improvement movement that combines traditional Chinese breathing and meditation exercises with inspirational, even mystical, elements of Buddhism and Taoism.
Its followers, who are not supposed to drink alcohol or smoke, say they are neither a cult nor a religion--they have no liturgy or formal organization--and have no political agenda.
"Master Li," as his followers call him, is a 48-year-old former civil servant who has lived in New York for a year. He apparently makes his living from lectures and sales of his books, which include "Zhuang Falun," or "Turning the Wheel."
His writings discuss levitation and being able to see the future with a third eye.
In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Li compared himself to Jesus and Buddha and said, "I exist in many bodies, in many dimensions, and I can cross dimensions."
The movement, which imposes no tithes or fees, has attracted all ages since Li began propagating his beliefs in 1992. According to its literature and Web sites, it seeks to instill truthfulness and tolerance, promising "good health benefits, advanced meditation and profound changes."
For the past year, local Falun Gong followers have gathered on the Mall each Saturday and Sunday morning to meditate together, said Mindy Ge, of Alexandria. She estimated there might be up to 300 followers in the area.
Ge said she and her husband, who are both actuaries, turned to Falun Gong in 1996 as a last resort after he was afflicted with terrible, unceasing headaches for which doctors could find no cure.
After doing the daily exercises for three months, "my husband's headache was 75 percent gone," Ge said. "Oh my, it's just unbelievable. Without spending a penny."
The crackdown in China is "horrible," said Ge, who has been in this country since 1987. "We never get involved with any politics, and we are just doing exercise for our personal health." She thinks the Chinese government fears Falun Gong because "it's just like too many people."
CAPTION: Practitioners of Falun Gong go through meditation positions outside the Chinese Embassy in Washington. About 100 people joined the protest.