The man who the Chinese government is calling an "evil person" seemed more like a relaxed businessman on a casual lunch break as he lounged at the downtown apartment of one of his followers in a shirt and tie, eating cherries and trying hard to convince visiting reporters that he was not the man Chinese officials said he was.
As the Chinese government continued its recent campaign against Li Hongzhi and his philosophy of Falun Gong, Li mounted his own spin offensive, portraying himself as a simple family man, vilified by an oppressive government and misunderstood by an ill-informed press.
No, he said, he is not a sinister mastermind plotting to overthrow China's government but rather an accidental prophet, as surprised as anyone by his extraordinary popularity. And far from being a rebellious political movement, his philosophy--a spinoff of a centuries-old practice called qi gong, where inner energy is directed to improve physical and spiritual health--is merely aimed at the moral betterment of Chinese citizens.
"I have no offices, I have no staff, I don't have anything," said Li, 48, adding that he began teaching his particular form of Eastern spirituality less than a decade ago and taught it in China for only three years.
Li said that the last time he saw his followers in China, four years ago, he taught them "never to get involved in politics." He added, "We have never interfered in government and never done anything wrong. We are all law-abiding citizens." Since then, he said, he has been disengaged from the movement, which consisted of only 20,000 followers when he left.
It is a message he repeated to dozens of news organizations from all over the world that came today to see what this onetime trumpet player, soldier and civil servant preaches, inspiring an estimated 70 million to 100 million followers to risk jail to organize the largest demonstration in China since the 1989 uprising in Tiananmen Square.
In Li's view, all his followers want is to stop being called a cult and to be treated with respect, much like the five major religions the Chinese government recognizes. Instead, the government outlawed Falun Gong on Thursday and took many of its leaders in China into custody.
If his followers are politicized now, it is only because the "Chinese government made them involved," he said, suggesting that by banning the group, the government has only radicalized it and increased its popularity.
By reviving the "brainwashing tactics of the Cultural Revolution" and trying to smear a peaceful citizen with "outright fabrications," Li said, the government has risked disillusioning its citizens and creating its own uprising.
"I was shocked," said Li, citing stories he had heard of people being locked in their offices and homes and being forced to watch propaganda videos about him. "We have 100 million followers and they have families and friends," he said. "If the problem is not dealt with properly it could hurt the prestige and power of the Chinese leaders."
Ironically, the man the government says "threatens social chaos" is by philosophy a family-values nostalgist who urges his followers not to smoke, drink or have sex outside of marriage, and to be good, active citizens.
Li prides himself on a simple life in his New York apartment with his wife and teenage daughter, doing "mostly nothing," he said, save buying groceries, doing calligraphy and practicing "cultivation," his word for spiritual self-improvement.
Li will correct anyone who calls his set of beliefs a sect, or especially a cult. He said it is simply a set of five exercises, much like the tai chi and qi gong that many older Chinese practice in parks and streets across China at dusk.
Li said his spiritual insight was born out of a chance meeting when he was 4 years old. Visiting his maternal grandmother, Li wandered over to a nearby temple to play. There, "a monk came and held me and stared at me awhile. I don't know why he chose me," he said, momentarily breaking his earnest, insistent demeanor to joke, "Maybe because I was cute."
During the 1980s, when he was first a grain clerk, then a trumpet player in a song and dance troupe, Master Li, as he is known to followers, developed his own form of qi gong. Falun Gong is often translated as "Law Wheel Great Way," referring to Li's belief that he telekenetically implants a wheel of energy in his followers' bellies, a miniature version of the cosmos that is always spinning. The wheel, he said, keeps a person's energy aligned, making him physically and spiritually healthy.
In the interview, Li insisted on correcting what he considers willful misinterpretations by a government out to prove him a kook. The documentary about him that the government is airing, for example, includes horror stories about people who committed suicide looking for the wheel in their bellies, or who were driven mad and murdered family members after reading Li's books.
But Li said he makes it clear that people with mental illnesses should not attend his lectures. He also played down what many have portrayed as his chaotic apocalyptic visions of aliens taking over the earth with technology such as cloning, saying he merely meant them as metaphors of ancient Buddhist thought.
Li also took great pains to set the record straight about himself, saying he never lied about his birth date to claim the same one as the Buddha, as the documentary claimed he had. And he most certainly did not come to China in April to organize that first protest that so took the government by surprise. He only stopped in China on his way to Australia, he said. He stayed only a few hours and never saw or talked to anyone.