As a police officer in northeastern China, She Jingsheng has a lot of experience subduing dangerous lawbreakers. But as a member of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, Officer She has had to learn how to be a lawbreaker himself.
For the third day in a row today, Falun Gong demonstrators persisted in a campaign of quiet defiance in China's capital designed to persuade the government to end its recently stepped-up crackdown on the group. Followers milled silently in the Tiananmen Square area, while police repeatedly took small groups of them to a nearby station house in blue and white vans.
The continuing civil disobedience, and Officer She's willingness to speak on the record about it, are signs of the trouble the Chinese government has encountered in trying to crush Falun Gong, despite launching its biggest campaign against dissent since the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations.
"I don't understand why I have to choose between being a good person and being a good policeman," Officer She said. "I don't want to give up practicing . . . I want to tell the government what's in my heart."
The government has blasted Falun Gong's contention that cultivating an "orb of energy" in one's belly leads to physical and spiritual health and has said that more than 1,400 people have died practicing the movement's beliefs. But the group has appealed to those in search of something to fill the spiritual vacuum left by the disintegration of communism as a compelling ideology.
More than 10,000 Falun followers gathered around the government's headquarters in April to seek legal status, startling China's leaders and precipitating the ban in July. Since then, thousands of followers have been detained. Most have been released after a matter of days or weeks, but they maintained an intense loyalty to Falun and its founder, Li Hongzhi.
In an extended interview in a willow-shaded Beijing park today, Officer She, 35, refused to criticize China's central government for the crackdown. He repeatedly expressed confidence that China's leaders will change their minds about the group and treat it in a "just" manner if its members can show they have no anti-government intentions.
He first encountered Falun Gong followers in 1997 while jogging around a sports stadium near his home. Soon after reading one of Falun's manuals and starting to practice the exercise and meditation regimen regularly, he became a kinder person, gave to charity for the first time and his kidney stones vanished, he said.
After the ban, police forced him to dictate an anti-Falun statement and tried to persuade him to quit. Under intense scrutiny at home, he traveled to Beijing earlier this month to appeal the government's verdict.
His wife and daughter, 7, joined him and were detained while hiding in a Beijing house along with dozens of other followers from around the country, he said. They were sent home, but then brought back to Beijing in recent days by Officer She's colleagues in a failed attempt to persuade him to give up.
Dressed in a natty suit, tie and shiny shoes, Officer She has blended in easily in Beijing and evaded capture despite joining gatherings on the square Monday and Tuesday.
He said watching police detaining his compatriots underscored the absurdity of the government argument that Falun adherents are dangerous. In his experience, the best way to subdue tough criminals is to swarm them with as many people as possible, force them to the ground and pin them until they're safely cuffed, he said.
But the Falun followers were so serene and cooperative that Beijing officers looked like "tour guides" as they calmly led them away, he said. "Show me criminals who act that way," he said. "Have you seen anything like that?"