BEIJING -- On a hazy July morning, Li Guoqiang starts out on his bike toward Tiananmen Square.
It's two weeks before the July 22 anniversary of the government's ban on the Falun Dafa movement, which authorities consider an evil religious cult.Mr. Li knows that scores of out-of-town adherents will descend on Beijing to protest against the crackdown, and he plans to extend help to any who ask for it. He takes it upon himself this day to scout out the sprawling square so that he can provide information on the likely police presence there,especially plainclothes officers.
"This is my own idea," Mr. Li says as he sets out on a two-hour ride that will be punctuated by pager messages from members of Falun Dafa's nationwide network of activists requesting help. "Everyone decides for themselves how to be of most use. This is something I can do."
As the campaign against Falun Dafa enters its second year, many wonder how the group has withstood the government's security onslaught. The crackdown has involved a deployment of uniformed and undercover security agents not seen since the massacre of antigovernment protesters near Tiananmen Square 11 years ago.
Yet Falun Dafa is staying a step ahead, thanks to a well-functioning ad hoc network that depends on informal links among adherents using pagers and pay phones. One of those links is Mr. Li, an unemployed accountant whose efforts to keep Falun Dafa alive have earned him the affectionate nickname of Brother Li among adherents.
Falun Dafa maintains that it isn't a religion but an organization that promotes good health through breathing exercises called Falun Gong and good morals. The moral precepts come from founder Li Hongzhi, who lives in the U.S. and isn't related to Brother Li.
Authorities accuse the group of being a tightly organized movement that uses a "second echelon" of organizers like Brother Li to keep the group alive. Claiming that Falun Dafa's advocacy of exercise over medicine led to 1,500 deaths, the government has tried to smash this structure by rounding up all of the group's known leaders in China and thousands of other members. Had Falun Dafa been one of the dissident groups that occasionally spring up to promote democracy, the display of force would have been more than enough to crush it.
But Falun Dafa is more complex than authorities in Beijing imagine. Made up of very loose cells linked by interchangeable volunteers, it has demonstrated a remarkable ability to inspire ordinary followers to give up their jobs and their freedom to fill in for arrested leaders and followers.
During the past year, Brother Li and others also have learned how to cope with the Communist Party's security apparatus. Experience has taught them to shun cellular phones and e-mail as too easily monitored. Two decades of change in China mean that they also can take advantage of housing that is outside the party's authority, tap private, unregistered cabbies who take orders from no one, and exploit the general confusion of a country where the party can no longer control everything.
As Tiananmen Square comes in sight, Brother Li's beeper goes off. It's a message to call a pay phone in Beijing. Brother Li angles his one-speed black bike over to the curb and stops in front of a bank of pay phones as a wave of cyclists rushes past. All the phones are occupied.
Experience quells the temptation to turn on his cell phone. Not only can conversations be monitored, but the phones are dangerous even when they are only switched on. That's because security agents can figure out which transmitter the phone is getting its signal from. In a city like Beijing, where a high density of mobile phones means transmitters are located every few blocks,police could trace Brother Li and follow him through town.
A few weeks earlier, one of Brother Li's associates was almost nabbed when he used a mobile phone to set up a meeting. A novice to the group's security measures, he arrived at the rendezvous point to find the area crawling with suspicious people. Although he jumped into a cab and left, the two followers he was supposed to meet were detained.
Finally, a public phone is free and Brother Li calls. From the receiver comes an excited voice -- a Falun Dafa practitioner from northeastern China who has traveled to the capital to find someone to help her send an e-mail to the outside world. Identifying herself only as Ms. Chen, she alleges that a teenage Falun Dafa believer died when she tried to escape police by leaping from a train. Like many Falun Dafa newcomers to the city, Ms. Chen has heard of Brother Li through a friend of a friend. Brother Li has no idea who she is, but after talking to her for a while, he figures she isn't a police plant. He agrees to meet later in the day.
"You can usually tell if the people are genuine," he says, hopping on his bike and heading back down the road in the stifling heat. "They make references to things that the police wouldn't know about and have this earnest air about them."
Ms. Chen, who spent the previous night outside in a park, is desperate for accommodations. Practitioners used to stay with Brother Li, but his three-room apartment in Beijing's eastern district is sometimes watched by security agents. Like most people who have continued to practice Falun Dafa during the year since the crackdown, Ms. Chen was fired from her job and has little money. Most followers can survive in costly Beijing only through the generosity of fellow practitioners.
Fortunately for Brother Li, housing in China is no longer strictly controlled by the party. Just a few years ago, all housing was allocated by government-controlled "work units," and busybody cleaning ladies sat in elevators, noting who came and went. Now, housing is starting to be sold commercially, people are moving around, and no one is exactly sure who lives where. A fellow Falun Dafa adherent who worked for a textile company has an extra apartment and Brother Li is fairly certain Ms. Chen can stay there without anyone's noticing.
As he pedals across the north end of Tiananmen Square, Brother Li is hard to distinguish from the thousands of other cyclists. Wearing a striped short-sleeve shirt and black polyester pants, he cuts a trim figure, his face often breaking out into a broad, easy smile. But then his eyes, usually languid and distant, suddenly light up. "There and there," he says, making mental notes. "The police are all along the entrances to the pedestrian underpasses."
A day after his reconnaissance trip, Brother Li is cycling past Workers Stadium in Beijing in search of a pay phone that he hasn't used. He worries that if he regularly calls from the same public phones near home, undercover police, who occasionally follow him, will notice and start bugging those as well.
His beeper goes off and he pulls over to make a call. It's an adherent from Guangdong province in the south who had been in Beijing helping people from her region survive in the distant capital, with its incomprehensible dialect and tight security. The woman debated going to Tiananmen Square to protest -- an act that always winds up with arrest and detention without charge. In the end, she decided she was needed more in Guangdong, where she can function as a link to the capital.
Before the crackdown, Falun Dafa had a more elaborate organizational structure. It had "general assistance centers," usually in each province, and "assistance centers" in cities. It also had "assistants" who helped teach the slow-motion exercises, sold cassettes and books and reserved space in public parks where adherents met to exercise. The old structure was quickly broken by the Public Security Bureau. Moles inside the group gave security agents lists of assistants, who were quickly rounded up and jailed, with some given sentences of as long as 15 years.
The new structure, which depends on ordinary followers keeping in touch with one another, is much more resilient. If the woman in Guangdong gets arrested, as she has on several occasions, Brother Li has alternative contacts down south to call. Likewise, if he is arrested, believers can reach other Beijing activists -- phone lists are widely shared and passed on to trusted followers.
Most of the contact between regions is to exchange basic intelligence --where police are active and who is out of jail and can be reached. Members also exchange stories of police abuse and protests to bolster their spirits. At a meeting with Brother Li before heading back, the woman from Guangdong, a 32-year-old unemployed English teacher with a pale face and a tiny voice, explains herself: "Many followers need to be reminded that others are protesting. This will give them courage."
Now she's calling to say she has made it back safely and to ask for any news. Brother Li relates that demonstrations have been going on daily, even if on some days only a few make it to Tiananmen Square. He's using a pay phone in a kiosk, and with the vendor listening to his end of the conversation, he doesn't speak too explicitly. "We've still got a lot of friends visiting town. We're still very active," Brother Li says. "Let everyone know we're fine in Beijing."
He hangs up and continues on. He's now passing through the capital's bar district, a narrow street lined with pubs called Durty Nellie's and Nashville and, at night, with prostitutes and revelers. In his mind, the risks he takes are worthwhile because his faith stands in direct contrast to this moral decay. He feels he is part of an effort to restore standards that decades of Communist attacks on people's beliefs have destroyed.
Not too long ago, Mr. Li gave little thought to such spiritual matters, striving for the promotions and business trips abroad that define success in modern China. He worked as an accountant at a textile mill, got married and had a son, who is now 12. Then he heard about Falun Dafa early last year, and he began to practice, at first out of curiosity but then with increasing fervor.
Last October, Brother Li was suddenly forced to decide how much Falun Dafa meant to him. Worried about pressure from its government masters, managers at his state-owned mill told him that he should stop practicing. The decision, he says, was easy: He quit, and since then has occupied his time with odd jobs and with helping the movement survive.
Now living on a monthly $40 stipend from the local welfare office, he says he reminds himself of the famous Chinese aphorism: "The great hermit lives in the city." Accordingly, he has stripped his life down to the simplest of clothes and only one luxury: a pair of dark wraparound sunglasses against the burning summer sun. Pagers are cheap here, and so are phone calls. He bought his cell phone, which he rarely uses now, when he had a job. With his wife's salary as a clerk in a factory, the Li family just makes ends meet.
"We live in a bad world, one that needs good people who believe in doing good deeds," Brother Li says quietly, embarrassed at having to explain his beliefs. "Life is a test to see if you can be a good person."
He is interrupted again by his pager. It's another follower from Guangdong province who needs a fellow believer picked up at the airport. Brother Li quickly calls a Falun Dafa member who drives an unregistered cab – one of the thousands of such private taxis that have sprung up in recent years. The cabbie agrees to take the airport passenger without charging; another small task done.
Arrest is always on Brother Li's mind. To minimize risk, he follows a few basic rules. Meetings with adherents last just a few minutes. Calls are clipped and ambiguous. Information is exchanged only in person. Pagers are changed as often as he can afford -- he has had three in the past four months --because if the police discover his account number, they can find out what calls are on his account.
But lying is considered morally wrong, so members rarely deny adhering to Falun Dafa. Many are arrested when police simply ask them their affiliation. It isn't unusual, for example, for practitioners who have spent their last penny traveling to Beijing to protest to be thwarted just a few feet away from Tiananmen Square by a police officer's simple question: "Are you a member of Falun Dafa?"
After finding a few pay phones and noting their location for future use, Mr. Li heads home. The temperature is over 100 degrees, and even Mr. Li, usually so cool and calm, starts sweating.
For two days now, he has been agonizing over whether he should go to Tiananmen Square to protest. In some ways, a key weapon that Falun Dafa practitioners have in their battle against the Public Security Bureau is the randomness of their actions. While protests increase in intensity around certain anniversaries, protesters go to the square almost daily, driven by the dictates of their conscience. Now, Brother Li's conscience tells him to go to the square. "I feel it is my duty to let the government know it's wrong," he says. "But if I stay out of prison, I might be of more use."
As he weighs his options, the one thing he doesn't consider is his timing -- but his will turn out to be impeccable. In two days, he will go to Tiananmen, sit cross-legged in the Falun Dafa meditating position and be thrown in jail. It will be early enough in the month so the judges won't yet be handing down the heavy sentences that some will get for protesting directly on the July 22 anniversary. But he will stay in long enough – 15 days -- to witness Beijing's prisons bulge with thousands of anniversary protesters. His wife will go on a hunger strike. He will see a fellow prisoner beaten unconscious. In late July, he will be released.
But now, as he dismounts to catch his breath, all he knows is that it's his turn to test his faith. It is late afternoon and cicadas drown out everything but Brother Li's voice. "You know my decision," he says. "I'll call you when I get out."