By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
The guitarist collects his tips and stows his instrument. He then lights a cigarette and stares off in the direction of the river. Joy hustles over to him and hands him a petition, which calls on the Chinese government to end the Falun Gong persecution. The guitarist reluctantly takes it, exhaling smoke as his eyes scan its words. When he's done, he looks at Joy.
"SOS! Urgent." The man signs the petition.
Joy skips away, her face filled with happiness and tears.
"You see," she says, "his heart has changed."
After leaving the tourist district, the group stops at a takeout egg roll joint for dinner. There, Amy Lee, Dakun Sun and Hongyi Pan get consumed in dialogue carried out in Chinese. Sun says they are debating the International Olympics Committee's decision, made two days earlier, to award the 2008 Olympics to Beijing.
So far, the most frequent question they've been asked is whether they think China should host the summer games. The situation has put them in a dilemma: They do not wish to take a political stance on this issue, yet they all have opinions about it. Those opinions differ, but most agree that the games will not improve the plight of the Falun Gong. Rather, they believe the government will hasten the crackdown in order to eradicate the practitioners long before the world arrives in Beijing.
If they continue to express their opinions, they will be seen as taking a stance in opposition to the IOC's decision. Because Falun Gong has no hierarchy, there is no one to tell them what they should do. So they ask me. I don't know what to say. I point out that their press kit, which consists of literature printed by volunteers, contains a sheet of paper that directly compares the 2008 Beijing games to the 1936 Berlin games, hosted by Adolf Hitler. The paper includes a photo of Hitler and the quote: "[Jews] Must Disappear from the Face of the Earth." Opposite that, there is a picture of Chinese President Jiang Zemin and his widely reported quote: "No Means Are Too Excessive to Exterminate Falun Gong."
The paper does not expressly say what the IOC should do, but it makes a compelling argument that China is walking down a path of genocide and, therefore, shouldn't host the games. The paper certainly looks like a political statement. The group absorbs the information and resumes its debate.
That evening, the group spreads out inside the apartment of a local practitioner, who has opened his doors even though he is out of town. The two-bedroom flat is sparse and functional. The living room consists of a couch, a computer and a small TV-VCR unit, next to which is a stack of Master Li's videotaped lectures. The only decoration on the wall is a large instructional poster that depicts the five sets of Falun Gong exercises. A box of snack-sized potato chips and a case of bottled water have been left for the group.
Here the true grassroots nature of the tour, and the Falun Gong movement itself, comes to life. Instead of preparing for sleep, the group goes to work. Hongyi Pan and Joy begin writing letters, while Amy Lee and Danielle revise their statements. The others log onto the Internet and travel to www.clearwisdom.net. The Web site, along with www.falundafa.org, is run by volunteers and is Falun Gong's cyberspace headquarters. There are links to Master Li's lectures, general information about Falun Gong and news about the latest incidents of illegal arrests, detentions and deaths of practitioners in China.
The group posts updates of the progress of the tour, and, simultaneously, they check on the progress of other groups, some traveling by car and others by foot and bicycle, which are en route to D.C. But the Internet plays another, more personal role. Besides the telephone, the Internet is the best place where group members can find information about their family members in China.
Just how desperate their surfing is won't become clear for several days.
As the group travels from New Orleans to Jackson, Birmingham, Knoxville and Roanoke, their accents and, thus their stories, begin to sink in. It's no wonder they call the tour "SOS! Urgent": They are literally trying to save the lives of their relatives in China.
Linda, a chemical engineer who most recently worked at Texas Instruments, moved to the United States in 1997 to attend graduate school in Iowa. Back in China, her brother and his wife learned Falun Gong in the mid-1990s--a time when the Chinese government did not view it as a threat, and its practitioners freely exercised in large, orderly groups in public parks.
In the mid-1990s, as the number of practitioners swelled, the government's attitude began to change. In 1996, Master Li's first book, which had become a national best-seller, was banned. Later, news articles began to appear that described Falun Gong as an evil cult, intent on overthrowing the Communist party. In contrast to U.S. newspapers, these reports were not spawned in open debate. In China, the government controls all media, and the news that Falun Gong was suddenly "evil" marked a reversal in China President Jiang Zemin's policy of tolerance.