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If the protest stunned the leadership, Falun Gong's list of members terrified it; included were retired Communist Party elders and military officers. So the crackdown, when it finally came three months after the huge demonstration, stretched from the top of the party's ranks to the remotest rice paddy. A nationwide system of collective guilt held police, factory bosses and family members accountable when people around them practiced Falun Gong's slow-motion spiritual exercises. Foreign companies fell in line. Police sentenced more than 10,000 followers to labor camps, and Falun Gong's exiled leaders say they have evidence that more than 225 people died of abuse in custody. "It's now a war of attrition, and Falun Gong will lose," predicts Robert Weller, a Boston University anthropologist who follows the movement.
Today Falun Gong exists in China almost entirely by virtue of the Internet. A group of activists maintains ties through encrypted e-mails with Falun Gong's exiled leadership in New York City, where Li Hongzhi now lives. These leaders direct a dwindling pool of committed practitioners, many of whom live on the lam in safe houses. But even this network is fraying. "It's harder to stay in touch, and everybody seems to be watched," says New York-based spokeswoman Gail Rachlin.
True enough. A recent visit to a Falun Gong safe house in Beijing was like something out of a Tom Clancy novel. To get there, two people downloaded encryption programs from the Internet and used them to exchange temporary mobile-phone numbers, the type that don't require registration. A reporter was told to enter a crowded restaurant as someone outside secretly watched. A taxi ride to a nearby market followed. On the far side of the market, a second cab was ready to drive to the safe house on the city's dusty outskirts. The two-bedroom apartment looked scarcely lived in. Its temporary dwellers slept on simple cots, sat on hard chairs. They had gathered to tell their stories: a middle-age doctor who had been confined to a mental institution, a peasant woman whose husband had been beaten to death. The youngest was a 12-year-old boy. His family members, he said, were neighborhood leaders of the movement. When the crackdown began, the boy arrived home from school one day to find police surrounding his house. Three weeks later, the authorities broke in to discover his grandmother and aunt hanging side by side in a dual suicide. The boy and his mother were incarcerated at the kindergarten where she taught, but refused to renounce Falun Gong. So last December, when a labor-camp sentence seemed certain, his mother gave her son to other practitioners, kissed him goodbye and fled. "We talked on the phone last month for about a minute," he says. "She is trying to find a school for me."