Holding banners with damning accusations and chasing after passers-by, members of Falun Gong seem almost hysterical, with a propagandistic style similar to that of the Chinese Communist Party.
Few have the time or patience to stop and listen, members say, while many immigrants and tourists from mainland China continued to be angered by their presence.
Falun Gong — a spiritual exercise outlawed in almost China two decades ago — is also known as Falun Dafa and it seeks to combine the Chinese “qigong”, a slow-moving exercise popular in the 1990s, with Taoist moral teachings.
Followers describe the practice as a form of meditation for self-improvement, rather than a religion, yet they cling to Falun Gong’s spiritual teachings about the universe, meditate in groups, and read scriptures written by their spiritual leader.
Falun Gong banned as an ‘evil cult’
Yin Li, 53, was one of the tens of millions of followers in China who were attracted by Falun Gong’s promises of spiritual cleansing and better health.
Coming from China’s eastern Shandong Province, Ms Li told the ABC she first heard about the practice in 1998, and after only a month of practicing, claims Falun Gong cured all of her chronic illnesses from insomnia to migraines to epilepsy.
In April 1999, some 10,000 Falun Gong members staged a protest in Beijing outside the headquarters of the ruling Communist Party to complain about defamatory reports about the group in the state media.
The Chinese Government responded by saying Falun Gong had “created disturbance and jeopardised social stability”, and the movement was banned nationwide soon afterwards as an “evil cult”.
Angered by the “misunderstanding”, Ms Li said she travelled to Beijing in October hoping to “demand justice” along with four fellow devotees — they planned another sit-in, but the trip was cut short when police showed up at their hotel.
‘Brainwashing centres’ to renounce Falun Gong
Ms Li told the ABC she was written off as a leader of the protest, and as a result, claims she was constantly tortured and harassed by the Chinese police in the next 17 years.
“Once in 2000, I was in police custody for meeting other followers, and when I was released, I found the doors and windows of my stationery shop all covered with faeces.”
She added that a few months later local police smashed the windows of her shop front and poured gasoline over it.
“They were much worse than thugs, but that’s the Chinese police for you,” Ms Li said.
From 1999 to 2016, Ms Li says she was detained by police six times, had her home searched twice, and was sent to “brainwashing centres” where she was forced to renounce the practice.
“I was blessed. Unlike many other Falun Gong practitioners in China, I was beaten by the police a couple of times, but never spent any time in jail,” Ms Li says.
“This was because Master Li knows that I’m a persistent devotee and protects me,” she added, referring to Li Hongzhi, the spiritual guru who first started teaching Falun Gong in north-eastern China in 1992 before moving to the United States ahead of the group’s ban.
Organ harvesting: is that really happening?
According to Falun Gong itself, the ongoing suppression has led to the imprisonment of tens of thousands of practitioners, and claimed some 3,000 lives — but the claims of horror don’t stop there.
In 2006, a controversial Canadian report brought the world’s attention for the first time to a horrific allegation: that the Chinese Government was secretly harvesting organs of Falun Gong followers.
The report said the Chinese regime was performing some 60,000 to 100,000 transplants per year — about six times the official total of about 10,000 — and that this means that there are unacknowledged organ sources in China, the primary one being imprisoned Falun Gong practitioners.
Acknowledging widespread scepticism towards the report, one of the authors of the original report, David Matas, a prominent human rights lawyer, told the ABC that “there is new evidence every day”.
But Benjamin Penny, an expert of religious and spiritual movements in China and a professor at Australian National University, told the ABC that he does not think organ harvesting is an ongoing practice.
“Certainly, we know that many practitioners are in prison. That’s well known and there’s no controversy about that,” Dr Penny said.
“But organ harvesting is an entirely different question. Organ harvesting is a claim that was not initially made by Falun Gong itself but by a Japanese journalist who heard about it.”
“My view on it is that I have not seen evidence which convinces me that is true. But I’ve not seen any evidence that convinces me that it’s not true.”
“I would say that the case about organ harvesting is not proven and I don’t think it will ever be proven. Because if it did ever happen, it probably stopped happening some years ago. I don’t think it’s going on now.”
To date Falun Gong practitioners have done everything they can with the evidence available to try prove their claims of organ harvesting.
But under the opaque Chinese information laws, “there is no way they can improve their credibility … unless the Chinese Government one day in the future makes all of the archives available,” Dr Penny added.
However, Wendy Roger, a professor in clinical ethics at Macquarie University, disagrees and maintains that there is in fact credible evidence that Chinese prisoners of conscience are murdered on demand for their organs.
“The Chinese Government’s propaganda war to deny organ harvesting has been successful,” she told the ABC.
“This creates a challenge for communication because many transplant professionals, government officials, and journalists etc start with the view [that Falun Gong is an evil cult].”
“Then they want to talk to a witness, but it is very difficult to find first hand witnesses, as Chinese whistleblowers would face immense danger, to themselves and their families.”
‘So many spies’: Living in Australia under watchful eyes
Ms Li told the ABC that she is grateful that she now lives in Australia and no longer has to fear having her organs taken, but she says that even in Australia she can still feel the Chinese Communist Party’s far-reaching power.
“There are dubious people who snap photos of me when I campaign for Falun Gong out on the street,” she said.
We found Ms Li via her fellow practitioners who were campaigning in the Melbourne CBD earlier this week, who at first suspected us to be spies sent by the Chinese government.
“There are just so many spies out there nowadays,” a 63-year-old campaigner from China’s Sichuan province who called herself “Lanxin” told us.
Chen Yonglin, a former Chinese diplomat in Sydney who defected in 2005, said one of his duties back at the Sydney Chinese consulate was to monitor the activities of Falun Gong adherents in Australia.
Mr Chen says he was asked to spy on Falun Gong practitioners and put their names on a list, which would later be used by Chinese authorities to track down and put pressure on the practitioners’ families in China.
“One of the most important teachings of Falun Gong is the principle of truthfulness — so when a practitioner is pressed to answer if he or she follows Falun Gong, knowing that admitting will be incriminating, the person would still say yes or just remain silent,” Mr Chen said.
Mr Chen said his job also included conversing with high profile practitioners and persuading them to abandon their Falun Gong beliefs.
“It was obvious that many practitioners were just normal people. They didn’t deserve to be blacklisted or punished for their beliefs, nor did their families.”
Asylum seekers pose as Falun Gong practitioners
Australia has accepted many Falun Gong practitioners who sought protection here.
Fan Huiqiang, the president of Falun Dafa Association of Australia’s Victoria Branch, says there are hundreds of Falun Gong adherents in Australia’s main cities.
“…There are many who try to seek asylum [using Falun Gong’s name]. They make up stories and forge documents to deceive the court,” Mr Fan said.
Patricia Cruise, who worked as an immigration officer, previously told the ABC that she had processed many cases where individuals posed as persecuted Falun Gong practitioners with the help of dubious migration agents.
“The migration agent might have a sort of pro-forma where specific details pertaining to the applicant are inserted, a sort of generic statement of claims,” she said.
“I have seen statements where particulars have clearly been inserted — you can tell by the change of font or excessive spacing between the words.
“So clearly some statements have been used more than once — just a simple bit of word processing,” Ms Cruise added.
To help their bogus claims, many of the Chinese nationals reportedly turn up at Falun Gong meetings or demonstrations.
“This is a headache for us, but it is not Falun Gong’s responsibility that people are doing this,” Mr Fan said.The Department of Home Affairs told the ABC that they do not have relevant data available, and the Chinese embassy in Australia did not respond to interview requests.