A Battle for Chinese Hearts and Minds in Flushing

On the bustling thoroughfare of Chinese immigrants that is Main Street in Flushing, Queens, countless people hand out fliers for massage parlors, calling cards, English classes, money-wiring stores and other services.

But one group of regulars that offers fliers from their daily spot is not commercially minded. Their message is an ideological one: to disparage Falun Gong, the spiritual and meditation movement founded in 1999 in China that, Falun Gong organizers say, has found its largest following outside Asia in Flushing.

The group denounces Falun Gong as a cult, and incorporates this charge into its name: the Chinese Anti-Cult World Alliance. The alliance first set up a small folding table in the summer of 2008 on Main Street near Sanford Avenue, not far from the numerous tables manned by Falun Gong volunteers who hand out literature lambasting the Chinese Communist Party, and the Chinese government, which has banned and persecuted Falun Gong, also called Falun Dafa.

For two years, the two factions have staked out their turf on Main Street like rival gangs, and they have waged a bitter ideological battle nearly daily for hearts and minds. They have created a scaled-down version of the tension in China between the government and Falun Gong.

Falun Gong members are convinced that this opposition group is an arm of the Chinese government and that its members are working as political operatives to oppress Falun Gong here.

“They are secret agents for the Chinese Communist Party,” said Rong Yi, 45, a Falun Gong organizer in Flushing. “They are puppets for the Chinese government. The Chinese Communist Party is paying them to suppress Falun Gong.” She said Ms. Li’s group was trying to keep Falun Gong from publicizing mistreatment of many of its members in China by the Chinese government.

Ms. Yi’s nemesis on Main Street is Huahong Li, 49, chairwoman of the anti-Falun Gong group, who has become a well-known and polarizing figure in Flushing. Ms. Li calls the spy accusation laughable and says that she is simply motivated by the need to warn the public that Falun Gong is an “evil cult” that has “severely damaged the image and reputation of the Chinese people.”

Ms. Li has gotten into countless confrontations with Falun Gong members. She has been arrested, sued and vilified constantly in The Epoch Times, the free daily newspaper put out by Falun Gong. She keeps the scores of clippings from the paper on display at her booth, along with a poster-size collage of snapshots of Falun Gong followers she has argued with. She claims the members have come to her table to harass her, seize her camera and sometimes strike her with objects.

Ms. Yi of Falun Gong, however, insists that these members were approached by Ms. Li, not vice versa. She also accused Ms. Li of orchestrating the distribution of “hate material” against Falun Gong, instigating attacks on Falun Gong members and routinely gathering up and destroying copies of The Epoch Times in sidewalk boxes. Ms. Yi claims Ms. Li has been seen — videotaped, in fact — entering the Chinese consulate in Manhattan.

Ms. Yi is president of a group called the Global Service Center for Quitting the Chinese Communist Party, whose mission is to find immigrants who were Communist Party members in China and persuade them to swear off their membership. The center’s headquarters are situated above a Chinese bakery on Main Street, two blocks from where Ms. Li sets up her table, and they double as the main offices for Falun Gong in Flushing.

Ms. Yi said that despite Ms. Li’s efforts to thwart her group, roughly 80 people a day come in to shed their Communist Party affiliation. These people sign a list and agree to have their identities entered into a database on a private page on The Epoch Times Web site, she said.

Ms. Yi said she tells immigrants that even if they plan never to return to China, it is crucial to quit the party officially in protest of its oppressive actions. To remain a member is to essentially condone all this, she says, but to quit is to obtain “freedom from bottom of heart.”

“We tell them that God or Buddha will punish you in this life or the future if you if you still follow them,” she said. “It will be bad luck for you and your family. We tell them that if they quit, their future will be secured and God will bless them.”

Several blocks away, Ms. Li, in turn, urges immigrants to quit the “Quitting” party.

“Departing from cult resuscitates oneself,” reads one of her signs.

The two sides have been feuding since the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan Province that killed more than 60,000 people. Groups of Flushing residents accused Falun Gong of disrupting fund-raising for victims on Main Street by demonstrating with lively music and attacks on the Chinese government.

Ms. Li calls Falun Gong disingenuous and insulting to Chinese immigrants. Her literature charges that Falun Gong practices “anti-human and anti-society practices” and irresponsibly advises members to eschew conventional medicine for daily exercise and meditation for health.

Her main charge is that Falun Gong paints itself as a peaceful, persecuted group, but behind the scenes it is a highly disciplined and ruthless group that burnishes its image with its media outlets and political alliances and ubiquitous demonstrations and lobbying tables. Ms. Li complained that she lacks the political, strategic and English-language skills to defend herself against Falun Gong’s attacks on her.

She says her anti-Falun Gong group has grown in two years to more than 100 people, though its numbers are dwarfed by the thousands of Falun Gong members in Flushing. Last month, for the first time, her group gained a spot in the annual Chinese New Year parade on Main Street, marching near the Falun Gong.

Ms. Li’s most prominent run-in was with a well-known Falun Gong member named Wenyi Wang. In June, 2009, Ms. Wang accused Ms. Li of destroying copies of The Epoch Times and approached her with a camera. Ms. Wang said Ms. Li seized her camera. Ms. Li was arrested and charged with fourth degree grand larceny, and now has an order of protection forbidding her to approach Ms. Wang.

All this was reported extensively in The Epoch Times, where Ms. Wang is a contributor and somewhat of a celebrity among Falun Gong adherents for her actions at the White House in 2006 when she gained admittance with Epoch Times press credentials and shouted against Chinese President Hu Jintao while he spoke. She was quickly escorted away, and President Bush later apologized to Mr. Hu.

The idea that their sidewalk spot is a front for cloak-and-dagger espionage makes Ms. Li and her supporters roll their eyes.

“Who knew it was that easy to become a government agent?” said one of her colleagues, Zhu Zhirou.

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Praise From Afar for the Park Slope Food Co-op

After The Times ran an article about Park Slope Food Co-op members sending their nannies to work their shifts, many members and alumni rose up in the co-op’s defense. One former member, Michael Crewdson, an author transplanted to the other side of the world, was livid enough on Facebook that we asked him to set down his thoughts.

As a Brooklynite living in Sydney, Australia, there are many things I don’t miss about home — like shoveling snow. What I do miss is the Park Slope Food Co-op. My homesickness and hunger pangs hit hardest when I survey my local supermarket’s uninspiring choice of fruits and vegetables, or when I go into the local gourmet food shop and see signs for Gala apples at $11 a kilo or Parmigiano cheese at $45.50 a kilo, which even when converted into pounds means too many dollars.

That’s why I am surprised by the bad press the co-op receives — mostly recently an article in The New York Times about allegations of nannies working shifts for their employers. (If you are not aware of it by now, to shop at the co-op you must be a member and work a 2-hour-45-minute shift every four weeks.)

In a time of economic downturn, the 38-year-old institution has never been more necessary. I would think that during the recession, it would be celebrated as a lifeline for New Yorkers intent on eating healthy food at decent prices. The co-op accepts food stamps, offers child care for people shopping with little kids, and allows members with permanent disabilities to forgo their shifts. And the produce — from baby lettuce and kumquats to organic blackberries and daikon radish, is refreshed every day.

What I find even more surprising is the delight that nonmembers express when these negative stories about the co-op are posted on Facebook or forwarded through e-mail. Regarding the co-op’s nanny-gate story, a friend of mine wrote, “True or not, it’s a precious little notion. I LOVE it. If I read it in a novel about privileged do-gooders I’d slap my knee and say, ‘Dayum!’”

To me, joining the co-op was a noncontroversial proposition — pack, weigh and price pine nuts, then buy pine nuts at 20 to 40 percent less than you would pay for them at a regular store. The criticism of its members at the time I joined in the early 1990s was that the co-op was a commune of soy-milk-swilling hippies. That type of snide comment went out of date in 2002 when the co-op started selling red meat and beer, kryptonite for the mung and adzuki bean set.

Yet the enmity toward the co-op has continued and ramped up. Critics no longer see the co-op members as granola-eating fringe dwellers, but as elitists. As my co-op-hating friend put it, the co-op has become “a food club for people who can leverage a good education and the luxury of time.”

I think the basic tenet that members work free and in exchange pay cheaper prices confuses some people. If you choose to labor without charge, it must mean that you are rich. But the truly privileged can go to Dean & DeLuca or Whole Foods to buy organic meats and vegetables without the hassle of stocking goat milk or filling bulk containers with brown basmati rice. Or they can send their nannies (or butlers) out to do the shopping for them. I think if you do the math, the amount of money you save by shopping at the co-op surpasses the time spent working there — unless you’re a surgeon or a stockbroker.

For me, the privilege of the co-op was actually doing a shift — and working with a cross-section of Brooklynites who would be hard to encounter anywhere else. For several years, I worked in the food-processing unit for a staff member named Marty. In the basement of the co-op, I joined a crew of people with diverse backgrounds and professions (and ages) and learned the art of cutting and wrapping dozens of different kinds of cheeses. We learned how to disassemble giant wheels of Parmigiano cheese into manageable bits using piano wire. And Marty would hand out samples of newly arrived items to taste like Humboldt Fog goat cheese so we could recommend it to other members. We worked hard, trying to keep up with the members’ great hunger for cheddar and mozzarella, but we also had a great time, exchanging news and recipes.

That was what was happening on the inside of the co-op, taking delight in being around food and fellow foodies. O.K., we did occasionally hold impromptu bean sprout eating contests and mocked outsiders for eating iceberg lettuce, but we also had discussions on how to braise wild boar meat or how much galangal to add to a curry.

At a time when most nonprofit institutions depend on government agencies, corporations or philanthropic foundations for their existence, the co-op is beholden only to its 16,000-plus members. This economic independence — along with its soy milk, heirloom tomatoes, and Parmigiano cheese (at $11 a pound) — should be celebrated.

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Hearings on Muslim Extremism Prompt Times Square Protest

A crowd of 500 gathered at the bottom of Times Square on Sunday to protest upcoming Congressional hearings on radicalization within the Muslim community, arguing that the hearings threaten to single out one religious group unfairly.

The demonstrators, enduring occasional rain on a soggy afternoon, heard a diverse roster of speakers, including at least two rabbis, two imams, and an Episcopal priest, argue that hearings by the House Homeland Security Committee, scheduled to begin Thursday, would stigmatize Muslims.

The hearings are to be led by Representative Peter T. King of Long Island and opponents are focusing their efforts on getting Mr. King to enlarge the scope of the hearings beyond Muslims.

“To single out Muslim-Americans as the source of homegrown terrorism and not examine all forms of violence motivated by extremist belief, that my friends is an injustice,” said Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding.

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the co-founder of a project to develop a Muslim center near ground zero, said American Muslims were loyal Americans “also concerned about radicalism.” He called on Mr. King to “to hold hearings into radicalism and not into Muslims.”

Several demonstrators held up signs sayings “Today I am a Muslim Too,” while one Nechesa Morgan, a 39-year-old T-shirt designer from Brooklyn, held up a sign with a sketch of Mr. King accusing him of bigotry.

Mr. King, in an appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union” alongside Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota, a Muslim, defended his decision to limit his investigation. Mr. King said that Al Qaeda and its affiliates “have been radicalizing” members of the Muslim community and that effort is the leading domestic threat.

“There’s been self-radicalization going on within the Muslim community, within a very small minority, but it’s there,” said Mr. King. “To be having investigations into every type of violence will be suggesting an equivalency that’s not there.”

He added that other investigations of crime had also focused on specific ethnic groups.

“When we’ve gone after the mafias, we looked at the Italian community; the Westies, the Irish community,” he said. “In New York, when they went after the Russian mob, they go into the Russian community in Brighton Beach and Coney Island.”

Mr. Ellison argued that by focusing on only one discrete group that has been the victim of discrimination enemies of America will be able to “stand up and claim, you know, ‘See, we told you, America’s at war with Islam.’ ” By winning the cooperation of Muslims, Mr. Ellison said, more terrorist threats could be headed off.

Muslims from a wide variety of backgrounds were among those at the Times Square demonstration, which stretched for an entire block between 42d Street and 41st Street along Seventh Avenue.

Dina Suharno, 36, of Clifton, N.J., an immigrant from Indonesia, was there with two sisters and a half dozen friends, all wearing headscarves and sharing a fried banana dessert.

“Whenever something happens, they always blame Muslims,” she said. “You cannot say that because a Muslim did that, that all Muslims do this.”

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