BEIJING -- Every second or third day, Wang, a 32-year-old Falun Gong practitioner, moves to a new safe house somewhere in this capital of 13 million, trying to stay one step ahead of the police.
Since his arrest last fall for unfurling a pro-Falun Gong banner in Tiananmen Square, his life has steadily deteriorated. Last month, just before Chinese New Year, Wang lost his engineering job at a design firm because he wouldn't renounce the group.
Local police called daily, insisting that he sign a statement pledging not to practice Falun Gong, a spiritual meditation discipline outlawed by the Chinese government. His state-run work unit threatened him with prison time or a stint in a re-education-through-labor camp.
Instead of signing, Wang fled his home and began moving through a network of safe houses that adherents have set up to help those who would rather risk personal ruin than knuckle under to the regime.
"I depend on my friends who are fellow Falun Gong practitioners," says Wang, who knows of at least 16 such safe houses in Beijing. He has yet to tell his family that his devotion to Falun Gong has cost him his job and forced him from his home.
"I don't want them to worry about me," adds Wang, who did not give his full name to avoid further punishment for speaking to a foreign journalist.
In recent weeks, Falun Gong practitioners have had a lot to worry about.
On the eve of Chinese New Year, five people the government identified as Falun Gong adherents set themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square. Broadcasting grisly footage of burning bodies staggering across the plaza, the government mounted a renewed propaganda blitz to portray Falun Gong as an evil, suicidal cult bent on overthrowing the Communist Party.
Falun Gong believers say they are apolitical and only want freedom to practice a discipline that has made them healthier, better people. Spokesmen for the group have disavowed the self-immolations, which left one person dead and four hospitalized. They insist that the five could not have been genuine practitioners.
Although much of the government's previous propaganda campaign against the group has been stale and predictable, this reinvigorated one seems to resonate with many because of the graphic images and the fact that one of the burn victims was a 12-year-old girl. Under a daily barrage by the state-controlled news media, Falun Gong practitioners are feeling the pressure.
Zhang, a 27-year-old technician at a construction company, was arrested last fall with Wang during the protest in Tiananmen Square. He still has his job -- "the people in my work unit are pretty kind," he says -- but his mother is frightened and has urged him to quit Falun Gong.
"She advised me: `Don't be stubborn anymore,'" says Zhang. "I quarreled with her."
Zhang says that friends and family who want him to stop are guided by pragmatism, while he and fellow adherents are driven by principle.
"They are talking about what are the benefits and what are the down sides" of continuing, says Zhang. "They aren't talking about what is right or wrong."
Falun Gong blends slow-motion exercises with moral teachings drawn from Buddhism and Taoism. It also embraces concepts such as levitation and faith healing. Practitioners, who range from laid-off workers to university professors, speak of it in revelatory terms and say it has changed their lives.
In April 1999, 10,000 adherents surrounded the Communist Party's leadership compound to protest criticism of the group in a state-owned academic magazine. Frightened by the group's ability to arrange such a large demonstration in secret, China's authoritarian government outlawed Falun Gong three months later and detained tens of thousands of believers.
Since then, Falun Gong practitioners have routinely demonstrated in Tiananmen Square in what has become the longest sustained anti-government protest in the nation's Communist history. Last fall, Zhang and Wang joined in.
They stood on the plaza just west of the towering pole that flies China's red flag. To the north, just across the city's main boulevard, is the Gate of Heavenly Peace, where the giant portrait of Mao Tse-tung hangs.
The two men unfurled cloth banners with simple messages. Using an alternate name for Falun Gong, one said: "Falun Dafa is Good." The other read: "Truth, Kindness and Forbearance," the group's cardinal principles.
Within moments, police threw them to the ground, tore the banner away and kicked and punched Wang. Officers put them in one of the many blue-and-white vans stationed on the square and took them to a police station.
Zhang described what happened next: