NEW YORK - Cendana Wirasari Adiwarga sat perfectly still, her eyes shut tight as Quincy Sun dragged a toothpick soaked with fake blood across her plump left cheek.
"There, all done," Sun said, appraising her handiwork. Adiwarga's smooth skin had been transformed into a garish tableau of bloody cuts and bruises. Adiwarga then rose to take her place inside a metal cage, where she planned to sit for three hours on a blustery late October morning opposite a federal courthouse in Lower Manhattan.
"Maybe if people here see me suffer, they will know just one tiny speck of suffering in China," Adiwarga said. The two women had flown long hours at considerable expense from the Far East to spread the word about the persecution of practitioners of Falun Gong, a spiritual practice of calisthenics and meditation that the Chinese government has banned and branded an "evil cult."
They and hundreds of other demonstrators from across the globe are flooding the streets and subways of New York, cheerfully but very persistently pressing stacks of literature into the hands of harried passers-by, waving gruesome photographs of victims and simulating brutal acts of torture. They claim that the Chinese government is not only suppressing the practice in China, as has been widely known and largely condemned, but that it is using harassment, spying and intimidation to destroy Falun Gong in the United States.
Supporters of the Falun Gong movement say 1,100 have died and thousands more have been tortured and imprisoned for their beliefs, chiefly in China, but increasingly in other countries. Independent human rights groups say that practitioners of Falun Gong in China have been sent to labor camps, subjected to physical and psychological torture and killed since the Chinese government cracked down on the movement, which claims 100 million followers worldwide, in 1999.
While the situation in China attracted a good deal of attention in 1999 and 2000, its plight has largely fallen off the radar screen as the Chinese government has repressed the movement there, human rights officials say.
Thus the demonstrations in New York, which play out in parks and on street corners from City Hall to the Museum of Natural History. They began in earnest with the Republican National Convention in August but have continued, buoyed by volunteers from around the world like Adiwarga and Sun, from Indonesia and Australia. Others come from Taiwan, Singapore and New Zealand.
"Not content with torturing and killing in their own country, the Chinese government has carried out campaigns of intimidation" against practitioners in the United States, "even American citizens," said Levi Browde of the New York Falun Dafa Association.
Demonstrators say that the effort grew out of an e-mail and Internet daisy chain rather than a centrally organized campaign, and that they are paying their own way, bunking six to a room in hotels or staying with practitioners who live in New York. Most who come are ethnic Chinese; few speak much English. They stay for a week or two, longer if they can afford it, and then are replaced by new volunteers.
The demonstrations are graphic. Photographs depict emaciated corpses, or victims with faces burned or battered. Over the past couple of months they have become a fixture on the city's streets.
"The pictures are so gross, but when you see it day after day you just get desensitized," said Staci Singer, a stockbroker for TD Waterhouse, as she stood on Water Street last week, a few feet from Falun Gong demonstrators. "I just wish they'd go away."
But the displays also elicit sympathy.
"At first I thought it looks like a performance, some kind of art theater," said Reinhard Kressner, a Berliner visiting New York, who was moved enough by a demonstration to sign a petition supporting Falun Gong. "This is about human rights. No one should suffer like this."
Falun Gong, which literally means "Law Wheel Cultivation," is a form of qigong, an ancient Chinese practice of breathing exercises. It is related to tai chi, and incorporates elements of Buddhism and other Eastern religions.
Falun Gong differs from most qigong practices in that it combines spiritual elements of moral self-improvement with some strange-sounding beliefs (practitioners believe that there is a wheel spinning in their bellies, expelling evil and attracting good) and an apocalyptic vision, said Maria Hsia Chang, a professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, who wrote a book about Falun Gong.
The practice is based on the writings of a former Chinese government clerk named Li Hongzhi, whose teachings inspired a huge following in China in the early 1990s. As the movement grew, the Chinese government cracked down, Chang said, perceiving in its popularity a threat to the central government's dominance.