China is continuing an aggressive crackdown on a spiritual movement called "Falun Gong" and its stunning number of followers, estimated at 70 to 100 million. Its leader, Li Hongzhi, now lives in the United States, where Falun Gong is also catching on.
Falun Gong is a mysterious mixture of martial arts, meditation and Buddhist teachings meant to help followers achieve a healthy body and soul. The Chinese government doesn't see it as a religion, but as a threat to Communist ways.
The clash between Falun Gong and the government began last April when 10,000 believers surrounded Communist Party headquarters demanding official status as a religion. This week, the government outlawed the group and followers say tens of thousands are being detained without food or water.
Li Hongzhi, 48, sometimes called "Master Li," lives in Queens, New York. On the surface, he's not at all the evil cultist China views him to be.
He granted his first U.S. television interview to CBS News Correspondent Sharyl Attkisson.
"I have never felt that I am a spiritual leader," says Li. "I taught Falun Gong for only three years, and I have stopped teaching for more than four years now."
Li denies that his movement is a cult. "Falun Gong does not have temples, churches, baptism, all kinds of religious formalities," he says. "People will go out to do the exercises every morning for half an hour or one hour and go back to work. That's why I say it is not a cult."
What are some of the basic tenets of Falun Gong?
"What I'm teaching them to do is that if you really want to practice cultivation well, you have to emphasize the importance of virtue. You have to have a higher standard of morality. That's how you can reach a higher realm. For instance, I teach them specifically, when you are hit, do not hit back. When you are sworn at, do not swear back. And when you do anything, you have to think about others first."
Why then is the Chinese government so intent on cracking down on Li and his followers?
"Maybe the biggest reason the government sees it as a threat is among these 100 million people [who practice Falun Gong], there are a considerable number of people who are Communists. The theory of the teaching is in conflict maybe with the Communist ideologies. I myself feel puzzled why the government feels so upset about this."
Li says he fears his family's safety in China. "I'm really very much concerned about it because my mother and my younger sister are still back in China. And the children of my sister are also in China and they are being harassed by the police."
Li and his followers have asked both the United Nations and the U.S. State Department to try to mediate the dispute with the Chinese government. So far, there has been no response to that request.
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