He's been tortured in China for his faith, but today at The Forks HuaiDong Wang will openly celebrate his beliefs with other practitioners of Falun Gong.
"After learning Falun Gong, I understood the meaning of my life, the meaning of all life in the universe and I felt I understood how my life should be," the former computer engineer says through a translator.
"The spiritual practice is great and I want to continue and I want more people to know about it because it has great benefit,"
Members of Winnipeg's Falun Gong community celebrate the 21st anniversary of its founding with meditation, origami, exercises and music, 1 to 4 p.m. today at the tower atrium at The Forks Market. Local flautist Xiao Nan Wang performs two original compositions as part of the celebrations.
Founded in China in 1992 by Li Hongzhi, Falun Gong is a spiritual practice that combines meditation, physical exercises and a philosophy of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance. The practice has grown quickly in China and beyond, and claims 100 million followers worldwide.
Winnipeg adherents are loosely organized, numbering about 50, meeting weekly in parks or universities, depending on the weather, to do the five exercises specific to Falun Gong, explains University of Manitoba social work professor Maria Cheung.
"I'm now practising Falun Gong because I'm looking for the rich tradition of Chinese culture," explains Cheung, 56, who says she's experienced relief from her allergies since doing the exercises and the meditation.
"I was raised in Hong Kong under colonization and I missed Chinese culture."
More a religious practice than a religion, Falun Gong has no temple, specific worship rituals, institutional structure or formal membership, says Cheung, whose professional research includes interviewing Falun Gong practitioners now living in Canada who were persecuted in China.
"It depends on how one defines religion," she says. "Western scholars see it as a religion because it includes spirituality. In China, religion is institutional."
In June 1999, former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin began a brutal suppression of Falun Dong, detaining thousands in prisons and labour camps.
Falun Gong has been labelled as a sect or a cult, but Cheung says those terms are not accurate, and points to a ruling made two years ago by the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, which found Falun Gong was a creed as defined in the human rights code.
Although the Chinese government is much more tolerant of religion than it once was, any group without official sanction risks running afoul of the government, says a professor of East Asian religions.
"When I look at Falun Gong, they like to say they're not a political organization, but I know the Chinese government sees them as politically motivated," says Albert Welter of the University of Winnipeg.
He says when Falun Gong practitioners do their exercises in public, it seems innocuous to Western eyes, but the Chinese government views it differently.
After taking up Falun Gong in his native China, Wang was arrested twice -- he prefers to describe it as kidnapped -- detained in what he describes as a brainwashing centre, and only released when his wife applied for him to come to Canada with her.
"There is a lot of suffering and pain, for me and for my family members. The persecutors used my family to break me down and it saddened me," says Wang, 39, who now works as a factory labourer in Winnipeg.
"I want to expose the crime the Chinese government is doing."
While on a research trip to China, Cheung saw signs of the forced labour camps, but says many Chinese citizens, as well as those now in Canada, feel powerless to stop the persecution.
"The victims of the persecution are not just the people being beaten up, but the bystanders, who don't know what is going on."
Even talking about the persecution, which has been widely reported over the years, can have consequences in Canada, says Cheung.
"When I say it, it makes me vulnerable because I'm being ostracized."
Despite that danger, both Cheung and Wang believe speaking out for their fellow believers is important and necessary and hope their celebration at The Forks can raise awareness of the human rights abuses in China.
"I chose to come to Canada and I choose to speak the truth," says Cheung.
"I'm not seeking power or fame. I just think people should know what's going on."