Zhang Erping first heard about Falun Gong in 1994 at an introductory talk organised by the Chinese consulate in New York.
At the time, the Chinese Communist party was promoting the nascent spiritual movement abroad, along-side traditional cooking and handicrafts, as part of its "cultural propaganda to the west".
"I still have pictures of me with the Falun Gong masters and government officials in the consulate in New York," says Mr Zhang, who calls himself a volunteer but is widely regarded as the official spokesman and the second most prominent figure within the movement.
Today, 10 years after Beijing reversed its course and labelled the group an "evil cult", Falun Gong rivals the Dalai Lama as the party's number one enemy.
Falun Gong practitioners in the US estimate at least 100,000 adherents have been locked up in prison, psychiatric hospitals or "re-education through labour" camps in China's notorious gulag system since a vicious campaign to stamp it out began in July 1999. They say about 3,200 followers have been tortured to death while in custody, including more than 100 last year.
"In my view, the per-secution of Falun Gong amounts to genocide as defined in Article 2 of the Genocide Convention," says Edward McMillan-Scott, vice-president of the European parliament and a vocal campaigner for the rights of Falun Gong practitioners and political dissidents in China.
Just last month, Fu Ziming, a young postal worker on holiday with his colleagues at a Unesco World Heritage Site in south-east China, was arrested after a security camera caught him writing on a rock: "Falun Dafa is good; truthfulness-compassion-forbearance is good", referring to Falun Gong by its alternative -Chinese name.
Two days later he was dead, allegedly from torture at the hands of police and state security agents, and his entire family has since been taken into custody, according to Falun Gong activists. Local officials and law enforcement agencies who allegedly dealt with his case refused to talk to the Financial Times.
For most people outside China, Beijing's brutal response to what appears to be a harmless meditation and exercise group seems an extreme overreaction.
Even within the regime itself many senior officials disapprove of the disproportionate response and particularly the unsavoury tactics of the so-called "610 unit" - a dedicated anti-Falun Gong task force well-known for extra-judicial abuses and named after June 10 1999, the date it was created.
"The problem with the Communist party is they cannot admit any mistakes. Jiang Zemin [the former president] made the decision to crack down on the movement and he is still powerful behind the scenes so nobody can criticise the persecution," says Mr Zhang. "These days the party realises they probably made a mistake when they massacred the students in Tiananmen Square but they can never admit it, and it is the same with Falun Gong."
One single event is credited with provoking the crackdown and intense propaganda campaign that continue to this day.
On April 25 1999, more than 10,000 Falun Gong adherents descended on Zhongnanhai, the leadership compound bordering Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City in Beijing, to demand official recognition. For 12 hours they -meditated and performed breathing exercises before presenting their demands to government officials and then dispersing peacefully.
This display of organised mobilisation by a group that claimed to have as many as 100m adherents was too much for the autocratic Communist party, especially as it came on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen -massacre.
The challenge to authority represented by Falun Gong, which counted many government officials among its followers, was just too great at a time of wrenching social change, widespread job losses and econ-omic stagnation.
The government was also keenly aware of historical movements that shared many of the mystical tenets of Falun Gong, including the pseudo-Christian apocalyptic Taiping rebellion in the mid 19th century and the Boxer rebellion several decades later, both of which came very close to deposing ruling emperors.
To a western audience, the Falun Gong seems to share many attributes of a typical cult. Li Hongzhi, the messianic founder and spiritual leader of Falun Gong, publicly states that his breathing exercises can grant superhuman powers and that the world has been invaded by aliens who hope to take over human bodies and have corrupted humans by introducing them to modern science.
In 1998, a year before the show of strength in Beijing, the reclusive Mr Li fled to New York to avoid -persecution. This move bolstered suspicion among Chinese leaders that he was co-operating with western intelligence agencies that were trying to destabilise China. Some analysts say this fear of nefarious foreign influence is the most likely explanation for the government's severe reaction to the group.
Today the group is greatly diminished within China from its heyday in the late 1990s but, while it largely fails to appeal to western audiences, it remains hugely popular among expatriate Chinese and draws its strength from its sense of martyrdom and its virulent opposition to the Communist party.
Even within China, underground Falun Gong followers such as Mr Fu continue to challenge the government at great risk to themselves, just as subversive secret societies opposed to the emperor did in China for centuries.