David Bowie's little China Girl is swaying to a new spiritual beat.
When the British rock legend rolls into Vancouver's GM Place tonight, he'll be joined by The Friends of Falun Gong. At the behest of his long-time drummer, Bowie has thrown his support behind the controversial Chinese meditation movement, allowing its supporters to set up information booths at all concert stops on his current Reality tour.
Sterling Campbell, a 39-year-old American who has previously drummed for Duran Duran, Soul Asylum and Cyndi Lauper, has become a worldwide campaigner for the movement, which is outlawed in Mainland China. He claims the group's meditation exercises have saved him from the ravages of his formerly excessive rock 'n' roll lifestyle.
"I was in this trap," says Campbell, who discovered Falun Gong five years ago when he stumbled across a group practising their exercises in a New York park. "I was an alcoholic, doing drugs and smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. I had this huge ego and was very promiscuous. I wanted to be a rock star."
Having dabbled in tai chi, homeopathy and various New Age therapies, Campbell was fascinated by the Falun Gong group, but still skeptical.
"I had a suspicious mind about everything," Campbell recalls, speaking from his Vancouver hotel room on Thursday. "There was no pressure. I just saw some people practising. I went back the next day and started asking a lot of questions. One of the women gave me some books to read. I realized this is what I was looking for."
Founded in 1992 by martial arts master Li Hongzhi, Falun Gong draws from traditional Taoist and Buddhist systems of meditation. Practitioners perform five gentle exercises, similar to Qigong, to improve mind and body. The movement, based on the precepts of truthfulness, benevolence and forbearance, claims to have 70 million followers in China, despite it being banned since 1999, plus 30 million more around the world.
The Chinese government says Falun Gong is a dangerous cult that is trying to overthrow Communist rule. Since it was banned, human rights groups say that Chinese authorities have tortured and killed hundreds of practitioners. Thousands of others, they allege, have been sent to labour camps or mental institutions. Last year, six members of the movement filed a genocide lawsuit in Belgium against China's former president Jiang Zemin. Earlier this week, the reclusive Falun Gong founder appeared in a rare TV appearance to accuse the Chinese leaders in Beijing of being "jealous" of the group's popularity.
Campbell, who was himself detained for 30 hours and allegedly beaten by Beijing police during a pro-Falun Gong protest in Tiananmen Square two years ago, says the crackdown is appalling.
"It would be like George Bush outlawing yoga and sentencing those who use it to death," Campbell says.
From the "bottom of my heart," he swears Falun Gong has done nothing but help him become a more honourable person.
"About three weeks into the practice, it just hit me one day. I didn't feel the cravings for these things any more. There was a lot of stumbling, but I just felt more and more able to tackle things like jealousy and competitiveness. I was giving my seat to other people on the train and stuff. At first, I was like 'huh?' It's hard to explain, but it's deep. You have to do a lot of self-examination."
It didn't take much convincing to bring Bowie around to the cause. "I just asked him and he said 'sure,' explains Campbell, adding that Bowie is not a Falun Gong practitioner or member. "His thing is with the Tibetan situation. So he understands the brutality and oppression happening in China."
Although thrilled by the rock star's support, some of the local Friends of Falun Gong were puzzled at first. Sadie Kuehn, a founder of the B.C. chapter, explains with a laugh: "A few practitioners, me included, were saying 'Who is this David Bowie?' "