Local devotees of a quasi-religious movement are disappointed Ottawa is doing little to address their claim that Chinese officials in Canada are spreading lies about their faith.
"The issue deserves more attention. They should do more," said Tom Ozimek, an Edmonton practitioner of Falun Gong, a set of spiritual beliefs declared a threat to public order by the Chinese government in 1999.
Ozimek, who claims Chinese officials handed out anti-Falun Gong pamphlets in Edmonton, isn't alone in his concern.
At a recent Toronto press conference, lawyer Rocco Galati, who represents the practitioners, said Chinese consular officials labelled Falun Gong followers as members of a "misguided and evil sect."
Foreign Affairs said if people feel threatened in Canada, they should report the matter to their local police.
"That's a normal course of action," said department spokesman Marie-Christine Lilkoff.
Police spokesman Dean Parthenis said there's been no complaints to date. Ozimek said Falun Gong followers are still considering going to police.
But Huixia Chen, a Chinese immigrant in Edmonton and Falun Gong devotee, said Ottawa should do more to protect relatives of people in Canada such as her sister, who has been threatened by police in China for following Falun Gong.
"If they can help, that would be great," she said.
Foreign Affairs said it raises human rights concerns with China on a regular basis.
"We believe dialogue is important to give us access to influence the Chinese," Lilkoff said.
The Canadian International Development Agency gave $67.1 million to China for the fiscal year 1998-99.
The Chinese consulate in Calgary didn't return Sun phone calls.
Completing the first tit-for-tat exchange between Beijing and the new Bush administration, China has rejected United States criticism of its "so-called crackdown" on the Falun Gong spiritualist movement.
"China demands the US Government to respect the stand of the Chinese Government on the Falun Gong issue and stop interfering in China's internal affairs on the excuse of Falun Gong, so as to avoid harming Sino-US relations," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao said.
The state-run Xinhua news agency quoted Mr Zhu as rejecting US calls for freedom of religion, belief and conscience in relation to Falun Gong.
The group was not a religion but "is actually an anti-human, anti-society and anti-science evil cult that keeps cheating and harming the people and has seriously endangered the society", the report said.
"Any government with a sense of responsibility will not adopt a laissez-faire policy on such an evil cult," Mr Zhu said.
Describing the Chinese Government ban on Falun Gong as lawful, he said the US criticisms were totally unacceptable.
A US State Department spokesman highlighted China's recent crackdown on the movement after talks this week between US Secretary of State Colin Powell and the outgoing Chinese ambassador to Washington, Li Zhao Xing.
Meanwhile, Beijing police in Tiananmen Square maintained high levels of surveillance yesterday for Falun Gong followers.
Large numbers of police patrolled in and outside the square after the self-immolation of one follower of the group on Tuesday and similar suicide attempts by four others in the middle of the square.
Few Falun Gong followers were seen being apprehended by police on the square yesterday morning, as security forces continued to question Chinese people entering the square and inspect identification papers and bags.
"I haven't seen very many arrests on the square during the holiday," a worker on the square said of China's week-long Lunar New Year holiday.
"In China you have freedom of belief, but your beliefs should never go against the national government," he said.
Despite the few flashes of protest, the intense security enforced calm on the square. Families, couples and groups of visitors strolled and snapped photographs.
The scene contrasted with last Lunar New Year, when police kicked and pummelled protesters to quash outbursts of defiance in a scene of violence and chaos since repeated on major public holidays.
The Chinese Government estimates the number of Falun Gong followers at 2.1million, while the group claims several times that many. Since the banning, thousands of followers have been detained and the movement claims more than 120practitioners have been tortured to death. An estimated 5000 to 10,000 remain in custody throughout China.
The movement, which does not claim to be a religion, has no clergy or formal places of worship. It also denies it is an organisation, let alone a political movement, even though protest has become its most potent activity.
The turning point came on April 25, 1999, when 10,000 followers ringed the Zhongnanhai leadership compound in Beijing to protest at attempts to curb its practices. The movement was formally outlawed as an "evil cult" three months later.
The ghastly scene in Beijing's Tiananmen Square this week in which five people set fire to themselves has sharply refocused attention on the activities of the Falun Gong movement.
While it is not proven that the people involved were adherents of the spiritual movement, the self-immolations came as the government stepped up its cult-busting campaign against Falun Gong, labelling it a "social cancer". What is certain is that Falun Gong has come to present an exquisite dilemma for the Chinese Government. In the eyes of some, it also poses the most serious threat to the integrity of the communist state in many years.
"In this 'political struggle', I see an image of a giant fighting a ghost - you know it is there and haunting you, but you don't exactly know where to attack or when it will attack you," says Xiaobo Lu, assistant professor of political science at Barnard College, linked to New York's Columbia University. "Falun Gong has created for the Chinese Communist Party a damned-you-do, damned-you-don't dilemma.
"Had there not been a crackdown, the Falun Gong could have become a huge organised force that some day might be at odds with the government, but as the government tries to suppress the group, it has become a real opposition and more political than ever," he says.
What terrifies the regime about the Falun Gong is not so much its beliefs - a melange of ideas, such as the wheel of energy in a believer's tummy, which to many beggars belief. What scares the government is the fact that it has been so successfully organised and has eluded the considerable efforts of Chinese authorities to exterminate it.
Falun Gong first came to prominence in China in the 1990s. The movement's eclectic blend of religious beliefs with meditation techniques found widespread appeal in a China, where ordinary people were no longer certain what to believe in.
It was not an isolated search for meaning.
There was an upsurge in interest in all forms of religion as the influence of the party waned and free market reforms were put in place.
Falun Gong also found followers overseas, especially after its founder, Li Hongzhi, 50, a former government grain clerk, went into self-imposed exile.
He has lived in the United States since 1998. Falun Gong has established solid bases in Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Falun Gong has also posed a lesser dilemma for foreign governments that have found themselves, if not defending the group itself, at least defending its right to expression and practice - especially when their own nationals have been detained by Chinese authorities.
Unlike democracy movements, Falun Gong (also known as Falun Dafa or the Wheel of the Law) has attracted a wide cross-section of ordinary Chinese, making it difficult for the authorities to target.
"Unlike democracy movements," says Dr Lu, "Falun Gong has a far more diverse social following ranging from well-educated young scientists to retired workers and poor farmers."
Evidence of its sometimes violent persecution by the authorities has earned China the wide opprobrium of the international community.
Thailand will not object to an upcoming international congregation of the Falungong movement in Bangkok, as long as it is conducted without an ulterior motive to attack China and if it poses no security threat to the kingdom, Deputy Foreign Ministry spokesman Rathakit Manathat said.
Nevertheless, the security agency responsible would need to conduct a check on the background of the planned gathering due here in April, he said.
"If it is held within the purview of domestic law and it is clear that [the organisers] will not use Thailand as a staging ground to criticise China, the Thai government would probably have no objection," he said.
He acknowledged that a number of Falungong practionners in Thailand, since the country allows citizens to exercise complete freedom of religious association, he said.
There are currently around 1,000 followers in Thailand. "As far as [Falungong] is concerned, their religious expression in Thailand is not against our law and constitution," he said.
The official response by the Thai authorities comes amid growing restlessness in Bejing towards the movement that claims millions of followers.
Beijing outlawed the movement in July 1999, five years after its leader, Li Hongzhi, founded the group.
Li, the most wanted man by the Chinese authorities, resides in New York while his brother-in-law Sun Senlun is a coordinator in Thailand.
Last Monday, Chinese Public Security Minister Jia Chunwang called on the incumbent Interior Minister, Banyat Bantadthan, and the Deputy Foreign Minister, Sukhumbhand Paribatra, to prevent the Bangkok April meeting from going ahead. Bejing has branded Falungong an "evil sect", which poses a security threat to the Communist Party.
However, Thailand plans allow international participants to enter the country in accordance with immigration law, Rathakid said.
Meanwhile, a group of foreign Falungong practioners have recently been distributing leaflets condemning the Chinese government in Chinatown, in the Yaowarat district. The leaflets invited interested people to attend Falungong gatherings, which are held in many of Bangkok's public parks.
The United States has renewed its condemnation of the Falun Gong crackdown as Beijing authorities maintained some of the tightest security in a decade to prevent sect protests.
For the third consecutive day thousands of plainclothes and uniformed police encircled Tiananmen Square to prevent a repeat of Tuesday's suicide attempt by five protesters, in which one woman died.
US Secretary of State Colin Powell told ambassador Li Zhaoxing that the sect should be treated with tolerance and in accordance with the rule of law. It was his first meeting with a foreign envoy since taking office.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the US was saddened by the attempted group suicide. "The actions that led to such results are tragic for all of the people involved, most directly those who are injured and their families," Mr Boucher said.
Asked whether Mr Powell, during his meeting with Mr Li, called for the release of imprisoned Falun Gong members, Mr Boucher said: "The message that Secretary Powell delivered was one of tolerance and rule of law."
Commenting on the suicide attempt, Mr Boucher said: "We note the statements by Falun Gong spokesmen that Falun Gong teachings oppose violence and suicide.
"And I would renew our condemnation of China's crackdown on Falun Gong. I would call on China to release all of those detained or imprisoned for peacefully exercising their internationally recognised rights to freedom of religion, freedom of belief and freedom of conscience."
Beijing said the US comments on its treatment of Falun Gong were interference in its internal affairs. "China demands the US Government respect the stand of the Chinese Government on the Falun Gong issue," a Foreign Ministry spokesman said. He said further criticism would harm bilateral ties.
Many people were stopped from entering Tiananmen Square by lines of police demanding identity cards yesterday. Officers checked bags and patted people down, and in some cases demanded that people publicly condemn the spiritual movement before allowing them into the square. On the huge concourse undercover officers approached any dawdling tourists and demanded to know what they were doing and if they were Falun Gong practitioners.
But unlike the previous few days when several isolated group members managed to breach security to make brief protests, there was little sign of activity.
Since the group was banned in July 1999 it has frequently been able to muster large protests in the square on key dates, and this time last year several thousand found their way into Tiananmen Square.
Mr Boucher said General Powell had reaffirmed to Mr Li, who is shortly to return to Beijing, many of the points on China policy that he had outlined before a Senate hearing last week.
Mr Powell said the US did not see China as an inevitable foe, that there were areas where the two countries could co-operate and areas where there would be differences.
"The secretary also made clear that we have a one-China policy, and that we will follow the communiques and our other obligations with regard to China, as well as our obligations to meet the defensive needs of Taiwan," Mr Boucher said.
The communiques the US and China have agreed to over the years provide the framework within which the two countries conduct relations.
Mr Boucher said Mr Powell and Mr Li had a brief discussion of the missile defence issue. The administration of new US President George W. Bush looks favourably on the establishment of a missile defence, a stance China, among other countries, strongly opposes.
HONG KONG - An exiled Chinese writer who won last year's Nobel literature prize plans to visit Hong Kong next week, and pro-Beijing figures have warned him to avoid talk of politics during his stay.
Gao Xingjian, the first Chinese-born Nobel laureate for literature, is visiting starting Monday to lecture at two universities in the Chinese territory. But his criticisms of China's communist regime are making some in Hong Kong wary.
``There is no reason to object to him if he is coming here to talk about writing, but if he would accuse the Chinese government of oppressing him, that would be wrong,'' said Xu Simin, Hong Kong's representative to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, a powerful mainland advisory body.
``Hong Kong is a financial and trading center, not a political center, not an anti-China political base,'' Xu said Thursday.
The visit comes amid a debate over free expression in Hong Kong touched off by a meeting of the Falun Gong meditation sect, which is outlawed in China. The group's leaders used the meeting in Hong Kong to criticize mainland China's crackdown on their movement.
``If we invite people who will attack China, such as controversial figures like Falun Gong ... and if they have a mission or political motive, that would be trouble for us,'' said Ma Lik, secretary general of Hong Kong's biggest pro-Beijing political party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong. Ma also is a local representative of the mainland National People's Congress.
But Hong Kong retains free speech guarantees - a holdover from British colonial days - and such comments stir outrage among critics of China and pro-democracy campaigners.
``Can you ask a writer to share his literary experience but only to share the technique and not the content?'' asked Han Dongfang, a Hong Kong-based Chinese dissident persecuted after the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement.
Gao once burned his writings to keep them from falling into the wrong hands during Mao Tse-tung's brutal 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, and he spent five years doing hard labor.
He fled China in 1987 and renounced his Communist Party membership after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. He has vowed never to return to mainland China and now lives in Paris.
His play ``Fugitives'' was set against the background of the Tiananmen slaying, and China's government has banned many of his works.
Gao disavows any political interests. But the Leisure and Cultural Services Department recently retreated from a statement made in October by its director that he would be invited to a local literature festival.
The department insists politics played no role. Human rights activists disagree.
Beijing calls much of Gao's work too radical, and when Gao last year won the Nobel literature prize, the foreign ministry characterized the award as a political maneuver.
``There is obviously political pressure,'' said Andrew Cheng, the opposition Democratic Party's spokesman for cultural affairs. ``The Hong Kong government wouldn't have the guts to invite Gao.''
What Is Falun Gong? See "Falun Gong 101", by Massimo Introvigne
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