HONG KONG - Two Chinese followers of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement have died in Chinese custody, a Hong Kong-based human rights group said on Thursday.
The Information Centre for Human Rights & Democracy in China said in a statement at least 74 Falun Gong adherents in China had died in detention since July last year.
It said 32-year-old Wang Huachen was beaten to death in the northeastern province of Liaoning. He was arrested on November 7 because he refused to give up the practice of Falun Gong.
Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, combines meditation and exercise with a doctrine loosely rooted in Buddhist and Taoist teachings. It first shocked Beijing with a 10,000-strong protest in April in 1999 and was banned in China later that year.
Zhao Jian, 19, was also beaten to death in Jilin province in northeastern China.
There was no immediate comment on the reported deaths from the Chinese government. It has acknowledged several deaths of Falun Gong supporters in custody, but said most resulted from pre-existing illness or were suicides.
Two more followers of the Falungong spiritual movement have died after maltreatment in Chinese police detention, a human rights group said Thursday.
The deaths bring to at least 74 the number of group members who are reported to have died in suspicious circumstances while in police custody since the Falungong was banned in July last year, according to the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy.
Wang Huachen, 32, a worker at the Jinhua Group in the city of Huludao in the northeastern province of Liaoning, jumped from a fourth storey window at a public security office on November 18 and later died in hospital, the center said.
Wang had been repeatedly beaten since being arrested on November 7 for his beliefs in the spiritual group in an effort to make him sign a written recantation of his belief in the spiritual group, the center said.
An official at the Jinhua Group confirmed to AFP that Wang had died, but was unaware of the circumstances of his death.
In another incident, Zhao Jing, 19, from Jilin in the northeastern province of Jilin, died after jumping from a police car in Hebei province, the center said.
She had been arrested along with several other Falungong members while travelling to Beijing.
Travelling companions told the center that Zhao only appeared to be slightly injured after she jumped from the car, but after the group was taken to a local police station in Hebei, the group heard Zhao's screams and police beating her in an adjoining room.
Zhao's arrest and attempted escape occurred on November 23, while police told her family on November 26 that she died from serious injuries while jumping from the police car, the center said.
Relatives who saw her body said Zhao appeared to have been beaten, while police cremated the corpse before Zhao's father could view his daughter for the last time, the center said.
A spokesman with the Public Security Bureau of Jilin city denied to AFP that the case of Zhao Jing existed.
China's communist government sees the Falungong as the biggest threat to its one-party rule since the 1989 Tiananmen democracy protests and banned the movement in July 1999.
Members of the spiritual group follow the Buddhist-inspired teachings of their exiled guru Li Hongzhi, who advocates clean living and group morning exercises that involve traditional Chinese breathing routines.
Some 450 members have received prison sentences of up to 18 years, more than 600 have been sent to mental hospitals, 10,000 have been placed in labor camps and another 20,000 locked up in temporary detention centers, according to the rights center.
Chris Mikula, The Ottawa Citizen / Lucy Zhou practises Falun Gong at the Chinese Community Centre in Ottawa, yesterday. KunLun Zhang, a 60-year-old Canadian citizen formerly from Montreal, has been sentenced to three years in a forced-labour camp in China for performing Falun Gong exercises in a public park.
Chinese President Jiang Zemin made a gross miscalculation by banning Falun Gong in July 1999, instantly transforming a politically innocuous meditation movement into a genuine threat to the Communist regime's stranglehold on China, a new book by an American writer says.
The brutal crackdown was expected to wipe out the movement within a few weeks. But by tapping a new spiritual hunger among well-educated Chinese professionals and transplanting itself globally via the Internet, Falun Gong avoided the fate of other banned activities and -- almost by accident -- galvanized millions of people in China and around the world in opposition to Beijing's oppressive policies.
In Falun Gong's Challenge to China, New York author Danny Schechter first recounts the unremarkable origins of Falun Gong in the early 1990s as one of many modern Qigong practices derived from Buddhist teachings and rooted in traditional Chinese medicine. Then, in tracing Falun Gong's rising popularity in the late 1990s, he identifies the fateful series of events last year that prompted China's government to launch its propaganda war and police-state persecution against practitioners.
The campaign appears destined to backfire at home and on the international stage.
The issue is now drawing attention in this country because KunLun Zhang, a 60-year-old Canadian citizen formerly from Montreal, has been sentenced to three years in a forced labour camp in China for performing Falun Gong exercises in a public park. His daughter LingDi, a University of Ottawa student, has appealed to the Canadian government for help, but China has refused requests by Foreign Affairs officials in Beijing to visit Mr. Zhang.
Meanwhile, there's a rising chorus of opposition to the Falun Gong crackdown from human rights organizations around the world and signs that some countries -- such as Britain -- are prepared to push again for a United Nations resolution criticizing China's human rights record.
"China was completely unprepared for this," says Mr. Schechter, author of several books on human rights and an Emmy award-winning broadcaster. "This whole resistance thing has spread globally. Falun Gong doesn't really have a political character in the normal sense, but as China pushes them China is politicizing them."
Mr. Schechter, who describes himself as a "skeptic" toward claims by somepractitioners that Falun Gong has helped heal their physical ailments, says the meditation exercises and simple lessons for living promoted by Falun Gong founder Li Hongzhi -- chiefly adherence to the principles of "truth, compassion and forebearance" -- "are no more perplexing than many supernatural belief systems and New Age-type practices in the United States."
But what makes the story of Falun Gong unique in China's history, argues Mr. Schechter, is the speed with which its popularity has grown and the timing of that phenomenon. The emergence of Falun Gong coincided with the rise of the Internet -- an instant means of communicating over vast distances -- and a new demand for spiritual rootedness in an era of social upheaval.
"This thing starts in 1992 -- relatively recently -- and Li Hongzhi teaches it personally himself for only two and a half years," says Mr. Schechter. "And then the thing spreads dramatically in China to the point where government studies estimate that between 75 and 100 million people are involved. Many of the people who get involved are people in the party structures, including the wives of ministers. So the thing is very, very popular.
"At the same time there's a major transformation under way in China from a rigid, state-controlled, party-dominated culture to a more market-driven, open economy and society," he adds. "The party and the old apparatus is trying to maintain its control in this emerging capitalist arena. And this has created a number of stresses, including fear and hostility on the part of the government to the democratization of China."
Mr. Schechter says "there's a lot of irony in this" campaign against Falun Gong because its practitioners were "not against the government in China, they were not even criticizing the government."
Unlike the pro-democracy protesters whose movement was violently crushed at Tiananmen Square in 1989, and the underground groups that continue that fight today, Mr. Schechter says people practising Falun Gong are focused on self-improvement rather that broad social change, personal growth rather than politics.
But in April 1999, according to Mr. Schechter, a single derogatory article about Falun Gong in a state-sponsored magazine for teenagers sparked the bitter conflict that now grips Chinese society.
In the article, scientist He Zuoxiu gave voice to the view among mong many party officials that Falun Gong and other meditation practices represented a reversion to superstitious beliefs that ran counter to Communist doctrine.
The response was a demonstration by several thousand Falun Gong practitioners outside the magazine's offices in the city of Tianjin, which turned bloody when riot police beat the demonstrators and arrested 45.
That led to larger protest in Beijing on April 25, 1999, during which an estimated 15,000 Falun Gong supporters gathered for a peaceful "appeal" for a formal retraction of the derogatory message about their practice.
"Nobody had ever seen anything like this before," says Mr. Schechter. "But these people are not like the Tiananmen Square protesters: they're not kids, they're not carrying any placards, there's no posters, no slogans, no songs. They're standing stoically, reading books. It's not political. It's simply an appeal against this grievance."
Nevertheless, the size of the crowd made a strong impression on Mr. Jiang, the Chinese president. At the same time, says Mr. Schechter, leaders of other Qigong practices were complaining to Beijing that Li Hongzhi's policy of offering free Falun Gong sessions -- while limiting profits to sales of books outlining the principles of the practice -- was undercutting their business.
"So they ban this thing," says Mr. Schechter. "And everybody figures it's over because the government is very powerful, the army, police, you know. But guess what? For over a year and a half now, there's been resistance of a kind they've never seen before in the 50-year history of the People's Republic of China. There's never been anything like this kind of non-violent resistance in the heart of Beijing and 30 other cities in the country, persisting over months. The thing they didn't anticipate was that Falun Gong had gone global."
From dozen outposts around the world -- including Ottawa -- where Falun Gong is practiced by immigrants from China and a growing number of non-Chinese participants, resistance within China is being fostered and maintained despite the deaths of close to 100 people and the imprisonment of tens of thousands of others.
Falun Gong practitioners within China "now realize there are some things called human rights, which they never would have asserted before, and that those human rights are being violated," says Mr. Schechter.
"And a lot of the Chinese people being drawn to it overseas aren't the old ladies and retirees in tennis shoes. They're the young PhDs and chemists and scientists and engineers who are looking for some sort of spiritual dimension in their lives which connects them to their native country. So you have some of the best and the brightest of China drawn to this.
"The idea that this is a cult of wackos makes no sense," says Mr. Schechter.
"Many of them are working for big corporations and what have you. You can't just demonize them."
Every morning at 7 a.m., Hong Kong civil servant Hui Kwok-hung can be found in his local park, practising the slow motion exercises and deep breathing that have become synonymous with the spiritual movement Falungong.
Across the border in mainland China, where Falungong has been banned and denounced by President Jiang Zemin as a heretical cult, Hui could be thrown in jail for admitting he is a follower.
The movement continues to operate legally in Hong Kong. But discreet pressure from the authorities has caused the numbers of public practitioners to dwindle in recent months.
Hui is among those that refuse to bow to Beijing and he maintains that the benefits of following the group's teachings far outweigh any risk involved.
"The benefit of living this way is that you will have a standard to measure your behaviour and actions; truthfulness, benevolence and forbearance," he says, outlining the tenets of Falungong's US-based founder, Li Hongzhi.
"By so doing, you will become a healthy person; you will have no worries in life; and you will achieve good relationships with your family, your friends, and your colleagues."
After two hours in Kowloon Park, Hui, 48, leaves for work in the Buildings Department, where he is chief engineer and, he tells AFP, an exemplary employee.
"Falungong dont get sick and they constantly seek ways to improve themselves," he says, adding that in the two-and-a-half years since he started practising the movement's exercises and breathing techniques he has not felt ill.
According to Li's teaching, each pose or movement during the exercises opens channels of qi, or energy, making practitioners feel stronger and healthier.
"Sometimes I get the symptoms of sickness," Hui says, "but I feel full of energy."
Falungong, which claims 70 million followers in mainland China and 100 million worldwide, was banned by Beijing in July 1999, three months after a demonstration of 10,000 followers in Beijing unnerved the authorities.
In the crackdown that has followed, a total of 72 Falungong adherents have died in police custody and tens of thousands more have been imprisoned, according to human rights groups.
The repression however has failed to wipe out a movement whose followers are convinced they have found a way to health and happiness.
Lu Jie, another Hong Kong follower, says her introduction to Falungong helped her overcome chronic insomnia and eczema.
"I had insomnia from the age of 17 until 34," she said. "I also had skin problems -- my fingers were swollen and blistered. Some days it was so bad, I could not wash my face without wearing rubber gloves."
Within days of starting to read Li's book, the Wheel of the Law, the eczema had started to clear up and she began to find sleeping much easier.
"At first I was sceptical -- I thought Falungong was for old people, not someone my age," she said.
Another member of Lu's group, which meets every day in a park opposite China's offices here, says a lump on her breast disappeared when she started following Li's teachings.
Such claims may invite scepticism. But, according to documents posted on Li's website, even China's own official research has shown that Falungong followers are healthier than the average population.
In 1998, when Beijing was still trying to get to understand what was behind the movement's rapid growth, Beijing carried out a survey of more than 12,000 followers across China.
The study concluded that they were less likely to be ill and that, when they did get ill, they recovered faster.
The researchers, who included doctors at some of Beijings top hospitals and universities, even estimated that Falungong was saving the state 3,790 yuan (dollars) a year in medical costs for each follower.
Now however Beijing has totally changed its tune, claiming that Falungong followers' blind faith in Li has led to thousands of them dying needlessly.
Despite China's crackdown, the Hong Kong authorities have so far ruled out any move to ban Falungong here. But its followers in the territory complain of spies, phone tapping, homes being broken into and other forms of harassment.
Lu says she cannot take her son to visit his grandparents in Beijing because she has been on a "blacklist" since going to the capital last year to appeal to Jiang to stop the persecution of Falungong.
"They have my name. A lot of us are facing this problem."
Wang Yaoqing said she had been arrested during a visit to Shenzhen, a town just across the border from Hong Kong.
Handcuffed and shackled, she was detained for five months without trial then finally sentenced to another three months.
If she tried to practice her exercises in prison the police would beat her. "Every day they tried to make me give up Falungong -- they even brought my father to tell me to give it up."
But Wang never lost her faith.
"I deeply believed that I didnt do anything wrong, that there is nothing wrong with being a good person."
"We didn't provoke this (persecution)," Lu says. "All we want is to be able to pratice in the parks in peace."
Prime Minister Jean Chretien, set to embark on a Team Canada trade mission to Beijing in February, appears to be on a collision course with human rights groups over China's crackdown against the practitioners of Falun Gong.
The trip, meant to highlight and extend Canada's budding business partnership with China, comes amid new claims that close to 100 Chinese have been killed and tens of thousands are being persecuted for participating in Falun Gong's meditation exercises and spiritual gatherings.
And Beijing's dismal human rights record -- always the dark cloud over Mr. Chretien's sunny promotion of trade with China -- will face particularly intense scrutiny during this trip because the imprisonment of a Canadian citizen has galvanized opposition in this country to the Chinese government's campaign against Falun Gong.
KunLun Zhang, 60, a sculpture professor and former Montrealer whose daughter LingDi attends the University of Ottawa, has been sentenced to three years in a Chinese labour camp for performing Falun Gong exercises in a public park.
"We want Canada to strongly urge the Chinese government to stop this brutal persecution," says Lucy Zhou, spokeswoman for Falun Gong in Ottawa and organizer of a Parliament Hill protest tomorrow aimed at pressuring the federal government to take a hard line on human rights during February's trade mission.
A request by Canadian Embassy officials in Beijing to visit Mr. Zhang was denied last week by the Chinese government on the grounds that he had entered the country using his Chinese passport.
According to a spokesman with China's embassy in Ottawa, Mr. Zhang "has engaged in the illegal activities of the Falun Gong cult and jeopardized the public order. The Chinese authorities are entitled to bring him to justice. No other country has the right to interfere."
Ms. Zhou says the Zhang case highlights a wide range of human rights abuses in China that should be raised during the Team Canada trip.
"We're not here to say whether Canada should or should not do trade with China," says Ms. Zhou. But she insists that the Liberal government's largely "backroom" approach to improving China's human rights record has produced "no concrete changes."
Amnesty International in Ottawa and the Montreal-based Rights & Democracy -- a federally mandated agency headed by former Chretien cabinet colleague Warren Allmand -- echo the view that time has run out on Canada's policy of "bilateral dialogue" with China on human rights.
While acknowledging that "nobody is saying No Trade with China," Carole Samdup of Rights & Democracy says "we are asking for a balance" between commercial deal-making and human rights advocacy.
"We believe that the carrot-and-stick policy does work, but this government has gone too far the one way."
Since 1997, Canada, Britain and a host of other Western nations have opted for direct, country-to-country dealings with China rather than leveraging the collective power of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights to push the Chinese government into implementing reforms.
Canada has spoken out occasionally against China's treatment of its citizens, and Foreign Affairs officials have charged specifically that Mr. Zhang's "human rights have been infringed upon by Chinese authorities."
Foreign Affairs spokesman Reynald Doiron said Canadian policy toward China is broadly guided by the fact that "we believe that engagement rather than isolation is more likely to bring about improvement." He said it isn't clear yet whether Canada will directly raise the Falun Gong issue or other human rights concerns with China in February, but he added: "If we follow the trend (of previous trade missions) we have no reason to believe it will not be raised."
He says ongoing bilateral talks with China have dealt with women and children's rights, the rights of the accused, the independence of the judiciary, as well as civil, political and minority rights.
But Ms. Samdup says Canada's diplomatic efforts toward improving human rights in China "is non-transparent, behind-the-scenes and non-reportable with no benchmarks." Above all, she argues, the policy "has not produced any results."
"We're all for dialogue," adds Amnesty International spokeswoman Patricia Balfour. "But what's been lacking in the human rights dialogue is multilateral pressure at the same time. There is a concern that China's game is to divide and conquer and it seems to have managed to silence each of the governments individually."
Last month, the foreign affairs committee of the British Parliament released a report concluding that the bilateral approach "has so far delivered no meaningful results" and that the human rights situation in China has, in fact, worsened in the past three years.
China's critics claim that pressure is building around the world for countries to adopt a resolution at the annual UN meeting in Geneva in March to condemn China for ongoing human rights violations.
Ms. Samdup says the least the Canadian government should do prior to its trade mission is meet with human rights groups and make it clear to Beijing that abuses such as the Falun Gong persecution will be on the agenda in February.
An announcement about the Feb.9-18 Team Canada trip -- postponed from November because of the federal election -- was issued by Mr. Chretien just days after his government's victory on Nov. 27. In a message that made no mention of Canada's human rights objectives in China, Mr. Chretien noted that "the Chinese economy is currently a key element in our trade interests abroad" and touted the trip as "the best way to help Canadian companies make their mark in the global economy."
Ms. Balfour says Canada "can't continue going about its business as though these human rights violations are not taking place."
Earlier this year, a letter objecting to Canada's human rights policy toward China was sent to Mr. Chretien and signed by 23 cultural and human rights organizations. "The Chinese have learned that they can violate human rights with impunity as long as they open their markets to export-dependent countries such as Canada," said Thubten Samdup, president of the Canada Tibet Committee, at that time. "I believe that the people of Canada want another international image for this country."
BEIJING (AP) - China has sent a Chinese-Canadian Falun Gong follower to labor camp for three years, Canada said Friday, the first practitioner of the banned sect with foreign citizenship to be imprisoned.
Zhang Kunlun was sentenced Nov. 15 by a court in eastern Shandong province and is now in the Liuchangshan labor camp outside the provincial capital of Jinan, the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy said. He went on a hunger strike before he was sentenced.
Authorities have not permitted Canadian diplomats to visit Zhang, said embassy spokeswoman Jennifer May. She said Zhang entered China on a Chinese passport and officials here don't recognize his Canadian citizenship.
Zhang, 60, was a professor of sculpture at the Shandong Institute of Art who emigrated to Canada in 1989, obtained citizenship in 1995 and returned to China in 1996 to resume teaching, the Hong Kong Information Center said.
Falun Gong spread throughout China and in foreign communities during the 1990s, attracting millions of members with a mix of exercise, meditation and a hybrid philosophy drawn from Taoism, Buddhism and the ideas of its founder, Li Hongzhi.
Fearing the group's size and organizational strength, China's leaders banned Falun Gong in July 1999. Since then the Information Center estimates tens of thousands have been detained and thousands sent to labor camps. At least 72 followers have died in police custody by the Information Center's count.
In the latest deaths, Kong Qinghuang, deputy head of Ling'an township in southwestern Yunnan province, was arrested for protesting in Beijing on June 13, the center said. Kong, 33, refused food in detention and died on Sept. 3, it said.
A man who answered the phone at Ling'an township government offices confirmed Kong's death, but declined to provide details or give his name.
Another follower, 42-year-old Meng Qingxi, died Nov. 20 after being beaten by guards at a detention center, the Hong Kong group said. Meng, arrested Sept. 30 in his hometown of Mengjiacun in Shandong, was beaten after his family failed to pay a $234 fine, the center said.
Officials in the Mengjiacun government claimed no knowledge of the case.
China has acknowledged that some Falun Gong members have died in custody but denied that any deaths were caused by mistreatment.
What Is Falun Gong? See "Falun Gong 101", by Massimo Introvigne
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