HONG KONG - Followers of the controversial Falun Gong spiritual movement plan to stage mass protests in Hong Kong on Wednesday demanding that China halts its crackdown against the group.
The protests will mark the second anniversary of a huge Falun Gong demonstration in Beijing which shocked China's leadership, and serve as a dry run for an array of demonstrations planned when Chinese President Jiang Zemin visits the territory in early May.
Falun Gong, which combines meditation and exercise with Buddhist and Taoist teachings, was subsequently banned on the mainland in July 1999 and denounced as an "evil cult," but the group remains legal in Hong Kong.
Spokesman Kan Hung-cheong said followers will hold mass outdoor exercises in Hong Kong and plan to deliver a petition to Chinese officials.
"We will have an exercise session and try to hand a petition letter to Chinese officials (in Hong Kong) to ask China to stop suppressing fellow practitioners on the mainland," Kan said on Monday.
"We want to tell people that our activities are merely a reaction to the crackdown on the mainland. We are not politically motivated and we will conduct our activities peacefully."
Wednesday is the second anniversary of a large demonstration when 10,000 Falun Gong members surrounded the Zhongnanhai leadership compound in Beijing.
Beijing has accused the movement of trying to overthrow the central government and has waged a relentless crackdown on it.
Human rights groups believe more than 100 Falun Gong members have died of police abuse and thousands are in labour camps, but the group has continued to irk Chinese leaders with small but frequent protests on the mainland.
Sporadic protests by the Falun Gong in Hong Kong also have irritated the Chinese leadership and plans by the group to stage demonstrations to coincide with Jiang's May 8-10 visit will likely raise more hackles in Beijing.
Hong Kong was guaranteed a high degree of autonomy after its return to China in mid-1997, but Beijing's increasingly strident attacks against the group have raised questions over how much say the former British territory will really have in its own affairs.
Analysts say the local government may come under strong pressure to curb the group in coming weeks to avoid embarrassing the Chinese leader, who will be in town to attend the 2001 Fortune Global Forum.
Last week, Chief Secretary Anson Chan said Jiang had assured the Hong Kong administration that it will be given full rein to decide how best to handle the Falun Gong.
However, rights groups everywhere are closely watching to see if freedoms in the territory would be upheld.
"In May, we will have some petition activities. We won't rule out the possibility of foreign members coming to Hong Kong to join us but we don't know how many will turn up," Kan said.
Overseas followers are expected to converge on Hong Kong about the time of Jiang's visit, which is just days ahead of the anniversary of the movement's founding on May 13.
Deputy police commissioner Dick Lee said on Sunday that Hong Kong was well-prepared to handle security arrangements during Jiang's visit.
The economic forum will also draw key political and business figures from around the world.
HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- Falun Gong practitioners in Hong Kong are planning to show their strength on the second anniversary of a large rally in Beijing that sparked the banning of the sect in China.
Falun Gong followers told CNN that their public practice in Central, Hong Kong, is to draw attention to the latest crackdown in China where they claim more than 190 people have been killed by authorities.
On April 25, 1999, more than 10,000 Falun Gong members staged a peaceful protest outside the Beijing compound where China's communist leaders live and work.
The size of the protest -- the largest since the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protest that was crushed by the army -- shocked the government.
Falun Gong practitioners had been seeking official status and a guarantee they could practise their beliefs free from interference. Instead they were outlawed in July, 1999.
On Wednesday up to 200 Falun Gong members are planning to practise in Hong Kong's Chater Gardens and have obtained a police permit for their demonstration.
Spokesperson Hui Yee Han told CNN that practitioners would also hand in a petition to China liaison authorities, asking Chinese President Jiang Zemin to stop the persecution of practitioners in China.
It's the second protest in as many weeks in Hong Kong. Last week followers staged practice demonstrations to highlight the United Nations resolution on human rights in China. The U.S. sponsored resolution failed.
Another Falun Gong demonstration is being planned for next month when Jiang visits Hong Kong for the Fortune Forum, a gathering of economic, business and political leaders.
Hui said, "We won't protest, we'll make a peaceful appeal".
"Because the persecution has been escalating this month, we want to do everything we can to speak for those who can't speak in China.
"So it is not we who are acting, just reacting to the brutal crackdown on Falun Gong practitioners," she said.
Falun Gong borrows from Buddhist and Taoist philosophies and uses mediation and exercise to channel forces and improve health.
Chinese authorities say the sect is "evil" and "an anti-humanity, anti-society, anti-science cult".
NEW YORK -- (Reuters) About 500 Falun Gong follower marched through New York's Chinatown for two hours on Saturday to commemorate their fellow supporters of the spiritual doctrine whom they say have died at the hands of the Chinese government.
The march also drew a number of counter-marchers who shouted slogans against Falun Gong, which China has banned as an "evil cult".
Tuesday will mark the second anniversary of the gathering of about 10,000 Falun Gong practitioners in front of Zhongnanhai, Beijing's equivalent of the White House, that led to the practice being banned in China in October 1999.
Spokesmen said Falun Gong was marching for human rights in China at an important time, just days after a United Nations commission voted not to debate China's human rights record further this year.
Falun Gong marchers, whose practice combines meditation and exercise with a doctrine loosely rooted in Buddhist and Taoist teachings, said Falun Gong was reaching out in Chinatown to counter Chinese government propaganda against their leader Li Hongzhi, now in exile in New York.
"We're here to help raise awareness in Chinatown so that people see the truth about Falun Gong. Many people here are threatened with loss of their jobs by their employers and the Chinese consulate for practicing," said Xingqi Qin, 31, of New York.
Men, women, and children -- most of Chinese origin -- wore yellow t-shirts emblazoned in red with the Chinese characters for Falun Gong and Falun Dafa, as it is also known. Many also carried banners reading "China: Stop the Persecution," in English and Chinese. Some banners listed the alleged death toll of Falun Gong followers in China -- 193.
As the parade wound slowly through Chinatown's narrow streets to Chinese music and amplified exercise instructions, it was met at each street corner by about 100 Chinese counter-marchers shouting "Save yourselves!" in Mandarin and Cantonese.
Some counter-marchers tried to drown out the Falun Gong music using megaphones to shout slogans against Li Hongzhi.
Others waved fire extinguishers in a taunt designed to remind onlookers of the five people who set fire to themselves in Beijing's Tiananmen square earlier this year who are alleged to have been Falun Gong followers.
"We can't stop them from marching, but we're here to tell them they're crazy for joining," said Steven Wong, 45, a freelance interpreter and member of the United Chinese Association of New York, the group that paid for the
anti-Falun Gong literature being handed out.
Falun Gong plans to hold a conference at New York's Sheraton Hotel on Sunday, and an all-night vigil on Tuesday in front of the Chinese Consulate.
The Falun Gong movement, which grew up as an avowedly nonpolitical spiritual organization, has launched a pointed, sophisticated effort to document human rights abuses and to challenge Chinese government propaganda targeting the movement.
The face that adherents turn to the public remains serenely focused on healthful exercise and ''truthfulness, benevolence, and forbearance'' advocated by founder Li Hongzhi, all of which are on display regularly in practitioners' silent meditation and exercise sessions around the world.
But in reaction to China's harsh campaign of repression, which the movement says has led to nearly 200 practitioners' deaths and tens of thousands of arrests, public demonstrations of technique, such as one held Tuesday in Harvard Square, now are accompanied by color pictures of wounds inflicted by Chinese police, testimony of victims, and petitions calling on ''all kind-hearted people and governments to help stop this persecution.''
Last week, the organization also released an analysis of a film produced by the Chinese Central Television, which appeared to poke gaping holes in government reports that Falun Gong was behind a group suicide in central Beijing in January.
Even as the United Nations Human Rights Commission declined for the eighth time Wednesday to criticize China, Falun Gong members and China scholars were showing their potential to revive international interest in abuses of human rights in China.
Adherents are typical of human rights campaigners who have put China on the spot over abuses of Tibetans and repression of pro-democracy students in recent decades: Teachers, scientists, students, artists. Young, middle-aged, elderly. Intense and committed.
China's leaders are so alarmed by the Falun Gong movement that they have vowed to wipe out the organization, which by some estimates has more than 100 million adherents on the mainland. In addition to the deaths, thousands have been sent to forced labor camps and hundreds more forced into psychiatric facilities, according to the US State Department and international human rights organizations.
The movement's central aim is ''cultivating mind and nature to increase moral standards,'' says Falun Gong activist Tianlun Jian, an economist who holds a doctorate and who works as a financial analyst in Boston. ''Truthfulness, benevolence, and forbearance are most important. Secondly is exercise, because by exercise you can feel peaceful.''
There is no mystery, scholars and political analysts say, about why the Chinese leadership has singled out Falun Gong from among the many movements in China that claim they can produce health benefits from new syntheses of Buddhism, Taoism, and ancient martial arts exercises. Falun Gong is growing very rapidly, and its membership within China may now
surpass that of the Communist Party. It is well organized. Its members are willing to stand up for it in the face of beatings and imprisonment. It is filling a spiritual void that the government has been unable to address.
Perhaps most worrisome to the geriatric communists who have dominated China for the past 20 years, Falun Gong bears striking similarities to movements that have arisen often in Chinese history when a tired, deteriorating regime nears its end.
After the failure of the Cultural Revolution, the radical movement of 1966-76 during which the founders of Chinese communism tried but failed to preserve their Maoist ideology, China lurched toward the more materialistic world view of senior leader Deng Xiaoping, a view captured in the Dengist slogan ''To get rich is glorious.''
Hardly were the old communal values laid to rest than deep social and economic fissures opened in society between those who coped readily with the new order and those who could not - or were revolted by the widespread corruption that accompanied it.
''China experienced spiritual directionlessness,'' said Chai-sik Cheng, professor of the sociology of religion at Boston University. ''Something was needed to fill in the emptiness.''
Interest burgeoned in new varieties of qi gong, a strain of spiritual theory dating back thousands of years, and in tai chi chuan, a meditation-in-motion therapeutic exercise with roots in martial arts.
In 1992, Falun Gong emerged, under the leadership of Li Hongzhi, described variously as former security guard and former clerk at a factory in northeast China. The new practice offered a more elaborate theory and philosophy than tai chi and was less fantastic and more rationalistic than qi gong.
Falun Gong was initially praised by Chinese officials, but officialdom soured as the organization grew and showed its broad appeal at demonstrations in major cities. Li moved to New York in 1998, then went underground - moves that a source within the movement said reflected a fear of assassination.
On April 25, 1999, 10,000 Falun Gong followers sat in at the entrance to the Chinese leadership's residential complex in Beijing to protest the treatment of their organization, shocking communist officials who had not believed such a demonstration could be staged on their doorstep without their foreknowledge.
The organization was outlawed July 22, 1999, and the campaign against it intensified, with the government asserting - but offering no proof - that 1,400 people had died as a result of a Falun Gong opposition to modern medical science.
Despite the drum beat of negative propaganda from Beijing, Falun Gong fits none of the broadly accepted criteria used to differentiate cults from other religions and spiritual practices. Members are not asked to give up money or possessions or to separate themselves from nonpractitioners. They are not asked to declare personal loyalty to Li or to Falun Gong. Instruction is free.
Falun Gong does focus on the limitations of Western medicine, but not to the extent that seriously ill people are discouraged from getting treatment. ''People in the sciences are very interested in Falun Gong,'' says Merle Goldman, professor of Chinese intellectual history at Boston University. ''All the people I've met who believe in it are scientists, engineers, quantitative economists.... The most important part to them is the exercises. They feel it gives them good health and a good mental state.''
What Is Falun Gong? See "Falun Gong 101", by Massimo Introvigne
"Falun Gong 101. Introduzione al Falun Gong e alla sua presenza in Italia" (in italiano), di Massimo Introvigne
FALUN GONG UPDATES
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