WASHINGTON - Supporters of the leader of China's mystical Zhonggong group have called on President George W. Bush to intervene in his appeal for political asylum in the United States.
Zhang Hongbao, 46, was granted the right to remain in the United States in September, but his asylum request was turned down and he remains in detention in the US Pacific territory of Guam pending appeal.
Zhonggong activists already in the United States called on Bush in a letter to free Zhang from protective custody and to discount claims by China that he is a criminal.
"Your Excellency Mr President Bush, (the) freedom of Zhang Hongbao is counting on you!" said group deputy leader Yan Qing Xin in the letter addressed to Bush from the group's New York offices.
"His thirty-eight million followers and I are placing our hopes on the new administration." China has actively sought Zhang's repatriation and last year gave the US administration of former president Bill Clinton a file accusing him of several rapes since he founded the group in 1988.
Human rights campaigners have alleged that Zhang's detention is an attempt to dodge the political fallout of the case, and its potential impact on US-China relations.
His next action on an appeal of the asylum ruling is due on Friday.
The US Justice Department refuses to comment on individual cases, but says Zhang was granted protection by virtue of a law which grants refuge to people deemed likely to face torture in their homelands.
Officials say he could be at risk if he is released from protective detention.
If the asylum appeal fails, Zhang will be effectively trapped in the United States, as he will not have a green card needed to get employment.
The mystical Zhonggong movement, which Zhang founded, is similar to the banned Falungong group. Both are rooted in traditional Chinese martial arts exercises.
China has targeted such groups, fearful of their ability to mobilize thousands of followers in one of the few threats to the power of the Communist government.
China's mass coverage yesterday of Falun Gong members setting themselves alight in a suicide attempt on Tiananmen Square shows the Government's increasing desperation with a sect officials thought would disappear within a few months.
The Falun Gong has shown remarkable tenacity since it was banned in July 1999. The newspaper and television coverage of five Falun Gong members ablaze in the square marked a new stage in China's battle against the movement whose fight for recognition could impede Beijing's bid for the 2008 Olympic Games.
Beijing leaders thought the fight would be over in a few months by arresting the ringleaders and persuading the ordinary followers to recant, but the movement has mustered thousands of believers who display their faith in public and thus court arrest and imprisonment.
The official media attacked the sect as evil, unscientific and causing its members to die by refusing medical treatment but gave limited coverage to the arrests, interrogations and detentions.
This changed on the weekend before the Lunar New Year, when Focal Point, an investigative programme that runs each day after the main evening news, carried footage of sect members being arrested in Tiananmen Square and interrogated.
"I have no name," one woman told police. "I am no longer a person. I came from heaven."
Tuesday's television coverage had the same message - of people not merely misguided but mad and out of their minds, a danger to themselves and to society.
The graphic TV images drew gasps from viewers, with mainland media quoting "ordinary people" denouncing the sect and its leader Li Hongzhi. This campaign aims to stifle sympathy for the movement among the public angry at the level of police oppression, by presenting it as a cult as dangerous as the Aum Shinri Kyo in Japan, the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, and the pseudo-Christian movement in Uganda which resulted in up to 1,000 deaths.
It aims to distance Falun Gong even farther from the rest of society, so that family and friends of practitioners will not want to help them or conceal their activities from the authorities.
For Beijing, the sect is not isolated but part of an international campaign against China, involving the United States. In an editorial released by Xinhua on Tuesday, Beijing said such "anti-China forces" were doomed to fail.
"A Western country also seized the opportunity to link this incident to the human rights issue and made unwarranted charges," Xinhua said, referring to US condemnation of the crackdown.
"But it is impossible for them to accomplish what the anti-China force failed to do. We seriously warn the anti-China force in the West that their attempt to use the cult to cause chaos in China is doomed to fail and draw fire against itself," Xinhua said.
Behind this new intensity in the war is the Government's increasing rage at the persistence of Falun Gong and the fear that the crackdown is becoming an international issue that has the potential to torpedo its attempt to host the Olympic Games in 2008.
An Olympic evaluation committee will visit Beijing this month, when the movement is expected to stage protests to embarrass the Government. "Members of the sect are not afraid to die," said a teacher familiar with the movement. "Thousands live in Beijing, having lost their jobs, their incomes and often their families. They dare not go home."
HONG KONG - Pro-Beijing news media here attacked the Falun Gong spiritual movement on Wednesday, accusing it of attempting to subvert China's government and saying Hong Kong must not be used as a base for anti-China activities.
Media accused the meditation group of acting out of political motivation and attempting to embroil Hong Kong, a special territory retaining free speech guarantees since it was returned to Chinese sovereignty by Britain in 1997, in political controversy.
The attacks came a day after Chinese state media carried macabre footage of people in flames in what was described as an attempted group suicide by Falun Gong followers about a week ago. The group says its teachings prohibit any killing, including suicide, and maintains those who set themselves ablaze could not have been true adherents.
The Chinese government has outlawed Falun Gong as an ``evil cult'' and has sent thousands of its followers to prison and labor camps.
Falun Gong's ``pretense of being apolitical, non anti-government and independent of political bias has been stripped down,'' the semiofficial China News Agency quoted mainland China's representative office in Hong Kong as saying.
Despite the pro-Beijing warning, the territory's No. 2 official, Chief Secretary for Administration Anson Chan, said Wednesday the group can still organize lawful activities in Hong Kong.
``The government will act according to the rules, and we permit Falun Gong's activities in Hong Kong as long as they abide by the law,'' Chan said.
Falun Gong remains legal in Hong Kong and Macau, but pro-Beijing forces were outraged in January when Hong Kong officials let the group hold an international conference inside City Hall.
Falun Gong spokeswoman Sharon Xu rejected allegations that the group's activities were politically motivated. She also disputed claims that the group is conducting an anti-China subversion campaign, saying followers speak out against Beijing's crackdown only to help Falun Gong members now being oppressed on the mainland.
``The persecution concerns our own safety. We just want to say, 'Please stop this,''' Sharon Xu said. ``I don't see any political motivation behind it.''
The Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor said it considers the warning from mainland China's representative office ``a threat to the freedom and the autonomy'' of Hong Kong and ``runs the risk of undermining the 'One country, two systems''' principle.
HONG KONG - Hong Kong authorities are coming under increasing pressure from influential pro-Beijing sources here to curb the Falungong spiritual movement or even ban it all together.
The Hong Kong iMail reported Thursday that Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa had come under pressure "through various channels" to consider implementing proposed anti-subversion laws.
Secretary for Security Regina Ip Thursday said the group had become increasingly high profile in targetting the central government.
Although the group had not committed any crime, Ip said the security bureau was keeping a close eye on the group in Hong Kong.
Local pro-China businessmen and politicians rallied behind Beijing to call for the group to lose its registered status in Hong Kong, which would effectively outlaw it here.
A local member of China's National People's Congress standing committee, Tsang Hin-chi said although "they claim not to be a political group, in fact they are a political group confronting the mainland." The pressure on Hong Kong comes as Beijing steps up a propaganda assault against the group, swamping mainland television and newspapers with horrific images of five alleged Falungong members setting themselves alight last month in Tiananmen Square.
Beijing, threatened by the group's ability to mobilise thousands of members without warning and at will, banned the Falungong in July 1999 as an "evil cult".
But despite its attempts to stamp out the group, which combines traditional breathing and mediation exercises with Buddhist-inspired teachings, the Falungong has defiantly held regular protests.
The group continues to act freely in Hong Kong where the mainland ban does not apply, and last month organised a huge international conference here.
All eyes are now turned on Hong Kong's embattled chief executive to see what action he will take.
Professor Lau Siu Kai, associate director at the Hong Kong Institute of Asia Pacific Studies, told AFP: "The government will not ban the Falungong unless it is under intense pressure by Beijing. That would be detrimental to its international image." It was unlikely the government would take any action yet, but would first assess the public and media reaction, he said.
Pro-Beijing media, both here and on the mainland, have led the charge to discredit the Falungong in the eyes of the public and lay the foundations to justify any crackdown on the sect here.
If Beijing succeeds in turning public and media opinion against the Falungong, then "it will be easier for the government to take tough action against them," Lau said.
But he stressed Tung would only consider imposing a ban as a last resort, saying there were other methods to appease Beijing.
"They can create a distance and issue subtle warnings to the Falungong. For example they can not provide assistance to the group when they organise activities in Hong Kong," he said.
On Wednesday, a spokesman for the mainland's Central Government Liaison Office warned Beijing would not allow any organisation "to turn Hong Kong into a centre for Falungong activities." The island could not be used as an anti-China base, damaging the "one country, two systems" arrangement under which the former British colony was returned to Chinese rule in 1997, he added.
The remark was seen by many as a warning to Tung, who was handpicked by Beijing to lead the territory after the handover, to take firm action against the Falungong.
"The comment is clearly meant to coerce the Hong Kong government into taking action to restrict the rights of Falungong followers under the Basic Law," said a spokesman for the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor, referring to the territory's mini-constitution.
"We see this as a threat to the freedom and the autonomy of Hong Kong. This type of statement runs the risk of undermining "one country, two system", he said.
Under the system, Hong Kong was granted 50 years of autonomy from the Communist leadership in Beijing.
A Falungong spokeswoman reiterated hopes Beijing would not force Hong Kong to implement laws to control the group's activities here.
But she added Beijing's warnings were a sign to Hong Kong to follow China's lead.
"Hong Kong has an international reputation as a liberal society. The concept of one country, two systems means that China should not interfere with the governance of the territory here."
BEIJING -- Thousands of Chinese from school teachers to steel workers held mass meetings and signed petitions denouncing the Falun Gong spiritual movement on Thursday after a fiery group suicide attempt on Tiananmen Square.
Gruesome pictures and vivid reports of a 12-year-old girl who set fire to herself with four other Falun Gong members on the square on January 23 have provoked shock and outrage across the nation, state media reported.
China launched a nationwide media campaign on Tuesday, portraying the five, including two mothers with their young daughters, as obsessive sect followers inspired by the teachings of Falun Gong's U.S.-based leader Li Hongzhi.
One of the women died and the others are in a critical condition in hospital, doctors say.
Now Beijing has mobilized its vast propaganda machine, using tactics reminiscent of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, to stir mass support for a campaign to crush the group it banned in 1999 as an "evil cult".
Propaganda officials organized meetings of workers, teachers and students to publicly criticize the group, while state television showed overseas Chinese representatives in London and the former Portuguese enclave of Macao denouncing Falun Gong.
"Li Hongzhi, why don't you burn yourself?" read the headline of an article by the official Xinhua news agency splashed across several newspapers.
MASS RALLY IN HOME TOWN
In Kaifeng in the central province of Henan -- home of the five Falun Gong members -- more than 10,000 people were due to hold a rally and sign a petition expressing support for the campaign, a Kaifeng Communist Party propaganda official said.
The city had gathered hundreds of local officials to watch a television documentary showing charred bodies on the square and interviews with bandaged survivors saying they were inspired by Falun Gong, he told Reuters.
"Participants expressed great indignation at the Falun Gong cult," he said.
"It shackles people's souls, paralyses them and destroys their lives."
Kaifeng had also arranged meetings of religious, women's and youth organizations, including former Falun Gong practitioners, to denounce the group.
The China Daily carried a front page photograph of hundreds of workers at the Zhongyuan Oilfield in Henan signing an anti-Falun Gong petition.
Teachers of another survivor, 19-year-old music student Chen Guo, also held meetings to denounce the group at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, the China Daily said.
LI STAYS SILENT
Falun Gong says it preaches salvation from a corrupt world through meditation, breathing exercises and the study of texts based loosely on Buddhism and Daoism.
Since it was banned, followers have staged almost daily peaceful protests on Tiananmen Square to demand official recognition as a religion.
State media have accused Li Hongzhi of encouraging the five to attempt suicide with his recent statements, one of which called for followers to go "beyond forbearance", interpreted as a green light for more drastic protests.
But Li has not responded directly. His most recent statement on an official website (www.clearwisdom.net) was a January 14 congratulatory message to followers who staged a conference in Hong Kong.
China has said it will not allow the group to use Hong Kong as a base even though it is legal in the former British colony, which was promised a high degree of autonomy when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Falun Gong spokespeople in Hong Kong and New York have cast doubt on the latest Chinese media reports, saying the five do not look or sound like true believers.
They say Falun Gong does not condone suicide and they want independent confirmation of the media reports.
Foreign journalists were not allowed access to the five on Wednesday and city officials said they were waiting for approval from the cabinet before allowing them to be interviewed.
BEIJING --China accused Taiwan on Thursday of backing Falun Gong and vowed to mount a "resolute struggle" against Taipei's support for the spiritual movement Beijing has banned as a doomsday cult.
"We must maintain high vigilance and carry out a resolute struggle against Taiwan authorities' support for the evil cult organization Falun Gong," Xinhua news agency quoted mainland officials responsible for Taiwan policy as saying in a statement.
The statement was issued at an anti-Falun Gong rally by the cabinet's Taiwan Affairs Office and the Communist Party's Central Office for Taiwan Affairs and follows recent attacks by Beijing on the movement's presence in Hong Kong.
While Falun Gong is banned and labelled an "evil cult" in Communist-ruled mainland China, the movement is legal in Taiwan, a self-governing democracy which Beijing claims as a wayward province, and in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong retains a high degree of autonomy under the "one-country, two systems" principle that China applied when it took control of the former British colony in 1997.
China set off alarm bells in Hong Kong this week when its Central Government Liaison Office there said Beijing would not permit Hong Kong to become a base for Falun Gong activities.
The warning followed a Xinhua attack on Falun Gong in Hong Kong issued just days before it hosted a conference that saw 1,000 followers from around the world protesting in the city.
Thursday's statement on Taiwan did not specify how Taipei was supporting Falun Gong, which promotes a mixture of Buddhism, Taoism, meditation and traditional Chinese breathing exercises.
In December, about 2,000 followers of Falun Gong marched through Taipei mourning mainland practitioners they said had died of police torture and persecution.
And Taiwan Vice President Annette Lu, reviled by Beijing for her pro-independence stand, attended an earlier rally by more than 1,000 Falun Gong members in central Taipei.
The Chinese statement urged the people of Taiwan to "unite to resolutely oppose Taiwan authorities and other separatist forces supporting the criminal plots of Falun Gong".
The statement, issued at one of the numerous anti-Falun Gong rallies Beijing has staged this week, repeated China's allegation that the sect was in league with "Western anti-Chinese forces", Tibetan independence activists and domestic opponents of Communist rule.
Thousands of Chinese from school teachers to steel workers held mass meetings and signed petitions denouncing the Falun Gong spiritual movement on Thursday after a fiery group suicide attempt on Tiananmen Square last month.
Beijing China launched a torrent of propaganda against the outlawed "evil cult" Falun Gong yesterday, with State-run media giving graphic and heart-rending coverage of the self-immolations of five people, including a 12-year-old girl, in Tiananmen Square a week ago.
Newspapers carried extensive coverage and gruesome photos of the charred victims in a move clearly aimed at galvanising public opinion against Falun Gong and justifying an 18-month government campaign against the group.
Falun Gong, which claims millions of adherents world-wide, yesterday again distanced itself from the self-immolations.
On Tuesday evening, State-run television showed video footage of the incidents in which one woman died and four others were severely burned. The scenes were first broadcast on the evening news, followed by a half-hour account and interviews with the victims on the popular Focus current affairs program.
It was the first time the incident was mentioned in the domestic media.
The State-run Xinhua news agency also issued a lengthy commentary, accusing the movement's exiled leader, Mr Li Hongzhi, of sacrificing the lives of his followers "in attaining his ulterior political goals" and "evil objectives".
"The suicide attempts of the Falun Gong addicts further reveals the anti-human, anti-society and anti-scientific nature of the cult," the commentary said.
In a brief statement issued in New York, Falun Gong repudiated the claims.
"There is no proof that these people ... are Falun Gong practitioners," the group said. "Nor is it clear that these are the same people who set themselves afire on Tiananmen Square.
"We would like to reiterate that the teachings of Falun Gong strictly prohibit any form of killing, including suicide," the statement said.
The movement is calling for an investigation into the incident by international human rights groups and the United Nations.
But in hospital bed interviews, survivors identified themselves as followers of Falun Gong.
While some recanted in interviews, the "ringleader" of the group, a former driver identified as Mr Wang Jindong, 51, said "there will still be a final test" determined by "the master".
The video footage, some taken by security cameras, show a man burnt and blackened, sitting in a meditation pose, reciting a Falun Gong slogan after police had doused the flames. It also showed four others engulfed by flames on the square.
The victims have been identified as Liu Chunling, 36, who died at the scene; her 12-year-old daughter, Liu Siying; a music teacher aged in her 50s, Hao Huijun; and her conservatorium student daughter, Chen Guo, 19.
The 12-year-old has burns to 40 per cent of her body and may require amputations, Xinhua said. She told interviewers she had no idea of the pain she would endure when led by her mother to the square.
"Uncle, help! Help!" she was quoted as saying as police ran to douse the flames which engulfed her.
What Is Falun Gong? See "Falun Gong 101", by Massimo Introvigne
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