HONG KONG --A local human rights group said Sunday it will discuss the rights of the Falun Gong sect, which has been banned in mainland China, with visiting U.N. human rights officials this week. Law Yuk-kai, director of the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor, said he will express concern about allegations by pro-Beijing activists that Falun Gong is using Hong Kong as a base to subvert the Chinese government in talks Tuesday with U.N. officials P. N. Bhagwati and Christine Chanet.
The five-day tour of Bhagwati and Chanet, organized by the Hong Kong government to examine civil and political rights here, will mark the first visit by members of the U.N. Human Rights Committee since the former British colony returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.
Falun Gong has come under fire from pro-Beijing groups in the territory since the Hong Kong government allowed it to hold an international conference last month at a public concert hall, where sect followers openly attacked Beijing's crackdown.
Supporters of the Beijing government in Hong Kong say Falun Gong has become associated with Western forces in an anti-China subversive conspiracy and have urged the government to enact a law to limit the sect's activities.
Hong Kong's Security Secretary Regina Ip said Falun Gong's activities have become "increasingly high-profile" and that the sect would be closely monitored.
Three human rights groups, including the Human Rights Monitor, expressed concern Sunday about the criticism, saying they "failed to see that the Falun Gong followers were doing anything other than exercising their fundamental freedoms."
"To suppress Falun Gong on the ground of such activities will not simply be a matter for Falun Gong, it will become the first step to suppress all groups and individuals holding different views from those of the Central Government," said a statement issued by the three groups, which also included the Hong Kong Human Rights Commission and JUSTICE, the Hong Kong branch of the International Commission of Jurists.
Although Falun Gong is banned in China, the group remains legal in Hong Kong, where citizens enjoy considerably more freedom than their counterparts on the mainland.
Falun Gong has attracted millions of followers, most of them in China, with its combination of slow-motion exercises and philosophy drawn from Taoism, Buddhism and the often unorthodox ideas of founder Li Hongzhi.
BEIJING - MS. LU, a 40-year-old owner of a small beauty parlor, had a typical response to the gruesome television special last Wednesday night..
"Before, I didn't really understand Falun Gong, and I wondered how Li Hongzhi had attracted so many followers," she said as she closed up shop..
"But what I just saw made me really angry," she said. "It's a phony religion that aims to hurt people."
When the Chinese government tried to make propaganda from attempted self-immolations by apparent Falun Gong believers, which left one person dead and four severely burned, its plan was as wooden and anachronistic as ever: First, suppress the news. Then, days later, orchestrate a crescendo of extreme television, radio and newspaper reports and editorials.
Finally, marshall relatives of the duped victims to utter condemnations of the evil Master Li, then ask major groups - from leaders of Catholic, Buddhist and Muslim churches to the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce - to issue shrill denunciations.
This time, though, the message seemed to resonate. While it is always perilous to assess public opinion in a country where everyone wears political antennae, there is a sense here that, after a year and a half of flailing, the government finally scored a propaganda coup last week against the outlawed spiritual group.
If so, it was not the stale delivery but the raw material: a deluded mother leading her 12-year-old daughter to self-immolation, graphic footage of the charred girl writhing on the ground, interviews with former practitioners who saw the light and with unrepentant believers who to many Chinese, in light of events, came across as loony.
What the government did not report to its people was the increasingly fierce methods it has used to fight an organization that has proved far more tenacious than, say, the China Democracy Party - not only because of Falun Gong's vastly larger membership but also the inexplicable willingness of so many followers to ruin their lives.
The controlled media have recently started acknowledging that die-hard believers demonstrate illegally on Tiananmen Square, and have announced that small numbers of key organizers have been imprisoned. But they have never mentioned what human rights monitors believe are the widespread beatings and torture of detained practitioners by frustrated policemen, resulting in perhaps a hundred confirmed deaths. They have not mentioned the thousands who appear to have been shipped to labor camps without trial, or simply to have been expelled from jobs and homes.
Nor have editorials raised basic questions about the appropriateness or efficacy of the government's heavy-handed eradication campaign, questions that many Chinese have asked in private.
Opinions here vary about how much the society should worry, if at all, about this exercise and spiritual group. It had attracted millions
including, obviously, some who became entranced. By mobilizing more than 10,000 people for an unauthorized demonstration in April 1999, it seemed to the leaders of this one-party state a potential political threat.
Still, the unending campaign to outlaw and demonize the group appears to have been counterproductive in some ways.
Late last week, a university professor who dislikes Falun Gong and who was appalled by the attempted suicides, asked, "Are the foreign papers reporting what ours can't, how the severe persecution of believers may have driven these people to this act?"
When they mounted that first surprising demonstration in Beijing in response to criticisms that seemed obscure, Falun Gong's leaders seemed a bit prone to paranoia. Now, those who continue to practice Falun Gong have every right to fear the worst, and it appears that tens of thousands of Chinese have been left with nothing to lose.The old generation that runs China was shocked and angered when these nobodies pulled off a giant unauthorized demonstration right outside the executive offices two years ago. Equally, the leaders appear to have been stunned since then by the group's ability to keep springing back after being banned. Chinese leaders have been forced to acknowledge that they face a long war of attrition. It is testimony to how open the country has become, compared with recent decades, that a group like Falun Gong could organize on a large scale in the first place, and then persist under such duress. Among other things, for this group as for the struggling democracy movement, electronic mail has proved an even more potent and elusive weapon than the fax machine was for the last generation of dissidents. The authorities can block access to known hostile Web sites, but cannot control or even monitor the e-mail zipping to millions of Chinese, carrying everything from suppressed news to the latest pronouncements of Master Li.China's leaders may truly believe they are waging this campaign out of idealism. They surely feel they are saving people from exploitation and ruin, and most important, they think they are preserving the social stability - meaning preservation of Communist Party rule - that permitted the great economic and social progress of the post-Mao era. They seem unable to imagine an approach toward possible cults and fringe groups like that in the West: that is, to arrest people who commit demonstrably harmful acts, not those who peacefully express oddball views.In the newly published "Tiananmen Papers,"
the late Deng Xiaoping is quoted as telling his colleagues in June 1989, just after the crushing of democracy demonstrations, "We've got to make it understood both inside and outside China that we're tightening control for the sake of stability, which means for the sake of reform and opening and modern construction."The rigid insistence on political and social stability made a certain sense in the late 1970's, when Mr. Deng was rescuing China from the destructive chaos of Mao's Cultural Revolution. Many felt it made less sense by 1989. Whether Mr. Deng's limited definition of stability will work in the emerging world, wired and globalized, is perhaps the central question facing China's future leaders.
HONG KONG - As the Chinese government's war against the Falun Gong spiritual movement grows ever more thunderous, its echoes are sounding in Hong Kong, the group's only refuge in China.
On Thursday, Hong Kong's top security official said the police would more closely monitor Falun Gong's activities in this former British colony. The secretary for security, Regina Ip, said the movement had assumed an increasingly high profile and was "targeting the central government for attack."
Mrs. Ip's statement came two days after Beijing warned that it would not tolerate Falun Gong turning Hong Kong into a base for anti- Chinese activities. "Hong Kong Falun Gong has taken off its mask," said an unidentified mainland official, quoted by the New China News Agency. An influential member of the National People's Congress and several pro-Beijing newspapers have demanded that the Hong Kong authorities strip Falun Gong of its legal status.
Falun Gong was outlawed in China in 1999, but it remains legal in Hong Kong, which has kept its own laws since reverting to Chinese rule in 1997.
Though the movement claims only 400 local members, it holds an annual conference here, which draws thousands of practitioners from Boston to Beijing. The most recent gathering took place three weeks ago and was less a meeting than a well-choreographed protest against Beijing's persecution of Falun Gong.
As a battery of television cameras whirred, 120 women - one for each Falun Gong member the group says was killed in detention in China - marched to the Chinese liaison office to lodge a protest. Members accused China's president, Jiang Zemin, of violating human rights laws.
With Falun Gong showing no signs of muting its voice, some pro-democracy leaders say the government's treatment of the movement will be the stiffest test yet of Hong Kong's freedom and autonomy within China. "It looks as if the government means business," said Margaret Ng, a pro-democracy legislator. "Falun Gong may be very unwelcome in the mainland, but insofar as they are legal in Hong Kong, we should defend them."
Falun Gong has been registered as an association in Hong Kong since 1996.
Its members gather in parks here in the mornings to practice Buddhist-inspired meditation and breathing exercises. Most are indistinguishable from the scores of residents who practice tai chi or other traditional Chinese health rituals.
But critics say marches such as last month's are political acts that violate the movement's charter, which pledges not to promote a political agenda. On Friday, two women distributing Falun Gong leaflets were assaulted by a man with an iron bar - the first documented instance of violence toward members of the movement in Hong Kong.
Falun Gong representatives say they are only publicizing inhuman conduct by the Chinese government. "It is like having a friend run over by a car," said a spokeswoman for the Hong Kong group, Sophie Xiao. "If that person is in pain, can't we scream? If we don't scream, more people will die in China."
Ms. Xiao said Falun Gong was concerned that Beijing might press Hong Kong to outlaw it. But she predicted the government would be reluctant because it would jeopardize the territory's reputation for civil liberties. "The rule of law matters to people here," Ms. Xiao said. "If they want to investigate our activities, they can. But if they ban us, everyone in the world will know it is because of mainland pressure."
HONG KONG - An adviser to Hong Kong leader Tung Chee-hwa has urged the government to actively consider enacting a subversion law to regulate the activities of the Falun Gong spiritual movement in this former British colony.
Nellie Fong, a member of Tung's cabinet, the Executive Council, told Hong Kong Cable Television on Saturday night there had been no urgent need to enact such a law in Hong Kong in the past three years, but the Falun Gong issue had changed that.
"We didn't actively legislate the (law) as there was no urgent social need.
This time, regarding the case of Falun Gong, we shall have to actively consider enacting (the subversion law)," Fong said.
Hong Kong is required under its post-handover constitution to pass a law prohibiting treason, subversion and sedition against China's central government.
But the administration is still studying the matter and has given no clear indication of when it will act to pass the law.
Fong's remark signalled further pressure being exerted on the Beijing-anointed government to limit the activities of the Falun Gong, which is banned and labelled an "evil cult" in China.
The movement is legal in Hong Kong, which retains a high degree of autonomy after it reverted to Chinese rule in 1997.
Last Thursday, Hong Kong's security chief Regina Ip said the government would closely monitor Falun Gong in the territory as the group's recent activities had been targeted against Beijing.
Ip's comment came just days after Beijing warned it would not allow Falun Gong to turn Hong Kong into a centre for operations or an anti-China base.
But Falun Gong adherents in Hong Kong defied Beijing's warning and stepped up their fight against Chinese authorities with booklets condemning Chinese President Jiang Zemin as an "autocrat" acting to harm China.
The 26-page colour booklet, carrying pictures and allegations of persecution of Falun Gong members by the Chinese authorities, has been distributed on Hong Kong streets.
"I feel the existence of the Falun Gong in Hong Kong makes us very embarrassed. Our country says it is illegal, but they are registered in Hong Kong. It is not helpful to relations with our neighbour. It makes it worse," Fong said.
Last month, some 1,000 Falun Gong followers around the world held protests and a conference in Hong Kong on China's doorstep, a move widely seen as a snub to Beijing, which has stepped up its vilification campaign against the group.
The Falun Gong spiritual movement, which promotes a mixture of Buddhism, Taoism, meditation and traditional Chinese breathing exercises, says it has millions of followers in China.
It has shocked the Communist Party with its persistence and ability to organise mass protests.
KAIFENG, China -- There is a neighborhood on the eastern side of this once-glorious city called Apple Orchard, but there are no apple trees here, only drab concrete buildings and clusters of unemployed men loitering on mud streets. It was here, in a fourth-floor apartment in Building Six, that Liu Chunling and her 12-year-old daughter, Liu Siying, lived.
The mother was a quiet woman who kept to herself, the daughter a lively fifth-grader who never failed to smile and say hello. Neighbors recalled there was something both strange and sad about Liu Chunling, that she sometimes hit her child, that she drove her elderly mother away, that she worked in a nightclub and took money to keep men company.
But no one suspected that Liu, 36, might have joined the banned spiritual movement Falun Gong. And hardly anyone noticed when she and her daughter disappeared.
And then, there they were on national television, their bodies engulfed in orange flames in Tiananmen Square. Liu Siying was shown lying on a stretcher, her face and lips charred black, whimpering, "Mama, mama." Her mother, the newscast reported, was already dead.
What drove the Lius and three others from this city in central Henan province, about 350 miles south of Beijing, to pour gasoline on their bodies and set themselves afire on Jan. 23, the eve of the Chinese New Year? An intense battle is underway to answer that question, with the five individuals cast in turn as victims of an evil cult, righteous protesters against a repressive government or desperately estranged people on the margins of a fast-changing society.
The ruling Communist Party has launched an all-out campaign to use the incident to prove its claim that Falun Gong is a dangerous cult, and to turn public opinion in China and abroad against the group it outlawed 18 months ago and has tried to crush, at times with brutal tactics.
Every morning and night, the state-controlled media carry fresh attacks against Falun Gong and its U.S.-based leader, Li Hongzhi. Schools have been ordered to "educate" pupils about the sect. Discussion meetings have been organized in factories, offices and universities. Religious leaders as far away as Tibet have delivered scripted denunciations. In Kaifeng, the post office issued an anti-Falun Gong postmark, and 10,000 people signed a public petition against the group.
China has also used the incident to pressure Hong Kong to ban Falun Gong, testing the strength of the "one country, two systems" setup that gives the former British colony autonomy over its affairs. Falun Gong exists legally in Hong Kong, but the territory's security chief warned Thursday that police intend to monitor the group's activities closely.
Falun Gong leaders insist that the Lius and their companions could not have been members of their movement, which promotes a mix of Buddhism, Taoism and traditional Chinese breathing exercises. They have said Falun Gong clearly forbids both violence and suicide and have suggested the government may have staged the incident.
Other human rights activists say the five set themselves on fire to protest the government's crackdown on Falun Gong, which has resulted in thousands of arrests and as many as 105 deaths in police custody. All but 12-year-old Liu Siying had protested Beijing's actions against Falun Gong in Tiananmen Square previously, according to the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy.
There is a tradition of politically motivated suicide in China. At the start of China's last dynasty, in the 1640s, hundreds of people killed themselves rather than live under the conquering Manchus. More than 250 years later, several students committed suicide to protest the Qing Dynasty's refusal to establish a constitutional republic. Most recently, countless Chinese took their lives to escape the abuse of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution.
But there is hardly any precedent for public self-immolation. In Kaifeng, a city of 700,000 that was China's imperial capital and one of the world's most populous cities at the turn of the last millennium, most residents took a dim view of what Liu and the others did.
"They disgraced Kaifeng, and they disgraced China in front of the whole world. It was just too much!" said Tang Shaohua, 60, who runs a grocery around the corner from Liu's home.
"It's so sad what happened to that little girl. I used to see her playing around here," added neighbor Zhang Binglian, 60. "Falun Gong is an evil cult.
I thought that before, and I'm even more convinced now." But even in Kaifeng, there are signs that the government's propaganda campaigns have lost some of their effectiveness. Several residents expressed weariness with the barrage against Falun Gong.
"I'm not saying I don't believe the government, but I'm not saying I believe it, either," said Liu Xiaoyu, 39, as she made dumplings in Kaifeng's lively night market. "The government controls the news. We all know that now." Cab driver Wang Chaohui said he believed Falun Gong was a religion like any other, and said it would be unfair to blame the acts of five individuals on a group with millions of practitioners. In any case, he said, the crackdown on Falun Gong was sure to backfire.
"China is different now, and they can't arrest everybody who believes in something like this," he said. "It only makes things worse." Wang said the real question China must confront is why so many people believe in something like Falun Gong. "People are dissatisfied with society," he said. "That's the problem." Like the rest of China, Kaifeng has experienced a revival in all kinds of religions as communist ideology has lost its appeal. Over the past decade, residents have turned in large numbers to Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism -- and Falun Gong. Before the group was banned, hundreds practiced its meditation exercises in the city's parks.
Falun Gong has attracted a cross section of Chinese -- party members, senior army officers, bureaucrats, teachers and millions living on the margins of society. In Kaifeng, where several factories have closed and the economy has slumped, many are searching for something to believe in.
The state media have said little about why the five who set themselves on fire might have joined Falun Gong. Beijing denied requests to interview Liu Siying and the three other survivors, who are all hospitalized with serious burns. A Kaifeng official said only China Central Television and the official New China News Agency were permitted to speak to their relatives or their colleagues. A man who answered the door at the Liu home referred questions to the government.
But Liu Chunling's Apple Orchard neighbors described her as a woman who led a troubled life and suffered from psychological problems. State media identified 78-year-old Hao Xiuzhen as her adoptive mother. Neighbors said they quarreled often before Liu drove the woman from their home last year.
"There was something wrong with her," said neighbor Liu Min, 51. "She hit her mother, and her mother was crying and yelling. She hit her daughter, too." There were also questions about how Liu supported herself and about the whereabouts of her daughter's father. Neighbors said Liu was not a native of Kaifeng, and that a man in southern Guangdong province paid her rent. Others, including neighbor Wen Jian, 22, said Liu worked in a local nightclub and was paid to dine with and dance with customers.
None ever saw her practice Falun Gong.
What Is Falun Gong? See "Falun Gong 101", by Massimo Introvigne
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