HONG KONG (AP) - Largely adopting Beijing's line on Falun Gong but stopping short of action, Hong Kong's leader on Thursday called the group a cult whose members set themselves ablaze in China and must be closely monitored.
``Anyone who has watched the self-immolation on Tiananmen Square would be very shocked,'' Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa said in a legislative question-and-answer session that sharply escalated the war of words over Falun Gong's activities in Hong Kong.
``I certainly hope that such incidents will not happen in Hong Kong and I believe the people of Hong Kong share this view,'' Tung said.
``We will have to monitor them very carefully,'' he added. ``How can we protect Hong Kong security?''
Tung did not announce any sort of clampdown on Falun Gong, despite Beijing's recent demands that the group be stopped from using Hong Kong as a base.
Falun Gong is outlawed in mainland China and subjected to an often-violent crackdown there but remains legal in Hong Kong.
Falun Gong insists it is not political but is campaigning only to gain the right to practice freely on the mainland. The group has attracted millions of adherents, mostly Chinese, with its combination of slow-motion exercises and philosophy drawn from Taoism, Buddhism and the often unorthodox ideas of exiled founder Li Hongzhi.
China's battle against Falun Gong spilled over into Hong Kong last month. Local government officials let Falun Gong rent space in City Hall to hold an international conference, where followers demanded the right to practice freely on the mainland and an end to alleged torture-killings by mainland security forces.
Beijing and its allies among local newspapers and politicians were outraged to see anti-China campaigning right on Chinese soil.
Tung finds himself caught between Beijing's demands that Falun Gong be stifled and equally vigorous arguments from pro-democracy and human rights campaigners who say Hong Kong's cherished freedoms are under threat.
The issue is one of the biggest tests yet of the ``one country, two systems'' government put in place when Britain returned Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.
The system gives Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy and citizens enjoy Western-style personal liberties unheard of on the mainland.
Despite Tung's harsh language, he said Hong Kong will deal with the group according to the rule of law and he avoided any mention of alleged subversion of China by the group.
He sought to allay concerns the controversy would prompt Hong Kong to swiftly enact an anti-subversion law, which it must do at some point now that it has returned to China.
Tung did say that Falun Gong has shown characteristics of an ``evil religion'' or ``evil cult,'' depending on what translation from the Cantonese dialect is used. Beijing refers to Falun Gong as an ``evil cult'' and Tung's aides said later that Tung was calling the group a ``cult.''
Furious Falun Gong followers said the meaning was clear - and frightening.
``How can he say we're an evil cult?'' asked Falun Gong spokeswoman Hui Yee-han.
``I'm afraid Mr. Tung's comments on Falun Gong will incite hatred against us,'' she said. ``All of our activities are carried out peacefully in Hong Kong.''
Falun Gong found Tung's reference to the immolations in Beijing particularly galling.
Beijing's propaganda campaign against Falun Gong has highlighted the incident last month, in which one person died and four were injured. Falun Gong members insist the people could not have been true followers because the sect's teachings prohibit any killing, including suicide.
Opposition politicians were alarmed by Tung's comments.
``We are worried,'' Democratic Party leader Martin Lee said. ``If we carry on like this - and the central government isn't nice to the Catholics, or Protestants, or the Buddhists, either - if these are all branded as cults, will Hong Kong call them cults, too?''
BEIJING - In an apparent effort to discredit foreign reporting on the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, two Chinese state-run newspapers said Western reporters knew in advance of a group suicide attempt and did nothing to stop it.
The Associated Press, Cable News Network and Agence France-Presse - named in the newspapers' accounts - denied they had prior warning of the Jan. 23 suicide attempt on Beijing's Tiananmen Square.
The widely circulated newspapers also said this week that as many as seven journalists from the news organizations were detained after the self-immolations.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao said Thursday two reporters were detained, and they had been present without prior permission as required.
``They indeed violated relevant rules and regulations, and they were taken away by relevant departments and have been handled,'' he told a regular news briefing.
Zhu did not address the allegations that journalists had prior warning of the protest.
A producer and cameraman with CNN who witnessed the protest were detained for 90 minutes and police confiscated their videotape. No AP reporters or photographers were on Tiananmen Square when the protest took place. AFP also denied that its journalists were on the square and said none were detained.
CNN said in a statement that it had received no advance notice of the protest and that its crew had been ``routinely checking the square over the course of the day.''
``There has been a history of Falun Gong protests during holiday periods, particularly in Tiananmen Square, and it was therefore a logical place to be on the day before Chinese New Year,'' CNN said.
The reports critical of the Western coverage were carried in the Yangcheng Evening News on Wednesday and Reference News, published by the government's Xinhua News Agency. Reference News reprinted on Tuesday an almost identical report from a Hong Kong newspaper.
The reports also appeared on Chinese Web sites. Together, they appeared aimed at intensifying pressure on foreign journalists and discrediting their coverage of the government's often brutal 18-month crackdown on Falun Gong. Authorities have summoned journalists for questioning about their coverage and had some of them followed.
China's wholly state-run media have seized on the suicide attempt to whip up public backing for the government crackdown and its claims that Falun Gong, which had millions of adherents before it was banned in July 1999, is an evil cult in league with Western enemies of China.
State media said Liu Chunling, 36, died and that four other people - including her 12-year old daughter - were seriously injured when they doused themselves with gasoline and set themselves on fire. Authorities say police stopped two others before they could set themselves ablaze.
China says all seven were Falun Gong members. Falun Gong says they were not. The group suicide attempt came on the eve of the Lunar New Year, China's biggest annual holiday.
Some previous Falun Gong protests also came on public holidays. Apparently fearing demonstrations, police stepped up security ahead of the Lunar New Year, and foreign reporters were anticipating possible protests.
But in a story headlined: ``Witnessing women and children setting fire to themselves, they were unmoved,'' the Yangcheng Evening News said foreign reporters detained at the scene ``knew in advance that Falun Gong practitioners would carry out an extreme act on Tiananmen Square.''
They could face homicide charges ``if it is confirmed that they directly participated in this plan, assigning the self-immolators to set themselves on fire at a certain time or place so they could film,'' the newspaper said.
Both Yangcheng Evening News and Reference News said it was believed foreign reporters ``certainly already knew in advance'' of the protest and knew which people would stage a protest.
``If they knew beforehand that these people planned to burn themselves and then saw at the scene that the self-immolators included a child but did not come forward to stop it, then these reporters are just too inhuman,'' the newspapers said.
Zhu, the Chinese spokesman, said he had no knowledge of any police investigation into foreign journalists' alleged role in the protest - another claim reported in the Yangcheng Evening News and the Reference News.
``Now some press are saying that the Chinese side is carrying on an investigation into the matter,'' he said. ``I am not aware of any such thing. I don't know where they got this source of information.''
HONG KONG - Chee-hwa warned Falun Gong supporters Thursday against any attempt to abuse Hong Kong's freedom and tolerance to affect the order and peace of the territory or that in China.
Making his first public remarks on the Falun Gong controversy, the Hong Kong leader toed the Beijing line that the Buddhist-oriented meditation movement's activities are ''targeted at'' the central authorities and have ''escalated.''
The Hong Kong government will keep a close eye on the Falun Gong activities in the territory, Tung told local lawmakers at a question-and-answer session.
''We have to be careful and stress on ensuring Hong Kong's social tranquillity and order. (Falun Gong) somewhat has a nature of an 'evil cult,''' Tung said, adding he personally was shocked and sadden by television footage of a mother and a daughter, said to be Falun Gong followers, setting themselves ablaze in Beijing's Tiananmen Square last month.
But the Beijing-appointed territorial chief vowed to firmly abide by the law and safeguard Hong Kong's system and citizens' rights and freedoms under the Basic Law.
''On the basis of these principles, the Hong Kong government will observe closely the activities of Falun Gong in Hong Kong. At the same time, we will not allow anyone to make use of Hong Kong's freedom and tolerance to affect Hong Kong's social order and tranquillity, nor the mainland's social order and tranquillity,'' Tung said.
The Hong Kong government, however, has no plan to speed up the enactment of a subversion law in the territory, he said, adding a draft of the legislation will be introduced at an ''appropriate time'' after public consultations.
Tung's remarks follow those by representatives of the Chinese central government in Hong Kong who have warned against any attempt to turn Hong Kong into a center for Falun Gong activities or an ''anti-China'' base.
Foreign countries have also been told not to interfere in the Falun Gong issue in Hong Kong.
China has outlawed the sect as an evil cult, but Hong Kong, a Chinese special administrative region, allows the practice of Falun Gong under the ''one country, two systems'' principle.
Dutch Foreign Minister Jozias van Aartsen on Tuesday canceled his visit to China and Hong Kong set for Feb. 7-13 following Beijing's warning against foreign interference. The Netherlands' Human Rights Ambassador Renee Jones-Bos, who was to accompany him, had planned to meet with Falun Gong members in Hong Kong.
Falun Gong spokeswoman Hui Yee-han slammed Tung on Thursday for making ''irresponsible'' remarks about the group, which ''will incite mistrust and hatred among Hong Kong public'' toward the followers.
Hui disputed that those who tried to kill themselves in Tiananmen Square were movement adherents or that Falun Gong activities in Hong Kong will affect the territory's order or national security.
All the practitioners have done is to protest the brutal persecution of their members in China, she said.
Meanwhile, 12 local Christian groups expressed deep concern the Falun Gong controversy has caused a negative impact upon the practice and protection of human rights, freedom and rule of law, as well as creating tension between Hong Kong and Beijing.
They also worried that nongovernmental organizations and individuals who hold and air views critical of Beijing and the Hong Kong government will also be suppressed in future.
''We want to stress that to draft a petition, to hold a peaceful demonstration or to criticize the central government and the Chinese Communist Party is a right held by everyone in Hong Kong,'' the church groups said in a statement.
They called on officials and political figures in both Hong Kong and China to stop making remarks that divide and promote hostility within the territory's community.
HONG KONG - Hong Kong's chief executive Tung Chee-hwa said on Thursday the Falun Gong spiritual movement would not be allowed to exploit the territory's freedom to undermine order and stability in Hong Kong or mainland China.
Tung was breaking a long silence on the meditation group, which has stepped up its protest campaign in Hong Kong against a crackdown by the communist leadership in Beijing.
"The Hong Kong government will closely monitor Falun Gong activities in Hong Kong," Tung told legislators.
"(It) will not allow anyone to make use of Hong Kong's freedoms and tolerance to affect Hong Kong's order and stability, nor the mainland's order and stability," Tung said.
Beijing outlawed Falun Gong in 1999 and called the group an "evil cult" but it is still legal in Hong Kong, which retains a large degree of autonomy since its handover by Britain in 1997.
Tung said he was "shocked and saddened" by Falun Gong members who set themselves on fire on Beijing's Tiananmen Square last month and said the movement had shown signs of being a cult.
"More or less, it has some characteristics of an evil cult," he said in Chinese.
But Falun Gong followers in Hong Kong said the Tiananmen incidents were staged by Chinese authorities to put the movement in a bad light, and they regretted Tung's remarks.
"By saying this, he will stir up irrational opposition sentiment in Hong Kong against Falun Gong," said Falun Gong spokesman Kan Hung-cheung. "This is not good for stability. Therefore Mr Tung's remarks are irresponsible and dangerous.
"Pressure from senior Chinese leaders has caused the Hong Kong government to take a high-profile approach. This is not good for Hong Kong either," Kan said. "We have carried out our activities peacefully and legally."
"TOEING THE BEIJING LINE"
Martin Lee, leader of the popular Democratic Party, said Tung had failed to uphold independence for the territory.
"I think what the Chief Executive has shown is that he is exactly toeing the Beijing line on the Falun Gong people. He actually described them as an 'evil sect', which of course is the line from Beijing," Lee said.
The 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 but denies it has any political interests.
Beijing has stepped up its campaign against the group and has warned in recent weeks that it would not allow Falun Gong to turn Hong Kong into an anti-China base.
The group drew Beijing's ire last month when it held a two-day conference in the territory where members denounced China's crackdown.
Pro-Beijing figures in Hong Kong have been quick to parrot China's criticism, raising fears the Hong Kong government might cave in and curb the group, in what would be seen as a compromise of Hong Kong's autonomy.
Tung, however, made clear he would not act hastily, saying: "We have to see whether Falun Gong poses a risk to Hong Kong order."
He said he was in no hurry to enact a sedition law, required by Hong Kong's post-colonial constitution to prohibit treason, secession, sedition, subversion against Beijing.
"Our thinking has been to study it (a sedition law), and at an appropriate time, conduct wide consultation and after that, propose legislation. Our plan has not changed," Tung said.
Falun Gong vowed to be more cautious.
"We will be more cautious and more alert, to prevent people from having anything to hold against us," Kan said.
What Is Falun Gong? See "Falun Gong 101", by Massimo Introvigne
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