HONG KONG 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," Mr. Tung said.
"We will have to monitor them very carefully," he added. "How can we protect Hong Kong security?"
Mr. 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 what they call torture-killings by mainland security forces.
Beijing and its allies among local newspapers and politicians were outraged to see anti-China campaigning on Chinese soil.
Mr. Tung finds himself caught between Beijing's demands that Falun Gong be stifled and 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 Mr. 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.
China is forbidding families of the five Falungong members who set themselves on fire on Tiananmen Square from visiting them in the hospital, where three - including a 12-year-old girl - remain in critical condition.
The grandmother of the girl, Liu Siying, who was ordered not to give interviews, told journalists that none of the girl's relatives are allowed to travel to Beijing to visit her. "The authorities said no one can see her," said the elderly woman, sounding nervous.
Liu, her mother, another mother and daughter pair and a man, all identified by the Chinese government as Falungong members, doused themselves with petrol and set themselves on fire on 23 January on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, the day before Chinese New Year. Liu's mother Liu Chunling died, while the other four suffered severe burns. All five came from Kaifeng city in central Henan province.
The Chinese government has seized upon the incident as evidence Falungong is an evil cult and has launched a major propaganda campaign against the group's founder, US-based Li Hongzhi, by incessantly showing gory television footage of the five on fire. The government said the five were misguided by Li and set themselves ablaze believing they could reach nirvana, the Buddhist version of heaven.
Falungong is a mix of Buddhist philosophy and Li's own teachings about how to achieve moral and physical superiority
However, a Hong Kong-based human rights group said the five acted in protest against the government's 18-month ban on the group. While allowing government mouthpieces such as Xinhua access to the victims at the hospital, the government has denied foreign and domestic reporters' requests to interview the victims.
Falungong's New York-based office has denied the five were Falungong members, saying the teachings of Li do not encourage suicide. But families of four of the victims contacted by AFP by telephone said the victims were Falungong members.
Falungong is considered the biggest threat to social instability by the Chinese government since the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations.
The government has jailed hundreds of followers and sent tens of thousands to labour camps without trial, while more than 100 have died under police custody, according to rights groups.
BEIJING - Beijing police on Friday denied reports in state newspapers that they are investigating whether foreign journalists knew in advance and helped plan a suicide protest on Tiananmen Square.
``There's no such thing,'' said police spokesman Liu Wei in reply to a written question about whether such an inquiry was under way.
The Associated Press, Cable News Network and Agence France-Presse have denied they had prior warning of the Jan. 23 incident, as claimed in two state-run newspapers that said the news organizations did nothing to stop the demonstration although they knew of it in advance.
Five people who the Chinese government says were followers of the outlawed Falun Gong spiritual movement set themselves on fire. One died and four others - including a 12-year-old girl - were seriously injured, state media said.
Falun Gong denies they were genuine practitioners.
But Xinhua, China's government news agency, on Friday described some of the protesters as remaining committed to Falun Gong despite their burns. Two - described by Xinhua as protest organizers - have refused food and medicine in the hospital, it said.
``I will resume my meditation,'' Xinhua quoted Hao Huijun as telling a doctor. ``It will be better than receiving your treatment.''
Hao, 47, has fasted twice for a total of 60 hours, Xinhua said. The other alleged organizer, Wang Jindong, has been transferred to a police hospital, the agency said, a possible sign he may face criminal charges.
The 12-year-old, Liu Siying, also is ``greatly influenced'' by Falun Gong but told a nurse she regrets setting herself on fire, Xinhua said. It said 19-year-old Chen Guo also expressed regrets and no longer wants to discuss the sect.
On Wednesday, the state-run Yangcheng Evening News said foreign reporters could face homicide charges if they took part in planning the protest. The claim appeared Tuesday in another state newspaper and has been on Chinese Web sites.
No AP reporters or photographers were on Tiananmen Square when the protest took place. AFP said its journalists were not there. The protest occurred on the eve of Lunar New Year, China's biggest holiday.
A producer and cameraman for CNN who witnessed the protest were detained briefly and police confiscated their videotape. CNN said it received no advance notice of the protest and that its crew was checking the square because protests often occur on holidays.
State media portray the suicide attempt as proof of government claims that Falun Gong is an evil cult in league with Western enemies of China.
Falun Gong also has become an irritant between Beijing and the Bush administration. China has warned that U.S. criticism of its often brutal 18-month crackdown on the group could harm relations.
On Friday, Xinhua accused Washington of double standards. The United States used force against the Branch Davidian sect in 1993, but China's crackdown on Falun Gong has ``met with gratuitous criticism from American officials,'' Xinhua said. ``Where's the logic in that?''
Falun Gong had millions of followers in China before it was banned in 1999. The government says it threatened communist rule and led 1,700 practitioners to their deaths. Falun Gong insists the group is a peaceful health and meditation movement with no political agenda.
BEIJING -- Chinese police may seek homicide charges against foreign reporters who they claim had advance knowledge that five alleged members of the banned Falun Gong spiritual group would planning to set themselves afire in Tiananmen Square last month, according to an article published in two state-run newspapers.
The story, which also appeared on Chinese Internet sites today, said that police would consider charging the reporters with "abetting and assisting other people in committing suicide" if they could prove the reporters were involved in planning the Jan. 23 incident. One woman died of her burns and the other four people, including the woman's 12-year-old daughter, were hospitalized in critical condition.
Articles in the Chinese press, particularly on sensitive subjects, are generally approved by several Communist Party officials before publication. The newspapers that published the story Wednesday -- the Yangcheng Evening News and the Southern Daily -- refused to comment, and a spokesman for the Public Security Ministry did not respond to questions faxed to him.
The article was seen as the latest salvo in the government's escalating campaign to discredit Falun Gong as a dangerous cult supported by "Western anti-China forces" and to win support for its 18-month effort to crush the group. Graphic footage of the self-immolations, including a shot of the girl -- crying out for her mother with her face charred black -- has been broadcast regularly on state television, stirring anger against the sect.
Falun Gong leaders insist that the five people could not have been members of their movement, which promotes a blend of Buddhism, Taoism and traditional Chinese breathing exercises.
Hong Kong's Beijing-appointed leader, meanwhile, described Falun Gong as a cult whose members must be closely monitored, the Associated Press reported from Hong Kong. "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 the group's activities in Hong Kong. China is trying to pressure Hong Kong to ban Falun Gong, which exists legally in the former British colony.
"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.
The display of concern coincides with preparations in Beijing to host a delegation that will evaluate the city's bid for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. Protests against China's human rights record helped doom the city's bid for the 2000 Games, but Chinese officials say the Falun Gong crackdown should not be used as an excuse to deny the country again.
"Cults exist in every country," said Liu Jingmin, deputy mayor of Beijing. "The way governments deal with them differs due to different laws, but resistance against cults is a common practice."
Liu said the U.S. government's 1993 attack on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Tex., did not affect the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, and he added that the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, took place despite a poison gas attack on Tokyo subways in 1995 by the Aum Supreme Truth cult.
The newspaper reports said that surveillance videotapes showed six or seven reporters from CNN, the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse arriving 10 minutes before the burnings began and positioning themselves near the victims. It also said the harrowing, close-up shots of the incident broadcast on China Central Television were taken from videotape confiscated from CNN -- addressing for the first time questions by overseas Falun Gong leaders about why the government happened to have a camera crew in place to film the incident.
CNN, the AP and AFP denied having advance knowledge of the incident. The AP and AFP said their reporters were not in the square at the time. Eason Jordan, CNN's chief news executive, said a producer and cameraman witnessed the self-immolations because they were making a routine check of the square for Falun Gong protests on the day before the Chinese New Year, which was marked by protests a year ago.
He said the footage used in the Chinese television reports could not have come from CNN videotape because the CNN cameraman was arrested almost immediately after the incident began.
HONG KONG - Pro-Beijing forces on Friday applauded Hong Kong's chief executive for calling the Falun Gong sect a ``cult'' that needs to be closely watched by the authorities, but human rights groups were worried.
Falun Gong followers were outraged at what they called an unfair and inaccurate attack from Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa during a question-and-answer session with lawmakers on Thursday. His statements sharply raised the volume in the debate over the sect's activities in Hong Kong.
The meditation sect has made authorities in mainland China nervous because of its ability to summon thousands of followers to protests. It is banned in mainland China but remains legal in Hong Kong.
``We are always peaceful,'' said Wang Yaoqing, a Falun Gong adherent who takes her 8-year-old son to practice deep-breathing and meditation exercises opposite China's representative office in Hong Kong every morning.
``Tung has never communicated or tried to understand us. He's just taking the central government's command,'' Wang said during a break from her routine early Friday.
Beijing and its allies among local newspapers and politicians are demanding a crackdown on Falun Gong in Hong Kong. Although Tung stopped short of announcing any action, Beijing's side was clearly pleased to have seen him adopt so much of Beijing's line on Falun Gong.
Ma Lik, the secretary general of Hong Kong's biggest pro-Beijing political party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, said Tung was acting in Hong Kong's interests.
``Does one want to force him to say that everything is OK and we'll do nothing?'' said Ma, who is also a local representative of the mainland National People's Congress. ``It would be difficult for him to explain that to Beijing.''
Tung angered Falun Gong members by citing an incident last month in Beijing, when five purported followers of the sect set themselves on fire.
Falun Gong said the people who tried to kill themselves could not have been true believers, since the group opposes suicide. It accused Beijing of using the incident as part of a propaganda campaign.
``I thought his remarks were very irresponsible and incredibly unfair,'' said Sharon Xu, a Falun Gong spokeswoman.
She said she was worried about Tung's statement that Hong Kong will monitor Falun Gong ``very carefully.''
``I don't know what that means,'' asked Xu. ``Does that mean to have people following us?''
Hong Kong's handling of the Falun Gong controversy is seen as a key test of its freedoms of speech and religion, holdovers from British colonial days.
A joint statement made by 12 Christian organizations said any suppression of Falun Gong could also affect them. It urged the government to maintain its religious tolerance.
HONG KONG - Human rights campaigners accused Hong Kong leader Tung Chee-hwa on Friday of siding with Beijing's communist leadership by joining in branding the Falun Gong spiritual movement an "evil cult." Tung warned the Falun Gong on Thursday that it would be closely watched and prevented from exploiting Hong Kong's freedom to upset stability in the territory or provoke mainland China.
Tung told a session of Hong Kong's 60-member legislative council that the Falun Gong had some characteristics of "an evil cult," the words China uses to describe the movement which is banned on the mainland.
Falun Gong is legal in Hong Kong, which was granted a high degree of autonomy after returning to Chinese rule in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" formula worked out with Britain.
Falun Gong has taken an aggressive stand in Hong Kong this year, pushing its anti-Beijing protests.
Law Yuk-kai of the group the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor deplored Tung's echoing of Beijing in calling the group an "evil cult" and questioned what closer scrutiny meant.
"Describing it as an evil cult is irresponsible. Governments have to restrain themselves from calling any belief or group such names," he said.
"If Falun Gong is just voicing its views, it does not deserve such things (surveillance). Does that mean the government will tap their phones, intercept their mail?"
Martin Lee, leader of the Democratic Party, said: "If we carry on like this and the central government isn't nice to the Catholics, Protestants or Buddhists either, and seeks to brand all of them as cults, will Hong Kong call them cults too?"
An editorial in the mass-circulated Chinese-language Apple Daily called Tung's remarks "dangerous and unreasonable."
Beijing has stepped up its vilification campaign against the group and warned recently it would not allow Falun Gong to turn Hong Kong into an anti-China base.
TUNG WALKS FINE LINE
But political analysts said Tung, picked by Beijing for the post-colonial role of chief executive, was walking a tightrope between pleasing Beijing and defending Hong Kong's special status and freedoms within communist China.
Sonny Lo, a politics professor at the Hong Kong University, said: "Sandwiched between Beijing and the Falun Gong, that was the best Tung could do."
"By calling the group an 'evil cult', Tung was giving a clear signal to Falun Gong to tone down and understand the predicament of the Hong Kong government."
Political commentator Lau Siu-kai, a sociology professor at the Chinese University said the best approach was to persuade Falun Gong members in Hong Kong to assume a lower profile.
"The government must appeal to people's political pragmatism that high profile Falun Gong activities will hurt the relationship between Hong Kong and Beijing, and that will be detrimental to Hong Kong," Lau told Reuters.
Some analysts said Tung had been sensible in saying he was in no hurry to press for a sedition law that the Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini constitution, requires the territory adopt.
"It seems to me Tung understands the virtue of keeping that law ambiguous for now. That grey area is beneficial for Hong Kong as it means the Falun Gong and other sensitive issues are up for bargain, negotiation, politicking and compromise," Lo said.
Despite the flap over Falun Gong, international rating agency Standard & Poor's upgraded Hong Kong's sovereign credit rating on Friday.
"Hong Kong's ability to administer its own affairs within the limited autonomy provided by the Basic Law has been tested by several economic and political challenges," the agency said.
The local arm of the Falun Gong, in a dramatic about-turn, has pledged to adopt a low profile in an attempt to ease growing tension over the group's activities in the territory.
Hong Kong Association of Falun Dafa convenor Kan Hung-cheung said yesterday the sect needed to gain the understanding of the public after it was branded a nuisance by Secretary for Security Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee.
``We will change our strategy,'' Mr Kan said. ``The fact is we have been low-profile. It was suppression by the Central Government that brought the publicity. We will change our direction so that we would not be criticised easily.''
Separately, a pro-Beijing source told Hong Kong iMail the Central Government was keen to create a ``harmonious atmosphere'' ahead of Vice-Premier Qian Qichen's visit to Washington next month to meet members of the new Bush administration.
``International forces behind the Falun Gong have also softened their stance towards the Central Government. The Falun Gong in the SAR was told to adopt more self-restraint,'' the source said.
The source said the absence of Falun Gong members outside the Central Government Liaison Office's spring reception at the Convention and Exhibition Centre on Monday was a ``surprise'' and attributed it to the new stance. But Mr Kan said the sect had learnt of the reception too late.
Meanwhile, the Xinhua News Agency has quoted the Dutch government as saying that a visit by its foreign minister to Beijing and Hong Kong - during which he was to meet sect members - had been postponed ``owing to the time factor''.
``We understand this and Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan welcomes Dutch Foreign Minister Jozias van Aartsen's visit to China when the time is convenient for both sides,'' Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao said.
The Dutch minister cancelled his visit after Beijing urged him to scrap the scheduled meeting with Falun Gong members.
Sources close to Chief Executive Tung Chee-Hwa said Tuesday's statement by Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi indicated the SAR had been given leeway to deal with the local Falun Gong as it saw fit. Mr Tung will explain the SAR's stance toward the sect at a Legislative Council question-and-answer session today.
In other developments, two visiting delegates of the United Nations Human Rights Committee yesterday heard complaints that some employers had sacked staff because they were Falun Gong members.
Human Rights Commission director Ho Hei-wah said former Indian chief justice Prafulchandra Bhagwati and French delegate Christine Chanet had expressed ``concern'' and ``sympathy'' over the incidents.
What Is Falun Gong? See "Falun Gong 101", by Massimo Introvigne
FALUN GONG UPDATES
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