U.N. human rights chief Mary Robinson Monday urged China at landmark talks on sensitive penal system reforms to scrap the ``re-education through labor'' system it has used to lock away dissidents.
But only hours later the Communist Party called for the ''complete elimination'' of the Falun Gong (news - web sites) spiritual movement which it banned as a cult in 1999 and against which ''re-education through labor'' has been a key weapon.
``If the cult is not removed...the process of China's reform, opening-up and socialist modernization drive will be affected,'' said an editorial in Tuesday's People's Daily, issued through Xinhua news agency.
Xinhua said the government gave citations to 110 organizations and 271 individuals for anti-Falun Gong work in a move underscoring national resolve ``to wipe out the cancer of Falun Gong from society.''
The official media statements did not unveil new policies in China's 19-month-long battle against Falun Gong, a ruthless campaign which has provoked strong international concern about violations of religious freedom and civil rights.
Earlier Monday Robinson, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, opened a two-day seminar on punishment of minor crimes in Beijing, calling for ``a serious review leading to the abolition'' of the extrajudicial labor camp program.
``The concept of using forced labor as a punishment is against the accepted international human rights principles embodied in many international instruments,'' Robinson told Chinese officials and legal experts.
Falun Gong spokespeople say 5,000 members of the spiritual group are undergoing re-education labor in harsh conditions.
REFORM OR ABOLITION?
Robinson's remarks echoed demands by Western human rights activists and some Chinese legal experts who say the 45-year-old practice of sending people to labor camps without trial or due process spawns widespread abuses, including arbitrary detention.
``We're very happy that Mary Robinson made this strong statement at the workshop and is standing with the people inside China who are looking at this issue,'' said Sophia Woodman, research director for the New York-based Human Rights in China.
Calls to abolish labor camps go beyond China's official recommendation of reforms that would add judicial review to the process.
Woodman cautioned that academic talk of reform ``doesn't mean that the security ministries have changed their point of view.''
Human Rights in China issued a report last week which quoted Chinese sources as saying 260,000 people were in labor camps, 60 percent of them for the catch-all offence of ''disturbing public order.''
There was no direct Chinese reaction to Robinson's call.
Addressing the seminar, Vice-Foreign Minister Wang Guangya said: ``No country's human rights record is 100 percent perfect.
``We hope not only to work hard to improve our record, but to learn from the experience of other countries,'' he said.
Olympics, Geneva Spotlight Rights
China, which insisted last week sports and politics should be kept separate as International Olympics Committee (IOC (news - web sites)) inspectors evaluated Beijing's 2008 bid, freed Wei and Wang to help its unsuccessful bid for the 2000 Games, which went to Sydney. They were jailed again later.
Several dissidents were detained during the Olympic inspection and a woman who wrote to the IOC asking it to press Beijing to free political prisoners was sent to a labor camp for two years.
The visit by Robinson, who arrived Sunday, also comes as Beijing is steeling for its annual fight to avoid formal censure at the annual U.N. rights meeting in Geneva next month.
And while she is in Beijing, the State Department will publish its annual global human rights report -- an event that has sparked furious reaction from China in previous years.
The report, due to be released at 1700 GMT Monday, is expected to raise concerns about China's crackdown on Falun Gong, its tough policies in the Buddhist region of Tibet and curbs on the Internet.
BANKGOK -- Thai followers of the Falun Gong group have canceled plans to hold a conference in Bangkok in April amid pressure from the Thai government.
Anxious to protect its relations with China where the meditation sect is banned, the Thai government and the ethnic Chinese community in Thailand has pressured the group to drop its plans.
Falun Gong organizers said they canceled the conference to avoid social divisiveness in Thailand.
In a statement faxed to The Associated Press, the group said that on the advice of Maj. Gen. Amarin Niemskul, commander of the special branch division of the Thai police, they had "unilaterally decided to cancel" the April 21-22 meeting and withdraw invitations to foreign participants.
"As Falun Gong believes in meditation and peaceful coexistence, we decided to cancel the conference in order to maintain the unity of people in Thai society," said Sunataya Samkoses, a Thai practitioner of Falun Gong. "We do not want to create conflict and disunity."
Beijing, which usually professes a policy of noninterference in other countries' affairs, had applied enormous diplomatic pressure on the Thai government to have the meeting banned, according to local media reports.
Beijing describes Falun Gong an "evil cult" and has reportedly sent thousands of its members to labor camps.
Falun Gong was banned by China in 1999, and Thai authorities have been reluctant to give the group a free rein to prevent relations with China from souring.
Last Wednesday, a Falun Gong spokesman in Thailand had said there were no plans to abandon the scheduled meeting.
However, high-ranking police and government officials had taken a hard line and said the meeting would be subject to limits.
Local overseas Chinese groups such as the Thai-Chinese Chamber of Commerce, which usually shun any open involvement in political affairs, reiterated the Chinese government line in describing Falun Gong as an evil cult and urging that the meeting be banned.
We've read a lot of reports about the opposition of some Thais to the Falungong meeting for reasons of national security and Buddhism.
I am suspicious of what national security really means. I also find Thais calling Falungong an evil sect, a term used by the Chinese government, without anyone in authority in Thailand ruling that this is the case.
We are Thais and we are in Thailand. These people must remember that their loyalty must be to here and not China, no matter what their background.
They also must understand that doing business with China or investing in China is a good thing, but they should never do anything to hurt this country's long-term interests just to protect their own interests.
As for Buddhism, I think it would be better to leave this to senior monks and religious experts. They should have the final say on whether Falungong's teachings are wrong and, if so, how they are wrong. This concerns religion. It should not be used as an excuse to protect certain people's business.
The Falungong issue might be converted into something threatening national security; but this should not involve Falungong itself but the way we handle it, especially the consequences of tolerating selfish and near-sighted but wealthy and influential people.
Thailand is a democratic country. We do not want to interfere in anyone else's domestic affairs. But at the same time, we also need to mention that others should not interfere in Thailand. Only we have the right to decide our affairs.
Is self-immolation a religious act?
I disagree strongly with the writer in support of Falungong (Postbag, Feb 23) and believe Thailand has made the correct choice in banning this dangerous "cult" here.
I say "cult" because Falungong is not a religion. When members kill themselves by setting themselves on fire, this is not a religion.
Yes, members individually made a choice to set themselves on fire, but I would disagree with you in that the other members never persuaded them to stop. In a way, Falungong is promoting self-sacrifice.
I have never heard of any religion that promotes killing oneself, but I have heard of many mass suicides around the world associated with cults. Sweden, France and America have all seen cult members kill themselves. For what? A belief? A way of life?
No life is worth giving up.
Falungong destroys the ability of individuals to think for themselves. It takes advantage of those who are looking desperately for guidance and hope. I praise China's government for banning this cult around the world.
Don't compare China's policy on religious sects with that of Japan. There are more people who are in a desperate and vulnerable position living in China than in Japan. If this cult is not controlled, China may have a problem of revolt. Japan does not.
It's basic freedoms which are at risk
I live in the United States and have been following the Falungong situation in Thailand with great interest. I agree wholeheartedly with the editorial of Feb 23 and wanted to add a couple of points.
When you compare the behaviour of China and the Falungong group, it is clear that the oppressive rule in Tibet and the massacre at Tiananmen Square in 1989 (to name just two examples) are far more deserving of the pejorative term "evil" than the actions of a group of people who want to practise a hybrid form of meditation.
It is also clear, as Pastor Martin Niemoller pointed out a long time ago, that Thailand bowing to China's whims will simply lead to a slippery slope where any expression of speech can be threatened:
"First they came for the Jews. But I didn't speak up because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the communists. But I didn't speak up because I was not a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists. But I didn't speak up because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics. But I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me. And by that time no one was left to speak up."
At issue here isn't whether one likes what Falungong has to say but that no one is safe when free speech and expression is not permitted based on blind ideological grounds. It is a path that any freedom-loving individual should avoid at all costs.
HONG KONG - Hong Kong leader Tung Chee-hwa is under intense pressure to control the Falun Gong spiritual movement before Chinese President Jiang Zemin visits the territory in May.
The Falun Gong, outlawed in mainland China as an "evil cult" but legal in Hong Kong, is becoming the most severe test to date of the freedoms that China granted this territory when Britain pulled out of its former colony in 1997.
Jiang is due to open an economic forum in Hong Kong on May 8, and Tung is under pressure from pro-Beijing politicians to ensure Falun Gong protests do not overshadow the visit.
Pressure on Tung has mounted since 1,000 Falun Gong members held a two-day conference at Hong Kong's City Hall in January. They denounced Jiang and China's draconian policies towards the meditation group.
Hong Kong's pro-democracy forces have said that should Tung yield and ban the Falun Gong, it would be a severe blow to the city's largely autonomous status and to its local freedoms.
Apart from petitioning Jiang to stop the mainland crackdown, overseas Falun Gong members are expected to converge on Hong Kong to celebrate the May 13 anniversary of the group's founding by Li Hongzhi nine years ago.
Beijing sees such actions as extremely provocative and, in essence, abusing the city's special status to denounce China from its own doorstep.
Pro-Beijing politicians have raised the tone of their attacks on the Falun Gong as the May events loom.
Tung, put in his post by China, will be hard pressed to find a middle ground between Beijing and the Falun Gong, analysts said. He must prevent the Falun Gong from embarrassing Jiang on Chinese soil but also give the group freedom of expression under the "one country, two systems" concept set out at the handover.
LINES BEING DRAWN
"The government is under tremendous pressure to control the group, especially now that Jiang is visiting in May," Ma Lik, a local delegate to China's National People's Congress (NPC), or parliament, told Reuters.
"Mr Tung has been procrastinating making a decision," Ma said, adding that Beijing was closely watching how Tung handles the problem.
Lines are being drawn, and Ma and another NPC delegate warned Falun Gong members at a recent public meeting not to associate with mainland Falun Gong members.
Beijing's recent renewed attack on the Falun Gong has had Chinese officials and pro-China circles in Hong Kong baying for blood.
Ye Xiaowen, director of China's State Bureau of Religious Affairs, told a recent Hong Kong forum that Beijing would never allow evil cults and repeated an earlier warning that the Falun Gong would not be allowed to use Hong Kong as an anti-China base.
Some pro-Beijing politicians in the territory have called for the Falun Gong to be banned in Hong Kong while others have urged the enactment of a sedition law to deal with the group.
Tung this month echoed Beijing's description of Falun Gong as evil and vowed he would monitor its activities closely.
That sparked an outcry from Hong Kong's vocal pro-democracy camp and religious leaders, who warned Tung against banning the group which they said would set a dangerous precedent.
With the rising heat, Falun Gong members in Hong Kong appear to have toned down their activities and petitions in recent days.
"We have not made any concrete plans (for Jiang's visit) and if we do anything at all, it will probably be just to petition Jiang to ask him to stop the crackdown," Falun Gong spokeswoman Hui Yee-han told Reuters.
On May 13, the group will exercise in a public park, though detailed celebration plans have yet to be confirmed. In the past such exercise sessions have included banners denouncing Beijing.
"But whatever we do, it will be legal," Hui said.
Political analyst Sonny Lo said the outcome may come down to bargaining between Tung's government and the Falun Gong group.
"The Hong Kong government will probably have to give a warning to the group to keep its activities low-key," Lo said.
BEIJING - U.N. human rights chief Mary Robinson urged China on Monday to scrap the "re-education through labour" system it has used to lock away dissidents and protesting members of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement.
"The concept of using forced labour as a punishment is against the accepted international human rights principles embodied in many international instruments," Robinson told Chinese officials and legal experts.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, opening a seminar on punishment of minor crimes in Beijing, called for "a serious review leading to the abolition of the practice."
Robinson's remarks echoed demands by Western human rights activists and some Chinese legal experts who say the 45-year-old practice of sending people to labour camps without trial spawns widespread abuses, including arbitrary detention.
"We're very happy that Mary Robinson made this strong statement at the workshop and is standing with the people inside China who are looking at this issue," said Sophia Woodman, research director for the New York-based Human Rights in China.
REFORM OR ABOLITION?
Calls to abolish labour camps go beyond China's official recommendation of reforms to add judicial review to the process.
Woodman cautioned that academic talk of reform "doesn't mean that the security ministries have changed their point of view."
Human Rights in China issued a report last week which quoted Chinese sources as saying 260,000 people were in labour camps, 60 percent of them for the catch-all offence of "disturbing public order."
Falun Gong spokespeople say 5,000 members of the spiritual group, which China banned in 1999 as an "evil cult," are in labour camps.
There was no direct Chinese reaction to Robinson's call.
Addressing the seminar, Vice-Foreign Minister Wang Guangya said: "No country's human rights record is 100 percent perfect."
"We hope not only to work hard to improve our record, but to learn from the experience of other countries," he said.
MEDICAL PAROLE APPEAL
Before Robinson opened the two-day workshop, a group of 35 Chinese democracy activists urged her persuade the government to grant medical parole to Xu Wenli, China's most prominent jailed dissident.
Xu, two years into a 13-year jail sentence for subversion for his leading role in the short-lived opposition China Democracy Party, was suffering numerous ailments, including hepatitis, but denied proper treatment, the dissidents alleged.
"Although Xu Wenli's belief in upholding democratic ideals has not diminished, his health has gone from bad to worse, his teeth have all fallen out and his hair is all white," said the activists' letter, which was sent to foreign correspondents.
They asked Robinson to seek medical parole for Xu -- a method China used in 1997 and 1998 to free leading political prisoners Wei Jingsheng and Wang Dan without reversing the verdicts of their trials.
It was not clear whether Robinson got the letter.
Human rights activists and some diplomats have predicted Xu might win freedom as China seeks to appease critics in the run up to a July vote on Beijing's bid to host the 2008 Olympics.
OLYMPICS, GENEVA SPOTLIGHT RIGHTS
China, which insisted last week sports and politics should be kept separate as International Olympics Committee (IOC) inspectors evaluated Beijing's 2008 bid, freed Wei and Wang to help its unsuccessful bid for the 2000 Games, which went to Sydney. They were jailed again later.
Several dissidents were detained during the Olympic inspection and a woman who wrote to the IOC asking it to press Beijing to free political prisoners was sent to a labour camp for two years.
The visit by Robinson, who arrived on Sunday, also comes as Beijing is steeling for its annual fight to avoid formal censure at the annual U.N. rights meeting in Geneva next month.
And while she is in Beijing, the U.S. State Department will publish its annual global human rights report -- an event which has sparked furious reaction from China in previous years.
The report, due to be released at 1700 GMT on Monday, is expected to raise concerns about China's crackdown on Falun Gong, its tough policies in the Buddhist region of Tibet and curbs on the Internet.
BEIJING - With U.N. human rights chief Mary Robinson headed to Beijing for talks, Chinese dissidents appealed Sunday for her help in winning medical attention for a prominent, jailed democracy activist.
In a letter to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, 35 dissidents asked her to press the Chinese government to allow medical attention for Xu Wenli, who suffers from Hepatitis B.
Xu is one of the most prominent dissidents still sitting in a Chinese jail, having received a 13-year sentence in 1998 for trying to organize a pro-democracy political party.
In the letter, the dissidents alleged Xu had been denied proper medical attention. They called on Robinson to ask that he be treated outside of prison and that his wife be allowed to see him.
``At a time like now, when China's human rights record is extremely poor, what concerns us the most is the health situation of prisoners being held in the Communist Party's jails for political crimes and crimes of conscience,'' said the letter, a copy of which was faxed to The Associated Press.
Among the signers were veteran democracy activists.
Xu's wife, He Xintong, has been under police surveillance during Robinson's previous trips to China, including one last March when she stopped eating for 24 hours to bring her husband's plight to Robinson's attention.
Robinson is to meet with Chinese officials on Monday while overseeing a two-day workshop on China's punishment for minor crimes. The seminar - the first of a series under U.N. auspices that will examine China's courts, police and labor camp system - was part of an agreement Robinson signed in Beijing last November.
The power of police to send suspects to labor camps without trial is expected to be a main topic of Robinson's workshop. Intended for minor offenders such as prostitutes and drug addicts, China has used the system to punish opponents of communist rule and followers of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement.
Robinson is also expected to urge Beijing to ratify two U.N. human rights treaties, one on economic rights and the other covering political liberties. China has signed the two, but its highest legislative body, the National People's Congress, has balked at approving them.
On a Saturday afternoon that is surprisingly warm for the middle of February, Beverly Clark and seven other people are standing on the lawn of Washington Square, in front of the City-County Building. Chinese music from a small tape player wobbles through the air and is nearly drowned out by cars moving past on 500 South, but the men and women move serenely through their Falun Gong exercises: Buddha Showing a Thousand Hands, Penetrating Two Cosmic Extremes, Falun Heavenly Circuit.
Washington Square is 6,000 miles from Tiananmen Square, where five alleged members set themselves on fire in January to protest the government's crackdown on Falun Gong. In Beijing, as in the rest of China, Falun Gong has been outlawed, labeled as an "evil cult." Practitioners have been jailed. There are reports of torture and deaths in prison. The Wall Street Journal reported recently that when Beijing students returned to classes after the Chinese New Year break they were given course schedules emblazoned with slogans such as "Reject Cults in the Schoolyard."
Worldwide, Falun Gong is reportedly practiced by 100 million people, although like many reports about Falun Gong, the figure may or may not be accurate. There are no membership rolls, so there is no real way to gauge the numbers. And because of the tension between the Chinese government and practitioners of Falun Gong, there are claims and counterclaims on both sides.
At the very least, the practice has become pervasive enough in China to panic the government - and to provide one more human rights headache that could keep Beijing from getting the Olympics in 2008.
The Chinese government's discomfort with Falun Gong has spilled over to Hong Kong and, most recently, to Pasadena, Calif., where last weekend the consulate general of the People's Republic of China "lobbied vigorously" to prevent a Falun Gong "experience-sharing conference," according to the Pasadena Star News.
In Utah, the Falun Gong movement is tiny but gaining attention. In January, Mayor Rocky Anderson proclaimed "Falun Dafa Week."
Falun Gong - sometimes also called Falun Dafa (Falun means "law wheel," Dafa means "great way") - is often referred to by the media as a religion or a sect, but it worships no deity. The practice includes traditional qi gong exercises, designed to move healing energy (qi or chi) through the body. Although this is the most visible part of Falun Gong - the exercises are done in public parks in European cities, for example - the exercises are only a small part of the practice of Falun Gong.
The heart of Falun Gong is xinxing (pronounced shin-shing), the cultivation of moral character.
"The gong that truly determines the level of one's energy potency is not developed through practicing exercises," writes Li Hongzhi. "It is developed through the transformation of the substance de (virtue), and through the cultivation of xinxing."
Li, referred to as Master Li by practitioners, introduced Falun Gong to the Chinese people in 1992, bringing together what he says are ancient teachings that combine elements of the Buddha School and Tao, plus qi gong and various other ideas that the Chinese government considers "superstition." Li is now in exile in New York.
"Spiritual practice" is perhaps the best way to describe Falun Gong, says Salt Laker Beverly Clark, who began to practice Falun Gong about a year ago. Clark, who grew up as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, says she was drawn to Falun Gong after exploring Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Catholicism, New Age books, tai chi and yoga.
"I wanted answers to things that didn't make sense," Clark says.
When she heard about Falun Gong she figured that, like everything else she had tried, it would be a spiritual dead end. But "I checked out (Falun Gong) books from the library and I'm like, whoa, all the answers I've been searching for were there right before my eyes."
Through the practice of Falun Gong, according to Li, a person cultivates truthfulness, compassion and forbearance (zhen, shan and ren). Like Buddhist schools, it advocates the relinquishment of ego, jealousy and "attachments" - not material possessions or relationships themselves but the desire for them. Like other Buddha schools, Falun Gong believes in karma (basically, what goes around comes around), although Li takes it one step further. "Karma," he writes, "is the primary factor that causes sickness in people."
Through the practice of Falun Gong, he says, people can change the molecular composition of their bodies. Eventually, he says, "metabolism no longer occurs. A person thus transcends the five elements, turning his body into one composed of substances from other dimensions. No longer restrained by our space and time, this person will forever be young."
For every organic and inorganic thing that exists in the dimension we can see, says Li, there exists "an intelligent being" in another dimension.
In Utah, where Falun Gong practitioners meet every Saturday at noon in the Downtown Library (and in good weather at Liberty Park), practitioners such as Clark struggle to understand and explain some of Li's metaphysical concepts.
But all say it has made a difference in their lives. Lin-Chu, who travels to the Salt Lake Falun Gong sessions each week from Ogden, says the practice has made her a more patient, decent person, and has rid her of carpal tunnel syndrome and an ulcer. Sheng Mei, who has practiced Falun Gong since he was a high school student, says that in the four years since then he has not caught one cold.
Although the Chinese government has labeled Falun Gong a "doomsday cult," charging that Li has predicted the world will end in 20 years and only Falun Gong members will survive, "that's propaganda," says Sheng. And the much-publicized reports of the suicide immolation of five people in Tiananmen Square are also propaganda, say practitioners and others.
Washington Post reporter Philip P. Pan recently questioned the allegations of Chinese officials about the Tiananmen immolations. According to Pan, one of the women said to have set fire to herself had not been known to practice Falun Gong, and Falun Gong beliefs discourage suicide. In addition there are other inconsistencies in the government's account, according to American journalist Danny Schechter, author of "Falun Gong's Challenge to China." Schechter is not a Falun Gong practitioner.
"Now, as new questions are raised and doubts expressed, it may turn out that the world media have been misled into becoming an uncritical transmission belt for Beijing's bullying," wrote Schechter earlier this week in an article posted on the Falun Gong clearwisdom.net Web site.
The controversy seems half a world away from the handful of practitioners slowly and calmly moving through the Strengthening Divine Powers exercise in downtown Salt Lake City. But don't use her name, says Clark, pointing to a young Chinese woman gracefully moving her arms above her head. "Her family still lives in China."
STOCKHOLM - The European Union told China Friday its crackdown on the Falungong movement and mistreatment of its followers were an "unacceptable" violation of human rights.
The mass arrests and mistreatments of Falungong followers were "definitely a matter of human rights violations," Thomas Hammarberg, the official led an EU delegation in two days of talks with Chinese officials, said at a news conference.
The EU expressed to China its concern over the fact that "practitioners were mass-arrested and mistreated and over reports of the number of people who died as a result" of the Chinese crackdown, Hammarberg said, but said the two sides had "disagreed in both fact and principles."
"Regardless of which organisation is concerned, this is unacceptable," he added.
The Chinese government views the Falungong, which claims 70 million adherents in China alone, as the biggest threat to Communist Party rule since the 1989 Tiananmen democracy protests.
It banned the movement as an "evil cult" in July 1999, three months after it gathered 10,000 followers for a silent protest at the Communist Party headquarters in Beijing.
EU-China meetings are held every six months within the framework of the EU-China dialogue on human rights. Sweden hosted the meeting in its role as the current holder of the rotating EU presidency.
The new government is under increasing pressure to take a stand on the Falungong meditation sect amid growing controversy over the group's plan to hold an international conference here in April.
Those against the meeting include Thai-Chinese communities and China experts who fear that foreign members of a group China has condemned as an "evil cult" might cause unrest and use the opportunity to offend Thailand's powerful "friend".
Strongly in favour of an open door are Sulak Sivaraksa, the outspoken social critic, and Somchai Homla-or, secretary-general of Forum Asia, a leading advocate of human rights.
Mr Sulak maintains that Thailand must stand up for its sovereignty and resist bending to China's wishes.
Falungong practitioners in Thailand, he said, have every right to exercise their religious belief according to the Thai constitution.
"This is a basic human right of Thai citizens. Whoever disagrees can also express his opinion but the Thai government has to ensure that the rights of Falungong should be respected," he said.
Thailand, he maintained, must not cower under threats from Beijing. "We must have our own dignity and this is our sovereignty. We should not chicken out."Mr Somchai said today's borderless world "compels Thai society to learn to co-exist with people who have different views so long as they do not lead to violence".
Thailand, he said, must stand up as a democratic country and resist any interference from China, which has used diplomatic as well as covert means to press for compliance with its wishes.
Noppadol Ekabuse, an organiser of the Falungong conference, said the aim was only to exchange views among Falungong members and spread the word about the spiritual movement. He maintained that the conference, planned for April 21-22, was still on even though he had not been in contact with the authorities.
Special Branch Police, who have been monitoring the activities of local practitioners since China outlawed the movement in July 1999, however, have become increasingly wary about the conference.
They fear anti-Beijing feelings might rise and unrest ensue if the conference showed video films carrying a message from Li Hongzhi, the movement's US-based leader, and of the recent self-immolation in Beijing which members maintain did not involve their Chinese brethren.
The absence of direction from the new government on the matter is not helping.
Surakiart Sathirathai, foreign minister, has merely reiterated his predecessor's line on the matter, saying Thailand would not allow anyone to engage in activities harmful to neighbours.
"If I were the foreign minister, I would clearly state that Falungong should not hold its conference here," said Vorasakdi Mahatdhanobol, of Chulalongkorn University's Institute of East Asian Studies. "I would say so right after I assumed the post, rather than wait for more protests and unrest."Beijing's strong opposition to the conference, communicated informally and formally to Thai authorities, has found ready support among Thai-Chinese communities in Bangkok.
The Business Relations Associations of Thailand plans to petition Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to ban the meeting. The Association of Pharmaceutical Retailers and Federation of All Saes (Chinese families) have published an anti-Falungong message in Chinese-language newspapers, backing views expressed earlier by the Thai-Chinese Journalists Welfare Foundation, Thai-Chinese Chamber of Commerce, Buddhist Charity Foundation and Thai-Taechiu Association.
This is a rare case of Thai-Chinese communities taking a common stand against a specific movement. They represent ordinary Chinese as well as businessmen, proponents of the Mahayana Buddhist sect, and people who practise muay chin and taikek at Lumphini park.
It is these pressures rather than the ambiguous message of Thai authorities that has put organisers of the meeting, who are trying to keep a low profile, at a loss.
In a recent interview with the Bangkok Post, Mr Noppadol said he was confused by the opposition to the meeting from almost every quarter, and would like to consult with friends on what were their options.
"We don't want to confront or challenge anyone. We might not convene the meeting if the law says we can't. But right now we can't say if it will be postponed or cancelled until we have talks with the authorities," he said.
Since Beijing outlawed Falungong, Special Branch Police have watched local members' activities at Lumphini, Benjasiri and Chatuchak parks. Although local members say there are about 100 known practitioners, the Chinese embassy claims the movement has a following of 1,000 people in Thailand.
Thai authorities "are afraid that we are part of the Dhammakaya sect which caused headaches for the Chuan government for a while. But we are not. We just meditate and practise movement in order to attain greater serenity. It's for our health and our mind," said an unidentified woman, who exercises with her son at Benjasiri park.
Mr Noppadol said the conference would allow practitioners from around the world to exchange experiences, with the majority likely to come from Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong due to the closer contacts with the group in Bangkok.
"Master Li Hongzhi will not come to open the conference, so the conference should do no harm to China or undermine the good relations between Thailand and China," Mr Noppadol said.
"It will only be a get-together among us. But a by-product is to help make known to the Thai public the true essence of the Falungong discipline: truth, compassion, forbearance."Phuvadol Songprasert, a social scientist specialising in China at Kasetsart University, said human rights was the name of the US game to pressure China, and the Falungong issue was just another tool.
"The Thai government should not be trapped in the rights battle between these two major powers. Rather, we should think of our national interest and should not risk jeopardising the strong and friendly ties we have with China," he said.
If Thailand allowed Falungong to bloom, he said, this would not be fair to other local spiritual movements such as Santi Asoke, whose freedom has been restricted.
Mr Vorasakdi agreed. He said Thailand, by limiting Falungong activities, would not be siding with China but showing an understanding of a "friend's" phobia about any threat to its political regime.
"In fact, opposition against Falungong has deeper grounds, not just to appease Beijing, but to preserve peacefulness in society. What if 10,000 Falungong followers gather at the Royal Plaza?" he asked.
The China expert said it was foreign practitioners, not Thai members, that gave cause for concern.
"We cannot anticipate or control what will be discussed [at the conference]."In addition, he said, government permission for the conference to proceed would "imply official recognition which would send a wrong signal to Chinese communities in other Asean countries, whose governments have not allowed this spiritual movement to blossom at the expense of their cordial relations with China".
Recognition of Falungong raises cultural and religious debates that could lead to social discord, he said.
An intelligence official said Falungong was different from groups that authorities have allowed to convene on matters like East Timor or Burma.
"Falungong has yet to take a political stance in the international arena, unlike the East Timor activists who we allowed entry when we learned that they would become leaders of an independent nation," said a state official who requested anonymity.
"In the Falungong case, it is not worth risking harm to Sino-Thai relations by advocating the rights of the spiritual movement, which has yet to gain a footing inside Thailand."The controversy might not have blown up if the Chuan Leekpai government had persuaded local organisers to lower their ambitions about foreign participation.
The prospect of as many as 600 foreign members of such a little-known movement here so strongly opposed by Beijing can only raise alarm bells among Chinese Thais whose prime concern is a peaceful way of life.
Should Thailand ban Falungong members from holding an international meeting in Bangkok in April? Should Thailand risk souring relations with China for the sake of a marginal group that seeks to combine physical exercise with Buddhist and Taoist spiritual principles? There are only an estimated 1,000 practitioners of Falungong in Thailand, so why should their interest override those of the whole country?It's a given, right? That is what Beijing would like us to believe. It has already succeeded in convincing some Thai Chinese business groups of this and they are now toeing the Beijing line that Falungong is an "evil cult", on a par with Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese cult responsible for the 1995 sarin nerve gas attack in the Tokyo subway which killed 10 people. The businessmen have called on the Thaksin Shinawatra government to ban the Falungong meeting to safeguard national security and Buddhism.
The new administration has yet to respond. But before it does, it should think hard about all the issues involved here-issues like sovereignty and freedom of belief, free speech and free expression, things intrinsic to the democracy we have fought so hard to become.
Every time China gets in trouble with the world community for crushing its own people, whether it be in Tibet, the horror of Tiananmen Square in 1989, or now Falungong-Beijing recites the dogma of sovereignty and interference in its domestic affairs. But when the Dalai Lama wants to visit Bangkok or when members of Falungong want to gather, Beijing objects loudly, even threatening a deterioration in relations. Is this not interference in the domestic affairs of Thailand? Does China not recognise the principle of reciprocity? Other countries cannot interfere in what it sees as its internal affairs, but China can interfere anywhere it pleases. It does seem China recognises only her own sovereignty.
Mr Thaksin and Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai cannot afford to allow their fledgling government to be dictated to by China. They must abide by the constitution, our highest law, which guarantees freedom of assembly, freedom of thought, and free speech and expression. Thailand cannot yield to Beijing's every whim. We are a sovereign, democratic nation and we must abide by those principles. Folding at its first test will brand the Thaksin government a milksop in the eyes of the world community.
Beijing has failed to show how Falungong is a threat to anyone other than its own members in China, who regularly face arrest, persecution and harassment. The movement has not engaged in sabotage or terrorism anywhere in the world. Beijing claims its followers set themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square to protest against the authorities, but the movement denies this saying suicide or any other act of violence are against its teachings.
The Chinese authorities fear Falungong because it competes for the loyalty of the people. For doctrinaire Maoists, the people can have no loyalty other than to the Communist party. Falungong claims a following of 70 million inside China and another 30 million elsewhere. Beijing was spooked in 1999 when 10,000 Falungong practitioners held a peaceful demonstration. It was the largest such gathering in Beijing since the Tiananmen massacre in 1989. Three months later Falungong was banned in China.
The movement may be nothing more than an eccentric fad. But it is important that Thailand allows its members to meet. They have promised not to say anything political or which will upset China, but they should be free to say anything they wish. Nothing is more sacred in a free society than the freedom to say what you think. Once you start forbidding anybody from expressing his opinion, pretty soon the authorities will be coming after you next.
STOCKHOLM - The European Union will press China to respect the rights of followers of Falungong and other religious and political movements in two days of EU-China talks that began here Thursday, Swedish officials said.
Swedish Foreign Ministry spokesman Bertil Jobeus told AFP the Falungong issue would come up in the meetings which were to focus on human rights, freedom of expression and religion, the death penalty and torture.
He said the basis for the discussions was a list of top priorities drawn up by EU foreign ministers in Brussels in January.
Those priorities included the need to press China to show "respect for the fundamental rights of all prisoners, including those arrested for membership of the political opposition, unofficial religious movements and other movements, such as the Falungong."
The Chinese government views the Falungong, which claims 70 million adherents in China alone, as the biggest threat to Communist Party rule since the 1989 Tiananmen democracy protests.
It banned the movement as an "evil cult" in July 1999, three months after it gathered 10,000 followers for a silent protest at the Communist Party headquarters in Beijing.
Falungong members, who follow the Buddhist-inspired teachings of guru Li Hongzhi, who lives in exile in the United States, insist they have no political agenda and members are taught how to attain high moral standards and physical well-being through meditation.
At Thursday's talks, "the Chinese and EU delegations are expected to discuss China's cooperation with the United Nations, in particular regarding China's ratification of human rights conventions," Jobeus said.
The EU delegation was headed by ambassador Thomas Hammarberg of Sweden, which currently holds the EU's six-month rotating presidency, while the Chinese side was represented by Li Baodong, a foreign ministry official in charge of human rights.
The EU wanted to see ratification and implementation of the UN covenants on civil and political rights, Jobeus said, and cooperation with "human rights mechanisms" including the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
It would also call for respect for the right to fair and impartial trials, and for the right of an accused to be defended, and was seeking "guarantees to strengthen legal protection with regard to the death penalty," he said.
Jobeus said he also expected the situation in the autonomous regions of China, which include Tibet and Xinjiang, to be discussed.
Such EU-China meetings are held every six months within the framework of the EU-China dialogue on human rights
What could be more dramatic? People are setting themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing. CNN is there. The police just happen to have fire extinguishers on hand, and the victims are rushed to a hospital after their agonies are thoroughly photographed for state television. While the government-controlled media uncharacteristically releases the story at once, it takes a week of production before video footage is aired.
Soon, horrific images are rocketed around the world, seeming to confirm China's charges that an evil cult is ordering brainwashed members to commit suicide. Citing this new "evidence," the government insists that what it has been saying all along about those "fanatical" Falun Gongers is true, and these people must be banned as a threat to themselves and the nation. On February 16 another suicide is attributed to Falun Gong. Alongside a charred body an uncharred note is found allegedly claiming the victim did it to support Li Hongzhi's spiritual practice.
The Wall Street Journal's Ian Johnson, one of the most insightful journalists following this story, had his suspicions aroused by the speed with which this story was covered, observing that the state media "reported [the victim's] death with unusual alacrity, implying that either the death took place earlier than reported or the usually cautious media had top-level approval to rush out electronic reports and a televised dispatch. The 7 p.m. local evening news, for example, had a filmed report from Mr. Tan's hometown of Changde, a small city in Hunan province. Most reports for the evening news are vetted by noon, so the daily broadcast rarely carries reports from the same day, let alone an event that happened at noon and involved satellite feeds from relatively remote parts of the country."
For news readers and media consumers, perception often trumps unclear realities. In a world where dramatic images overshadow complex issues, Falun Gong stands convicted of crazed cult behavior. Case closed!
Score a big one for Chinese President Jiang Zemin's crusade to "crush" and discredit a growing spiritual movement that continues to resist a state-ordered ban despite the detention of an estimated 50,000 practitioners and over a hundred dead in police custody. Already, on the strength of this one incident, The Financial Times proclaimed a "winner," as in, "Beijing Wins Propaganda War Against Falun Gong." Note the headline. It doesn't refer merely to one skirmish in a protracted media war that has gone on for 19 months, but to the war itself.
Many other respected news organizations disseminated the same story the same way even though they were unable to verify it independently, instead using accounts from Communist Party-controlled state media, especially the Xinua news agency. Now, as new questions are raised and doubts expressed, it may turn out that the world media have been misled into becoming an uncritical transmission belt for Beijing's bullying.
The first incident happened on January 23, days after Jiang intensified his official, nationwide, anti-cult media campaign. CNN was in the Square and reported on the suicides but its tapes were confiscated, so we never saw them. Seven days later, China's official TV shocked the nation with footage of five people engulfed in flames, pictures said to be from nearby surveillance cameras. Now a tragically disfigured victim of the incident, 12-year-old Liu Siying, says that her own mother told her to set herself on fire to reach the "heavenly golden kingdom" in some accounts, or "nirvana" in others. She has become a sympathetic symbol, even a poster child for alleged abuses by the "evil cult." Her image is everywhere; her tragedy has outraged all China. (In this respect she is the Elian Gonzalez of China!) Yet only approved media outlets there have been permitted access to her. Western reporters have been barred from direct contact.
Was she a Falun Gong practitioner? That seems doubtful, after The Washington Post's Phillip Pan traced her to her home in Kaifeng (a town that experienced an even more tragic disco fire recently, killing hundreds and scarring many others). Pan discovered that the young girl's mother, who died in the Tiananmen fire, was not known locally as a practitioner, but was depressed, mentally unstable and accused of beating her daughter and mother.
Significantly, one of the CNN producers on the scene, just 50 feet away, says she did not even see a child there. The government says doctors performed a tracheotomy on the victim, but a pediatric surgeon said that, if that were true, the child wouldn't be speaking right away.
Falun Gong spokespeople have been quoted as denying that they ordered, orchestrated and participated in this incident. But in their statement, which has not been carried in full anywhere, they go further and indict the Western press: "It is troubling to us that the party line from the PRC [People's Republic of China] mouthpieces, Xinhua News Agency and CCTV, is being given so much airtime and so much credibility by the foreign press. Xinhua and other state-run media outlets are generally never considered credible sources, as even they openly admit that their function is to disseminate propaganda for the Chinese regime. In fact, Xinhua is the Party line.
"There is so much that remains unclear and unknown about the circumstances surrounding the incident. And no one knows what occurred in the week after the actual event and before the Chinese media outlets finally released their fully engineered news articles and television programs. We must remember that the Chinese regime is so tightly controlling every aspect of this case that none of Xinhua's claims have been corroborated by independent sources."
And why would Falun Gong deny its role in the incident if it was a protest? The Longhai Foundation, which monitors Chinese prisons, had similar questions in the National Review: "Was this event staged or allowed to happen by China's government in order to discredit the Falun Gong? It is hardly a farfetched hypothesis. China's government has promised to extinguish all problems connected with the Falun Gong in advance of the 80th anniversary of Chinese Communism, which Beijing plans on celebrating this July. ... Justin Yu, a journalist for World Journal, the Chinese-language daily, reflected on the confusion faced by many Chinese over what to believe. The PRC's propaganda coup against the Falun Gong relies upon people's understanding of events in recent Asian history, such as the 73-year-old Buddhist monk in Saigon whose self-immolation was a form of protest to fulfill his beliefs, [like] Koreans cutting off their fingers and the Japanese ritual of hari-kari. But this situation is not clear. Who do we believe the Communists? They have lied to us so many times, another lie for them is nothing."
I asked Beatrice Turpin who covered Falun Gong in China for Associated Press TV and wrote about her experiences for MediaChannel what her suspicion was. She responded from her home in Thailand: "There was a big brouhaha with Falun Gong protests and footage of police beating practitioners last Chinese New Year and it would certainly fit in with typical China strategy to stage an event this year and make the show their own."
Grounds for Skepticism
Falun Gong practitioners initially told me their suspicions were aroused for three reasons:
the people in the Square, said to be long-time practitioners, didn't do the Falun Gong exercises correctly; authorities did not show any pictures or Falun Gong signs or books (which prohibit suicide) that protesters usually bring with them into the Square; and a school one of the victims was said to have graduated from was in fact closed at the time. They also say that there is no concept of "nirvana" in their beliefs.
These are perhaps small details, but they may be telling.
In a press release, Falun Gong pointed to other inconsistencies: "Xinhua News Agency claims that within a minute of the man setting himself ablaze, police had dashed over to him with four fire extinguishers and quickly put out the flames. A European journalist based in Beijing, however, told us: "I have never seen policemen patrolling on Tiananmen Square carrying fire extinguishers. How come they all showed up today? The location of the incident is at least 20 minutes roundtrip from the nearest building the People's Great Hall. If they were to have dashed over there to get the equipment, it would have been too late." Is it even possible that the police could have responded with not one but four fire extinguishers within the space of a minute if they didn't have prior knowledge that this was going to occur?
"In terms of response time, another foreign journalist in Beijing expressed shock that Xinhua was able to release the first report on the incident almost immediately and in English, no less. Every Chinese citizen knows that every report from Xinhua usually has to first go through several rounds of approval by higher-ups and is generally 'old news' by the time it is published. Moreover, state-run media have never released any photos or video of Falun Gong protests in the course of 18 months of persecution to the foreign press, so why now and with so little hesitation? And why only in English and not in Chinese?"
The issue was raised with me again and again during a recent four-city tour speaking about my new book on the Falun Gong. Some people told me Falun Gong must be crazy if it does crazy things. When I challenged the assumption that we in fact know all the details, eyes glazed over. Perhaps that's because once people hear "facts" that seem to confirm their own assumptions, they don't want to hear more, even if the original "facts" may be wrong or misleading.
Hot images sear themselves into the brain; retractions and clarifications rarely do. In the newly published Tiananmen Papers, on how the Communist Party handled the student protests in 1989, journalist Orville Schell, dean of the Journalism School at Berkeley, discusses the many forgeries and falsehoods the Chinese government and others have concocted and circulated over the years. Disinformation and misinformation are the trade craft of intelligence agencies in many countries, especially China. It is not surprising that Beijing is denouncing these new documents as fake. Clearly, their publication is embarrassing to the secretive rulers of China, especially President Jiang Zemin, whose hard-line role in those events has been revived in the official persecution of Falun Gong.
Where Are The Skeptics?
Why did the deeply ingrained, institutionalized skepticism of our own media crumble so quickly in the face of what smells like a stage-managed incident that's being blatantly exploited for political reasons? Why would so many American news outlets be so gullible? Is it because the whiff of spirituality and mysticism in a culture few of us understand makes some of us uncomfortable in our journalistic practice?
In my investigation into Falun Gong, I document a disturbing pattern of U.S. media outlets echoing China's charges, including the frequent use of pejorative words like "cult" and "sect" and even "mishmash." In some respects the media in our own country also reflect a one-dimensional, stereotyped perspective, downplaying and denigrating a force that doesn't fit into simple left-right political categories and which they may have trouble relating to because of its Asian character and roots in a mix of a Buddhist cultivation practice, Taoism and traditional qigong. Falun Gong is too often treated like the classic "other," too weird to be taken seriously or show sympathy toward. (Incidentally, I am not a Falun Gong practitioner, but our company has produced videos for Falun Gong, which gave me access and information I used to write and produce a film and a book on the subject.")
At one of my bookstore appearances in Chicago, someone compared Falun Gong and the current situation in China to David Koresh's Branch Davidians and the 51-day siege in 1993 by federal law enforcement officers in Waco, ostensibly to seize guns and protect children from abuse, a comparison China has invoked to make the case that it's only doing what the U.S. government did in combating its own dangerous cult. Someone jumped up to challenge the analogy, arguing that Koresh and company were violent and Falun Gong is not. He was right: There is no direct comparison, except in terms of the response to what happened. Only the hard right-wing in the United States criticized the government's brutal military intervention, which reminded me of the words of that American lieutenant in Vietnam: "We destroyed the village in order to save it."
The lack of empathy people felt for the families under Koresh's mad control led to many rationalizing or not speaking out against the bloody and illegal suppression that occurred in Waco. Once people are dehumanized in our eyes, we may lose compassion for them and turn the other way when their rights are violated, especially if we dislike their politics and consider them unsympathetic victims. If you want to know the details of where dehumanization leads in China, check out Amnesty International's recent report on the pervasive use of torture, which is often directed at nonviolent Falun Gong practitioners. Beijing, natch, calls that a forgery too.
On February 17, more than a thousand Falun Gong practitioners protested nonviolently in Los Angeles against the persecution going on in China. Few media outlets showed up at their press conference, even though this is a story making headlines worldwide. (I couldn't find any story about it the next day in The Los Angeles Times, although their book review carried a discussion of what happened in Tiananmen Square in l989.) Media indifference fans public indifference. China's media are doing what you would expect, but how to explain the attitude of the Western media, which has covered the story so episodically?
In light of the prominent media play this "mass suicide" story received, it is not too late to thoroughly investigate not only what happened but whether and why we were all taken in.
A group of Thai-Chinese businessmen plans to petition Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to ban the planned meeting of Falungong members here in April.
Dilok Panyaprapaporn, chairman of Business Relations Associations of Thailand, said the move was inspired by concern for national security and Buddhism. Diplomatic relations with China could also be affected.
He denied business interests were the main reason for the group's opposition to the meeting.
The petition would also be submitted to agencies such as the Defence Ministry, Special Branch Police, Religious Affairs Department, and Thai Journalists Association, Mr Dilok said.
He tried to draw similarities between Falungong, a Chinese meditation group reviled and banned by Beijing, and the extremist Aum Supreme Truth cult in Japan.
Pol Lt Gen Yothin Mattayomnat, commissioner of Special Branch Police, said Falungong had not applied for permission to hold a meeting.
Although concerned that the meeting might affect Thai-Chinese relations, he said Falungong members in Thailand had not caused any problems.
"As long as there are no political or any other activities which are a threat to peace and order, this group shouldn't be a problem," he said.
Mr Dilok said authorities should give the matter careful consideration before allowing the meeting.
"Thailand is a Buddhist country and there shouldn't be any cult here which might cause problems. Look at the Aum Supreme Truth cult in Japan," he said.
Followers of the Supreme Truth Cult released Sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway in 1995, killing 10 people and injuring many more.
Mr Dilok claimed Falungong followers had a hidden agenda.
"This is some kind of cult madness," he said. The Beijing government views Falungong, which claims 70 million adherents in China, as the biggest threat to communist party rule.
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
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