BEIJING - China defended Monday its crackdown on the Falun Gong spiritual movement, saying the 18-month drive condemned abroad for its ruthlessness enjoyed widespread public support and was based on Chinese law.
A statement by China's cabinet, the latest salvo in an intensifying propaganda war against Falun Gong, did not mention a weekend rally in Hong Kong at which 1,000 supporters from around the world appealed for an end to the crackdown.
In an apparent bid to address frequent reports Beijing was persecuting religious believers, the State Council Information Office said Falun Gong was a ``social cancer.''
The statement said 242 organizers of the sect had been jailed and some ``stubborn elements'' who had broken laws against illegal demonstrations had been sent to labor re-education camps.
The arrests and detentions ``were not because these people were practising Falun Gong, but because they had engaged in illegal activities and violated China's laws,'' said the statement, carried on the official Xinhua news agency.
The crackdown -- launched in July 1999, three months after a protest in which 10,000 Falun Gong members surrounded China's leadership compound -- was triggered by complaints by local authorities and ordinary citizens going back to 1996, it said.
``People from all segments of society and the masses had voiced strong complaints that Falun Gong was destroying families, endangering the physical and spiritual health of followers, threatening social order and illegally raising funds,'' it said.
ACCUSATIONS OF ``EVIL'' TRADED
Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, preaches a mixture of Taoism, Buddhism and traditional Chinese breathing exercises. It has shocked the Communist Party by its extraordinary persistence and ability to organize a mass movement.
China banned Falun Gong in July 1999, calling it an ``evil cult'' which brainwashed and cheated its followers, and accuses the movement of causing as many as 1,600 deaths among practitioners.
But scenes of Chinese police beating elderly Falun Gong adherents broadcast around the world have sparked international condemnation, sullying Beijing's image as it campaigns to host the 2008 Olympic Games.
About 1,000 Falun Gong followers gathered in Hong Kong on Sunday denounced what they said was China's campaign of ``evil persecution'' against the group, for which they blamed Chinese President Jiang Zemin.
The supporters met in Hong Kong's City Hall, which is owned by the Hong Kong government, in defiance of the mainland leaders.
Falun Gong is legal in Hong Kong, which has retained a high degree of autonomy since the former British colony reverted to Chinese rule in mid-1997.
China has said little about the rally, but unleashed a new media campaign against the movement in advance of it.
Twelve people who had come for the weekend meeting were denied entry to Hong Kong and nine of them said in a statement immigration officials told them they were held because they came for the conference.
The Immigration Department said no one had been barred from entry because of their beliefs.
TIANANMEN FOCUS OF PROTEST
China has declared victory over Falun Gong repeatedly, but the group has staged almost daily protests in Tiananmen Square in central Beijing demanding official recognition as a religion.
Monday's cabinet statement acknowledged that ``stubborn elements from Falun Gong, incited by Li Hongzhi and the evil cult organization, relentlessly come to Beijing's Tiananmen Square to make trouble.''
Last week, state media published a barrage of criticism of Falun Gong and Li, its exiled leader, accusing them of being a ''cheap tool'' of Western forces trying to topple the Communist Party.
The group says some 50,000 members have been detained and many sent to labor camps without trial since Beijing banned it in July 1999.
The cabinet statement said only those followers who had broken Chinese laws were given re-education through labor sentences. Many were given reduced sentences or home detention as part of a policy to ``educate and rescue as many as possible.''
The Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy says at least 98 adherents have died in detention on mainland China, many of them beaten to death by police in their home provinces after being caught at Tiananmen and sent home.
Beijing has acknowledged several deaths in custody but say most resulted from suicides or illness.
Four Falungong practitioners, detained while attempting to enter Hong Kong toattend a conference, have gone on hunger strike, a spokeswoman for the group said Sunday.
The four, among 13 barred from entering the territory, announced the strike at midnight on Saturday as a protest against immigration officials, said spokeswoman Sharon Xu.
The other nine had been deported, Xu said.
Those denied entry were due to attend a conference of more than 1,000 Falungong practitioners held on Sunday at Hong Kong's government-run City Hall.
The detentions have provoked fears among followers that the sect may be outlawed in the territory, in line with a ban issued July 1999 by Chinese authorities who have branded the sect an "evil cult."
One of the four, Yu Shan -- said to be a US citizen -- was able to use a public telephone at Chek Lap Kok international airport to contact a Falungong press conference with details of the detention.
She said fellow detainee, Zhang Cuiying, reportedly an Australian citizen, had been physically assaulted by security officers attempting to force her to board a plane.
Zhang had been due to speak at the conference about her experiences following her arrest in Beijing during a Falungong protest.
"We are on hunger strike because we are being detained illegally. We hold all the appropriate documents for entering Hong Kong, the detention is not right," Yu said, speaking via Xu.
According to Xu, Hong Kong's Australian Consul Bruce Phillips was on his way to investigate claims that an Australian passport holder was being wrongly detained.
Hong Kong immigration officials say that "unnecessary force" was never used on detainees, adding that those barred entry were refused due to inappropriate travel documents.
However, according to Yu, all detainees were legally entitled to enter the territory, but were rejected because of pressure from the Chinese government.
She added that, since Falungong were legally allowed to practice in Hong Kong, the detentions were a dark omen for followers based in the territory.
"The one country, two systems principle is internationally known, but when they have pressure from the mainland, Hong Kong is starting to act negatively towards Falungong.
"From the stand point of the practitioners being detained, even though they are free to practice in Hong Kong, they feel that this this kind of persecution is threatening the one country, two systems policy.
"Many of us have never entered into Hong Kong before, we should not have any record as a reason to deny us entry into Hong Kong so we believe the immigration officials are under pressure from (Chinese President) Jiang Zemin and his officers," Yu said.
On Saturday, practitioners staged a series of peaceful demonstrations, delivering a petition to Beijing's liaison office here in protest against the persecution of followers.
According to a human rights group in Hong Kong, 98 have died under suspicious circumstances in police custody on the mainland.
The third conference of its kind to be held in the territory, Sunday's event was the first staged in a government-managed facility.
Organisers said they had received full cooperation from the venue's managers -- but had been requested to refrain from distributing on the premises photographs of injuries allegedly sustained by practitioners at the hands of mainland police.
These were handed to reporters in sealed envelopes with instructions not to open them until outside the building.
"We respect the opinions of City Hall management," said Hong Kong Falungong spokesman Kan Hung-cheung.
"We can only show pictures that positively relate to Falungong based on their understanding, so they do not want us to show pictures of practitioners being tortured."
A statement issued by the Hong Kong's Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD), which manages the City Hall venue, said it would be checking to ensure that an agreement had been observed restricting the event to purely religious or cultural activities.
China Monday denied allegations by the outlawed Falungong movement that a practitioner was killed by police in Beijing's Tiananmen Square during a New Year's Day protest.
One of the spiritual movement's websites, Minghui.ca, said a woman in her thirties was knocked to the ground by military police as she tried to unfurl a yellow banner and chant the group's name.
The woman fell on her back and died instantly close to the flagpole at the northern end of the vast square, said the website quoting an unnamed witness.
The report quoted the witness as saying the body was hastily removed in the back of a van and that a policeman was heard telling colleagues: "We don't know what happened, she was dead when we arrived."
The website said the woman was tackled by uniformed officers who stand guard in front of the flagpole and that they were immediately replaced after the incident.
AFP reporters saw between 700 and 1,000 Falungong practitioners detained in the square during the New Year's Day protest. Many of them were brutally beaten and kicked in the head by police during arrest.
In a lengthy statement condemning the Falungong movement and justifying an 18-month crackdown, a spokesman for China's cabinet, the State Council, denied any Falungong practitioner had died in the square since the movement's first mass demonstration in April 1999.
"I could responsibly say that this is a rumour fabricated by Falungong groups. Nobody has died on the square since April 25, 1999," said the spokesman.
Tiananmen Square is the symbolic heart of Communist China. The government is extremely sensitive about what takes place in the square and it is usually swamped by undercover police officers.
Since the Falungong was outlawed as an "evil cult" in July 1999, tens of thousands of practitioners have been detained on the square trying to protest against the ban.
The Buddhist and Taoist inspired spritual movement has consistently staged large demonstrations on public holidays and state occasions in Tiananmen Square despite blanket security.
The government banned the movement after it assembled nearly 10,000 followers outside the leadership's exclusive compound in Beijing in April 1999 in the biggest gathering since the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy protests.
Key Falungong leaders have been jailed for up to 18 years, and China said Monday a total of 242 people had been given prison terms for refusing to give up their beliefs.
China has also admitted that thousands of followers have been sentenced to terms of "reeducation-through-labour" under which they can be detained for up to three years without trial.
The Hong Kong-based Information Centre for Human Rights and Democracy says 98 Falungong members have died after ill treatment in police custody.
Meanwhile a state press report received here Monday said police in the northeastern town of Lushun had smashed a group of 181 Falungong followers who had all been detained or sent to a "reeducation-through-labour" camp.
The Liaoning Daily said they had all tried to protest the group's ban on several occasions.
A separate report in the Hebei Daily said three Falungong practitioners had been jailed in the northern province of Hebei for "using an evil cult to prevent the implementation of the law".
Civil servant Li Congchun was jailed for five years for organising illegal meetings at his house, while Liu Hiumin, another civil servant, received the same term for protesting outside a local government office.
Wang Mingduo was jailed for three years for distributing 3,000 copies of an article he wrote condemning the ban on Falungong.
The Falungong movement is led by their New York-based guru Li Hongzhi. It combines meditation and breathing exercises with Eastern philosophies.
HONG KONG, January 14 It has been a head-spinning couple of days in Hong Kong, where the sudden resignation of a top official and a politically sensitive meeting of the Falun Gong sect sent deeply contradictory messages about the former British colony's autonomy within China.
About 1,200 members of Falun Gong gathered in a government- owned concert hall today to share experiences and to protest China's crackdown on their spirital movement. Despite fierce opposition from pro-Beijing forces here, the meeting proceeded without interference.
While Falun Gong leaders thanked the authorities for allowing them to meet here, they protested that 11 of their members had been detained at the airport. "We are starting to worry that Hong Kong is no longer safeguarding the rule of law," said Kan Hung-cheung, a spokesman for the group.
Such fears are percolating elsewhere after the abrupt resignation of the territory's No. 2 official, Anson Chan, on Friday. Mrs. Chan, the director of the Hong Kong Civil Service and a forceful advocate of the city's independence, insisted that she was leaving for personal reasons. But her departure comes four months after she was chided by the Chinese leaders for not adequately supporting the Beijing-appointed chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa.
The obvious question is whether Mrs. Chan's departure is related to the meeting today. Some government officials cast doubt on that, saying Mrs. Chan did not approve the decision to rent the hall to Falun Gong. Yet the officials said the decision had drawn strong criticism from Beijing.
Hong Kong's generally hands-off treatment of Falun Gong has reinforced its reputation as a city with a greater appreciation of civil liberties than mainland China. "This decision tells people `one country, two systems' still exists in Hong Kong," said Martin Lee, a pro-democracy leader, referring to the formula under which the territory is to retain some autonomy for 50 years.
But the events of the last two days paint a murkier picture. The immigration department confirmed that it refused entry to 13 people who said they were members of Falun Gong, though it said it did so because they had improper travel documents.
And Hong Kong drew other lines in the sand. The sect was allowed to display a portrait of its spiritual leader, Li Hongzhi, but it was asked not to show inside the building photographs of reported attacks on its members by the police in China. "In a society that isn't feeling the pressure of Jiang Zemin and his followers, we wouldn't be subject to these kinds of restrictions," Mr. Kan said.
BEIJING - In a rare disclosure, China said Monday it has punished 242 organizers of the Falun Gong spiritual movement and sent an undisclosed number of followers to labor camps during an 18-month-old crackdown.
The government information appeared aimed at countering claims that thousands of sect followers are in jails or labor camps and came in the wake of a major weekend gathering of Falun Gong members in Hong Kong.
Since outlawing Falun Gong in July 1999, Beijing has infrequently provided figures on those punished by courts and never given an accurate tally of the numbers detained outside of the court system.
A Hong Kong-based rights group says at least 10,000 Falun Gong members are being held in more than 300 labor camps, with one camp for women in northeastern Changchun city holding 560. The Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy has also alleged 98 deaths of sect members, mostly at police hands, while in custody. Many sect leaders are known to have been imprisoned, with one organizer serving an 18-year jail sentence.
Under China's legal system, police have the authority to send suspects to labor camps for up to three years without trial. To combat the widely popular movement, China also set up special detention, or ``transformation,'' centers to force sect members to recant.
In comments released by the official Xinhua News Agency, a spokesman for China's Cabinet said 242 sect organizers have received ``criminal punishment'' from courts but did not say what those punishments were.
Most members sent to labor camps took part ``many times in disturbances, making trouble and disrupting social order,'' the spokesman said. None are in camps ``purely because they practiced Falun Gong.''
Authorities offered reduced sentences and early release to some of the detained to ``educate and save them to the maximum extent,'' the spokesman said.
The spokesman denied reports on Falun Gong Internet sites that a sect member was killed in Beijing's Tiananmen Square during a protest by hundreds of practitioners on January 1. Chinese officials have previously admitted the deaths of some practitioners but attributed them to suicide, natural causes or hunger strikes.
Practitioners say Falun Gong's slow-motion meditation exercises and philosophies drawn from Buddhism, Taoism and the group's U.S.-based founder, Li Hongzhi, promote good health and moral living.
But China's government claims Falun Gong is a cult that threatens public order and communist rule. It also alleges the group led more than 1,600 followers to their deaths, mostly by encouraging them to eschew modern medical treatment. A massive Falun Gong protest on April 25, 1999, scared the government into ordering the crackdown.
Democracy campaigners have also faced harassment under the Chinese regime. On Monday, authorities detained five people who petitioned Olympics organizers to persuade Beijing to release jailed democracy campaigners as it bids for the 2008 Games.
One - Hu Jiangxia, the wife of veteran dissident Wang Youcai - said three plainclothes officers took her from her office to a police station and questioned her for three hours, warning her not to appeal to the International Olympic Committee again.
Four other people who signed the petition also were detained Monday in Hu's hometown of Hangzhou, in eastern China, she said. Hu said she knew that one of those detained was later released but she was unable to contact the other three.
HONG KONG -- Hong Kong immigration officials drew criticism from human rights groups today for detaining 12 practitioners of the Falun Gong spiritual movement who were trying to attend a weekend conference that has antagonized China and highlighted the former British colony's awkward relationship with Beijing.
The practitioners -- including seven Japanese and at least one Australian -- were stopped at Hong Kong's main airport. Some were deported, but most remained in custody nearly 24 hours after their arrival.
Immigration officials offered no explanation for the detentions, citing a government policy against commenting on individual cases. But the detentions come during an escalating battle between Falun Gong and the Chinese government, which banned the sect in 1999 and denounced it as an "evil cult."
Several human rights advocates expressed concern that the Hong Kong government was harassing legal visitors in a misguided effort to prove its loyalty to Beijing.
"Hong Kong is a free society," said Law Yuk-kai, director of Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor. "We do not discriminate against visitors at the border on the basis of their religious or political affiliations. . . . I'm afraid the only logical explanation in this case is that the Hong Kong government is seeking to please the central authority" in Beijing.
Barring visitors for religious or political reasons would be a departure for Hong Kong. The agreement under which it was returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 promised to preserve individual liberties under a "one China, two systems" formula. Under the formula, Falun Gong remains legal in Hong Kong.
Haruhisa Inose, a 46-year-old Japanese practitioner, said immigration officials questioned him for nearly three hours Friday night before allowing him to enter Hong Kong. Inose said he was never asked about his affiliation with Falun Gong. Instead, officials peppered him with questions about the purpose of his visit, where he would stay and who he planned to see.
Inose's wife, Ni Hong, a Chinese citizen who arrived from Japan on a separate flight, remained in custody this afternoon. "I never imagined they'd treat us like this in Hong Kong," Inose said.
Nearly 1,000 Falun Gong practitioners have gathered in Hong Kong this weekend to focus international attention on allegations that their movement has been brutally suppressed by the Chinese government.
Dressed in yellow jackets emblazoned with the sect's slogan -- "truthfulness, benevolence, forbearance" -- they rallied today in Hong Kong's central business district. Carrying banners demanding that China "stop persecuting Falun Gong," the group marched across town to lay petitions at the doorstep of the Chinese government's liaison office.
On Sunday, the sect -- which embraces an amalgam of Taoist and Buddhist doctrines and advocates meditative breathing exercises for better spiritual and physical health -- will conduct a religious symposium in Hong Kong City Hall. Organizers say this was the only venue that would have them; dozens of hotels turned them down.
Falun Gong's decision to stage demonstrations here has created a vexing dilemma for Hong Kong officials and business leaders. They want to reverse the spreading international perception that they have allowed Beijing to slowly squeeze the life out of democratic notions such as freedom of speech and worship or the rule of law, but they dread antagonizing their mainland overseers.
Chinese authorities have lashed out against Falun Gong with renewed vigor in recent weeks, launching an aggressive attack in the state-controlled media. In a recent article in the People's Daily, Propaganda Minister Ding Guangen instructed heads of government propaganda departments across the country to "thoroughly criticize the Falun Gong cult's political nature and threat to society."
In Hong Kong, the Beijing-backed Ta Kung Pao newspaper has railed against efforts to use Hong Kong "as a subversive base for overturning the Chinese government."
Falun Gong has also ratcheted up the conflict. Observers of the movement say they discern a more strident tone on the groups' official Web site. Hundreds of people have staged scattered protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square over the past several weeks and believers have plastered leaflets on walls and lampposts around apartment buildings and universities in the Beijing area.
Notably, Falun Gong leaders have begun to attack Chinese President Jiang Zemin by name. Fliers vilify him as a short-tempered autocrat who is personally directing the campaign against the group in defiance of other leaders' reservations.
The Chinese government has responded with a wave of new arrests and harsh prison sentences for followers. Falun Gong practitioners contend that Chinese police have detained more than 50,000 followers and that at least 120 have died in police custody. Four rows of practitioners meditated across the street from the Chinese government's liaison office in Hong Kong today, each cradling a wreath of flowers around the name or photograph of one of the alleged victims.
Many of today's participants recounted personal stories of mistreatment at the hands of the Chinese government. Li Jinyu, 42, a painter, tearfully described how she and her husband were arrested by police in Beijing when they tried to formally register dissatisfaction with government restrictions on Falun Gong.
"As soon as we finished filling out the appeals form, the police took my purse and locked us up," she said. Li, a Canadian citizen, was deported, and her husband was dispatched to a labor camp. Li has not seen or heard from her husband since they were arrested in December 1999. She now lives in Montreal and has been refused permission to return to China.
Organizers of today's march charged that Hong Kong immigration officials had selectively detained practitioners with the most compelling stories of abuse to keep them from meeting with reporters.
Chen Xianwen, a Falun Gong believer who came to the conference from Boston, worried that Hong Kong immigration officers had detained her daughter, Yu Shan, because she would describe how Beijing police beat her in 1999. Chen said she watched from the opposite side of the immigration checkpoint Friday night as Hong Kong authorities dragged her daughter off for interrogation.
"I just can't believe this would happen here, too," said Chen. "Falun Gong is legal in Hong Kong. It's supposed to be 'two systems.' "
Three Australian residents have been barred entry to Hong Kong on their way to a gathering organised by the meditation sect Falun Gong.
The three were to attend an international conference which has been criticised by authorities in mainland China.
In all 12, Falun Gong practitioners were stopped at Hong Kong airport.
A human rights group claimed immigration officers had to force one unidentified Australian back onto a plane home, while the remainder were being held until the next available flights.
Local immigration officials gave no details on the deportations to Japan, Australia and the United States, but Hong Kong has been under intense pressure from Beijing since news of the gathering became known.
Hundreds of practitioners marched in downtown Hong Kong yesterday to protest against the rising number of members who have died while in Chinese police detention.
HONG KONG - Followers of the Falun Gong spiritual movement slammed China's top leader at a conference in Hong Kong Sunday for what they said was a campaign of "evil persecution" against their group.
About 1,000 Falun Gong supporters from around the world attended the all-day gathering in City Hall, which is owned by the Hong Kong government. They met on Chinese soil in defiance of mainland leaders who have outlawed the movement.
"Stop persecuting Falun Gong. This has gone on for far too long and the cases have been extreme. It is inhumane and not acceptable," Australian practitioner Caroline Lam told a news conference after the international meeting.
Falun Gong is legal in Hong Kong which has retained a high degree of autonomy since the former British colony reverted to Chinese rule in mid-1997.
A Hong Kong-based human rights group said four Falun Gong practitioners had gone on hunger strike at the Hong Kong airport where they were being detained.
They were among 12 people who had come for this weekend's meeting and had been denied entry by immigration officials, the Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy said.
Of the 12, seven were from Japan, three from Australia and two from the United States, the center said.
Four of them were later allowed into Hong Kong. Six from Japan were deported Sunday, after two from Australia and the United States were sent back Saturday, the center said.
A spokeswoman for Falun Gong in Hong Kong, Sharon Xu, said that immigration officials used violence against the detainees and some were forcibly lifted onto aircraft.
Xu said they were barred from entering Hong Kong because they were on China's blacklist and that their detention was unlawful.
Nine of the 12 said in a statement immigration officials told them they were held because they came for the conference.
But the Immigration Department said officials at the airport had not barred anybody from entering in the past two days because of their belief in Falun Gong.
"People are refused entry only because they fail to meet the immigration requirements..." a department spokesman said. He also denied that immigration officers had resorted to violence in removing the detainees.
Falun Gong believers attending Sunday's conference accused Chinese President Jiang Zemin of having "undeniable responsibility" for what they said was the "evil" and "brutal" persecution of the movement in mainland China.
The movement says China has tortured 120 followers to death while in custody. Beijing has acknowledged several deaths in custody but say most resulted from suicides or illness.
Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, preaches a mixture of Taoism, Buddhism and traditional Chinese physical exercises.
NO POLITICAL AGENDA
Beijing labels it as an "evil cult" and a tool of China's foreign enemies aiming to topple the Communist government.
Falun Gong followers insist they have no political agenda.
"This is not a political fight. Keeping silent about the evil persecution is a way of encouraging it," Hui Han Yee, a spokeswoman for the Hong Kong Falun Dafa Association which organized the meeting, told Reuters.
Sunday's meeting concluded a two-day gathering which started Saturday, when some 900 adherents performed a mass exercise routine and staged a march to condemn Beijing's ban.
China launched a crackdown against the movement in July 1999, when it also began a media campaign in earnest to vilify the group. It intensified its verbal attacks earlier this month, after the weekend of events in Hong Kong was announced.
It was the first time a Falun Gong meeting was held in a building owned by the Hong Kong government.
Practitioners of the spiritual movement said they had to agree not to show photographs of Falun Gong adherents being tortured in mainland China before Hong Kong authorities granted them a permit to hold the conference.
HONG KONG -- The Falun Gong meditation sect, outlawed and often subject to violent crackdowns in mainland China, held a global conference in Hong Kong Sunday where followers lashed out at Beijing's suppression.
``Over 100 of our great Falun members have lost their lives to spread the truth,'' adherent John Hu said during the meeting at an auditorium in Hong Kong City Hall. ``But this won't change our beliefs and determination to practice Falun Gong.''
Falun Gong is demanding the right to practice freely in communist China and an end to the crackdowns that it claims have resulted in the torture and killings of 120 followers at the hands the mainland authorities.
``There's no human rights in China because you cannot even say a word about Falun Gong in Tiananmen Square,'' complained Hong Kong practitioner Fiona Ching.
Beijing authorities round up and often beat Falun Gong practitioners on the mainland, but the sect remains legal in Hong Kong.
About 900 Falun Gong adherents turned out for Sunday's well-publicized gathering, which has drawn sharp criticism from pro-Beijing forces furious that the ``evil cult'' can attack Chinese policies while on Chinese soil.
The meeting included 700 overseas followers from 23 countries - evidence, Falun Gong said, of the movement's appeal.
Hong Kong barred 13 practitioners from entering the territory but said late Saturday it was because they failed to meet visa requirements, not because of their Falun Gong affiliation.
A drawing of the movement's founder, Li Hongzhi, seated in a Buddhist meditation pose, was the central backdrop on a stage where Falun Gong members spoke about their experiences in the group.
One man read aloud from a letter purportedly from another follower in Beijing who had been arrested and beaten in December, then later released. He was not identified for fear of retaliation.
``There are evils which should not exist in this cosmos,'' the letter said.
Hong Kong practitioner Hui Kwok-hong opened the conference by thanking the territory's government for letting the sect rent space in City Hall despite criticism from pro-Beijing newspapers.
``We sincerely thank the government officials for giving us their special support,'' Hui said - although there has been no indication that Falun Gong has been treated any differently from any other group in Hong Kong.
The English-language Sunday Morning Post editorialized that the event was good publicity for Hong Kong, showing ``that freedom of religion and assembly remains intact.''
Saturday was dominated by both meditation and protest.
In the morning, Falun Gong followers gathered in a park to practice their slow, rhythmic exercises to the mellow sounds of recorded Chinese music.
They later marched on the liaison office of the mainland Chinese government and placed petitions on the sidewalk addressed to Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji and other authorities.
Falun Gong insists it has no political motives, but Beijing has been alarmed by the group's ability to organize huge demonstrations.
``I do not get involved in politics, but when people see a mass of people, they see it as a threat,'' said Sterling Campbell, a follower from New York.
What Is Falun Gong? See "Falun Gong 101", by Massimo Introvigne
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