The Falungong meditation group has appealed for the release of thousands of supporters jailed in China.
The group's Hong Kong-based members have issued a letter urging the immediate, unconditional release of all Falungong followers detained in China.
It alleges that supporters held in Chinese labour camps and detention centres face torture, "brainwashing", slave labour and rape.
It calls for an immediate end to the ban on Falungong and the persecution of its followers.
The Chinese government outlawed the popular meditation movement in July 1999, deeming it an "evil cult" that it views as a threat to the public and to communist party rule.
It denies any mistreatment of the thousands of Falungong followers detained for defying the ban.
HONG KONG - A majority of Hong Kong citizens see no need to legislate against cults, as the territory's administration has suggested it might, an opinion poll conducted by an opposition party showed on Wednesday.
The Democratic Party survey also found 56 percent of respondents feared that such laws, which could be used against the Falun Gong spiritual movement, would curtail freedoms.
The poll of 620 people was taken after Hong Kong Chief Secretary Donald Tsang said the government would consider all options including legislation, when dealing with cults, and would also study the approaches taken by mainland China and France.
In the survey, taken between May 30 and June 2, 57 percent of respondents thought Hong Kong did not need anti-cult legislation.
The French National Assembly recently adopted a controversial bill that will allow courts to ban groups regarded as sects.
Falun Gong is banned in mainland China as an "evil cult" but is presently legal in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong, a former British colony which returned to Chinese rule in 1997, had taken a relaxed stance towards the Falun Gong, until the group held a high profile conference condemning Chinese President Jiang Zemin in January.
That prompted Beijing to issue stern warnings that any attempts to turn Hong Kong into a centre for Falun Gong, or an anti-China base, would not be tolerated.
HONG KONG -- Beijing has classified the campaign against the Falun Gong quasi-Buddhist sect as a "long-term struggle."
Sources close to the security establishment said this was the party leadership's indirect admission that the Falun Gong movement could not be exterminated in the foreseeable future.
In recent internal briefings to officials nationwide, senior law-enforcement cadres said significant headway had been made in combating the "cult."
However, the cadres pointed out that while the Falun Gong had been prevented from holding high-profile demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, it had gone underground and remained a big threat to stability.
It is estimated that more than 12,000 Falun Gong practitioners have since late 1999 been put behind bars.
The great majority of these practitioners are held in police-operated "reform through labor" camps, and most such cases have not gone through proper legal and judicial procedures.
In the briefings, however, law-enforcement cadres indicated Falun Gong practitioners had remained active in the provinces, where they were able to recruit new members and form new cells.
A Beijing security source said in order to wage an effective "long-term struggle," party authorities had set up a 'Leading Group on Combating Cults', which is headed by senior Politburo member Li Lanqing.
The leading group has established anti-cult offices in every province and major city.
Moreover, in regional administrations, one vice-governor and vice-mayor will be held personally responsible for controlling and clamping down on cult activities.
"The vice-governor or vice-mayor will be penalized if Falun Gong activities in his province or city are not contained, or if practitioners from his jurisdiction are able to sneak to Beijing to hold demonstrations there," the source said.
State security and intelligence operatives, including those based overseas, are asked to spend on resources on collecting information about active sect members.
Moreover, anti-cult education campaigns will be held in schools, factories and government units in an apparent bid to generate a Mao-style mass movement against the Falun Gong.
In internal circulars, party authorities have claimed Beijing has encountered difficulties in exterminating the "cult" mainly because it has secured help from "hostile foreign forces."
The authorities also claimed Falun Gong practitioners had hooked up with pro-independence activists in Taiwan as well as the Tibetan exiled movement.
BEIJING One morning in April, biologist Wang Lan was called to the security office of the government science laboratory where he works. He was told there was no time to pack a bag or telephone his wife. He was being taken away immediately by the police.
Nobody called it an arrest or a sentence to a labor camp. It was, Wang recognized, an attempt at deprogramming.
For the next two weeks, while in the custody of state security, Wang spent his days attending meetings in a prison lecture hall and his nights at a comfortable police guesthouse. It was all part of an effort by the government to persuade the 28-year-old biologist to renounce his belief in the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement.
By the end of his stay, Wang said, he no longer was a Falun Gong member and was free to go.
China has used propaganda, police suppression and harsh sentences to labor camps in its two-year campaign against Falun Gong, the spiritual movement that the government considers an "evil cult." With stories such as Wang's, there is now evidence that the government has created a short-term, prison-run re-education program designed to quickly win back some adherents.
The program, which has been in place for at least several months but has not been publicized, illustrates anew how seriously China's government perceives Falun Gong as a threat. It also suggests that China is searching for more efficient, somewhat less Draconian methods of battling the cult than lengthy imprisonments that destroy lives and careers.
Wang said his employer, a state-run organization, paid the government $725 for his stay at what was called "study class."
He was not mistreated or threatened, he said, but it was made clear to the 15 other Falun Gong members in the class, including other state university employees, that they were expected to renounce the movement or repeat the program. Those who continued to resist faced the possibility of a longer sentence, perhaps up to 2 years, in a labor camp.
China has been under attack by human-rights groups, foreign governments and Falun Gong members abroad for quashing religious freedom and treating adherents cruelly.
Some members who have engaged in pro-Falun Gong activities and protests have been imprisoned, while others--perhaps thousands, according to Falun Gong--have been sentenced to terms of up to 3 years in so-called re-education-through-labor camps.
Reports of torture
There also have been credible reports of torture, mistreatment and as many as 200 deaths in custody.
China has denied reports of mistreatment, but acknowledges that some adherents have died of disease or committed suicide after being detained. The government has charged that the group and its belief system, which includes healing illnesses and attaining enlightenment, is dangerous to public health and security and has been responsible for more than 1,600 deaths.
In Chicago on Tuesday, China's ambassador to the United States, Yang Jiechi, said his government considers Falun Gong an "evil cult."
Even Falun Gong leaders "don't describe their activities as religion," Jiechi said. "It is a political organization with political motives."
Falun Gong combines traditional Chinese exercises, some Eastern religious thought and the teachings of its founder. China outlawed it in 1999, and the group has come to represent the most significant political challenges to Communist Party rule since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
Membership estimates range from several million to tens of millions, but the group first gained attention when more than 10,000 adherents shocked the government by appearing outside Beijing's leadership compound in April 1999 against to protest police harassment.
Since then, the government has fought a battle of wills against the group and its exiled founder, Li Hongzhi.
Li, who is said to live in New York but rarely appears in public, has encouraged protests via the Internet and speeches. The movement reached its most dramatic moment in January when a group of people claiming allegiance to the group set themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square. Falun Gong disavowed any connection to that protest.
State-run media have attacked the group almost daily, portraying members alternately as psychopaths and victims of deceit who can be cured and successfully returned to society.
Abroad, China's treatment of Falun Gong, including detention without trial in labor camps, has become a point of criticism as China competes to host the 2008 Olympics
Defending itself, the government for the first time two weeks ago allowed foreign reporters to visit a re-education-through-labor camp, where they saw detainees in neat track suits who attended classes, watched a video on the origin of the universe, played basketball and were thankful for the government's benevolence. They saw no signs of abuse, and several inmates told the reporters they had come to recognize that Falun Gong was bad.
Government workers targeted
The two-week seminar seems to be an accelerated version of that program designed for adherents who recently have steered clear of trouble and who belong to government work units.
Government officials could not be contacted for comment. An information officer said that telephone numbers for the government's State Council Office on Preventing and Handling Cults were secret and that no one else could discuss the issue.
According to two Falun Gong members who went through the program at facilities outside Beijing, participation was compulsory, and by its completion 13 of 15 adherents had renounced their affiliation with the group.
They said they were watched 24 hours a day, wore their own clothes and stayed at a state security guesthouse where they were well-fed. Each day they were driven 10 minutes to a meeting hall at a labor camp where three former Falun Gong members were assigned to meet each adherent in the group.
Wang Lan, who was arrested last autumn and spent three weeks in jail after distributing pro-Falun Gong literature on a train, said that after his initial detention he was pressured for weeks by his boss and his wife to sign confessions renouncing Falun Gong. Still, he said, he privately retained his faith and was prepared to fight for his beliefs during the sessions.
He held out for three days, he said, as three former adherents tried to talk him out of his beliefs. In discussions and video presentations, he said, the government made its argument that Falun Gong was a morally corrupt organization and that founder Li was a manipulator as well as a tax cheat.
The pressure was intense, Lan said, and what he came to recognize was that he could reject the group but hold onto what originally attracted him to Falun Gong: the desire to do good and be a better person. The argument that swayed him was that Falun Gong members expected something in return--salvation--for their good deeds. That was unnecessary, he said.
"When I look back, everyone who practiced Falun Gong was always trying to obtain something by doing good things," Lan said. "I feel differently now."
Another participant, a 30-year-old school administrator who was attracted to Falun Gong to help treat a breast tumor, said she recognized that her involvement was selfish because it frightened family members.
"I joined Falun Gong because I wanted to be a good person and reach perfection," said the woman, who asked to be identified by her last name, Cui. "Afterward we found that in order to pursue perfection we hurt people. This was selfish."
2 see the light
While both Cui and Lan indicated that Falun Gong once had moved thempowerfully enough to risk arrest, they said they now recognize that the Chinese government was right and Falun Gong was wrong.
But rather than expressing regret or anger, the strongest emotion they showed was relief that their ordeal with a banned organization was over.
"I can be an ordinary citizen now who has his work and his family and doesn't have to worry about other things," said Wang. "I can enjoy life."
HONG KONG -- Passage of a new anti-cult law in France sparked fears Friday that Hong Kong's freedoms could be under threat if the government here uses a similar measure to thwart the Falun Gong meditation sect. The Hong Kong government has taken note of France's law, but said it is too early to say whether similar legislation is necessary here.
Falun Gong, local pro-democracy activists, and mainstream religions have all expressed worries that any government action against Falun Gong could threaten people of other beliefs, too.
The Rev. Fung Chi-wood, a veteran civil rights campaigner, said he fears the government will use its political power to clamp down on religious groups.
"I'm highly concerned about the whole thing," said Fung. "France is dealing with a religious issue, but we're dealing with a political issue here."
"I hope the government will not act hastily," said opposition lawmaker Emily Lau. "There is enough legislation to protect the community. We have to make sure we don't overprotect and in the process undermine the people's human rights."
Falun Gong is outlawed as an "evil cult" in mainland China, where the government is fighting a fierce campaign to eliminate the group.
Falun Gong remains legal in Hong Kong, where citizens continue to enjoy Western-style freedoms that are a holdover from British colonial days, but pro-Beijing forces have been infuriated by Falun Gong's protests here against Beijing's suppression.
They want Falun Gong stopped and Hong Kong's government has said it will closely monitor the group out of worries it could harm citizens here. Hong Kong's No. 2 official, Chief Secretary for Administration Donald Tsang, has said Hong Kong will study anti-cult laws elsewhere.
Critics and opposition lawmakers say a similar move in Hong Kong would be unnecessary as Hong Kong hasn't experienced the mass suicides committed by cults seen in France.
The French Parliament Wednesday adopted an anti-cult bill which makes it an offense to "fraudulently abuse the state of ignorance or a situation of weakness (resulting from) serious or repeated pressures or techniques to alter judgment."
The law, most notably, provides the means to dissolve groups which have been convicted several times.
HONG KONG - The passage of an anti-cult law in France has reignited fears of a similar move in Hong Kong to curb China's banned Falun Gong spiritual movement.
Religious groups rallied together in the territory on Friday, saying a similar law would spell the end to freedoms guaranteed under Hong Kong's constitution.
While the Falun Gong is still legal in Hong Kong, top officials, including leader Tung Chee-hwa, have recently indicated that the territory may enact laws to curb the group.
Nine Christian groups are seeking a meeting with Tung and have begun collecting signatures from the public to prepare a petition to be presented to legislators at end-June, said Rose Wu of the Hong Kong Christian Institute.
"We don't want to see Hong Kong enacting such a law here. It's too dangerous. It could be abused to curb religious freedom," Wu told Reuters.
"The government is only considering it because China has banned it and Hong Kong just wants to please Beijing."
Beijing banned the Falun Gong in 1999, branding it an "evil cult" and accusing it of trying to topple the Communist government.
Senior Chinese officials warned the group in Hong Kong earlier this year against using the territory as a base for its activities. The former British colony reverted to Chinese control in mid-1997.
The French National Assembly adopted a controversial bill on Wednesday that will allow courts to ban groups regarded as sects, although it dropped a plan to make "mental manipulation," or brainwashing, a criminal offence.
The French law also stipulates that banned groups which re-form under a different name can face prosecution.
Editorials in several Hong Kong newspapers on Friday also warned the government against imposing similar anti-cult laws.
Outlawing the Falun Gong would only hurt Hong Kong's image and reputation, the Ming Pao Daily newspaper said.
A recent survey by the pro-government Hong Kong Progressive Alliance party found some 33.8 percent of respondents regard the Falun Gong in Hong Kong as engaging in cult-like activities.
Some or 55.4 percent, were worried the group would abuse Hong Kong's freedoms and tolerance to create social disorder, versus 28.1 percent who thought it would not.
The survey polled 7,306 people between May 10-30.
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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