HONG KONG -- As a meeting with China's public enemy No. 1, the evening with 40 Falun Gong followers clearly fell short.
There were no security checks or secret passwords at the door, no careful scrutiny or subtle glances. The fluorescent glare in Mrs. Chan's tiny second-floor apartment instead bounced off an array of receptive middle-class faces with the diversity of a supermarket checkout line -- and about as much revolutionary zeal.
The majority were middle-aged women, but the group included men and women, young and old.
Although the spiritual movement has been the focus of mainland China's biggest crackdown since the Tiananmen Square student uprising was crushed more than a decade ago, the gathering of Hong Kong Falun Gong practitioners for a routine meeting late last month appeared to be conspicuously light on political content.
There was also little to evoke Hong Kong chief executive Tung Chee-hwa's recent description of Falun Gong as "more or less bearing some characteristics of an evil cult," a comment made in the context of a major debate in Hong Kong about whether to bend to pressure from Beijing and ban the movement there too.
While the number of Falun Gong followers on the mainland is measured in the millions, there are only about 500 in Hong Kong, and they meet in groups such as the one that gathered in Mrs. Chan's apartment. Although Falun Gong has been banned on the mainland since July 1999 and its members frequently are subjected to harassment and torture, followers in Hong Kong still can practice freely -- at least for now.
Most of the 2-hour session at Mrs. Chan's was consumed by a rapid-fire group recitation of texts dealing with personal self-improvement written by Falun Gong's founder, a onetime Chinese government worker named Li Hongzhi. About the most threatening things visible during the session were the thumbtacks holding two family photos to Mrs. Chan's living room wall.
The hostess, a round-faced little woman in her mid-40s, explained how Falun Gong had cured her and her two young sons of chronic health problems, infused her with a new optimism and given her hope for the future.
"The whole family is better," she beamed.
It was a familiar theme.
Hui Kwok-hung, a suit-and-tie civil servant who heads a team of 12 to 16 civil engineers in the Hong Kong government's Buildings Department, told how he picked up the practice from his wife. She had turned to it in desperation after spending several years and more than $12,000 on medications that had done little to improve her poor health.
"When I came home at night, I noticed a change in her," Hui said. "She was more positive, she wasn't depressed, so I started reading [the movement's main texts] too."
In addition to spending each Tuesday and Thursday evening reciting and discussing "Master Li's" texts in Mrs. Chan's cramped apartment, he now joins about 20 others each morning at 7 in a local park to carry out Falun Gong's physical program: a set of slow-motion exercises he does to a soothing kind of Chinese Muzak. He breaks off early because of demands at work but finishes the routine during his lunch break.
Like others, especially among the group's younger practitioners, Hui measures the benefits more in spiritual than physical gains.
"It gave me something I was looking for," he said. "It elevated me to a higher level."
Only briefly during the meeting did followers address the attacks on their movement. Why, one asked, had a newspaper dubbed Falun Gong a dangerous religion? After a short exchange, the discussion broke off with little resolved.
At an earlier meeting, an exchange about whether followers should sit outside Beijing's government liaison office in Hong Kong to appeal for an end to the persecution on the mainland also ended without consensus.
Just why the Chinese government is so afraid of a spiritual movement with no apparent political agenda beyond the desire to practice freely is unclear. People who have followed the crackdown say a Beijing protest nearly two years ago carried out by 10,000 followers without any warning from intelligence services unnerved the Communist hierarchy.
But other factors are also at play, including the group's continued popularity and its celebration of beliefs deeply rooted in Chinese culture and religion at a time when the Communists are pursuing socially disorienting economic reforms. Authorities fear that those left behind by the changes -- estimates of unemployed run at more than 100 million people -- might take their discontent into such a group.
Like those who gathered in Mrs. Chan's apartment, a strong element of Falun Gong's following in China is made up of people seeking to overcome either physical or spiritual weaknesses. Its appeal is especially strong among China's elderly and rural populations -- segments that frequently have been neglected by a Communist hierarchy increasingly focused on modernizing an industrial economy.
Sophie Xiao, Falun Gong's media contact, says many of the Hong Kong followers choose not to go public, and practitioners say they occasionally draw taunts. But passersby hardly bothered to look up as a group of about 20 Falun Gong followers went through its exercise routine recently in Hong Kong's Kowloon Park.
However, there are other pressures. One 33-year-old woman claimed that she was fired from her job because of links with the movement, and many of those interviewed for this article spoke on condition that there be no mention of their employer.
Calls by pro-Beijing politicians in Hong Kong to ban the movement or draft anti-subversion legislation have added to worries about an erosion of Hong Kong's freedoms guaranteed under the terms of the territory's return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.
In many ways, the Hong Kong government's handling of Falun Gong is seen as a bellwether of those freedoms. Early this month, Hong Kong's secretary for security, Regina Ip, kept the debate going by labeling Falun Gong followers "devious people." However, she did not call for a ban.
Many observers say that the issue could come to a head in May when Chinese President Jiang Zemin and former President Bill Clinton are due to attend a high-profile business conference in Hong Kong. Any public confrontation between Jiang and Falun Gong demonstrators would almost certainly add pressure on Hong Kong's government to act against the group.
So far, Falun Gong followers say they haven't decided what they will do during Jiang's visit. "It's still very far ahead," Xiao said.
BUKIT KAYU HITAM - The Home Ministry will take immediate action against the local Falun Gong group if it is found that their ultimate aim is to promote political causes against any country. Deputy Minister Datuk Chor Chee Heung said the Government did not wish to see Malaysia being used as a medium to promote certain political causes.
"The ministry is monitoring the situation,'' he told reporters after the Alor Star MCA Millennium Golf Tournament 2001 at the Black Forest Golf and Country Club here.
Chor, who is Alor Star MCA division chief, said the Government would not interfere if the group was set up just purely for the sake of promoting a healthy mind and body through breathing exercises and meditation.
He said the local Falun Gong group was a small one with most of its members in Penang.
On the golf tournament, Chor said it was held to raise funds to acquire a building for the Alor Star MCA and thanked sponsors and participants for their contributions.
Among the 104 participants were MCA president Datuk Seri Dr Ling Liong Sik, vice-presidents Datuk Seri Ong Ka Ting, Datuk Fong Chan Onn and Datuk Chan Kong Choy, Wanita chief Datuk Dr Ng Yen Yen and other party leaders.
Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa denied yesterday he was under pressure from Beijing to legislate against the Falun Gong - but refused to say whether he would enact any law against ``evil cults''.
Instead, he reiterated the government would observe the sect's activities closely, and would not allow anyone to abuse Hong Kong's ``freedom and tolerance'' to affect public peace and order in either the SAR or on the mainland.
Mr Tung was speaking in Tokyo after arriving there for a three-day visit.
Journalists quizzed him about a newspaper report that Beijing officials had been pressing the SAR to enact a law curbing the Falun Gong before President Jiang Zemin arrives for an official visit in May.
``The Central Government did not give me any pressure,'' Mr Tung said.
But he added the public was aware the Falun Gong had created social instability, that belief in the cult had destroyed families and that some had set fire to themselves.
Mr Tung is believed to have ruled out enacting a law because time is too short before May, and because he is unwilling to make any such a move as it might damage his image ahead of next year's Chief Executive election.
The government is expected, instead, to stop granting the sect any venues to hold activities in May, keep a close watch on whether it violates the Societies Ordinance or the Public Order Ordinance, and ban ``troublemakers'' from entering Hong Kong during the president's visit.
The Security Bureau, headed by Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, is also believed to be ready to ban the sect as soon as there is evidence it has breached the terms of its registration under the Societies Ordinance.
Secretary for Justice Elsie Leung Oi-sie last night refused to comment when asked whether the government would enact a law against the Falun Gong. And Secretary for Home Affairs Lam Woon-kwong refused to comment, saying the report in Apple Daily was speculative.
But National People's Congress (NPC) local deputy Allen Lee Peng-fei said yesterday he had been asked several times by senior mainland officials early this month whether there was enough time to enact an anti-cult law before May.
``I told them it was impossible according to my experience in the Legco,'' said the ex-legislator, who said he was asked the question during the recent NPC plenary session in Beijing.
In what appeared to some to be a blatant effort to curry favor with China, James Murdoch, heir to the News Corp. media empire, called the Falun Gong spiritual movement a "dangerous" and "apocalyptic cult" and lambasted the Western press for its negative portrayal of that giant Asian nation.
Eight years after his powerful father, Rupert, offended officials in Beijing by proclaiming satellite television a weapon to attack "totalitarian" governments, his 28-year-old son demonstrated in a speech this week in Los Angeles just how far News Corp. is willing to go to make amends.
The elder Murdoch has long viewed China as a critical piece of his global agenda. That nation's pending entry to the World Trade Organization promises to crack open a telecommunications sector that is already one of the world's largest and erode tight constraints on an exploding cable and satellite television market.
Speaking at the Milken Institute's annual business conference in Beverly Hills, the younger Murdoch startled even China's supporters with his zealous defense of that government's harsh crackdown on Falun Gong and criticism of Hong Kong democracy supporters.
Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, is a spiritual movement that combines meditation and exercise and was banned by the Chinese government after 10,000 followers staged a protest in Tiananmen Square in 1999.
With his prominent father in the audience, the chairman of News Corp.'s Hong Kong-based Star Group said the spiritual group "clearly does not have the success of China at heart." After describing himself as "apolitical," Murdoch--whose family's $30-billion corporate empire includes Fox Television, the Dodgers, the New York Post and Star TV, Asia's largest satellite network--also said Hong Kong democracy advocates should accept the reality of life under a strong-willed "absolutist" government.
And the outspoken chief executive didn't spare his own employees, accusing the Hong Kong press and Western newsmagazines of painting a falsely negative portrayal of China through their focus on controversial issues such as human rights and Taiwan.
"I think these destabilizing forces today are very, very dangerous for the Chinese government," he said.
Even those who share Murdoch's sentiments that China's complex political and economic landscape are not well understood abroad were taken aback by his ardent boosterism of the darker side of China's governance.
At one particularly uncomfortable moment in the discussion, Robert Kapp, president of the U.S. China Business Council, felt it necessary to distance himself from Murdoch's blanket endorsement of the Chinese government's record.
"I personally get nailed as being China's best lobbyist," said Kapp, who represents this country's most prominent China business group. "We go to great lengths to explain we are not working for China. We are working for the interests of the American business community."
In Thursday's meeting between Chinese Vice Premier Qian Qichen and President Bush, human rights concerns and Taiwan were high on the agenda. The State Department reports that China has jailed thousands of Falun Gong practitioners and at least 100 have died in prison as a result of neglect or torture.
When told of Murdoch's comments, Patrick Horgan, a Beijing-based technology analyst, said: "I think being a lap dog is something people in certain companies think they have to do but if one can avoid it, one should."
Mike Jendrzejczyk, Washington director for Human Rights Watch Asia, was far less diplomatic: "It's quite appalling he would echo both [the Chinese government's] rhetoric and use the same excuses." Murdoch's provocative performance offered a revealing glimpse of the next generation of News Corp. leadership when the firm is struggling with massive industry consolidation, the collapse of the dot-com bubble and reports that its negotiations to buy the U.S.-based DirecTV Inc. satellite television company have stalled.
Though the founder shows no signs of slowing, his advanced age has kept the succession rumor mill alive for several years. Eldest son Lachlan is the reputed heir apparent. But James, a Harvard dropout, was given the job of heading up the firm's prominent China initiative just a few years after joining the family company. Their sister, Elisabeth, left News Corp. last year to set up her own media company.
To those familiar with News Corp.'s torturous path into the China market, the younger Murdoch's comments presented a striking contrast to the fateful remarks uttered by his father. In a speech made shortly after he acquired Star TV in 1993, the elder Murdoch declared satellite television an "unambiguous threat to totalitarian regimes everywhere." Within weeks, unhappy Chinese leaders had declared war on Murdoch and pronounced satellite dishes illegal. It wasn't long before the contrite Australian was paying conciliatory visits to Beijing and bending over backward to satisfy the Chinese government in exchange for access to that nation's exploding media market. Today, China's cable and satellite advertising market is worth more than $800 million a year and is growing at 30% annually.
Under pressure from China, he pulled BBC off Star TV and canceled his book division's plans to publish the memoirs of Chris Patten, the outspoken British governor who oversaw Hong Kong's return to Chinese rule in 1997.
By pouring more than $1 billion into its Asia holdings, News Corp. has solidified its standing as China's most prominent foreign media company. Star TV, which offers 30 channels in seven languages, is still losing money but reported strong growth last year thanks to its fast-growing India channel.
News Corp. also owns a 37.6% stake in China's popular Phoenix Television, a Chinese joint venture, whose broadcasts, along with Star, are viewed in southern China and luxury hotels and foreign compounds in other parts of the country.
But the big payoff for News Corp.'s ardent courtship came this year, when the firm landed a coveted deal that provided early entry to the Chinese telecom market, according to Horgan, of APCO China.
Foreigners are banned from investing in basic telecom services, though China has agreed to allow up to 49% foreign ownership in that sector post-WTO. But in February, News Corp., Goldman Sachs & Co. and two Chinese companies spent $325 million to buy a 12% stake in China Netcom, an aggressive Beijing-based telecommunications provider backed by the son of President Jiang Zemin.
Horgan said picking up a piece of one of China's major broadband networks was a smart move for News Corp., particularly since China Netcom's founders also included the powerful State Administration of Radio, Film and Television.
"News Corp. succeeded by virtue of persistence," Horgan explained. "This is liberalization through the back door."
In a telling acknowledgment of the "regulation-by-man-rather-than-law" climate that still exists in China's evolving economy, the government-backed China Daily newspaper praised the deal as "revolutionary" and then acknowledged that the investment was not "entirely legal" under current regulations.
Murdoch said this week he was "excited" to be involved with China Netcom and he insisted the deal had been "drawn up by lawyers and is legal." But he would not elaborate on how his firm was able to bypass the foreign investment ban.
Reflecting his father's no-holds-barred business philosophy, the younger Murdoch did warn his Los Angeles audience that investing in China required a "strong stomach." But he said Chinese officials were very "practical" and "resolutely capitalist" and foreign firms interested in succeeding in China should "push the envelope" of the regulatory apparatus.
"People are going to start piling in quickly," he said. "The time is very ripe right now."
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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