HONG KONG, Aug 14 (Reuters) - Outlawed in mainland China, the Falun Gong spiritual movement has been allowed to operate unhindered in Hong Kong but after a spate of publicity stunts the group is beginning to get on people's nerves.
Recent staged suicide attempts and a hunger strike, as well as a row within the fractious group over its leadership, are costing Falun Gong public sympathy, experts and commentators say.
``These events hurt their credibility,'' Joseph Kaung, theology lecturer at the Chinese University, told Reuters.
``It's showing traits of a cult. It keeps an air of mystery about it, and there is leader worship.''
On two occasions over the past month, members of the group orchestrated suicide attempts which threw one of the busiest districts in Hong Kong into traffic chaos and hurt local businesses.
In the first incident, three mainland Chinese Falun Gong followers who overstayed their visas threatened to jump from a 10th floor flat in the Happy Valley district after immigration officers tried to arrest them.
Less than a week later, another believer sat on the ledge of her 11th floor flat staring down at a large group of journalists and photographers when her landlord tried to evict her.
In both cases, the followers claimed they were being persecuted for their beliefs. No one was hurt.
MANIPULATING THE MEDIA
Dozens of Falun Gong believers are thought to have died of beatings and abuse in police custody in mainland China after Beijing banned the movement in July 1999.
Falun Gong combines elements of Buddhism, Taoism and qigong, a form of martial art designed to harness energy in the body and heal, and claims a membership of 100 million people worldwide.
In the former British colony, which will enjoy a high degree of autonomy for 50 years after returning to Chinese rule in 1997, followers have been allowed to carry on as normal.
But patience is wearing thin.
``The Falun Gong factions cunningly manipulate the media,'' wrote columnist Kevin Sinclair in the South China Morning Post newspaper in late July in a piece entitled ``Falun Gong disciple's hysterics tries our good faith.''
``If the government attempts to enforce our laws, they clamber out on window ledges and threaten to leap, but only after having called television stations and newspapers,'' Sinclair wrote.
Another member of the movement, the U.S.-based, ethnic Chinese woman Wendy Fang, has exacerbated the public's annoyance with the group.
In early July, the heavily-pregnant San Francisco resident, who holds a mainland Chinese passport, went on hunger protest at Hong Kong airport when she was refused entry because she did not have a visa, as required by mainland Chinese passports holders.
Fang, who claimed she wanted to see a manifestation of Buddha on Hong Kong's Lantau island, only resumed eating after four days when a court issued an order for her to be force-fed.
She was deported and tried to enter Hong Kong two more times in July but was turned away on both occasions.
``Her actions have nothing to do with freedom of speech, the government placing restrictions on Falun Gong or indeed any matter of principle,'' the South China Morning Post said in a July editorial.
``No woman has the right to intentionally put her unborn child at risk in this way; and certainly not for the sake of a twisted sense of principle,'' the newspaper said.
SPLINTER GROUP CLAIMS NEW LEADER
The group is also waging an internal struggle in Hong Kong over its leadership, only contributing to the growing sense of unease about the movement in the territory.
A splinter group of about 20 members has claimed in recent months that Belinda Pang, one of the most outspoken followers since Beijing's ban, is now movement leader.
``It was revealed to us on May 11 that Belinda is now the leader,'' said Helen Tao, Pang's lieutenant.
``During our retreat on Lantau island in June, the Big Buddha statue transformed to look more and more like Belinda,'' Tao said.
Pang, who has been spokeswoman for the group, has not been accessible to the media in recent weeks.
Other members in Hong Kong, who vow allegiance to movement founder Li Hongzhi, slam Pang's leadership claim as heresy. One of China's most wanted people, Li lives in the United States.
Chinese followers of Zhonggong, a group similar to the banned Falungong spiritual movement, have appealed to the United States to grant their leader political asylum amid fears for his safety, a Hong Kong-based human rights group said Sunday.
Zhonggong leader Zhang Hongbao is applying for asylum from Guam, where he fled in January and is being detained as an illegal immigrant, said the Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy.
Zhang, who founded the quasi-religious group in 1987, fears he would face the same danger as Falungong leader Li Hongzhi, who lives in New York and is wanted by Chinese authorities.
Zhang's followers said they were afraid of being interviewed or speaking publicly for fear of jeopardising Zhang's application, said center director Frank Lu.
Zhonggong is considered by the Chinese government to be as threatening as Falungong, which claims 70 million members in China and has repeatedly challenged a government ban against it with protests in Tiananmen Square.
Both groups promote moral virtue and clean living through traditional Chinese "qigong," or breathing and meditation, exercises and their founders' philosophies.
Lu said the government had been suspicious of Zhonggong as early as 1993, when it formed a police task group to investigative the group.
The team concluded Zhang was highly influential and Zhonggong could become a new religion and pose major challenges to the government.
The government estimated the group had 38 million followers by 1990.
Membership is believed to be much higher now.
Following a protest by 10,000 Falungong members in 1999, authorities banned the group and began turning their attention to similar ones.
In the past year, 600 Zhonggong training center leaders have been detained without trial and 3,000 businesses set up by Zhonggong have been shut down nationwide.
Lu said some of Zhang's followers believe the Chinese government will send agents into the Guam jail to try to poison him.
They are urging US officials to ensure Zhang's safety while he is in jail and to quickly grant him asylum.
The Chinese leadership sees such spiritual groups as the biggest threat to one-party rule since the student uprising in 1989 which culminated in a bloody massacre in the city's Tiananmen Square.
Tens of thousands of people are believed to have been arrested and more than 100 sentenced to heavy prison terms since Falungong was banned in July last year.
NEW YORK, Aug 10 (Reuters) - With international investors salivating over China ahead of its likely entry into the World Trade Organization, Wall Street has so far shrugged off the government's year-long crackdown on religious freedom.
In the era of globalization -- when democratization is said to be correlated with market opportunity -- China has stepped up its campaign against Christians, Buddhists and people who practice the Falun Gong meditation and exercise system, said the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
"How could an investor feel they will be treated according to the rule of law in China when an underground Protestant minister or a practitioner of Falun Gong is not?" asked Lawrence Goodrich, a spokesman for the independent government commission that makes policy recommendations to the executive branch and Congress.
Devi Aurora, Asia analyst at Standard & Poor's DRI, said investors are less concerned about human rights than with the threat of government red tape and lack of corporate governance in China.
"These issues have to be squared with the fact we are talking about a huge potential market. Most corporate and financial investors salivate at the prospect of going into it," Aurora said.
Falun Gong, which combines meditation with a doctrine rooted loosely in Buddhist and Taoist teachings, first rattled the atheist Communist Party with an unexpected 10,000-member protest in Beijing on April 25, 1999.
The crackdown that ensued has left 37 Falun Gong adherents dead and thousands incarcerated, according to a New York-based Falun Gong spokeswoman. The Hong Kong-based Information Centre for Human Rights and Democracy puts the number of those who have died under police pressure at 27.
Most have died of beatings in police custody, but several have succumbed to forced medication or forced feeding to halt hunger strikes, the Information Centre said. The crackdown has drawn widespread criticism from Western governments for violating U.N. anti-torture and human rights treaties.
Yet China's Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation said last month that 10,101 foreign investment contracts worth $24.2 billion were reported in the first six months of this year.
The number of contracts is up 25.5 percent over the first half of 1999 and the dollar amount of foreign direct investment was up 24.6 percent, Aurora said.
The U.S. Senate is expected to vote in September on legislation that would grant permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) to China, ending the annual ritual of reviewing Beijing's trade status and guaranteeing Chinese goods the same low-tariff access to U.S. markets as the products of nearly every other nation.
The bill enjoys broad bipartisan support in the Senate.
In exchange for the benefits, China has agreed to open a wide range of markets, from agriculture to telecommunications, to U.S. businesses under the terms of a landmark agreement ushering Beijing into the WTO.
"Concern about the Falun Gong story does not outweigh the optimism surrounding China's entry into the World Trade Organization," Aurora said.
Indeed the market is willing to forgive Beijing for "a pretty fair degree of heavy-handedness" in the case of Falun Gong, "particularly because this is not economically inspired social unrest," said Michael Kurtz, Asian strategist at IDEAglobal.com.
"If this were mass disorder by striking mine workers or people protesting runaway inflation like we saw in 1989 when Tiananmen Square erupted, it would be more worrisome. As it is, this story is off in a more obscure corner of Chinese social life," Kurtz said.
"Right now the Street is willing to forgive China a certain degree of authoritarianism as long as they can deliver economic growth," he said.
Falun Gong practitioners say they have no political aims and their protests are aimed at gaining official recognition and freedom to openly follow the precepts of the practice.
"Wall Street is paying attention but my sense is the story has to get worse before people are surprised and get very concerned," said an analyst at a major U.S. firm who requested anonymity.
"Falun Gong is part of the general tension between the government and people who are moving toward freedom on all levels, including the Internet," the analyst said.
China routinely blocks Web sites of Western media outlets, human rights groups, Tibetan exiles and other independent sources of information. Falun Gong practitioners have been arrested for using the Internet to spread their message.
"The Internet is the way in which all these efforts by the government are going to be broken because the Internet is ultimately impossible to control," the analyst said.
CANBERRA, Aug 10 (Reuters) - Australia is to raise concerns with China over its human rights record, particularly treatment of Falun Gong followers, during talks next week, a foreign ministry official said.
The two countries are holding their fourth annual human rights talks in Canberra and Chinese officials are also expected to raise Australia's treatment of Aborigines, a touchy subject for the host nation just weeks before Sydney's Olympic Games.
``Over the past year there has been some negative developments and we do intend to raise them in the course of these talks,'' a senior foreign ministry official told reporters on Thursday ahead of the 12-member Chinese delegation's August 13-18 visit.
Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said it would address a list of concerns at the talks, including freedom of speech and assembly, administration of law, and ethnic minority rights.
``We will be seeking to raise some issues of concern relating to ... the treatment of practitioners of Falun Gong ... of religious groups, be they Catholics, Tibetans or evangelical groups, and the the treatment of dissidents.''
China's crackdown on followers of the Falun Gong movement, which was banned in July last year, has drawn widespread criticism from Western governments for violating U.N. anti-torture and human rights treaties.
Falun Gong, which combines meditation with a doctrine based loosely on Buddhist and Daoist teachings, first rattled China's atheist Communist Party when 10,000 members protested in central Beijing in April 1999 calling for official recognition.
Practitioners and human rights groups say tens of thousands of group members have been arrested or detained since the ban and 5,000 sent to labour camps without trial. At least 24 members have died in police custody.
AUSTRALIA CONCERNED OVER FREEDOMS
``The way the Chinese authorities have treated practitioners of Falun Gong does raise issues, in our view, relating to freedom of expression, association and assembly,'' the foreign affairs official said.
``It also raises issues about the way the legal system is used in relation to these people.''
He said Australia has the world's highest level of dialogue with China on human rights, with this year's delegation to be led by vice-foreign minister Yang Jiechi.
Australia, which has carefully nurtured diplomatic and trade ties with China, worked on the view it was better to try to influence change through dialogue than disapproving silence.
But although China's human rights record was expected to take the focus at the annual talks, Australian officials were also expecting questions over Aborigines, who remain the nation's most disadvantaged group in terms of health, life expectancy, income and education.
Aborigines make up about 2.1 percent of Australia's 19 million population.
Criticism of the government's treatment of Aborigines by several United Nations committees this year has embarrassed Australia ahead of the Sydney Olympics, which start on September 15.
He said the Chinese delegation could also be expected to raise concerns over Australia's support for the proposed United States controversial National Missile Defence system project which critics fears could spark a new arms race.
BEIJING, Aug 9 (Reuters) - China issued a clarion call on Wednesday to Communist Party media to build up their Web sites for a propaganda fight against what it said were enemy forces at home and abroad.
In one of China's clearest statements yet revealing its ambivalence about the Internet, the Communist flagship People's Daily said the global computer network had made ``political thought work'' more efficient but also brought unwelcome ideas.
``Enemy forces at home and abroad are sparing no effort to use this battle front to infiltrate us,'' it said.
While the Internet carried ``advanced, healthy and beneficial information, there is also much reactionary, superstitious and pornographic content,'' it said.
Beijing has until now focused on controlling the influx of ideas through the Internet. The government would now use the Web to ``create a good international image of China,'' it said.
Many Chinese media have Web sites, including the People's Daily (www.peopledaily.com.cn). But with drab, party-approved content, they face the same uphill fight as Communist newspapers competing with livelier, more balanced fare from elsewhere.
``We must strive to promptly build an corps of experts which have high political consciousness, good news sense, Internet technology savvy and command of foreign languages,'' it said.
CHINA LABELLED ENEMY OF NET
Beijing is struggling with the Internet's political implications as jail or exile no longer silences dissidents for good and the work of authors banned from writing for state media and publishing houses keeps popping up on the Web.
China's leaders were walking a ``tightrope'' between promoting the Internet to modernise and stimulate its economy, and trying to control the content it carries, said a Western diplomat.
``I don't see how you can do both and if the Chinese can do it, they may be the first ones ever,'' he said.
China's drive to be as well-wired as its perceived foes comes amid an ideological campaign aimed at justifying Communist rule amid deepening capitalist economic reforms. The clampdown has seen leading liberal critics stripped of jobs and banned from writing.
On Tuesday, foreign human rights groups criticised Beijing for shutting down what they said was the country's only openly pro-democracy Web site based in China.
The Shandong-based www.xinwenming.net (New Culture Forum) drew Beijing's ire for posting robust debate on democratisation, said Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF).
RSF named China last year as one of 20 enemies of the Internet for its censorship of the Web.
FIREWALLS, JAIL CELLS
China routinely blocks Web sites of Western media outlets, human rights groups, Tibetan exiles and other independent sources of information it deems politically sensitive or harmful.
Domestic sites which violate party dictates have also been closed, but much control is exercised through self-censorship by those who run chat-rooms and bulletin boards.
Stung by the spread of reports from unfettered Hong Kong media about domestic politics and corruption scandals, Beijing forbids increasingly popular domestic portals from posting news reports from sources other than state-controlled media.
At least two Chinese ``Web dissidents'' are in jail.
In China's top case, Huang Qi, a man from Sichuan who published information on the Internet about the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, faces trial for subversion.
Another man, Qi Yanchen, of Hebei province, faced the same charges for posting criticism of the government, RSF said.
Members of the banned Falun Gong spiritual group have also been arrested for using the Internet to spread information about their faith and about government efforts to crush the movement and to organise protests against the year-old crackdown.
A member of the outlawed Falungong spiritual group has committed suicide to protest the persecution he suffered because of his beliefs, a Hong Kong-based rights group said on Wednesday.
Liu Zengqiang, a 22-year-old student from Weifang city in eastern Shandong province, hanged himself in late July to become the 27th known fatality in China's year-long crackdown on the Falungong movement, according to the Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy.
Liu, who had studied Chinese at the Weifang Teacher Training College since 1998, went to Beijing in mid-July to present a petition to the National People's Congress, the nation's highest law-making body.
Instead he was detained by the police and beaten up, receiving injuries to his head, face and neck, the center said. He was subsequently returned to his school and placed under house arrest.
College authorities presented him with an ultimatum: either he renounced his beliefs and signed a document promising not to practice Falungong in the future, or he would be thrown out of school.
To protest the punishment he had received for exercising what he considered his constitutional right to present petitions to his country's lawmakers, Liu hanged himself inside the school compound on July 22, the first anniversary of the government's ban of Falungong.
Before he died, he had written, with his own blood, "Falun Dafa (Falungong) is good," on the shirt he was wearing. Liu is the eighth Falungong member from Shandong province reported to have died since the government crackdown, and the fourth in Weifang city alone.
Falungong practises a combination of Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian teachings that advocate high moral values and clean living through daily group meditation and breathing exercises.
The Chinese government has deemed the group an "evil sect" and views it as the biggest threat to one-party communist rule since the 1989 Tiananmen democracy protests were crushed by the Chinese military.
The center estimates some 10,000 Falungong followers have been sentenced without trial to the administrative punishment of "reform-through-labor," with Falungong followers in every one of the nation's 300 labor camps.
Meanwhile some 450 Falungong followers and leading members of the group have been sentenced in Chinese courts to up to 18 years imprisonment, the center said, while more than 600 followers have been detained in mental institutes.
A crackdown on a spiritual group in China that mirrors the banned Falungong movement has left 100,000 people jobless and 600 in detention without visiting rights, a Hong Kong-based human rights group said Tuesday.
The report by the Information Centre of Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China was published on the 13th anniversary of the founding of Zhonggong, a group that the Chinese government considers as threatening to its monopoly on power as Falungong.
Since authorities began shutting down 3,000 training centers and businesses run by Zhonggong last August, 100,000 people have lost their livelihood, the information center said.
Zhonggong operates a variety of businesses, including job skills training centers, travel agencies and stores that sell health care products.
In addition, 600 leaders of the group arrested months ago have remained in custody without charges, trials or a chance to see their family.
"Many people were arrested without their family knowing. Their families thought they went missing," said Tang Qian, the daughter of a Zhonggong instructor who was arrested in Guangzhou last October.
She said her family have not been allowed to see her mother, Cheng Yaqin, but letters from her indicate she is being forced to work long hours every day in a type of labor camp.
Zhonggong founder Zhang Hongbao last month asked the United States for political asylum. He fled China in February and took refuge on the American island of Guam in the Pacific.
The crackdown on Zhonggong indicates the Chinese government sees groups that teach "qigong" -- a traditional Chinese technique of improving one's health and healing illnesses through breathing exercises and meditation -- as a serious threat.
Falungong and Zhonggong, which the government said had 38 million followers as early as 1990, are two of the largest qigong associations in China.
In addition to practicing qigong, the two groups also adhere to Buddhist and Taoist philosophies on clean living and high moral standards.
But unlike the crackdown on Falungong, the government's method of trying to crush Zhonggong is low key.
It has not openly declared Zhonggong an evil cult or banned it as it did Falungong.
"The government does not want to attack Zhonggong at the same time it is attacking Falungong. That might cause problems," said Frank Lu, director of the information center.
But the effect is the same, followers said.
"Many people do not dare to practice in public anymore," Tang said.
Zhonggong members, however, argued their movement is different from Falungong.
"Zhonggong does not get involved in politics or religion. Zhonggong members do not worship their leader and have never protested. We can't understand why we're being treated like this. Falungong claims they are not political, but their actions tell another story," said Tang, a Zhonggong member.
The Chinese leadership sees Falungong as the biggest threat to one-party rule since the 1989 Tiananmen democracy protests were brutally crushed by the Chinese military.
The movement, which claims 70 million members (two million according to the authorities), was banned in July last year, three months after a 10,000-strong protest by members in Beijing.
Tens of thousands have been arrested and more than 100 sentenced to heavy prison terms, according to various sources.
The Falungong spiritual movement launched a promotional campaign in Singapore Monday, claiming members were being harassed by authorities although the group is legally registered.
Falungong, banned in China as a subversive organization, booked half-page newspaper advertisements which gave an introduction to the movement and its principles of "truthfulness, compassion and forbearance."
"We want to advertise because we want to let the public know about our group and what is happening in China," said spokesman Hao Gao.
The advertisement stressed that Falungong has been legally registered in Singapore as the Falun Buddha Society since last year. It also contained a hotline and details of their websites.
"Even if we are registered in Singapore, some policemen still approach our members who gather and tell them they are banned," he told AFP.
Falungong was being portrayed in Singapore and in China as a cult, Hao said, expressing hope the advertising campaign would correct that image as well as allow the public to know about the abuse of members in China.
"The media in Singapore is still calling us a cult ... We are not a cult, we are a spiritual movement," he said.
Hao claimed 30 people had been beaten to death in China since Beijing banned Falungong and launched a crackdown on the group last year.
"We cannot accept things that are happening in China. A lot of our followers are being sent to jail without trial," Hao said, adding that his 54-year-old mother is currently serving a one-year term at Shanghai prison.
"We want the public to understand what is Falungong," he said. "Banning Falungong is the most terrible thing in the world now because people are being stopped or frightened to give up their beliefs."
Falungong is a legal organization throughout Asia, except for China and Japan, he said. Hao estimated there were about 1,000 practitioners in Singapore.
Although Falungong members from around the world have protested in China over the past year, Gao said Singapore practitioners have no plans to return because "what we do here has more effect."
The movement is seen by the Chinese communist party as the biggest threat to its grip on power since the Tiananmen pro-democracy protests, which were violently crushed by the army on June 4, 1989.
The sect combines Chinese breathing exercises with Buddhist and Taoist philosophies.
BEIJING, Aug 5 (Reuters) - At least 20 provinces and cities are moving to set up special Internet police to ``administrate and maintain order'' on China's fast-growing computer networks, the official Xinhua news agency said on Saturday.
China's pioneer Internet police force, set up recently in the eastern province of Anhui, has dealt with ``criminal cases, such as cheating, property embezzlement and pornography,'' it said.
Anhui's Internet Police had also publicised information about computer viruses and worked to develop Internet filter programmes for young children.
Internet cops had helped local banks identify and close loopholes in their electronic information networks and trained volunteer ``electronic security guards,'' the report said.
Internet crime and fraud has climbed the list of China's concerns as its online population spirals, propelled by a surge in computer sales and an incremental drop in telephone and Internet access fees. Security concerns also stifle e-commerce.
The number of Internet users in China nearly doubled to 17 million in the first half of this year, the China National Network Information Centre (CNNIC) said last month.
The Xinhua report did not refer to policing political content on the Internet, perhaps the chief worry of Communist authorities amid China's headlong rush into the digital age.
China routinely blocks Websites of Westerm media outlets, human rights groups, Tibetan exiles and other sources of information it deems politically sensitive or harmful.
Stung by the spread of reports from unfettered Hong Kong media about domestic politics and corruption scandals, Beijing also forbids increasingly popular local portals from posting news reports from sources other than state-controlled media.
In the country's top case, Huang Qi, a man fom Sichuan who published information on the Internet about the 1989 military crackdown at Tiananmen Square faces trial for subversion.
Huang could face life in prison if convicted on charges of ``subverting state power,'' the Hong Kong-based Information Centre for Human Rights & Democracy said.
He angered authorities by operating a website, www.6-4tianwang.com, which published information on human rights and corruption in China, including the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen killings in which hundreds of unarmed civilians were shot.
In March 1998 the government jailed Shanghai entrepreneur Lin Hai for furnishing 30,000 Chinese e-mail addresses to an overseas electronic dissident newsletter. He was released in September last year.
Members of the banned Falun Gong spiritual group have also been arrested for using the Internet to spread information about their faith and about government efforts to crush the movement.
What Is Falun Gong? See "Falun Gong 101", by Massimo Introvigne
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