QINGDAO, China On the day last October when China's government issued a sweeping order declaring Falun Gong an "evil cult," the main state-run television station brought Wang Peisheng onto its nightly news and identified the 68-year-old retired hardware store worker as a reformed practitioner. "Falun Gong is dangerous," the nightly news quoted Wang as saying. "Banning it is a good move."
But in the wee hours of July 12, Wang died in a jail here in Shandong province, on the Yellow Sea about 200 miles south of Beijing. He had been arrested a few weeks before in Beijing, where he had gone to plead with the government to legalize the Buddhist-like spiritual movement. After rejecting Falun Gong on state-run TV, Wang had resumed practicing it. Two close associates say he never really abandoned the movement but was forced to appear on television by local police who threatened his children with unemployment if he did not play along.
"I found him that morning, slumped over," said Kong Baiming, a 53-year-old construction worker who was in a jail cell with Wang when he died. "Just the night before he told me that he had planned to return to Beijing again to press the Falun Gong case. He had been meditating. His soul had left his body."
Wang's attachment to Falun Gong is not unusual. Thirteen months into the ban, the largest campaign of repression since the 1989 crackdown on student-led protests in Tiananmen Square, China's attempts to crush the spiritual movement have still not succeeded. And now in several parts of China, practitioners of the set of breathing exercises say their campaign of civil disobedience, unprecedented in the history of Communist China, is yielding results.
In several regions, including Weifang, a middle-size city in central Shandong province, practitioners say they now can practice their faith at home. Public practice of Falun Gong still means jail time and an almost guaranteed beating. Other Chinese regions continue to enforce the ban with apparent brutality. But winning, at least in some places, a measure of freedom to follow their faith marks a major victory over the Communist Party, which declared earlier this year that Falun Gong constituted an unprecedented threat to Communist rule and that its members would be treated with a "firm hand."
The significance of the party's failure to crush Falun Gong is as simple as it is profound. It illustrates the increasing inability of China's party and government to carry out their will in the face of concerted and determined opposition. The campaign against Falun Gong has been particularly intense precisely because of the group's open challenge, which some Chinese sources have described as a test of President Jiang Zemin's authority.
Zeng Qinghong, head of the party's organization department, said early in the crackdown that it would constitute an important test of the party's mettle. If so, it appears the party has failed so far. Falun Gong's organization remains tight. Members communicate using e-mail, pre-paid phone cards and code. And they have not appeared fearful of police in interviews during the past few months.
Security forces have sometimes responded with brutality. At least 26 practitioners are believed to have died in police custody. An estimated 3,000 people have been sent by the police to labor camps. Chinese law allows the police to dispatch people for three years of "thought reform through labor" without using the courts. And the courts, controlled by the Communist Party, have sentenced dozens more to jail terms of 10 years or more.
But Falun Gong practitioners continue to protest in Tiananmen Square in the center of Beijing, and they continue to arrive with petitions at the offices of the State Council, China's cabinet, just a few blocks away.
"In the beginning, the authorities even came into our homes, but slowly things have opened up," said Sun Xiaomei, a 37-year-old Falun Gong follower from Weifang. "We have won these rights by ourselves. No one gave them to us. But our stubbornness and faith are going to win."
Sun, who was a schoolteacher before she was fired from her job this summer because of her beliefs, is another example of someone who apparently accepted the crackdown only to return to Falun Gong's fold. She was arrested on July 20 last year, two days before China officially banned Falun Gong. Like thousands of her comrades across the country, she was taken to a stadium and then moved into a hotel. Police and government agents demanded that she sign a form saying she would stop practicing. Sun agreed.
On July 26, Sun was told that her mother and sister, who had practiced Falun Gong for about five years, had committed suicide together because they refused to accept Beijing's ban on the sect. Their deaths shocked her, she said, but convinced her that she must continue with Falun Gong.
"People are asking what kind of power can resist the power of the party," she said. "People who were not interested before are interested. In the beginning, they believed the TV propaganda. Now they are asking us."
Falun Gong has attracted people from a cross section of Chinese society: old party members, young Western-trained scientists, senior People's Liberation Army officers, bureaucrats, teachers and millions of people living on the margins of Chinese society. In all, at least 10 million people are believed to have practiced Falun Gong in China.
Falun Gong gained followers rapidly after Li Hongzhi, the movement's mastermind whose last known address was in Queens, N.Y., began proselytizing here in the early 1990s. At the time, the Chinese government, still worried about Western influence in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square, backed movements such as Falun Gong because they embraced nativist elements in Chinese culture and appeared to reject the liberalism of the West. The Ministry of Education published a series of Falun Gong books; criticism of the movement was banned in China's press.
Part of Falun Gong involves practicing traditional Chinese breathing exercises, known as qigong, which seek to strengthen something Chinese call qi, the body's vital energy. Falun Gong preaches that people are born with a wheel of energy in their bellies. Falun Gong teaches its followers how to control and strengthen this "energy wheel."
But Falun Gong also has a supernatural and strongly ideological side. Li, the movement's mastermind, has claimed he can fly. He has said the earth is being infiltrated by aliens. He has preached that each race has its own paradise and that intermarriage is dangerous because mixed-race children would be without a paradise. He says women should serve their husbands like masters. And he has spiced his catechism with ancient Chinese animist deities, such as fox and weasel spirits, making it attractive to the Chinese.
Some in China blame a spiritual vacuum for the persistence of sects such as Falun Gong. Communism no longer holds any attraction for most Chinese, particularly the young. In the absence of communist ideals, many middle-aged Chinese all of whom have been trained from a young age to believe passionately in Communism have become a ripe breeding ground for religions of all persuasions.
Others have criticized the way in which the crackdown has been carried out. Last summer, many Chinese people said they supported the government's decision to ban Falun Gong, partly because its belief system aliens, a third dimension, curing disease through meditation and the infallibility of Li seemed outrageous. Now, many people express exasperation with the crackdown and sympathy for its victims.
Falun Gong followers say their successes in some regions have come at a horrible cost.
On March 2, for example, police arrested Zhang Zhenggang, a 36-year-old bank worker and Falun Gong organizer in the city of Huai'an in eastern Jiangsu province, shortly after he returned home from Beijing, where he had gone with a letter signed by 100 practitioners demanding that the sect be legalized.
On March 25, Zhang's wife, Zhang Zhaoyun, also a Falun Gong follower, was at home when a call came from a friend telling her she should hurry to the Huai'an No. 1 People's Hospital. According to an account from relatives, police had brought her husband there, and doctors were operating on him. A doctor came out and showed her a bandage soaked in blood from his head. Her husband had lapsed into a coma, the doctor said, but his blood pressure was stable so there was some hope.
Police at the hospital were surprised to see Zhang's wife and did not let her see her husband, but she pushed her way past an officer.
"His head was wrapped in bandages," one witness recounted. "There was blood soaking through them. His eyes looked like they were popping out of his head."
On March 30, Zhang's blood pressure began to slide. About 50 police officers came to his room, and Zhang's wife was called out to a meeting with a police official, relatives said. The police official told her that Zhang Zhenggang was already dead. She disagreed and struggled to leave the room to return to her husband's side. Police stopped her and took her husband away to the crematorium.
The relatives charged that the police ordered hospital workers to take Zhang off life support. Police officials in Huai'an have said they were not aware of the case.
Despite her husband's demise, Zhang Zhaoyun continues to practice Falun Gong, family members said. She is raising the couple's 12-year-old daughter by herself. Like her husband, she was fired from her job at the Bank of China. She sold his motorcycle to raise a little cash. Still, relatives said, Zhang is proud of belonging to Falun Gong.
"She puts it on her resume," one said, "so, of course, she can't find a job."
BEIJING, Aug 21 (Reuters) - Chinese President Jiang Zemin offered a ringing endorsement of the Internet on Monday, saying e-mail, e-commerce, distance learning and medicine would transform China.
In enthusiastic comments to an international computer conference, Jiang made only passing references to political concerns that have dogged the Internet's development in China.
He said ``virtual reality is profoundly changing the way people produce, learn and live.''
``We should deeply recognise the tremendous power of information technology and vigorously promote its development,'' the official Xinhua news agency quoted him as saying.
Jiang's comments were a clear indication that China's Communist government recognises the positive benefits of the Internet, despite its fears that the unrestricted spread of knowledge and ideas could undermine its rule.
Indeed, Jiang appeared to accept the inevitability of free information flows.
``The speed and scope of its transmission have created a borderless information space around the world,'' Jiang said.
``The melding of the traditional economy and information technology will provide the engine for the development of the economy and society in the 21st century,'' he said.
TV PLAYS UP SPEECH
Jiang's speech was delivered to a largely foreign audience at the World Computer Congress, a gathering of Internet entrepreneurs and regulators from 70 countries.
But it was carried prominently on the domestic evening television news, a clear boost to China's infant Internet industry, which has struggled with politically-inspired content restrictions, a lack of venture capital, slow communications and low level of computer ownership.
Jiang highlighted the need to protect privacy on the Internet, a concern of governments around the world, and warned against what he called ``a flood of trash.''
And he made a veiled reference to the government's attempts to crack down on use of the Internet by its political foes.
``The Internet also brings problems that make people uneasy: anti-science, false science and information that is unhealthy to the point of being downright harmful,'' he said.
China is waging an all-out war against two quasi-religious movements -- Falun Gong and Zhong Gong -- that it says are trying to overthrow the Communist state. Official propaganda labels both groups ``anti-science.''
``We advocate establishing an international Internet pact strengthening the safe management of information to give free rein to the positive uses of the Internet,'' Jiang said.
PARTY DOUBTS REMAIN
Earlier this month, the Communist Party's flagship People's Daily delivered a major ideological pronouncement on the Internet that was far more ambivalent about the new technology.
The paper said that while the Internet carried ``advanced, healthy and beneficial information, there is also much reactionary, superstitious and pornographic content.''
``Enemy forces at home and abroad are sparing no effort to use this battle front to infiltrate us,'' it said.
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.
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.
Domestic sites which violate party dictates have also been closed. Beijing forbids increasingly popular domestic portals to post news reports from sources other than state-controlled media.
BEIJING, Aug 20 (Reuters) - A human rights group said on Sunday that Chinese President Jiang Zemin had called for strict surveillance of members of the banned Zhong Gong meditation group in an internal memo.
The document could herald a clampdown on the popular group, whose members say some 600 of their number have been detained and that they have had millions of dollars in assets confiscated.
The Hong Kong-based Information Centre for Human Rights and Democracy did not say how it had come by the contents of the memo, but has in the past been a reliable source of information on human rights in China.
In the memo, issued this month, President Jiang was said to have called for intensified surveillance and a thorough investigation into the ``backbone'' of the group in order to prevent purported threats to social stability.
The group's leader, Zhang Hongbao, fled in February to the U.S.-administered island of Guam and is seeking political asylum in the United States.
The issue is a sore point in Sino-U.S. ties, with Beijing saying Zhang is a criminal who must not be granted asylum. The U.S. government has maintained a low profile on the issue, and Zhang's asylum hearing has been postponed repeatedly.
Zhong Gong bears similarities to the Falun Gong spiritual movement which China publicly banned and declared an ``evil cult'' after its members staged a bold protest in April 1999 in Beijing.
Both movements incorporate traditional meditation exercises known as ``Qigong,'' but also have philosophical or quasi-religious doctrines that the Communist Party views as a threat to its authority.
A 1997 notice from police in Zhejiang province said Zhong Gong was ``using feudal superstition to deceive the masses'' -- one of the many offences of which Falun Gong has been accused.
Some disciples who have broken with the group have also accused Zhang of having illicit sex with followers -- an offence that can carry the death sentence in China.
In the memo, Jiang also called for clampdown on Falun Gong to be stepped up, the rights group said.
Believers like Dai Meiling feed the deep insecurities of the Chinese leadership. The 54-year-old electrical engineer says she used to be frightened of the police in her native Shanghai, but since she became a follower of the Falun Gong sect she is no longer afraid.
Now an Australian citizen, Dai has been arrested on each of the four times she has travelled back to China to support her fellow devotees.
On her most recent trip in February, it took a 23-day hunger strike to force the police to release her after 45 days in a detention centre and deport her to Australia.
"I am not scared," she says after demonstrating in Canberra this week while a visiting Chinese human rights delegation was in town. "I have done nothing wrong."
But for the authoritarians clinging to power in Beijing, this is the kind of defiance that threatens to undermine the foundations of Communist Party rule.
During more than 50 years with the communists in power, fear and cycles of outright terror have been the cement that binds the People's Republic together. This pattern of rule continues today. Human rights groups and many governments openly condemn Beijing's efforts to stamp out political and religious dissent and suppress groups like Falun Gong.
In its annual survey on China's human rights performance, the US State Department says China's record "deteriorated markedly" through 1999.
"A crackdown against a fledgling opposition party, which had begun in the [autumn] of 1998, broadened and intensified during the year," it said. "By year's end, almost all of the key leaders of the China Democracy Party were serving long prison terms or were in custody without formal charges, and only a handful of dissidents nationwide dared to remain active publicly."
The Australia Tibet Council and other human rights watchdogs have protested against the "patriotic re-education campaign" now under way in Tibet, while the Beijing authorities continue to persecute the "underground" Catholic Church and some Protestant groups. Despite this climate of oppression, many of the estimated millions of Falun Gong devotees in China have shown no sign of buckling under the weight of a crackdown that has seen tens of thousands arbitrarily detained and led to widespread allegations of torture, beatings and deaths in custody.
This extreme response to Falun Gong's apparently harmless and peaceful combination of Eastern philosophical teachings, meditation, exercise routines and deep breathing exercises shows how alarmed the communist Government feels about any challenge to its monopoly on power.
On the anniversary last month of the banning of the sect in China, determined Falun Gong practitioners gathered in Tiananmen Square to perform their tai chi-style exercise routines in the certain knowledge that they would be pounced on and unceremoniously dragged away.
While this ongoing campaign against the sect in China is common knowledge, the Howard Government has been reluctant to publicly acknowledge that Chinese diplomats and their agents have also been attempting to curb the activities of Falun Gong on Australian soil.
Going into this week's human rights talks with a Chinese delegation under the leadership of the Vice-Foreign Minister, Yang Jiechi, Australian officials confirmed that they would broach the subject of the treatment of Falun Gong believers in China, but made no mention of the complaints of harassment and intimidation in Australia.
This is because a key strategy for the Government in building a strong relationship with Beijing has been to take human rights off the public agenda, in which criticism of China's widespread violations leads to rancorous exchanges, and bury these complaints in a series of annual private talks.
So, while the Prime Minister, John Howard, publicly condemns the show trial and jailing of the former Malaysian deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, on trumped-up charges, he remains silent on what has been a grim year in China.
The Government and senior officials believe this has been a highly successful strategy, with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer, claiming that ties with Beijing have never been better.
On Thursday, he hailed this week's round of talks, the fourth between the two sides, as a success without disclosing any of the detail of the discussions. "It is an opportunity for us to sit down with the Chinese side, talk about our concerns, talk about areas where there has been progress and talk about areas where we are not comfortable with what has been happening," he said.
Certainly, the Chinese authorities appear much more comfortable with human rights virtually stripped from high-level exchanges and handled by lower-level officials in closed talks.
The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) and the Australian Federal Police have known for months at least that the sect's followers in Australia were being targeted, but the Government has declined to speak out.
ASIO agents have approached a number of people to warn them about the campaign - a sign that the security services are closely monitoring the activities of Chinese diplomats and the large number of Chinese agents believed to be active in Australia.
It wasn't until the Herald reported on the harassment campaign this week that Downer acknowledged, against the advice of his senior officials, that these complaints had already been raised with the Chinese embassy in May and again at this week's talks.
It appears that one reason the Chinese authorities have extended their campaign of suppression offshore is that Falun Gong is one of the first mass movements of its ilk that has adopted the Internet to spread its message and co-ordinate its activities.
This means the sect's followers outside China, including the estimated 2,000 in Australia, can play an important role in reinforcing and supporting their fellow practitioners.
Some of the movement's Australian followers, mostly of Chinese descent, have been aggressive in their attempts to visit China to protest against the official crackdown. Two are in custody in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou.
Local followers believe that they have been the target of a major campaign of intimidation that has included surveillance and monitoring, vandalism, phone tapping and direct pressure from Chinese diplomats.
A well-known Sydney Falun Gong follower, Michael Lam, says the heavy tyres of his new 4WD were slashed when it was parked outside his Surry Hills home.
When he reported the matter to the police, he says he was told that the vandalism was the work of a "professional" and that it was not random damage.
Later, when he became concerned about the privacy of his telephone, he says technicians found that the junction box at his home had been tampered with.
Another Sydney-based sect member, Li Qizhong, says his car has been broken into, although all that was stolen was some sect literature.
"I don't think the thief was interested in Falun Gong," he says. On another occasion, his parked car was rammed so hard that the rear was caved in.
A diplomat from the Chinese Consulate-General in Sydney has also telephoned him to complain about the sect's activities, he says. And a Canberra sect member, Jasy Fu Luanqing, says she has recognised a Chinese diplomat watching her group during its regular exercise meetings at Glebe Park in the city centre.
She says she has not reported her fears, but was contacted by an AFP officer who warned her that she was being followed.
Then when she placed the group's literature at community information centres in Canberra, it was immediately removed. She also claims Chinese shopkeepers have been pressured to removed the Falun Gong newsletters and magazines she used to leave on display.
The Herald has established that Chinese diplomats have contacted councils in Sydney and urged them to deny Falun Gong the use of community facilities for meetings or for demonstrations.
In response to the Howard Government's private complaints and the Herald's reports this week, the Chinese embassy has denied all claims of harassment. Yet it claims that the sect is damaging Sino-Australian ties through its protests and demonstrations outside Chinese diplomatic missions.
In a strongly worded statement that gives some measure of Beijing's antagonism to Falun Gong, the embassy criticises what it calls a "heretical cult". "It spreads a whole set of evil ideas and fallacies to poison people's minds," the statement says. "Many followers become mentally disorientated and even crazy as a result of practising Falun Gong."
There could be grounds to suspect that Falun Gong is driving the Chinese Communist Party crazy.
WASHINGTON, Aug. 18 -- Immigration officials have delayed until next month a decision on whether to grant asylum to the leader of a Chinese spiritual movement after Chinese officials appealed for his return and submitted detailed charges that he raped followers, people involved in the case say. The movement's leader, Zhang Hongbao, has been held in detention in Guam since January after arriving in the American territory carrying a false passport, the people said.
Last year, Beijing outlawed Zhong Gong, the quasi-religious group Mr. Zhang founded in 1987, along with several other groups that practice the Chinese meditation and exercise regimen known as qigong.
While human rights groups say that Mr. Zhang has a strong asylum claim, American officials now have the delicate task of assessing the credibility of the Chinese charges.
The Chinese authorities recently provided American officials with a list of alleged crimes, specifying dates and places and including testimony from followers who say that Mr. Zhang sexually assaulted them, people told of the charges said.
The United States recently has tried to elevate cooperation with the Chinese police to fight international drug trafficking, making it difficult to dismiss Beijing's allegations without investigating them. Moreover, Mr. Zhang's group has attracted little international attention and does not fit common definitions of a political or religious movement.
China in the past has brought charges of rape against people whom it considers seditious, and American officials and human rights groups say the charges have in some cases proved unfounded.
Immigration officials requested that an asylum hearing that had been scheduled for today be postponed until American officials weigh the validity of the rape charges. A new hearing is set for early September.
The delay came shortly after Yan Qingxin, who says she is the No. 2 leader of Zhong Gong, was granted asylum. Ms. Yan, who is now in Washington seeking to generate support for Mr. Zhang, said she and Mr. Zhang arrived in Guam early this year to escape a Chinese dragnet and were thrown into detention with suspected smugglers. They waited six months to have their case heard.
"We came to America because we thought that this country protects human rights," Ms. Yan said in an interview. "But we are deeply disappointed to find that American courts do not treat such cases with urgency. I also fear that American officials are subject to pressure from the Chinese government."
Immigration and State Department officials said they do not comment on individual asylum cases. People involved in the case said the State Department was preparing an advisory opinion criticizing Beijing's suppression of Zhong Gong as politically motivated and noting the risk to Mr. Zhang if he returns to China.
China began a crackdown on spiritual groups a year ago after followers of Falun Gong, another qigong group, organized a demonstration outside the Chinese leadership compound in Beijing. The authorities then banned Falun Gong and Zhong Gong, which are rivals.
Unlike Falun Gong, which operates through autonomous cells with no clear hierarchy, Zhong Gong established an extensive organization with schools, healing centers, factories and printing houses.
People who have studied the movement say it raised millions of dollars from school fees and the sale of medical goods, books and clothing.
Mr. Zhang tailored his teachings to the needs of China's poorest people. He said those who practiced Zhong Gong could fight cancer and heart disease more effectively than by taking drugs or undergoing surgery.
Zhong Gong also says its leading practitioners have paranormal powers, including a "thousand-mile eye" that works like an X-ray and a telescope.
Mr. Zhang first went into hiding in 1994 after criticism of his group grew. Ms. Yan said Mr. Zhang decided to seek asylum in the United States late last year after the Chinese authorities shut down Zhong Gong's schools and healing centers and detained staff members. She called the charges against Mr. Zhang "sheer fabrication."
BEIJING -- China's top religious leaders warned foreign countries against meddling in domestic affairs on the pretext of upholding religious freedom, Chinese press reported yesterday.
""Some countries use religious freedom as an excuse to fuel separatism in other countries. These acts go against the world's religions,'' the Venerable Jamyang, vice-president of the Buddhist Association of China, was quoted by the China Daily as saying.
Buddhist, Taoist, Muslim, Catholic and Protestant leaders gathered on Wednesday in Beijing to prepare for the Millennium World Peace Summit, to be held from August 28-31 in the US and at which China is a participant.
The leaders warned of the dangers of American ""hegemony'' and rejected international criticism that China lacked religious freedom.
Ven Jamyang, a Buddhist, originally from Tibet, denied Tibet was without religious freedom or that China was destroying the indigenous culture in the Himalayan region, claiming both allegations were ""groundless''.
""The Tibetan cultural heritage can only be better preserved and the freedom of religious belief be better protected through developing the economy and improving people's life in the region,'' he said, according to the Xinhua news agency.
The Right Reverend Fu Tieshan, the Bishop of Beijing, who will lead the Chinese delegation at the Religious Summit, warned against the possible presence of the banned Falungong movement at the summit.
""All of the religions, and the conference, will be tarnished if they are given the authority to attend,'' he said, according to Xinhua.
He said that China banned Falungong because ""it violates the law by causing social unrest and infringing on other people's rights''.
Founded eight years ago, Falungong attracted millions of followers, drawn by its blend of slow-motion exercises and ideas drawn from Buddhism, Taoism and its founder Li Hongzhi.
Its members say that the practice promotes health, moral living and, in experts, supernatural powers.
But the Chinese authorities have outlawed the group since July last year and declared it a public menace and an unprecedented threat to Communist Party rule.
The Chinese government has accused the group of cheating followers, driving some to insanity, and causing 1,500 deaths, mostly among practitioners who refused medical treatment.
What Is Falun Gong? See "Falun Gong 101", by Massimo Introvigne
FALUN GONG UPDATES
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