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Rights Group: Falun Gong Members Forced Underground by Chinese Crackdown

The human rights monitoring group Human Rights Watch says China's systematic crackdown on the Falun Gong spiritual and exercise movement has succeeded in driving its members underground. A new report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch says Falun Gong is having a hard time keeping its movement alive inside China. But the Falun Gong says its followers are still practicing and causing problems for the Chinese government.

The Human Rights Watch report says China's repression of the Falun Gong has involved serious human rights violations, including restrictions on belief and expression, wrongful detention, unfair trials, torture and deaths in custody. The 117-page report documents the Chinese government crackdown beginning with the July, 1999, ban on the group. And it concludes that China's tactics have apparently succeeded in thinning the numbers of Falun Gong practitioners inside China.

Falun Gong is a practice that combines spiritual beliefs, meditation and deep-breathing exercises. The Human Rights Watch report says its members have chosen a policy of peaceful confrontation against the Chinese government's efforts to halt its practice and eradicate its organization.

Mickey Spiegel, who wrote the report, says China's tactics seem to be working. "I think in the long run it (China) is succeeding in accomplishing its purpose which is breaking up the coherence of the organization within China, so that you may have individual practitioners here or there, or even small knots of people, but you won't have an organization of the size and organization that the Chinese government and the leadership has considered such a threat," she says.

Ms. Spiegel says because of a hard-hitting media campaign and threats of imprisonment, China has been able to shut down the kind of large public protests that Falun Gong members staged in 1999 and 2000.

She notes there have not been similar gatherings since several people set themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square in January last year. The Falun Gong denied their practitioners were involved, but official Chinese media reports used the incident to try to increase public disapproval of the group.

A Falun Gong spokeswoman in the group's New York office, Feng Yuan, welcomes the Human Rights Watch report for calling attention to China's persecution of Falun Gong practitioners. But Ms. Feng disputes the characterization that the group is losing momentum inside China. "Not only are there practitioners who continue to practice and try to explain what happens to other people, there is more and more general awareness of what's going on with Falun Gong," she says.

Ms. Feng says a good indicator of the strength of Falun Gong is the intensity of the government's media campaign against Falun Gong, meaning the government still sees the practitioners as a problem.

Ms. Feng and Ms. Spiegel agree the government has intensified its rhetoric against Falun Gong in recent months. Feng Yuan says China first called Falun Gong an illegal organization, then termed it an evil cult, and now, she says China is calling Falun Gong a terrorist group. "I think at the end of September, their media, state run media and the media they control out of Hong Kong, on the news reports start to label Falun Gong as a terrorist group," she says. "This is quite new. It wasn't there before September 11. Obviously they try to borrow the international attention on anti-terrorism and try to steer it toward their target group."

Mickey Spiegel of Human Rights Watch says China classifies the Falun Gong together with radical Muslim and Tibetan separatists because it sees them all posing a threat to the Communist Party and the country. "There's no question that they have talked about terrorists and evil cults in the same breath and said very specifically that they are threats to the nation, not simply to the party, but to the nation as a whole and that they absolutely have to be brought under control for the sake of a united, modernizing, developing China," she says.

The director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, Sidney Jones, says China's effort to equate the Falun Gong with terrorists is ludicrous. She says most Falun Gong members are peaceful, law-abiding citizens.

Feng Yuan says China calls the Falun Gong a terrorist group "so they somehow think they have the right to beat people to death." The Falun Gong internet website says 359 practitioners have died from police torture in China.

Ms. Spiegel says it is impossible to reliably confirm the number of people who have died in police custody. But she says tens of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners are believed to have been picked up by authorities and held briefly or longer. She says the government says more than 400 people have been judicially sentenced, but she says the number who have been sent to labor camps without trial may run into the thousands.

The Human Rights Watch report makes several recommendations. It calls on China to immediately release all Falun Gong members being held for the peaceful practice of their beliefs and to permit the resumption of public and private Falun Gong practice. It asks the Chinese government to remove all mention of superstitious sects and evil religious organizations from its criminal code and to abolish the arbitrary reeducation through labor system.

Feng Yuan says she hopes President Bush raises some of these issues when he visits Beijing later this month.