- The Washington Times - Monday, August 12, 2002

The Falun Gong spiritual group's followers in the United States say that the trial of practitioners in Hong Kong for a street demonstration will test whether mainland China will allow full freedom of religion in the Chinese city.
Hong Kong authorities say the 16 protesters would not leave the sidewalk in front of Beijing's head office in the city when asked to by police, while the spiritual group says it was a crackdown ordered by the communist mainland.
"This is the first case where a peaceful demonstration was broken up and the accused [face] a trial," said Tao Wang, a Washington-area practitioner. "Before this, Hong Kong has not done anything to bother Falun Gong."
The trial for the March demonstration began in mid-June, and police charged participants with "obstruction" of public property and, according to Falun Gong reports, with "assaulting a policeman."
The Hong Kong court will issue its ruling this week, according to an official with the Hong Kong Economic Trade Office in Washington.
In a statement, the office said: "Though the Falun Gong has been banned in mainland China, the group remains free to practice in Hong Kong. As long as organizations abide by the law in Hong Kong, the government will not intervene in their activities."
The official, who asked for anonymity, said that religious groups including Falun Gong have continued to enjoy freedom of speech and association after Britain handed over Hong Kong to Beijing five years ago.
"That indicates the unique separation between Hong Kong and the mainland under 'one country, two systems,'" the official said. "In this case, the government reports that it was a local violation after the police requested the demonstrators to move."
Mr. Wang, a mainland native who arrived here in 1996, said the arrests show Beijing's growing impatience with worldwide protests by the spiritual group.
He said Beijing has successfully pressured foreign nations to bar Falun Gong from cities while China's top officials are visiting and pressured some U.S. mayors to retract proclamations that recognized religious freedom for the group.
In 1999, for example, cities with large trading interests in China such as Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Baltimore rescinded the proclamations.
"What we are seeing now is China's attempt to use legal or police means in other countries to stop protests by Falun Gong practitioners," Mr. Wang said.
In a statement Thursday, the U.S. Falun Gong said "the whole world is closely watching whether [the] Hong Kong government can resist Beijing's political influence."
While the group does not have a hierarchy, organization or official membership, its following in China has been estimated at 100 million compared with the 64.5 million membership of the Communist Party.
Falun Gong reports about 500 members in Hong Kong.
Its largest following outside the mainland is in Taiwan, with an estimated at 100,000 practitioners, or people who use the spiritual group's meditation and exercise techniques. The group claims 10,000 followers in the United States.
Founded in China in 1992 by Li Hongzhi, Falun Gong was banned by China's Communist government in 1999 after weeks of outdoor peaceful demonstrations the largest since the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square that ended in a bloody military attack.
Human rights groups estimate that 250 Falun Gong practitioners have been killed, 50,000 detained and 10,000 sent to labor camps.

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