World Politics Review Exclusive WPR
HONG KONG -- As Beijing cracks down on protestors in Tibet in the run up to the Olympics, adherents of Falun Gong -- a banned religious movement that draws from Buddhism and Taoism -- are also facing the heavy hand of the Communist regime.
Falun Gong members claim Chinese authorities are stepping up their crackdown on the group, branded an "evil cult" by Beijing, by using Olympic security as an "excuse."
In early March, the U.S.-based Falun Dafa Information Center announced that 1,878 practitioners from 29 provinces had been arrested since January 2008 and that cash rewards of up to $360 were being offered by the government to identify members.
Followers believe the recent arrests were triggered by a secret order issued by former Public Security Minister Zhou Yongkang to provincial security forces in February this year. According to Amnesty International, the order was couched as crucial to "successfully" holding the Olympic Games.
"We must strike hard at hostile forces at home and abroad, such as ethnic separatists, religious extremists, violent terrorists and . . . the Falun Gong," Zhou ordered, according to an Amnesty International translation of the document.
"The Olympics seem to have given the Beijing regime a new incentive, and excuse, to hasten its abuses of citizens' rights. The arrests make a mockery of the regime's promise to improve its dismal record on human rights," said Erping Zhang of the the Falun Dafa Information Center, which collected the details of the arrests.
Dozens of members have been rounded up from Beijing's Chaoyang District, which will host the beach volleyball and tennis events, and the city's Shunyi district, the site of the Olympic rowing and kayaking venues. About 156 followers were seized in Beijing alone, the center claims.
In some cities, announcements of cash rewards are posted in neighborhood administration offices or Web sites run by the security bureau.
The systematic nature of the arrests suggests that the authorities are using a previously compiled list of local followers, Falun Gong adherents say.
There is a widespread fear for the lives and safety of the arrested members, who are thought to have been sent to re-education labor camps until after the end of the Olympics. Some were arrested in their workplaces or homes for holding Falun Gong literature.
The arrest, disappearance and torture of Falun Gong members has been widely reported by human rights groups. Seven years after landmark protests in Tiananmen Square in 1999, a two-month investigation by a former Canadian Secretary of State and a Canadian human rights lawyer concluded that the organs of some arrested Falun Gong members had been harvested.
Hong Kong Association of Falun Dafa spokesman Kan Hung-cheung told World Politics Review that the increased arrests of practitioners is part of a drive to "stamp out'' the movement. Falun Gong members say the government's effort to eradicate the movement began in 1999 under former president Jiang Zemin, who they say vowed to accomplish that goal in three months.
"The Falun Gong will be in deep trouble over the next few months," said political commentator James Sung Lap-kung of Hong Kong City University. "Beijing considers the Falun Gong to be a partner in the recent Tibet riots. As the Olympics draw closer, Beijing will be trying to identify dangerous forces that are planning to jeopardize the Games."
But Kan said the recent arrests will not scare or deter practitioners from "telling the world the truth."
"Falun Gong is the first target of Beijing because it is so afraid that we will tell people the truth about the persecution, even though we are peaceful," he said. "In the run up to the Olympics we won't miss the chance to tell people about our suffering, including those from other countries. But this doesn't mean we will disrupt any activities of the Olympics.''
There are no firm plans for the group to protest in Beijing during the Olympics. Instead they will work with their foreign members to contact Western governments, parliament members and human rights groups to pressure Beijing.
The Human Rights Torch Relay, a global campaign to call attention to human rights abuses in China, has already started its journey to 40 countries and 150 cities. And recent events in Tibet are likely to make the government even more anxious of critical voices.
"Tibet shows the violence exercised by the Chinese Communist Party and that they will use bloodshed to stop the uprising of the Tibetans," said Kan. "The CCP won't let go of their power,'' said Kan.
The suppression of the Falun Gong began soon after the movement first sprung to life in 1992. It soon became a thorn in the side of the Communist regime, which saw the group's estimated 100 million members worldwide as a threat to their socialist ideology and to the Communist Party. According to party sources, the Chinese Communist Party has about 70 million members, about the same number of members Falun Gong claims in China.
Chinese state-run media has played a significant role in the Chinese government's campaign to discredit the movement.
Chinese media reports made much of an incident in Tiananmen Square in 2001, when some supposed Falun Gong members immolated themselves in front of a CNN camera crew. Later investigations by Western media outlets cast doubt on Chinese government claims that the suicide victims were members of Falun Gong, raising suspicions in some circles that the event had been staged as propaganda.
The Falun Gong has also been ridiculed for belief in the supernatural and aliens, as well as claims by its founder Li Hongzhi that he can perform miracle cures and levitate. Li is now living in exile in New York.
But the group says their beliefs are based on the principles of self-improvement, meditation and good health.
Asked if Falun Gong members have grown angry by years of persecution and the recent arrests, Kan said, "We do not have the concept of angry. We practice on the principle of truthfulness, compassion and forbearance -- even if they torture or beat us we will use every means to arouse their consciousness to tell them not to persecute us.
"The world does not know what has happened inside China," he added. "Jiang Zemin claimed that he would destroy us within three months, but now almost nine years have passed and we are still here."
Nishika Patel is a Hong Kong-based journalist.