Chinese officials are conducting a nationwide campaign in the United States against the Falun Gong meditation sect by contacting mayors, and at least one governor, and urging them to snub the group.
"I was shocked that a communist nation would go to this amount of trouble to suppress what is routinely accepted in this country," said Randy Voepel, mayor of Santee, Calif., a city of 53,000 located less than 100 miles from Los Angeles.
Mr. Voepel said he received a letter just more than a year ago, signed by Lan Lijun, consul general at the Chinese consulate in Los Angeles, that said: "It is our hope that your city, by taking your citizens' interest into consideration, will earnestly consider the request from the Chinese side that no recognition and support in any form should be given to the Falun Gong cult organization."
Reached by telephone this week, Mr. Voepel said, "I found it to be very intimidating. It was a pure communist approach."
The Chinese campaign came to light in a civil lawsuit that Falun Gong members in the United States filed against Beijing.
The sect, which combines Buddhist meditation and deep-breathing exercises, has been banned in China.
Members' attempts to protest the ban have prompted the largest crackdown on dissent since the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators at Tiananmen Square.
Stan Bogosian, former mayor of Saratoga, Calif., a city of 30,000 near San Francisco, said he received a similar letter sometime in 2000.
"I would characterize it as pressure," he said. "There is a network [by the Chinese authorities] going on."
Gov. Gary Locke of Washington state also received a letter from Wang Yunxiang, consul-general at the consulate in San Francisco.
"I am writing hereby to request your kind support by not granting any application of this Falun Gong for registration in your state in whatever names," said Mr. Wang in June 2000.
The Chinese consulates have sent about 300 letters to local governments throughout the United States, U.S. Falun Gong practitioners say.
Sun Weide, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, acknowledged a letter-writing campaign by Chinese diplomats but denied it was intended to suppress the movement.
"We are just sharing the facts about Falun Gong," Mr. Sun said. "We have only urged local officials to stop honoring the Falun Gong."
U.S. Falun Gong members filed the lawsuit on Wednesday. It accuses Chinese agents operating in the United States of making death threats and tapping phones of Falun Gong practitioners.
The 57-page complaint names two Chinese security ministries, China Central Television, and employees of Chinese Embassy and Consulate offices for engaging in criminal activities intended to impair the organization.
"The Chinese government has stolen our Constitution and our Bill of Rights," said Martin F. McMahon, an attorney for the religious group. "We want it back."
Terri Wu, one of the plaintiffs, said that her home and mobile phones have been bugged and recorded and that unidentified callers have played the recordings back to her since January 2001.
"I had conversations played back to me on five different occasions," Miss Wu said.
Gail Rachlin, a Falun Gong practitioner in New York City, said her apartment had been broken into three times.
"They didn't steal anything but my income tax records, address book and other Falun Gong-related materials," she said.
In response to the lawsuit, the Chinese Embassy released a statement denying any wrongdoing and saying U.S. courts lack the authority to put the Chinese government on trial.