After Olympic win, China takes new aim at Falun Gong

BEIJING, July 23 (Reuters) - The tour starts with blown-up photos of charred bodies, bludgeoned faces and illegal rituals.

It ends with emotional footage of women "saved" at government re-education camps, tables demonstrating the need to take medicine and optical illusions meant to illustrate the difference between science and superstition.

For thousands in Beijing, the vast new exhibit marking the two-year anniversary of China's crackdown on the Falun Gong spiritual group was a way of sobering up after the revelry of landing the 2008 Olympics.

The timing, though coincidental, highlighted the widening gulf between a government eager to ensure social stability for the Games and overseas human rights groups keen to show China's preparations for it will do more harm than good.

Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, combines meditation and exercise with Buddhist and Taoist teachings. It was banned in China on July 22, 1999, accused of being an evil cult trying to topple the communist government.

By Wednesday July 18, more than 25,000 people had visited the exhibit, titled "Fight Cults, Uphold Civilisation" and co-sponsored by six different government offices.

Li Wei, head curator of the exhibition, says its purpose is to use visual imagery and "the facts" to educate people about the movement.

"Particularly after the Olympic success, China's social environment needs to be improved," Li told Reuters.

"These cults affect our stable social development, as well as people's basic human rights."

Falun Gong supporters overseas lashed back at similar comments made by Chinese Vice Premier Li Lanqing -- China's chief Olympic ambassador -- as he visited the exhibit on July 17.

The official Xinhua news agency quoted him as equating China's winning the right to host the Olympics with "international recognition of our country's social stability," and urged further efforts to expose Falun Gong to "guarantee lasting security."

"China uses Olympic win to justify human rights atrocities," the Falun Dafa Information Center retorted.

China holds Falun Gong responsible for the deaths of 1,660 people by suicide, refusal of medical treatment and, in a few cases, domestic violence.

Falun Gong denies endorsing violence of any kind, including suicide, and says more than 200 adherents have died in police custody since the ban.


Illegally circulated floppy disks and texts dramatising what the government calls its "struggle" with Falun Gong alerted visitors at the exhibit to the group's resilience.

Despite neighbourhood sweeps, "labour through education" camps and stern legal measures, the organisation "has not ceased to be active," says Li.

In March, Chinese lawmakers made it a top priority to end Falun Gong's activities this year.

One Western diplomat said government propaganda was "evolving" towards that end and played down any immediate links between the Olympics and China's human rights record.

He said the propaganda campaign had been much more effective since the self-immolations of five purported Falun Gong members in Tianamen Square in January. Two of the five people who lit their petrol-soaked clothes died.

China identified the victims as Falun Gong believers directed to burn themselves by group leaders, a charge the group denies.

The Beijing Daily said on Friday five Falun Gong followers had been put on trial for their alleged roles in the suicide attempt.

"It's only since the immolations that there has been a popular consensus," the diplomat said, noting recent propaganda had consisted largely of human interest stories and accounts of so-called "rehabilitation" efforts.

"They have struck a very emotional chord," he said.

The People's Daily, the Communist Party newspaper, condemned Falun Gong on Friday as "inhumane" and told a story of adherents sticking the body of a fellow believer in a sewer to hide the evidence after she had refused medicine.

The intensifying attack on Falun Gong's "human rights" violations takes China's arguments to their logical extreme -- one sign the leadership is getting anxious to move on.

"Many in China's leadership realise they have to address the underlying problems," said the diplomat, referring to popular dissatisfaction with welfare, living standards, and official corruption which some believe gave rise to Falun Gong.


The high-traffic exhibit was supposed to be open to the general public, but the free entrance tickets have been reserved almost exclusively for approved tour groups.

"It's partially for the protection of visitors from... Falun Gong's violent tendencies," says Li.

Officers at a security checkpoint confiscated visitors' water bottles, an eerie reminder of the self-immolations, in which the purported Falun Gong members concealed bottles filled with petrol in their coats.

One cartoon lampooning Falun Gong founder Li Hongzhi is dotted with swastikas, a plain attempt to liken him to Hitler.

Another part of the exhibit sharpens the government's classification of Falun Gong as part of worldwide trend, with morbid images of mass suicides and violence linked with "evil cults" overseas.

"In the U.S. they also have these groups," says a man surnamed Jin, 72, who catches every inch of the displays with his video camera. "Countries all over the world are working to oppose them."

Few seem bothered by the gore. "This is education," says a woman surnamed Bai, 45. "If you don't show people, they will never know."

"We haven't even displayed the worst of it," adds Li, the curator.

He says the dark, gruesome photoboards have been deliberately offset by lit-up images showing the smiling masses who took part in activities to oppose the spiritual group.

"We made that area brighter, to lighten the mood."

21:43 07-22-01

Copyright 2001 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.