GLA and China in war of words

A diplomatic row has erupted between the Greater London Assembly and China over the communist regime's alleged abuse of followers of a spiritual movement.

The argument has reached ambassador level with a sharp exchange of letters and accusations of "hysterical over-reaction" and "damaged reputations".

It started when GLA members voted to condemn the superpower's persecution of Falun Gong and its followers after a British woman who believes in its teachings was refused a visa to China. The Chinese were condemned for the "murder, torture and arbitrary detention" of Falun Gong members.

The GLA resolution outraged the Chinese Ambassador Ma Zhengang. He defended his country's decision to ban the "evil cult" by sending assembly members a book featuring photographs of members "brainwashed" into decapitating, burning, stabbing and hanging themselves and others. They were accompanied by videos of "con-fessions" from worshippers.

The ambassador said: "Falun Gong has resulted in a lot of social damages and caused more than 1,700 deaths, hundreds of mental disorder (sic) and the breakdown of many families in China."

The letter, to assembly chairman Trevor Phillips, added:. "In a desperate effort to resist the decision of justice, Falun Gong has tried to disguise itself as a peaceful, spiritual movement and spread all kinds of rumours of arbitrary detentions, torture and murder to slander the Chinese government."

He urged the authority to reconsider its stance. "By associating with a cult sect, the Greater London Assembly will gain nothing except harming its own reputation and its image in the minds of the Chinese people."

But GLA member Brian Coleman, who raised the issue on behalf of his barred constituent Ze Xia, accused the ambassador of reacting "totally hysterically". A meeting between the two sides proved fruitless.

In the latest GLA letter to the embassy, Mr Coleman said: "The cult status or otherwise of the Falun Gong is not the issue. The issue is that people should be allowed to practise their beliefs freely and without threat of persecution.

"We are obviously interested in fostering good relations between China and London, however this will never be to the deficit of upholding or reinforcing issues of human rights." Mr Coleman's constituent, Miss Xia, said she desperately needs to visit her ailing parents who are being harassed by the Chinese authorities over her tuition of Falun Gong in London. She said: "Their First Secretary of the Visa Section told me that they wouldn't give me the visa if I didn't give it up. The way the Government treats us is so harsh." The 44-year-old charity worker, who has been a devotee of Falun Gong for five years, added: "My parents are not very well and I want to see them. They authorities are harassing them to put pressure on me to stop doing Falun Gong here. Some letters I've sent them have been opened."

But with the support of her MP, Glenda Jackson, and the Foreign Office, she is still hopeful of a breakthrough.

She said: "I very much appreciate the support of the GLA and the British Government because it's a global human rights issue. I believe the international community will help."