A Falun Gong welcome for mainland visitors to Taiwan

Taipei, Taiwan - Outside a popular tourist site in Taipei on a baking-hot morning recently, Gao Mingzhu, 56, a visitor from Beijing, took a break in the shade and posed as his tour group companion took a picture.

A few meters away 10 members of Falun Gong, the spiritual group outlawed as an "evil cult" in China, were greeting the newly arrived Chinese tourists and trying to pass out promotional flyers and newspaper articles.

Gao shook his head disapprovingly. "They're cheating people," he said.

But when one of the Falun Gong members, Jou Chi-ying, 68, approached, Gao turned all smiles. Indeed, after some initial uneasiness, the scene quickly became something of a cross-Strait love fest.

"See, we in the Republic of China are so polite to visitors, there's nothing to be afraid of," said Jou, using Taiwan's formal name.

"Taiwan is great," responded Gao. "We're all one family - we share the same ancestors, and the same heart."

So went another encounter between fervent Falun Gong practitioners and cautious mainland visitors. The tourists are guests in the self-governing island that China's Communist government claims as its own, faced with members of a sect that has been banned on the mainland since 1999, but who can speak and gather freely in democratic Taiwan.

Whether hostile, sympathetic or indifferent, such encounters are about to become much more frequent. Beginning Friday, direct charter flights will shuttle as many as 12,000 mainland tourists to the island each weekend, as part of an easing of cross-Strait relations under Taiwan's new president, Ma Ying-jeou. Hopes run high in Taiwan that the sharp increase in mainland tourists will help lift the island's lackluster economy.

Now, some in Taiwan are worried that Falun Gong could sour the mainland visitors' experience and hurt the tourist trade, and they would like to curb the group's activities. But Falun Gong members insist on their rights under Taiwan law and say they will increase, not reduce, their presence at scenic sites.

Standing outside the Shilin Residence in Taipei - once home to the late strongman Chiang Kai-shek, whose Nationalist troops fled to Taiwan after the 1949 Communist victory in the Chinese civil war - Jou said her group of Falun Gong activists planned to double its numbers at that location alone.

"We'll slowly increase our numbers here to 20 or 25 people, because more mainland tourists will come," said Jou, as the Beijing tourists shuffled back to their tour bus. "They can see our freedom, and we can change their thinking."

Falun Gong originated in northeast China and blends elements of Buddhism and Taoism with traditional breathing and exercise disciplines. The Chinese government, alarmed by its influence and organizational power, outlawed it and tries to block information about the group from the Internet and other media. Falun Gong adherents, who estimate their number at 600,000 in Taiwan, have countered with their own campaign.

At tourist sites around the island, Falun Gong activists have set up exhibits with sometimes graphic photos depicting what they say are Falun Gong victims of Chinese persecution. In deference to mainlanders' sensitivities, some Taiwan officials have called on the sect to tone down its displays and activities - while conceding they have little power to require such an action.

Freedom of assembly is protected by Taiwan's Constitution and its Assembly Act, and government officials who violate those rights can face stiff penalties, including prison time. So officials must fall back on persuasion.

Shih Tsung-hong, the recreation section chief of the Sun Moon Lake National Scenic Area Administration, said that mainland tour guides had complained that their clients did not like running into Falun Gong promoters.

"We're concerned about this problem, and we are trying to get them to reduce their activities," Shih said of Falun Gong. "But this is a democracy - people can say whatever they want, and we can't tell them to stop."

In the southern city of Tainan, which boasts a fort dating from the Dutch colonial presence in the 1600s, controversy flared last week when a newspaper reported that local officials might try to shield mainland tourists from Falun Gong volunteers with partitions or other means.

Tainan city officials denied having any such plans, but said they were instructing the police to watch for and deal with any confrontations between tourists and Falun Gong members. One official said they hoped to strike a balance between safeguarding freedom of expression and making mainland visitors feel welcome.

"We all agree on respecting human rights," said Yu Chi-chi, of Tainan's Cultural Affairs Bureau, in an interview.

"But we just don't want them to see things criticizing their country," Yu said of the mainland Chinese. "If I went to the U.S. and got off the bus and saw signs criticizing Taiwan, I wouldn't feel comfortable."

However, Falun Gong members insist that Taiwan's freedoms are absolute and that they will not compromise, even if their activities offend some mainlanders. In an interview, the chairman of the Taiwan Falun Dafa Society, Chang Ching-hsi, said that the group was loosely organized and did not dictate to its members. But he expects that their presence at tourist sites will increase as Chinese tourists arrive in greater numbers.

"Many more Chinese people will visit here, so we know that it's even more important to be there to tell the truth about Falun Gong," Chang said. "It's not because we'll give orders - everyone understands the importance."

Meanwhile, he said, the group had met with the Taipei police and other officials to discuss its activities.

Chang said the group had suffered greatly at the hands of the Chinese government, and he was trying to influence the thinking of Chinese citizens, one tour group at a time.

"We only criticize the Chinese Communist Party, not the Chinese people," Chang said. "We know almost every person in China criticizes the CCP almost every day. If more Chinese people know the truth, we think we'll be able stop the persecution of Falun Gong in China."

Falun Gong members acknowledge that mainland tourists almost never accept their material, and that some react badly.

"Sometimes they give us a 'thumbs up"' of approval, said one Falun Gong volunteer who asked not to be named, because she was not authorized to speak for the group. "But sometimes they criticize us. They say 'Exercise is fine, but don't do this political activity."'

Some observers are skeptical that the group's outreach will make much difference with the mainlanders.

At least twice a week, sect members gather at the north gate of Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall - a tourist landmark - to descend on passing visitors. But one security guard who has watched the interactions doubted that their activities would sway many.

"Falun Gong gives them information, and the mainland tourists immediately throw it away," he said, with a chuckle. "It's useless."

But some people in Taiwan hope mainland visitors will absorb a larger lesson about civil rights on the island.

Lai Ching-te, a legislator and chairman of the Asia branch of the Coalition to Investigate the Persecution of Falun Gong (though not a sect member himself), says Taiwan should not restrict its peoples' basic rights just because a few tour guides say their customers are offended.

"In Taiwan you can freely go out and make your appeal. We're a democratic society," Lai said in an interview. "This is mainland China's biggest deficiency - it has no democracy or freedom. And that's what we can show them here."