Westland drops Falun Gong week under pressure from China

WESTLAND -- In January, China had its first public spat with the Bush administration over Washington support for the Falun Gong spiritual movement.

Last month, the communist nation claimed another person set himself on fire to prove devotion to the outlawed Falun Gong, also called Falun Dafa.

Last week, China claimed a victory over the Falun Dafa in the blue-collar Detroit suburb of Westland.

According to China's official Xinhua News Agency, Westland Mayor Robert J. Thomas canceled Falun Dafa Week -- saying he'd been "hoodwinked" by local followers of the meditative and health-conscious religious movement.

Thomas' action vaulted Westland into the ranks of cities such as Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles, who declared Falun Gong observances and then canceled them at the urging of the Chinese government.

Officials in hundreds of other U.S. communities, including at least 20 in Michigan, have proclaimed a Falun Gong week or day. Some, including the mayor of Santee, Calif., have loudly protested when approached by the Chinese government to remove the declarations. Others, like Westland and Seattle, apologized and rescinded the honor.

The Chinese Embassy says the declarations are a campaign of propaganda meant to gather attention and show false support for the movement.

"There are practitioners (of Falun Gong) in this country that have taken advantage of this very fine custom in America of proclamations and declarations," Zhang Yuanyuan, spokeswoman for Chinese Embassy in Washington, said Friday.

Zhang said the Chinese Embassy tries to alert each local government that adopts declarations for the Falun Gong that it is an "evil cult."

"We feel we have a duty to tell Americans, to tell the local governments, what they're doing. They're doing something unconsciously that could hurt Americans. What the Falun Gong are doing to the Chinese might become a nightmare for the Americans."

Supporters of Falun Gong say that's absurd.

"It's amazing the Chinese government is getting so up in arms about (Falun Gong)," said Adam Montanaro, spokesman for the Falun Dafa Information Center. "It's free, nice, healthy exercise that makes people feel better. It's not surprising that local governments are granting the proclamations. What's surprising is that the Chinese government is getting up in arms about what happens in a small town halfway around the planet."

China banned the Falun Gong in 1999, declaring it an "evil cult."

"You cannot be a friend of China and a friend of the Falun Gong at the same time," said Zhang.

Human rights groups have rallied around the banned Falun Gong, claiming that China's crackdown has left at least 112 dead and thousands of others injured or sentenced to prison or labor camps.

China accuses the group of deceiving people, endangering society and causing the deaths of 1,600 practitioners who went insane, committed suicide or refused medical treatment.

The group practices an eclectic mix of traditional Chinese exercise, Taoist and Buddhist cosmology and the teachings of founder Li Hongzhi.

Millions who practice Falun Gong claim its slow-motion exercises and New Age philosophy promote health, morality and supernatural powers.

Charlie Lu, a Falun Gong member, estimated that 300 to 400 practitioners live in the Detroit area. Other Michigan communities that have proclaimed Falun Gong weeks, and not rescinded them, include Ann Arbor, Madison Heights, Roseville, Rochester Hills, Southfield and Troy.

The Oakland County Board of Commissioners recognized the group last year. Commissioner Shelley Taub said she was shocked Friday to hear that China had such a strong stance against the Falun Gong.

"I didn't see any harm in it. I just though it was a nice thing to do for nice people, just as I would do something to remember the Holocaust, or the Armenian holocaust, or library week," Taub said.

"We did one for the Falun Gong, not to be an insult to any government, but to recognize this group for their spirituality and clean living. We saw it as a cultural and ethnic resolution. What does this have to do with the Chinese government?"

Thomas, the Westland mayor, declined comment on the Xinhua news agency's report that he withdrew recognition for the Falun Gong. But City Council President Sandra Cicirelli said Falun Gong members asked Thomas to issue a proclamation and he agreed to do so. She said she didn't know anything about it because it never came before City Council.

Falun Gong members "haven't called much attention to themselves" in Westland, Cicirelli said.

According to Xinhua, the mayor apologized in a letter to the Chinese Consulate in Chicago, saying he had acted on insufficient information about the group.

Xinhua reported that the consulate's letter to Thomas was accompanied by grisly photos of suicides blamed by China on the Falun Gong.