Falun Gong free in Hong Kong, but irks publicTan Ee Lyn
HONG KONG, Aug 14 (Reuters) - Outlawed in mainland China, the Falun Gong spiritual movement has been allowed to operate unhindered in Hong Kong but after a spate of publicity stunts the group is beginning to get on people's nerves. Recent staged suicide attempts and a hunger strike, as well as a row within the fractious group over its leadership, are costing Falun Gong public sympathy, experts and commentators say.
"These events hurt their credibility," Joseph Kaung, theology lecturer at the Chinese University, told Reuters. "It's showing traits of a cult. It keeps an air of mystery about it, and there is leader worship."
On two occasions over the past month, members of the group orchestrated suicide attempts which threw one of the busiest districts in Hong Kong into traffic chaos and hurt local businesses. In the first incident, three mainland Chinese Falun Gong followers who overstayed their visas threatened to jump from a 10th floor flat in the Happy Valley district after immigration officers tried to arrest them.
Less than a week later, another believer sat on the ledge of her 11th floor flat staring down at a large group of journalists and photographers when her landlord tried to evict her. In both cases, the followers claimed they were being persecuted for their beliefs. No one was hurt.
MANIPULATING THE MEDIA
Dozens of Falun Gong believers are thought to have died of beatings and abuse in police custody in mainland China after Beijing banned the movement in July 1999. Falun Gong combines elements of Buddhism, Taoism and qigong, a form of martial art designed to harness energy in the body and heal, and claims a membership of 100 million people worldwide.
In the former British colony, which will enjoy a high degree of autonomy for 50 years after returning to Chinese rule in 1997, followers have been allowed to carry on as normal. But patience is wearing thin.
"The Falun Gong factions cunningly manipulate the media," wrote columnist Kevin Sinclair in the South China Morning Post newspaper in late July in a piece entitled "Falun Gong disciple's hysterics tries our good faith." "If the government attempts to enforce our laws, they clamber out on window ledges and threaten to leap, but only after having called television stations and newspapers," Sinclair wrote.
Another member of the movement, the U.S.-based, ethnic Chinese woman Wendy Fang, has exacerbated the public's annoyance with the group. In early July, the heavily-pregnant San Francisco resident, who holds a mainland Chinese passport, went on hunger protest at Hong Kong airport when she was refused entry because she did not have a visa, as required by mainland Chinese passports holders. Fang, who claimed she wanted to see a manifestation of Buddha on Hong Kong's Lantau island, only resumed eating after four days when a court issued an order for her to be force-fed. She was deported and tried to enter Hong Kong two more times in July but was turned away on both occasions.
"Her actions have nothing to do with freedom of speech, the government placing restrictions on Falun Gong or indeed any matter of principle," the South China Morning Post said in a July editorial. "No woman has the right to intentionally put her unborn child at risk in this way; and certainly not for the sake of a twisted sense of principle," the newspaper said.
SPLINTER GROUP CLAIMS NEW LEADER
The group is also waging an internal struggle in Hong Kong over its leadership, only contributing to the growing sense of unease about the movement in the territory. A splinter group of about 20 members has claimed in recent months that Belinda Pang, one of the most outspoken followers since Beijing's ban, is now movement leader.
"It was revealed to us on May 11 that Belinda is now the leader," said Helen Tao, Pang's lieutenant. "During our retreat on Lantau island in June, the Big Buddha statue transformed to look more and more like Belinda," Tao said. Pang, who has been spokeswoman for the group, has not been accessible to the media in recent weeks.
Other members in Hong Kong, who vow allegiance to movement founder Li Hongzhi, slam Pang's leadership claim as heresy. One of China's most wanted people, Li lives in the United States.