The founder of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, Li Hongzhi, teaches that human beings were brought to Earth from outer space and aims to improve the body and mind through special exercises and meditation.
China considers the movement to be such a threat that Chinese embassy surveillance of local members has been sufficiently aggressive to trigger several official cautions from the Australian Government in recent years.
Falun Gong supporters living in Australia have often complained of harassment by Chinese officials going well beyond the conduct normally expected of diplomats.
Ad: Vacation? City Trip? Weekend Break? Book Skip-the-line tickets
“They (the embassy) have had to be spoken to about that. Diplomats have no right to harass or interfere with local communities,” said one senior government source.
The Chinese Government regards Falun Gong as a threat because it has spiritual elements and Chinese history is replete with political rebellions fuelled by religious movements.
Its literature includes attacks on the Chinese Communist Party, including references to the “Communist evil spectre”.
But there is nothing to support Beijing’s characterisation of Falun Gong as akin to dangerous cults such as the Branch Davidians, who committed mass suicide when raided by the police in the US in 1993, or Japan’s Aum Shinrikyo, whose members launched a sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995.
The US State Department suggests several hundred Falun Gong practitioners have been put to death through torture, abuse and neglect.
The Department of Foreign Affairs warns foreign missions to ensure that their staff don’t engage in activities incompatible with their status as diplomats.
For its part, the Chinese embassy in Canberra has regularly complained to DFAT about protests by Falun Gong members outside the embassy.
Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has banned the protesters playing loud music and restricts their numbers, in line with the Vienna convention to protect the dignity and security of diplomatic staff.
A spokesman for Mr Downer said yesterday that the Foreign Minister “remains concerned about the treatment of Falun Gong practitioners”.