Followers of Falun Gong in Public Relations Battle

New York Times, Dec. 19, 2002

When Janet Xiong wears her yellow Falun Gong T-shirt on the streets of Chinese New York, she said, she can be pretty sure she will be greeted by averted eyes, cold stares and even taunts.

She blames the Chinese government. Ms. Xiong and other followers of the Falun Gong spiritual movement said the authorities in Beijing have brought their propaganda war against it to New York by planting defamatory articles in Chinese newspapers and waging a campaign of harassment over the past several years. They said they have been excluded from parades and Chinese-language radio stations and subtly threatened.

The movement has responded with a well-coordinated campaign of its own. It has filed a lawsuit against several Chinese-language newspapers and scheduled a news conference for today, to coincide with a lecture series and a photo exhibit about Falun Gong at a SoHo gallery, Locus Media. The lawyer representing the practitioners, Sam P. Israel, owns the gallery. His wife, Maya Israel, is handling their public relations.

The conflict has turned New York into a stage of the increasingly sophisticated and bitter public relations war between the Chinese government and the movement, which has been crushed in China and has moved much of its efforts here. The battle exists in other Chinese communities in the United States, but the issue is more acute in New York. The movement’s founder, Li Hongzhi, now lives here; China’s United Nations Mission and Consulate provide a critical mass of government presence; and Chinese officials — targets for Falun Gong demonstrations — rarely bypass New York during visits to the United States.

“They are trying to stop us,” said Ms. Xiong, 48, a researcher for a city agency who arrived in the United States in 1988. “They are trying to make people believe that this is really something bad or harmful to the community, and that if you can’t stop it, something dangerous is going to happen,” she said.

Peter Kwong, the director of Asian-American studies at Hunter College and a professor of sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, said he had noticed the campaign. “The Chinese handling of the Falun Gong issue is giving China a black eye internationally,” he said. “So what the Chinese press outside China tries to do is build their credibility, or justify why they are doing it.”

At the heart of the lawsuit are scores of articles in The China Press, which the practitioners say hammers away at Falun Gong as an evil, dangerous cult. The suit says that the newspaper is controlled by the Chinese government, and charges defamation and denial of civil rights.

According to translations filed in court, the China Press articles have compared practitioners to the Ku Klux Klan and the Branch Davidians, accused them of taking pleasure in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, called them mentally ill and implied that they had been behind killings in China.

The Chinese consul general, Zhang Hongxi, did not immediately respond to a request for an interview. A subordinate, stressing that he could not speak officially, said the charges were a “totally sheer fabrication” and that anti-Falun Gong activities were organized by individuals, not the consulate.

Floyd Abrams, the newspaper’s lawyer, said the articles were protected by the First Amendment because they reflected opinion. “They claim a violation of the right to worship, but what is really involved here is old-fashioned criticism of their views,” he said. Mr. Abrams also said that the newspaper was neither owned nor controlled by the Chinese government; rather, he said, it is financed locally.

Falun Gong combines slow-motion exercises, meditation and the healing theories of its founder, Mr. Li. The government banned the movement in 1999 after its popularity grew formidable, seeing it as a threat to Communist rule and sending thousands of members to labor camps. Supporters said that more than 100 practitioners have died in police custody.

In New York, Chinese officials have denounced Falun Gong. In July, an ambassador named Zhu Qizhen spoke at a gathering called “Seminar on Combating Falun Gong in New York.” According to the consulate’s Web site, Ambassador Zhu called the movement “a source of terror” and said no responsible government could “sit idle” in the face of such a cult.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday December 19, 2002.
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