China and censorship: Does Free Trade Exclude Free Speech?

Does Free Trade Exclude Free Speech?; Nick Wang’s Story; What is Falun Gong?

Fifteen years ago, Nick Wang left his native Inner Mongolia for New Zealand in search of greater freedom and democracy. Now he fears provincial China is catching up with him.

His adopted home, he believes, is so hellbent on preserving relations with its fourth-largest trading partner that the Kiwi values that attracted him are being steadily eroded.

The accredited press gallery journalist and Capital Chinese News editor, 45, is still smarting from his recent encounter at Parliament, when New Zealand officials blocked his entry to a photo opportunity with visiting Chinese vice-premier Zeng Peiyan.

Police justified his expulsion on the basis that Wang was waving his arms around and causing trouble.

But video footage clearly shows Wang waiting quietly in the eighth-floor lobby for the delegation to arrive. Unprovoked, he is first accused by an official of being allied to spiritual movement Falun Gong and then blocked from the room where his fellow Chinese journalists are already gathered. A policeman tells him the delegation members “don’t want your presence here” and that they will cancel the meeting if he stays.

When he refuses to budge, the officer resorts to threats — suggesting his press gallery pass could be withdrawn “just like that”.

Wang says it’s not the first time New Zealand officials have tried to bar him from Chinese functions for which he has had all the right approvals.

And it’s certainly not the first time New Zealanders at all levels have apparently bowed to Chinese wishes or sensibilities.

Barely a week after the Parliament incident, North Shore Mayor George Wood backed out of plans to attend a Chinese cultural show, after taking a call from the deputy consul-general informing him the group was linked to Falun Gong.

The spiritual movement’s Wellington branch is taking Wellington City Council to court for alleged human rights breaches after its approval to participate in the Cuba St Carnival parade was abruptly rescinded. The move followed a conversation between deputy mayor Alick Shaw and the Chinese ambassador.

As China’s economic clout grows in the Asia-Pacific region, New Zealand inches closer to a free-trade agreement with China, and as China and Taiwan trade favours in the battle for diplomatic recognition and power in the Pacific, China’s influence in New Zealand can only grow.

Joan Zhang is a petite, softly spoken civil servant. Hair swept neatly into a pony tail, and conservatively dressed in a tweed jacket that dwarfs her small frame, she doesn’t look much like a political agitator. But, as the Wellington face of Falun Gong, the 40-year-old is at loggerheads with both China and the Wellington authorities that she accuses of breaching her human rights by blocking the group’s participation in community parades.

Trained as a traditional Chinese doctor, Ms Zhang moved to New Zealand from Beijing in 1995 and discovered Falun Gong. The movement, she says, is akin to tai chi or yoga, an ancient practice encompassing exercises with meditation and moral teachings. Its three guiding principles are truthfulness, compassion and tolerance.

She is adamant Falun Gong is not political and cannot explain why its practitioners are allegedly persecuted and even executed by the Chinese authorities, whom she accuses of being gangsters.

The Chinese embassy in Wellington will not discuss China’s objections to Falun Gong, but points to material on its website that outlines China’s concerns.

The Communist government bans religion in principle, but, in practice, the Chinese now openly worship in Buddhist temples. Even non-believers make offerings of prayer and lighted incense.

Falun Gong, or Falun Dafa, however, is viewed as a cult rather than a religion, according to the website. As far as China is concerned, the movement bears all the hallmarks of a People’s Temple or Branch Davidian-type sect. It has a hierarchical structure stemming from a leader claiming supernatural powers and a monopoly on spiritual teaching. The leader aims to control the minds of his followers and claims to be more effective than modern medicine at protecting health. Chinese authorities say the sect has caused innocent people to commit suicide or die after refusing medical treatment.

They also claim Falun Gong founder Li Hongzhi made millions of yuan through illegally produced books and other practice tools.

Ms Zhang rejects as ironic the accusation of mind control. “The Communists, they always try to control people’s minds. Our belief is our own choice, nobody forces us. In China, we are brainwashed from kindergarten.”

After inquiring about my background and asking for clippings of previous stories, the Chinese embassy spokesman told me that ambassador Zhang Yuanyuan was too busy to discuss the motivation for the embassy’s attempts to push its views on Falun Gong and Taiwan. However, he issued a short statement defending the practice: “The development of China-New Zealand relations needs joint effort by both sides. The key to a good partnership is to enhance mutual understanding and treat each other equally. China’s position on the questions you mentioned is consistent and appropriate. The embassy is entitled to make comments or exert its influence on certain issues when it deems such issues could do harm to its interest. That is the case for all other countries.”

Auckland University Chinese lecturer Edward McDonald says the attempts at Chinese censorship in New Zealand appear to be simply an extension of that practised at home.

Dr McDonald worked as an editor for China Central TV’s English channel from 2003 to 2005. It’s a job he admits made him part of what is effectively the publicity department for the Chinese state.

Everything had to be carefully phrased to conform to the China world view. There was a long list of banned phrases, including referring to Taiwan as a country and talking about mainland China instead of the Chinese mainland. Falun Gong, it was decreed, had to be labelled “the evil cult”.

Every media organisation had Communist Party representatives who reported back and all news stories were checked for offending material before being sent out.

Dr McDonald believes the objection to Falun Gong comes not so much from the movement’s beliefs as from its numbers and the fact it promotes its world view as an alternative to that of the Communist Party.

When a leader who criticises the regime draws an estimated 100 million followers worldwide, and can muster a protest of thousands outside the party’s headquarters, he becomes a real threat.

The irony, Dr McDonald says, is that Falun Gong uses the same rhetoric as the Communists to push its ideas.

China’s desire to shield its visiting diplomats from protesters also comes from practices at home, Dr McDonald says. The authorities there put likely dissenters under house arrest during the visits of foreign dignitaries, so they expect the same courtesy away from home.

Xin Chen, also of Auckland University, agrees the Communist government gets its mandate largely from the lack of alternatives, and therefore sees Falun Gong as a threat. But she suspects the Chinese embassies trying to push their view around the world are covering their backs, rather than acting on central government instructions.

“Each embassy, I think, feels that if anything goes wrong they are kind of responsible.”

It’s one thing for China to attempt to impose its values on New Zealand institutions. But the bigger question is why do we bend?

Trade, pure and simple, says Dr McDonald.

Clearly, the stakes are high. Official relations between China and New Zealand began 35 years ago, when New Zealand recognised the People’s Republic of China. It’s a relationship that, according to the Foreign Affairs and Trade Ministry, has now grown to one of New Zealand’s most important.

China is a major source of migrants, the main source of foreign students and our fastest-growing tourist market. It’s also New Zealand’s fourth-largest trading partner, accounting for 5.6 per cent of exports and 11.4 per cent of imports in the year to June 2006.

As well as our dairy products, wool and meat, the Chinese buy our forestry, seafood, machinery, aluminium and hi-tech products, to the tune of about $1.7 billion a year. That’s not counting the $529 million of trade through Hong Kong.

To make things more delicate, the two countries are on the brink of a free-trade deal. Negotiations began in November 2004 and 11 rounds have been completed so far.

Despite the stakes, we have sometimes stood up for our principles. Ministerial and senior official contact was suspended for more than a year after New Zealand condemned the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

North Shore Mayor George Wood’s first reaction when the Chinese deputy consul- general called was: “Oh God, what have I done now?” As the only city in the country with a sister city in Taiwan, North Shore and China have “a relationship that’s like walking on a high wire”.

The city is also trying to build a sister- city relationship with Chinese city Qingdao, the yachting base for the Beijing Olympics.

The consul’s second-in-charge simply asked if Mr Wood realised that the Divine Performing Arts group, whose show he planned to attend, was linked to Falun Gong. There was no overt pressure, but the implication was clear that he should not attend, Mr Wood says.

He admits he has limited understanding of Falun Gong, but makes no apology for his decision to back out. “I just felt at that stage that I would be used as tit-for-tat fodder in this standoff between Falun Gong and the People’s Republic of China. They would take photos and put out a publication saying the Mayor of North Shore attended, I suspect. That’s what they did in Australia.”

Indeed, the New Zealand Falun Dafa site has since posted a story and photos of several prominent people who attended the performance.

But, as well as the fear of being used, Mr Wood admits he did not want to pick a fight with the Chinese. It’s not the first time he’s had “shots across my bow” in his nine years as mayor, and in the early days the relationship was “fairly frosty on a continuing basis”.

“I have been to China a few times,” he says. “The mayors run their cities. They have immense power. They seem to have a belief that a mayor has a similar status in New Zealand. Whether we like the way things happen in China or not, we have to maintain a reasonable relationship.”

Other Auckland mayors also received phone calls from Chinese officials. However, they claim they had already turned down the invitation, so the intervention was not an issue.

Franklin Mayor Mark Ball did go along, and had a fantastic time. He was not phoned by the consulate, and says that in his 2 1/2 years as mayor he is not aware of any instances where he or his council have been contacted by Chinese diplomats attempting to influence decisions.

“We don’t have sister cities in China, so maybe we are subject to less influence.”

Wellington City Council, which has sister-city relationships with Beijing and Xiamen, also has a record of tiptoeing around Falun Gong. The group is taking the council to the High Court after its dancers and musicians were banned from participating in the Cuba St Carnival and Chinese New Year parades.

Deputy Mayor Alick Shaw says the council was simply enforcing its long- standing policy of not allowing political elements in council- funded events. The Green Party was also barred. “It is a real mistake to think this is about Falun Gong. It’s about the appropriate range of activity that is included in these events.”

However, he admits that, between Falun Gong being assigned a place in the Cuba St Carnival parade and suddenly being told they could not march, he had a “conversation” with the Chinese ambassador at a social event. “He said he understood these people were taking part. I was not aware of it, but said that in my estimation that was unlikely because it was against our policy.”

It’s not just local government that comes under pressure to bow to Chinese expectations. Police have in the past been criticised for heavy-handed treatment of protesters and attempts to shield visiting Chinese dignitaries from demonstrations.

When Chinese President Jiang Zemin visited in 1999, a state banquet in Christchurch was held up for 90 minutes while two buses were positioned to block noisy protesters from the president’s view.

In Wellington, police stood on Free Tibet protesters’ flags and arrested demonstrators. Five protesters later received a $48,000 payment and apologies from the police.

Foreign Affairs chief of protocol Warren Searell admits it’s “a very, very difficult balance” between keeping visitors happy and preserving democratic rights. “At times, some difficult compromises do have to be made to protect the success of the visit.”

Dignitaries are only invited as guests of the state if there is a real foreign policy issue to be advanced by their visit. It’s important, therefore, that the visitors get the best possible impression of New Zealand.

Where protests are considered likely, it is explained that dissent is a democratic right in New Zealand. But, Mr Searell concedes, efforts have been made in the past to block demonstrations from view.

Though he’s adamant they are not treated any differently to any other nation, he admits China has more sensitivities than most nations and therefore attracts more compromise.

Nick Wang’s story

Nick Wang is no stranger to censorship and persecution.

His grandfather was a member of Kuomintang (the Chinese Nationalist Party) and for about six months he was raised by a nanny while his mother was kept under house arrest in an office block with locked doors and boarded-up windows.

Red Guards used to regularly burst in on the family for no reason, interrupting dinner to carry out random searches.

Mr Wang went on to work as a water conservation engineer but, after the massacre of students at Tiananmen Square, decided he wanted to either work as an official so that he could make a difference from the inside, or to go overseas.

He hoped he had seen the last of Chinese government influence when he came to New Zealand, at the age of 31.

When he first set up Capital Chinese News in 1998, he had what he describes as a honeymoon period with the Chinese embassy.

He was invited to report on embassy activities and asked along to social events.

In 2002, the relationship began to sour, after he dined with the ambassador and then the following day covered the visit of Chinese democracy campaigner Wei Jingsheng, who was jailed in China for 18 years.

The embassy called to express the ambassador’s disappointment that he had accepted the ambassador’s hospitality then stabbed him in the back. He was warned his business would suffer and that it would be harder for him to return to China, he says.

He initially scoffed at such threats and in 2004 again infuriated the embassy by running a full-page advertisement, with photographs of tanks, marking the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

He got another phone call from the embassy.

When, later that year, he applied for a visa to accompany former immigration minister and Taranaki Regional Council deputy chairman Roger Maxwell on a business trip to China, he was turned down despite an invitation from a Chinese regional authority.

He received a letter to say his visa had been rejected but Mr Maxwell could go alone or with another companion.

Police, he says, also tried last year to block his entry to Premier House, during the visit of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. When he argued, a policeman threatened to rescind his press gallery pass.

Mr Wang says he used to practise an earlier form of qigong, or exercise and health regime, called Soaring Crane Qigong. But he rejects the suggestion he is a member of Falun Gong, saying he was asked to join but doesn’t have time.

As well as overt attempts at influence, Mr Wang alleges the Chinese embassy controls the Chinese media in New Zealand through advertising money and by offering free trips to China to attend official functions.

What is Falun Gong?

Falun Gong, also called Falun Dafa, was set up in 1992 by former grain clerk Li Hongzhi, who fled China and now has a publishing company in the United States.

It grew rapidly in popularity and the group shocked Beijing with a 10,000-strong protest in April 1999. It was banned in China three months later.

The English translation of Falun Gong’s 200-page founding text Zhuan Falun, or Turning the Law Wheel, reveals elements of truth in both Falun Gong’s claims it is a peaceful movement and China’s fear it is a dangerous cult.

Falun Dafa translates as cultivation and practice of the great Law Wheel.

It’s a form of qigong — which Mr Li likens to magic in the Western World — incorporating elements of Buddhism and Taoism and aiming to cultivate the body and mind toward enlightenment.

The teachings speak of supernatural abilities and the opening of a third eye, which can enable followers to look through walls or see what is happening in far-off places.

But to attain these goals, they must give up their attachments to worldly things and strive for virtue, which increases their gong or energy level.

Falun Gong draws on the Buddhist concept of karma to encourage followers to improve their character. Every time a practitioner remains calm in the face of conflict, they lose karma (to them, black matter) and gain some of the other person’s virtue.

The book warns of false teachers , animal demons and qigong psychosis, when a follower with a weak mind becomes possessed and “goes all topsy turvy and screams and shouts”.

Mr Li stops short of condemning all other forms of qigong, but says he is the only teacher taking the practice to a higher level. Though somewhat wacky, the teachings appear essentially peace- promoting.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday May 17, 2007.
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