Reuters, Aug. 15, 2002
By Tan Ee Lyn
HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hui Yee-han and her young daughter were performing their slow-motion Falun Gong exercises in a Hong Kong park one morning when an old man berated her for corrupting her child.
His reaction reflected a growing fear here that the spiritual movement’s defiance of Beijing could prompt a crackdown and threaten the freedoms Hong Kong enjoys as a special territory inside China.
“He told me it was fine if I wanted to practice Falun Gong, but I shouldn’t bring my child with me,” said Hui, a housewife.
Falun Gong is an eclectic combination of meditative exercises and elements from Taoism and Buddhism.
Some of its followers believe that strict adherence to its teachings can keep illness at bay.
The movement only began in 1992, but now claims 100 million members in China and a following of “tens of millions” in at least 50 countries around the world.
Hong Kong and nearby Macau are the only parts of China where it remains legal.
China outlawed the group in 1999 after its ability to muster mass protests in the heart of Beijing raised the spectre of popular discontent against the Communist Party’s rule.
Pro-democracy groups fear the Hong Kong government, under pressure from Beijing, may use Falun Gong as an excuse to speed up enactment of an anti-subversion law, which Hong Kong is required to do under its constitution.
Rights activists fear such a law may be used arbitrarily to crush anyone Beijing does not agree with.
On Thursday, a Hong Kong court convicted 16 Falun Gong members of obstruction and other offences during a protest against Beijing, a ruling likely to spark fresh concern about freedoms in the territory.
While Falun Gong followers may gather and practice in public places, hold conferences and even protests in Hong Kong, they say they are up against more subtle restrictions.
“It’s obvious that the space for us (to practice) is being squeezed, from booking of venues, to being prosecuted and it’s absurd that people who come to visit are turned away,” Han said.
It is not uncommon now to see foreign Falun Gong members being turned away by immigration authorities and bundled on to the next departing flight or ferry, especially around sensitive periods when Chinese leaders are visiting.
Hong Kong’s constitution guarantees religious freedom to its 6.8 million people and a high-level of autonomy. Beijing is responsible only for Hong Kong’s defence and foreign affairs.
Many people in Hong Kong have begun to see the 500 or so Falun Gong followers here as troublemakers that the territory would be better off without.
The group in Hong Kong has not been able to get a local publisher to print their materials or books in recent years and more than 40 applications since mid 2001 to book public venues for Falun Gong conferences have been turned down, Hui said.
Public reception of the movement, however, has not been all bad. Strangers have approached the group to express support or ask for their literature, Hui said.
Senior Chinese officials and academics say quick passage of the new anti-subversion law is necessary to prevent anyone from using Hong Kong as a base to subvert the mainland.
“If they are pronounced not guilty (on Thursday), there may be people in Beijing and Hong Kong who will say the more effective way to curb the movement would be through an anti-subversion law,” Law Yuk-kai of the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor told Reuters on Wednesday before the verdict.