Like most people's, my exposure to Falun Gong consisted of noticing from afar its around-the-clock vigils outside the Chinese Consulate on St. George.
The group has garnered a weirdo label, partly due to founder Li Hongzhi's belief that we're being technologically manipulated by aliens fixing to replace us. But practitioners of Falun Gong, which advocates qi-gong-like movements, benevolence and moral forbearance, are suffering from far more than ridicule.
Not only are they being tormented by the Chinese government on its own turf, but they're now targets of espionage, slander and dirty tricks by the same authorities globally - including right here in Canada.
Embassies and consuls supposedly geared to travel, trade and diplomacy have become hotbeds of conspiracy where officials plot discrediting campaigns, often in the form of letters that read like SCTV send-ups.
But the Falun Gong's band of early-morning exercisers aren't merely passive victims to this orchestration. Whatever power they lack in China the Gong has more than made up for in the West, where the group is aggressively pursuing litigation and lodging complaints with human rights tribunals.
Take the recent strange case of Joel Chipkar and the disappearing deputy consul general. A Toronto real estate agent and Falun Gong spokesperson, Chipkar had written a letter to the Toronto Star challenging the Canadian government to publicly out China for its human rights abuses. Pan Xinchun, the former Chinese deputy consul general here, responded in the same paper, labelling Chipkar a "sinister cult" member out to "instigate hatred" and "confrontations between China and Canada."
Chipkar got a lawyer and launched a defamation suit against Pan, which he eventually won. In December of last year, a judge awarded Chipkar $11,000, but Pan has since skipped town. Efforts by Chipkar to have him declared "persona non grata" by the Canadian government have apparently disappeared into the bureaucratic ether in Ottawa while government lawyers "formulate a legal opinion," says a Department of Foreign Affairs spokesperson.
"I've been left on my own by the Canadian government," says Chipkar.
The personal attack that won Chipkar his case is just the tip of the iceberg. Log onto the official People's Republic of China (PRC) website and you'll find the Gong described as "an evil cult whose nature is anti-society and anti-humanity... (and) a common enemy of mankind... responsible for many cruel killings and crimes." In 2002, smuggled documents authenticated by New Jersey-based democracy leader Su Xiaokang, author of A Memoir Of Misfortune, revealed a Chinese government plan for building worldwide "intelligence and data portfolios" on Falun Gong and its supporters.
Nowhere is that effort more visible than on the Internet, as activist Zhang Haitao found out in 2000 when he was incarcerated for creating the only Falun Gong website in China. To this day, no one knows what has become of him.
China has rigged a totally integrated, hyper-high-tech surveillance net with the goal of ultimately having at its fingertips access to every move any Chinese citizen dares to make online. We're talking a kinetic online database meshing speech and face recognition, credit activity, closed-circuit monitoring and smart card tracking - a proverbial wet blanket over the Internet, with some 40,000 Big Brothers employed to search for online transgressors.
Could that explain the harassing pre-recorded phone calls in broken English that people associated with the movement across the world reported earlier this month?
Practitioners claim there is an outright "genocide" against Falun Gong in China, and human rights groups concur. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have documented incidents of labour camp torture, including force-feeding of feces through tubes jammed up prisoners' nostrils. The groups have also noted reports of imprisoned practitioners being injected with needles full of mystery toxins. It seems that Falun Gong members are prime candidates to trip, fall and die or toss themselves from moving vehicles while in the custody of Chinese authorities.
Closer to home, both the Chinese government and its supporters have learned the power of the plant, using the pages and screens of Chinese-language media outlets to carry on the vendetta. Shortly after 9/11, for example, Sing Tao, the Chinese language paper partly owned by the Toronto Star, ran a full-page article taken virtually word-for-word from the official Chinese Xinhua News Agency placing Falun Gong among "radical religions [that] advocate destroying the world."
Similar rants landed Vancouver-based Talent Vision, a Chinese-language broadcaster, in trouble. The outlet was found to be in breach of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters code of ethics and violence in 2002. A ruling by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council noted that a segment lifted directly from China's official station about murders committed in China amounted to "nothing less than a biased attack on Falun Gong."
Bias was booming again in Montreal, where a Quebec court ordered Chinese-language newspaper Les Presses Chinoises to cease and desist from "defamation and producing hate literature." It did not heed and now finds itself in contempt hearings. At issue was the publication of various claims, including that Falun Gong members "suck all the blood of the Chinese people, eat their flesh" and engage in bestiality.
According to Tony Wang, president of New Tang Dynasty TV (NTDTV), "Willingly or unwillingly, the [Chinese-Canadian] media here are slowly influenced and gradually controlled by the Chinese authorities. They just pick up any report that may appear to be neutral, and that's exactly what the PRC wants."
If Chinese government bloodsucker charges strain credulity, what of the criticism that the movement is cultist? Falun Gong employs ancient Buddhist and Taoist principles, but its leader was born in the 50s and codified his own version of old teachings. Barry Beyerstein, a psychology prof and cult expert at Simon Fraser University, is clear that the Gong displays none of the typical characteristics - psychological, financial or physical coercion or deceptive recruiting practices.
"They've don't fit the profile," he says. Certainly, the Gong are not without influential backers. Letters of support have come from Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister John Godfrey and sub-committee on human rights chair David Kilgour.
Still, China is a global force that holds major sway with trading partners, so "governments have been trying to find a way to respect Falun Gong claims about the suppression of their rights while at the same time not endangering commercial relations with China," says David Ownby, a Chinese-speaking University of Montreal history professor and author of books about Falun Gong.
The long arm of a government halfway across the planet can be felt in many places. At city council, Councillor Michael Walker tried - and failed - to declare a Falun Dafa Day last year. It looked like a no-brainer until Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti killed the motion by brandishing a threatening letter from the PRC that read like an ultimatum. "If passed, the motion will have a very negative effect on our future beneficial exchanges and cooperation," reads the letter, signed by the PRC's Toronto consul general.
"Even over here, the Chinese government has the audacity to come in and threaten," says Susan Prager, communications director of New York-based Friends of Falun Gong (FOFG).
Among the many curious interventions is the case of high school teacher Brian Grandy at Thomas L. Kennedy Secondary School in Mississauga, who had his students sign a petition of support for Falun Gong and then found himself the recipient of a letter signed by Chinese Ambassador Mei Ping. The missive likened the Gong to notorious cults in Japan and Uganda.
Says NTDTV's Wang, "The Chinese government is spreading hate among the Canadian people. It's literally illegal and should be stopped." Wang is still waiting for an explanation from Chinese officials about why two of his reporters had their visas to China revoked at the last minute before Prime Minister Paul Martin's January junket there.
Despite the harassment, Falun Gong bash back with robust measures worldwide. There are now at least two cases before the Ontario Human Rights Commission. One was brought by a practitioner claiming she lost her job because of her affiliation with the org, and another involves a member allegedly removed from a retirement home in Ottawa.
Chinese vice-president Zeng Qinghong got a hit of Gong power in January while visiting Peru. There, the Peruvian Falun Dafa Association convinced the public ministry and Supreme Court to accept its lawsuit charging politburo members with "genocide" and "crimes against humanity."
Earlier this month, human rights attorneys filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court in a civil lawsuit charging former Chinese Communist party chair Jiang Zemin with genocide and a "conspiracy to commit violations of civil rights within the jurisdiction of the United States."
In all, the Gong have initiated about 30 separate cases worldwide against current and former top officials of the PRC. Says Prager, "It's been very successful in terms of public education, and that's really what this is about."
Chinese officials at both the Toronto consul general's office and the Ottawa embassy declined to respond to requests for comment for this story.