Will Chinese Repression Play in Peoria?

Time was when Americans had to travel halfway around the world to feel the steely touch of China’s state security apparatus. No longer. In their fervor to trample any grassroots movements that might challenge their power, China’s rulers are hustling these days to share their bizarre, oppressive tactics not only with their own 1.3 billion citizens, but with folks all across America.

In particular, Beijing has been offering its own nasty brand of spiritual guidance to hundreds of American mayors, in big cities and small towns, from Los Angeles to Baltimore to the Illinois Corn Belt. This Beijing outreach program has even played in such local papers as the Peoria Journal Star, which noted last April 26 that “a routine, seemingly harmless proclamation recognizing a Chinese religious group has thrust a group of Illinois mayors into the unlikely realm of foreign diplomacy.”

Beijing’s most visible target, the “religious group” to which the Peoria newspaper refers, is the Falun Gong. This spiritual movement, also known as the Falun Dafa, began spreading 10 years ago inside China, where it evidently holds huge appeal for tens of millions seeking some form of faith more gratifying than the bankrupt and corrosive state ideology of communism.

After some 10,000 Falun Gong practitioners staged a peaceful demonstration in April 1999 in front of Communist Party headquarters near Tiananmen Square, China’s rulers condemned it as an “evil cult” and embarked on an official campaign to wipe it out. Since then, China has racked up quite a record of jailing, torturing and in scores of cases killing Falun Gong followers inside China. The Wall Street Journal’s Ian Johnson won a Pulitzer Prize last year for his stories documenting such Chinese government abuses, including the case of Chen Zixiu, a 58-year-old woman who was beaten and tortured to death in Chinese state custody for refusing to renounce Falun Gong.

Falun Gong followers outside China have responded–reasonably enough–by seeking gestures of support. Which is how America’s mayors get into the act. It is a widespread and largely decorative habit of U.S. mayors to issue all sorts of proclamations, celebrating a great welter of groups, themes and causes of the day. Falun Gong practitioners here in America have asked many mayors in recent years to issue proclamations honoring their movement.

The Chinese government, not content with persecuting the Falun Gong in China, has responded by urging local U.S. officials to shun or even persecute them right here in America. The approach, made variously by letter, phone call or personal visit from a Chinese official based at China’s Washington embassy or one of its numerous consulates, tends to combine gross disinformation with scare tactics and, in some cases, slyly implied diplomatic and commercial pressure.

Typical is the experience of Santee, Calif., a city of 58,000 on the outskirts of San Diego County. A little over a year ago, Mayor Randy Voepel received a letter from the newly arrived Chinese consul general in Los Angeles, Lan Lijun. Mr. Lan’s letter began with a cheery greeting and rolled right along to describe the Falun Gong movement as a “doomsday” cult that creates “a panic atmosphere” and if left unchecked in America could end up “jeopardizing your social stability.” Noting that China would “like to establish and develop friendly relations with your city”–and implying this would require complying with China’s wishes–Mr. Lan’s letter went on to urge that “no recognition and support in any form should be given to the Falun Gong” and urged banning them from registration as any kind of official organization.

Not so typical was Mr. Voepel’s reaction. A Vietnam War veteran, he wrote back: “Your letter personally chilled me to my bones. I was shocked that a Communist Nation would go to this amount of trouble to suppress what is routinely accepted in this country. . . . I have the greatest respect for the Chinese people in your country and everywhere else in the world, but must be honest in my concern for the suppression of human rights by your government as evidenced by your request.” Mr. Voepel then issued a mayoral proclamation commending the Falun Gong.

Some other officials, such as former Saratoga, Calif., mayor Stan Bogosian and a raft of mayors in Illinois, have stood up to China’s pressure. But many have kowtowed, including the mayors of San Francisco, Seattle, Baltimore and Los Angeles–all of whom in 1999 rescinded proclamations they had issued for the Falun Gong. In Westland, Mich., last year, then-mayor Robert Thomas designated March 4 through 9 as Falun Dafa Week, but later explained in a letter to the Falun Gong petitioners, which he dutifully copied to the Chinese Consulate in Chicago: “I have received information from the Consulate General of the People’s Republic of China in Chicago, explaining the real nature of your organization. . . . I hereby rescind the proclamation.”

China has been brazen enough to pressure even the mayor of Salt Lake City–currently hosting the Olympics, as Beijing is slated to do in 2008. Last month the Chinese Embassy’s deputy chief of mission, He Yafei, paid a call on Mayor Rocky Anderson, who had issued a proclamation last year honoring the Falun Gong. As part of a “security briefing” for Mr. Anderson, Mr. He’s message included warnings about the Falun Gong, one of many groups that had applied for permission to hold a peaceful demonstration during the Olympics. Mr. Anderson let the demonstration go ahead, on Feb. 7. It was so peaceful, says a mayoral spokesman, that the sole problem with the Falun Gong was that “they walked very slow.”

A half dozen Falun Gong practitioners did engage in a somewhat more aggressive protest against China’s international “Condemn Falun Gong Cult” campaign, as the logo goes on the official Web site of China’s Xinhua state news agency. When Beijing’s Mayor Liu Qi arrived in the San Francisco airport earlier this month, en route to attend the Olympics, they served him with papers for a lawsuit filed under the Alien Tort Claims Act of 1789 and the Torture Victims Protection Act of 1992, for letting grave abuses against Falun Gong followers go unchecked in Beijing. China’s Foreign Ministry has denounced the lawsuit as “a nasty trick.” Mr. Liu himself, who announced last year that Beijing in preparing to host the 2008 Olympics would “resolutely smash and crack down on Falun Gong and other evil cults,” has yet to respond.

Obviously the Falun Gong, with its blend of meditation, exercise and otherworldly visions, may not be everyone’s cup of tea. But the soul of America itself centers on allowing individual choice, not only in market transactions, but in matters of faith. China’s campaign to snuff out the movement even on U.S. soil not only runs counter to American principles. It also fits into an even larger pattern in which Chinese state security, with its desperate fear of anything that might challenge party dictatorship in Beijing, has snaked its tentacles into numerous communities in the U.S., trying in various ways to intimidate China scholars, harass exiled Chinese dissidents and bully supporters of the world’s only full-blown Chinese democracy, on Taiwan.

President Bush is in Beijing today and tomorrow, seeking common ground with his Chinese hosts. It would also be a good moment to remind President Jiang Zemin and his comrades that persecution of a peaceful spiritual movement is the kind of ugly, cruel and embarrassing practice that they need to be trying to shed inside China itself–not share with the wider world.

Ms. Rosett is a member of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board. Her column appears Thursdays on OpinionJournal.com and in The Wall Street Journal Europe as “Letter From America.”

The original article is available here: http://www.opinionjournal.com/columnists/cRosett/?id=105001666