HONG KONG — While forging ahead with its attempt to eradicate the Falun Gong movement at home, China is taking its campaign against the spiritual group abroad.
Chinese diplomats are seeking to discredit the sect and undermine its image in the United States, Australia and other countries by pressing public officials not to have dealings with the group or allow its participation in local activities.
Critics of the Beijing regime say Hong Kong authorities are caving in to the anti-Falun Gong campaign. They contend officials weakened Hong Kong's autonomy by barring about 100 Falun Gong practitioners from entering in early May during a visit by Chinese President Jiang Zemin.
Falun Gong remains legal in Hong Kong, under Western-style freedoms left behind by the British. But its active presence here has provoked much local friction as members lash out against China's suppression.
The conflict between China and the sect escalated last week over the deaths of some imprisoned Falun Gong practitioners at a labor camp in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang in June.
Chinese officials offered conflicting numbers, with some saying three deaths and others 14, but all said the women hanged themselves in a mass suicide. Falun Gong, which says its teachings prohibit suicide, insisted Chinese authorities had beaten 15 inmates to death.
China's government is drawing criticism for its efforts to weaken Falun Gong overseas.
In the United States, some mayors have complained that Chinese diplomats attempted to stop them from giving public recognition to Falun Gong.
Falun Gong members in Australia accuse the Chinese Embassy of spreading distorted information about the group and attempting to persuade Australian officials to ban its participation in local events such as village festivals.
China's government fears Falun Gong's organizational abilities — the group was once estimated to have up to 100 million followers in China, or more than the Communist Party's 64.5 million.
Because the sect has no formal membership, it is hard to gauge the number of practitioners worldwide. Taiwan is believed to have the biggest following outside China.
Falun Gong says it has about 500 members in Hong Kong, 3,000 in Australia, 10,000 in the United States, 1,000 in Singapore and 3,000 in South Korea. There are also small communities in Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Japan.
Beijing's attempts to use diplomatic pressure to silence Falun Gong have enraged members and government officials in the United States.
Stan Bogosian, the former mayor of Saratoga, Calif., said that a few days after he signed a proclamation late last year declaring a week in honor of Falun Gong, two officials from the Chinese consulate urged him to rescind it.
When he refused, Bogosian said, the Chinese asked him to remain neutral on the issue and asked about his stance on Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province. Angered, Bogosian called a news conference to denounce the Chinese government for "highly irregular" actions.
"The Chinese government should not be interfering in the political process," Bogosian told The Associated Press. "The issue of whether Falun Gong is a cult or not is not important. For me, these are basic human rights."
To Bogosian and many others, Falun Gong is a harmless qigong group, whose adherents, clad in their yellow T-shirts, practice controlled breathing exercises and move slowly to ethereal music in parks.
At least a dozen other mayors from cities in California, Illinois, Washington, Maryland and Michigan have reported pressure from Chinese officials who often pointedly mention the importance of U.S.-Chinese trade.
"The whole thing sounded like a propaganda pitch to me," said Tod Satterthwaite, mayor of Urbana, Ill., who ignored the Chinese demands.
Others have yielded. In 1999, mayors in Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Baltimore — all important shipping centers — revoked proclamations honoring Falun Gong.
Falun Gong adherents in Australia say Chinese officials have sent letters to civic leaders describing the group as "an out-and-out heretical sect, which is anti-science, anti-humanity and anti-society in nature."
"The letters were sent to local government offices in order to try and persuade them to disallow perfectly legal activities being conducted in the area," said Michael Molnar, a spokesman for Australia's Falun Gong.
The Australian government said the Chinese Embassy had denied sending the letters.
Rebecca Tromp, spokeswoman of the Blacktown City Council, said officials from the Chinese consulate in Sydney raised the issue of Falun Gong participation in a festival sponsored by the city government.
"We advised them that any participation Falun Gong has is within our festival and that is what they do and we would continue to allow them to participate," Tromp said.