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Leavitt skirts Chinese dispute

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Despite his public show of support, Gov. Mike Leavitt has refused to sign a proclamation in support of Chinese religious dissidents — practitioners of Falun Gong, fearing the gesture could ruffle feathers an ocean away as Utah prepares to host Olympic visitors.

"There are real sensitivities on this issue," said Leavitt's spokeswoman Natalie Gochnour. "It is very clearly a big issue, a significant issue to the Chinese government. The governor was trying to be sensitive to that."

Added Leavitt's chief of staff Rich McKeown, "There are political issues that transcend religious issues."

But did Leavitt or his staff mislead organizers of the event about where the governor really stood on the issue? Shean Lin of Atlanta, an organizer of the event, said he was approached by a Leavitt staffer moments before the Tuesday signing ceremony. The staffer said the governor wanted to change a couple of words in the proclamation, after which the proclamation would be signed and forwarded to the group later in the week.

"It was a surprise to us," Lin said of the last-minute notification.

Through his spokeswoman, Leavitt told the Deseret News he never tried to mislead the group about where he stood, calling it "an awkward situation."

Asked whether he told the group he was not going to sign the proclamation, the governor said. "I never told them I was going to sign it."

The Falun Gong practitioners were not the only ones who believed the governor had signed on. Salt Lake news media earlier this week reported Leavitt had issued a proclamation honoring the practice of Falun Gong in Utah.

According to the group's literature, Falun Gong involves aligning oneself with principles of truthfulness, compassion and forbearance, and it involves a series of gentle exercises and meditation.

Alicia Zhao, a California spokeswoman for the group, explained to Leavitt that the Chinese government embraced Falun Gong when it originated in 1992, but the rapid spread of the movement frightened officials, who then tried to suppress it. Practitioners have been arrested, tortured and killed when they failed to renounce their beliefs, she said.

On Tuesday, practitioners from around the country met with Leavitt in the Gold Room of the Capitol where he was presented with gifts, among them a book of proclamations they had gathered during visits to other leaders.

Lin said there was never any hint Leavitt did not want to sign the proclamation. Lin is still expecting to receive the Utah proclamation in the mail any day.

Gochnour said she has no idea how the group would have reached that conclusion. Rather, she said the governor agreed to meet with the group "in the capacity of a gracious host."

"We are preparing to host the world," she said. "This is an international political issue that is really not our fight. We are committed to not causing international controversies right now."

Throughout his tenure as governor, Leavitt has cultivated close economic ties with China, even personally leading a trade mission where he met with political counterparts there in an effort to open Chinese markets to Utah products.

In a Tuesday ceremony with reporters and television cameras present, Leavitt told Falun Gong practitioners, "This is a nation that values deeply the capacity for all men, women and children to worship in ways and to practice those things they believe improve them." And as Utahns, "we desire anything that enhances the inner soul and person."

Gochnour said Leavitt made the decision not to sign the proclamation about a day before the ceremony after reviewing wording proposed by the group. McKeown and Gochnour were not present at the ceremony and couldn't say what representations were made by Leavitt or the staff.

Both emphasized the governor formally acknowledges about three dozen requests a month from groups seeking a proclamation for one cause or another. Each request, complete with suggested language, is reviewed in a process McKeown called "perfunctory."

In this case, Leavitt decided sometime during the day before the event he could not sign it. But the ceremony was held and speeches made. "I see how they could have reasonably concluded there would be a proclamation that day," Gochnour said.

But the only thing he ever agreed to was meet with them, she said.

"We have many international visitors coming to our state and we are trying to be sensitive," she said.