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Chinese official warns against Falun Gong

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Protests planned in Salt Lake City by members of Falun Gong during the 2002 Winter Games "pose danger" to China's athletes and officials, a senior member of the Chinese Embassy is warning during a visit to Utah.

Yafei He, minister and deputy chief of mission at the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C., was scheduled to meet today with Gov. Mike Leavitt and Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson to urge that they stop the protests.

"We want to make sure our delegation, our athletes, are safe and not in any way endangered by the activities of Falun Gong," He told the Deseret News in an interview shortly after his arrival Thursday.

"Falun Gong has now lately displayed a tendency to be violent, to engage in terrorist activities," He said. "If they are allowed to have freedom of action or activities wherever they are, it could pose danger."

He referred to Falun Gong as a "cult and an evil organization." Falun Gong is banned in China, and members have allegedly set themselves on fire to protest the government's crackdown on what followers describe as a spiritual practice.

A local spokesperson for Falun Gong followers in Utah could not be reached for comment.

He probably will not get very far with the mayor, who recently proclaimed Jan. 22-28 as "Falun Dafa Week." The proclamation refers to Falun Dafa, another term for Falun Gong, as "a virtuous practice" and refers to the "most severe environment" followers face in China.

"Nobody's going to be allowed to threaten people's safety, but everyone is going to be granted their First Amendment rights to express their ideals and opinions," said Anderson's spokesman, Joshua Ewing.

"Just because certain countries and certain leaders may disagree with those messages doesn't decrease their right to speak them," Ewing said. "If there was any sign they were plotting disruption or violence of any kind, we would act quickly."

Leavitt was not aware of the embassy's concerns, his spokeswoman, Natalie Gochnour, said. "The governor will certainly listen to what they have to say," she said. "The governor knows very little about this group (Falun Gong).

"What he does know is it's a very sensitive issue to the Chinese government."

Earlier this week, Leavitt declined to sign a proclamation in support of Falun Gong, described as a spiritual movement by its followers. Gochnour said his decision was not connected to the visit of the embassy official.

"Our position in not signing this proclamation is simply that this is not a time to offend visiting nations," she said. Asked about some of He's concerns about Falun Gong, she said, "we have not made any of those sorts of judgments."

The Salt Lake Organizing Committee "is confident in its plans for security for all athletes and officials," SLOC spokeswoman Caroline Shaw said. "There is no security concern for the Chinese delegation above what any other delegation would face."

The Chinese embassy official said he also was meeting Thursday with officials from the U.S. Secret Service on security issues during the Games.

"I can confirm the meeting occurred. I can't comment on the details," said Marc Connolly, a spokesman for the U.S. Secret Service. "It's one of several like meetings that have occurred with representatives of foreign governments" about security preparations for the Olympics.

Connolly said he could not comment on whether Falun Gong was considered a security threat.

China is sending some 150 athletes to the Games, and many government officials, including organizers of the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, He said. "Our purpose is to ensure our athletes and official delegations are safe," He said.

"And that we will have no interference from such crazy ideas and crazy people."

E-MAIL: lisa@desnews.com