Supporters of a spiritual movement banned in China are looking to Utah lawmakers to give them something Gov. Mike Leavitt has refused to do: an official show of support for their cause.
Followers of the Falun Gong movement have been meeting with Utah lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to discuss a resolution expressing support for the movement. And they have found sympathetic ears among conservative lawmakers, who say they — unlike Leavitt — aren't intimidated by political pressure from China.
"We're not trying to poke a stick in (Leavitt's) eye," Rep. Matt Throckmorton, R-Springville, said of the resolution he will sponsor with several other House conservatives. "But we are not going to let the Communists (in China) set the legislative agenda here."
House Republicans are preparing a resolution that praises the Falun Gong, a spiritual movement that originated in China and grew to an estimated 100 million followers before nervous government leaders banned the practice and began persecuting practitioners. Human-rights groups maintain thousands have been imprisoned, tortured and some even killed by the Chinese government.
Earlier this month, Falun Gong practitioners met with GOP Gov. Mike Leavitt in the Capitol Gold Room, ostensibly to have Leavitt sign a proclamation in support of the movement and its struggles.
Falun Gong representatives said Leavitt gave every indication he would sign the proclamation, although Leavitt maintains he never promised to do so. Practitioners believe Leavitt — who has made a trade trip to mainland China and courted business ties with the world's most populous nation — may have bowed to political pressure and fears of economic repercussions against Utah business interests.
In the wake of the controversy, Leavitt met with a Chinese delegation, reportedly to discuss security for the Chinese Olympic team.
"The timing was not right from his perspective," said Adam Leining, a former Utahn and spokesman for a Falun Gong delegation to the Utah Capitol.
But House conservatives have not been shy about taking swipes at China. Throckmorton once sponsored a resolution praising Taiwan — the island nation that mainland China claims is a rebellious province.
"And I got a telephone call" from the Communist Chinese government "complaining about it," Throckmorton said. "They watch these things" and try to intimidate the American politicians or businessmen who speak out against them.
The governor's Falun Gong proclamation debacle has proven to be an embarrassment that just won't go away and likely won't until the Olympics are over. Falun Gong practitioners will be protesting during the Games, taking their cause before a worldwide court of public opinion.
"There are real sensitivities on this issue," Leavitt's spokeswoman Natalie Gochnour said after it was learned Jan. 10 that Leavitt had not signed the proclamation.
"It is very clearly a big issue, a significant issue to the Chinese government. The governor was trying to be sensitive to that," Gochnour said at the time.
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. Falun Gong adherents are often seen in public parks in the United States meditating and practicing their exercises.
Alicia Zhao, a California spokeswoman for the group, explained to Leavitt that the Chinese government originally embraced Falun Gong when it went public in 1992, but the rapid spread of the movement frightened officials, who then tried to suppress it.
Concerning Salt Lake hosting the Olympic Games in February — games the mainland Chinese government will participate in: "We are preparing to host the world," Gochnour said two weeks ago. "This is an international political issue that is really not our fight. We are committed to not causing international controversies right now."
Falun Gong representatives told lawmakers they are seeking a resolution condemning religious persecution. And that theme strikes a cord with many lawmakers, whose Mormon pioneer heritage was also characterized by religious persecution.
"We're talking about religious freedoms, about how (the Falun Gong) has been persecuted for their religious beliefs, and we honor them for their sacrifices," Throckmorton said. Not yet decided by Throckmorton is whether his resolution will just be considered by the House members alone, or whether he'll let senators join in the vote. But he's sure it will not be a resolution requiring the governor's signature.
"He's already spoken" that he doesn't want to sign anything that praises the Falun Gong or criticizes "that communist government," said Throckmorton.