in the midst of toronto's contest with Beijing over the 2008 Summer Olympics, much has been made of the Chinese government's hostile treatment of the so-called evil Falun Gong.But a recent speech by a Chinese official in Toronto demonstrates that the regime seems to have exported its hate campaign to Canadian soil.
Two months ago in Spadina's Chinatown, Chinese consul general Zhao Xinbao addressed the Confederation of Toronto Chinese Canadian Organizations -- an umbrella organization of 47 member groups -- at a meeting not so subtly advertised as "a forum on upholding Canadian-Chinese friendship and condemning Falun Gong."
There, Zhao gave a vitriolic speech calling Falun Gong "an evil religious organization" and describing the sect's founder, Li Hongzhi, as having a "ferocious face like a cornered beast."
In copies of the speech provided by local Falun Gong members, Zhao accused Toronto's "cult," whose members have been demonstrating daily outside the consulate, of attempting to "spoil the friendship between China and Canada." Falun Gong, he said, is "anti-society, anti-science, anti-people, anti-human rights and anti-China."
The tone of the speech has worried Falun Gong followers here, who say they are the victims of threatening phone calls, tapped phones and harassment. They also say their Web site has been damaged.
Sergeant Robb Knapper of the Toronto police service would not disclose the details of their investigation into these charges. But while it hasn't been proved that the harassment is the work of the embassy, many are concerned that Chinese government reps are fostering a climate of intolerance here.
"If the consul general in his speech were to say, "I want Canadians to condemn Christians or Muslims,' how would that sound?" asks Rocco Galati, lawyer for the local Falun Gong.
Chinese authorities see the sect's members not as Canadians but as "overseas" Chinese, he says, and see the matter as an "internal problem that they can deal with in Canada."
Falun Gong members are not only up against the consulate's hate campaign, but are also discovering that the commitment to human rights that flared among Chinese-Canadian groups during the Tiananmen uprising does not seem to apply in the case of Falun Gong.
A spokesperson for the Chinese Canadian National Council who wishes to remain nameless says his organization tends not to deal with international human rights issues, despite the fact that it did choose to swing into action on the 1989 crackdown. The Falun Gong struggle, he says, is "not a clear-cut human rights issue," and his group "doesn't know enough" about the repression to take sides.
The Toronto Chinese Community Confederation, which organized the forum for the consul, finds Falun Gong disciples an embarrassment. "Falun Gong gives Canadians a bad impression," says president Don Lim. The Confederation claims a membership of 30,000 of T.O.'s 400,000 Chinese Canadians. It's considered nationalist by others in the community, and is felt to espouse traditional Chinese values.
Lim uses the words "overseas Chinese" to describe his members, for example, instead of the usual "Chinese Canadians."
He says his group is critical of Chinese government corruption, but he doesn't mention human rights abuses.
At the consulate on St. George where Falun Gong members protest every weekday morning from 10 to 11 am, vice-consul Li Wei Wei offers me a brochure called Falun Gong Is A Cult, and then a videotape and gruesome photographs of mutilated bodies -- all designed to convince me of the sect's evil.
Although Li speaks mostly about the outlawed group in China, she claims the consulate has received calls from families in Toronto who've lost loved ones to the "cult."
Dismissing allegations of intimidation and incitement to hatred as "nonsense," Li accuses the Toronto group of "spreading rumours and lies," adding that "their lawyer is lying, too." Not only is the sect "attacking the Chinese government," but it is also "a tool of anti-China forces," though she will not specify who or what those forces might be.
Outside the consulate, more than a dozen Falun Gong members stand in two rows performing in-synch slow-motion exercises. Next to them are sandwich boards of photos and reports detailing the abuse that members have suffered in China.
John Zhang, a Falun Gong spokesperson, says the Toronto group has over 20 chapters and up to 1,000 followers. It doesn't cost anything to join, he says, and "members are free to come and free to go." The group does not own property, so exercises take place in open areas free to the public.
The sect believes in the sacred quality of three words: truth, compassion and tolerance. Despite the fact that it sounds as politically subversive as a Michael Bolton soul album, Falun Gong was declared illegal by Beijing in July 1999. Members here have submitted a letter to the department of foreign affairs about their charges of harassment.
Marie-Christine Lilkoff at foreign affairs says the minister, John Manley, has said that "once we can conclude whether Chinese diplomats have in some way breached their obligation in the appropriateness of their behaviour here, then we can take appropriate action. At the moment we don't know whether the allegations are true."
The intense feelings within the Toronto community about Falun Gong have not gone unnoticed by Ming Pao Daily news editor Tak Lam. He says his office received countless phone calls and faxes from Falun Gong members asking the Chinese paper not to publish pieces announcing the January 21 forum.
"As I told the Falun Gong people, with any social movement that wants to be popular there are going to be people who think you're good and some who think you're bad. It's normal for people to criticize you," he says.