Secretive Chinese sect spreads to Britain

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The Independent Online
THE SECRETIVE spiritual group Falun Gong, which has been banned by a frightened Chinese Communist party, has set up branches throughout Britain. Its charismatic leader, Li Hongzhi, is travelling from his self- imposed exile in New York this month to consolidate his grip on the movement, which is being attacked by the Chinese secret services in an attempt to undermine the movement's new Western bases.

Yesterday, Peking launched a wave of electronic attacks on the movement's websites in Britain, Ireland and the United States by replacing text with misinformation and negative reports and denying access to Chinese users. Several of the attacks were traced to the Peking police service which monitors internet use in China.

Chinese members of the group have also been intimidated. Peter Jauhal, who introduced Falun Gong into Britain in 1996, said: "When we visited the Chinese embassy one of us who is Chinese was told to remember he still had relatives living in China."

The arrival of Mr Li in Britain could also strain diplomatic relations between Britain and China since the Chinese government has issued a warrant for his arrest. It has also asked for Interpol's co-operation. Master Li, as the former government clerk is known to disciples, claims 100 million followers, though, in reality, the number may be nearer three million. There are about 300 followers in the UK and the movement is growing rapidly.

About 50 British members delivered protest letters to the Chinese embassy in London last week over the persecution of Falun Gong followers after the Chinese government declared it an illegal organisation.

Mr Li is expected to arrive in London for the first UK Falun Gong conference, which will start with a mass exercise in Hyde Park on 29 August. One organiser said: "He keeps a low profile because if people knew in advance [where] he was going they would turn up in their thousands. Of course there are security problems to consider as well."

The Communist party sees the Falun Gong movement as a threat to its power unseen since the Tiananmen democracy movement of 10 years ago. Falun Gong's members are mostly middle-aged and well-behaved citizens who believe in traditional Chinese medicine, but there is no doubting the fear with which the government views them.

An Interpol spokesman said Mr Li would not be arrested in London as the movement is not illegal in the UK.