Hong Kong -- Hong Kong's political leader on Thursday branded Falun Gong a well-organized and politically motivated "cult," but he insisted the territory does not now plan any laws against the meditation sect.
Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa's language was his strongest criticism yet of Falun Gong, whose adherents immediately accused him of following the line of China. Beijing has outlawed the group in mainland China and is fighting to eradicate it. "Undoubtedly, Falun Gong is a cult," Tung said in a question-and-answer session with lawmakers. "It is well-organized. It has a lot of resources. And it is an organization that has politics in mind."
Tung had previously said Falun Gong bears the "characteristics of a cult" and that the group would be closely monitored in Hong Kong, where it remains legal but has drawn fire from pro-Beijing forces for its repeated criticism of suppression in mainland China.
Tung stopped short of saying he would speed efforts to enact an anti-subversion law, which Hong Kong is required to do after its reversion from British to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. "I don't think that it is now the time to enact a legislation. We haven't reached that stage yet. But we will keep a close eye on every move of Falun Gong," Tung said.
Tung said close monitoring of Falun Gong is necessary because "partitioners in Hong Kong and mainland follow the same master," Falun Gong founder Li Hongzhi, who now lives in exile in the United States. But he said members of the public had recognized the followers here have been obeying the laws so far.
Local Falun Gong spokeswoman Sophie Xiao accused Tung of mimicking Beijing's line, saying he was going against Hong Kong's government arrangement, dubbed "one country, two systems," that has given the territory a great deal of autonomy since it returned to China.
"I think Tung just echoes what Beijing says, which really worries people," Xiao said. "In a broad way, he's undermining our civil liberty. Hong Kong has freedom of religious belief, speech, and basic human rights." Tung disputed contentions that religious freedoms are under threat. "Let me emphasize this," Tung said. "Falun Gong is not religion. Falun members say this as well. So, it is nothing to do with freedom of religions."
Albert Ho, a pro-democracy lawmaker, asked whether Tung had concluded that Falun Gong was a cult based on TV footage and reports of a Jan. 23 incident in Beijing's Tiananmen Square where several people purported to be Falun Gong members set themselves on fire. Beijing has said the incident is proof of Falun Gong's evil intent. Followers say the burned people were not true believers because the group preaches nonviolence.
"Are these reports sufficient to allow you to come to this conclusion that the Hong Kong Falun Gong is a cult?" Ho asked. "I give my statement after careful consideration," Tung responded. Falun Gong has attracted millions of followers, most of them in China, with its combination of slow-motion exercises and philosophy drawn from Taoism, Buddhism and the often unorthodox ideas of founder Li.