Falun Gong Marchers Are Jeered in Chinatown

New York Times/May 26, 2008

Anguish over the recent earthquake in China helped set off a small ideological disturbance in Chinatown on Sunday when a Falun Gong parade was jeered by supporters of the Chinese government who hurled water bottles and pieces of pastry at the marchers, as well as insults.

On Sunday morning, men stood near the Grand Street subway station soliciting money that they said would be used to help victims of the May 12 earthquake in Sichuan Province, which killed more than 60,000 people. At some point, Chinatown residents said, rumors spread that Falun Gong was discouraging donations and telling people that the Chinese government would steal the money.

Tensions between Beijing and practitioners of Falun Gong, a form of exercise and meditation, are nothing new. After the Chinese government outlawed Falun Gong in 1999, the group began mounting international publicity campaigns accusing the government of repression. Those tensions do not usually boil over here as they did on Sunday, but the rumors seemed to arouse anger just as the parade was moving through Chinatown.

Falun Gong members denied the rumors and attributed them to provocateurs conducting a campaign of misinformation.

"Our message is very benign" said Erping Zhang, a Falun Gong spokesman. "We have compassion for the people in the earthquake." He also charged that the opposition was organized, a claim that could not be verified.

Things were calm along much of the parade route, but as the marchers moved down East Broadway and beneath the Manhattan Bridge overpass - some of them holding aloft banners and placards that read "Only Without the Communist Party There Will Be a New China" and "Earthquake Cover Up Cost Lives" - the atmosphere became charged.

People on the sidelines hooted and booed. A brass band in the parade competed with a scratchy version of the Chinese national anthem that blared from unseen speakers.

The marchers raised their thumbs in the air and, in return, spectators gave the thumbs-down sign while chanting a derisive oath in Chinese.

Plastic water bottles flew through the air, aimed at the marchers. At times, members of the crowd surged into the street and were pushed back by police officers, who also escorted stragglers from the parade who were wearing yellow T-shirts linking themselves with Falun Gong.

"These people all grew up in China," said a young man in the crowd who would identify himself only by his first name, Lin. "They listen to the Chinese government."

The parade ended shortly after 1 p.m., and many of the marchers gathered in a park near Grand and Chrystie Streets. Among them was Mr. Zhang, who said he had relatives in Sichuan who had been displaced by the earthquake.

"We have seen that schools fell," he said. "We are concerned."

The police said that while there were scuffles during the parade, no one was arrested.

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