New Jersey Herald
By VERENA DOBNIK
Jan 28, 2012
NEW YORK (AP) – A Buddhism-inspired spiritual group suppressed in China says it’s been barred from New York’s Chinese New Year parade for years because organizers buckled under pressure from Chinese officials.
Sunday’s parade in Manhattan’s Chinatown is an annual spectacle of floats, musicians, magicians, acrobats and giant dragons dancing through neighborhood streets for hours. The Falun Gong have been barred from marching since 2008, when group members got into fights with other ethnic Chinese, parade organizers said.
“We’ve participated in the parade for years, till 2008,” says Lucy Zhou, who’s 1 of thousands of U.S. followers of Falun Gong, a movement that the Chinese government calls an evil cult.
Falun Gong was revived in the 1990s and attracted millions of followers. It involves traditional Chinese calisthenics and philosophy drawn from Buddhism, Taoism and the often-unorthodox teachings of founder Li Hongzhi, a former government grain clerk now in hiding. Volunteers organize the group, which says it has no political agenda.
China welcomed the group at first, but when adherents there grew to more than 70 million, communist officials cracked down on what had essentially become an opposition movement, said Levi Browde, a New York-based spokesman for the group.
The group says its members in China have been persecuted and tortured to death, and it won’t take no for an answer in America.
Parade organizers banned Falun Gong out of fear, Zhou charged.
“Many Chinese here do business with China, they have relatives there, and they’re afraid,” she said.
But parade organizers say there are security issues linked to Falun Gong’s participation.
Fights between Falun Gong members and other ethnic Chinese New Yorkers during past parades are one reason for not including the group, said Steven Tin, executive director of New York’s Better Chinatown Society, which helps organize the parade.
Browde countered that clashes in past years were isolated incidents quickly resolved by police, and that Falun Gong has participated peacefully in dozens of other Chinese events.
“New York is a hot spot, and security is just an excuse for keeping controversy away from the event,” he said.
Tin declined to comment on Falun Gong’s accusations that parade organizers feel pressured by the Chinese government. Repeated calls seeking comment from the Chinese Consulate in New York were not returned.
The parade in New York is privately organized but requires a city permit. So Falun Gong members have also contacted the City Council and the mayor’s office to complain about being excluded from it, to little avail.
“The courts have repeatedly ruled that parades are a form of free speech,” said mayoral spokeswoman Evelyn Erskine. “Just as we don’t tell newspapers what they have to print, we don’t tell parades who they have to include.”
The group requested a permit to stage their own parade, but it was denied because the original parade was already approved for the same route.
Officials don’t want Falun Gong followers participating because the parade is broadcast in China and their presence would be viewed as tacit approval by the Chinese government, Zhou charged.
“It’s the communist government behind it and it’s persecution,” she says. “But we’re part of the Chinese community here, and we should not be denied.”
Zhou, her husband and two children plan to travel from their home in Queens to Chinatown on Sunday for the celebrations. This year’s parade is special because it marks the Year of the Dragon, which is considered the luckiest on the Chinese lunar calendar. The new year began Monday.
They’re among an estimated 1,000 Falun Gong followers living in the New York area. They include hundreds of non-Chinese Americans such as Browde, 39, a software company executive from a Jewish family who said he was attracted to the movement because it uses meditation and exercise as tools for self-improvement, emphasizing compassion and spirituality in relationships.
“It became so popular because it’s heartland Chinese. It comes out of the Buddhist school of teaching,” he said. “It was a revival of traditional Chinese culture, under communism.”
Members of the group have popped up in cities around the world, staging vociferous protests against Chinese authorities that have at times ended in confrontations.
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