Never mind, Li Hongzhi
Retreat: China pressures Baltimore into rescinding goodwill gesture toward Falun Gong leader. The state issues its own apology.
By Frank Langfitt And Heather Dewar
BEIJING -- One state"s honorary citizen is another country"s "evil mastermind."
So it appeared last month after a polite gesture by the Baltimore mayor"s office and the governor"s office ignited rage in -- of all places -- the People"s Republic of China.
This year, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke named an official day for Chinese citizen Li Hongzhi, the leader of the spiritual meditation group Falun Gong. The governor"s office gave Li an honorary state citizenship certificate. Ordinarily, such gestures of goodwill go unnoticed by the executives who proclaim them and most of the rest of the world.
What the mayor"s and the governor"s offices missed, though, is that the Chinese Communist Party regards Li as Public Enemy No. 1 and has spent the past five months trying to destroy him and his millions of followers here.
From its perspective, polite honors from Baltimore and Maryland weren"t helping.
The Chinese Embassy in Washington complained angrily and effectively Schmoke retroactively rescinded "LiHongzhiDay," and last month the governor"s office wrote a letter of apology to a Chinese Embassy official.
The state and the port of Baltimore do millions of dollars of business with China, which is potentially the world"s largest consumer market.
"Please accept our humblest and most sincere apology for the misunderstanding caused by the awarding of a Certificate of Honorary Citizenship to Li Hongzhi," wrote Elizabeth R. Pike, director of the state"s federal relations office."We meant no offense to you or to the people of the People"s Republic of China."
Schmoke said he had not wanted the city drawn into Chinese politics but that someone in his public information office had passed on a request for approval for "Li Hongzhi Day" without realizing the sensitivity of the matter.
"Given the politics over there, this is not something I wanted to get involved in," said Schmoke, who visited China this year.
Li"s peculiar route to honors in Baltimore and Maryland began in July, 12 time zones away in Beijing. Li leads Falun Gong, whose adherents practice a spiritual type of qigong -- an ancient Chinese exercise regimen. Disciples believe Falun Gong, which means "Wheel of Law," can heal illnesses and that they have a wheel of law in their abdomen to protect them from evil spirits.
Because of Li"s enormous following, the Communist Party sees Falun Gong as a potential political threat. After 10,000 members staged a demonstration here in April to protest what they saw as persecution, the government outlawed the group in July and began arresting or detaining thousands of adherents.
Falun Gong, though, claims to have millions of members around the world and some of those in Maryland thought proclamations from the state and city might be a good way to educate people about the group. A Maryland member named Tao Wang contacted the governor"s office and asked for the honorary citizenship certificate.
Yien Che Tsai, a Johns Hopkins University engineering graduate student who contacted the mayor"s office in August, said he told the staffer who handles proclamations about the issue.
"I told her that many of the reports in the newspaper were untrue and she could read the truth from the package I sent her," Tsai said.
Wang, a Germantown digital circuit designer, said he couldn"t remember whether he talked with the governor"s staff about the Chinese crackdown. "I assumed if one person reads the newspaper, it is everywhere," he said. "I assumed that anyone who read the stories from China naturally would support Falun Gong."
But what might have slipped the notice of state and city officials eventually got back to China"s political leaders. And they were furious.
China often complains of the West meddling in its internal affairs over such issues as Tibet and human rights, but when he was asked whether China wasn"t doing the same to Maryland, Yu just laughed.
"Not at all," he said, suggesting that by criticizing state officials, the Chinese were helping rectify an embarrassing mistake. "This would not do much for the credibility of the state of Maryland if they conferred an honorary title on this leader."
Maryland has growing business ties to China, said Walinda P. West, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development. The state has a representative in Shanghai.
China is the world"s 19th-biggest market for Maryland exports; the state"s businesses sold $76.5 million worth of goods there in 1998, up 30 percent over 1994 sales to China.
Staff writers Tom Waldron and Gerard Shields contributed to this article.
Originally published on Dec 7 1999