The City of Vancouver filed a petition on Friday seeking a court order to remove the Falun Gong protest display from in front of the Chinese consulate on Granville St. The city says structures comprising the display—posters erected on the consulate fence and a meditation hut by the sidewalk—contravene a city bylaw.
Deputy City Engineer Peter Judd said that when the protest first started, city officials assumed that it would peter out eventually like most other protests tend to do.
"We don't want to be heavy-handed in these situations, but here we are five years later and it's very clear they're not going anywhere, so it's time to take the structures down and move on," he says.
Since August 2001, Falun Gong practitioners have maintained a 24/7 vigil outside the consulate to raise awareness of what they say is a genocide against the group in China. The "blue wall" along the consulate fence holds posters calling for an end to the persecution, depictions of torture methods used in Chinese labour camps, and pictures of slain practitioners.
Judd says it's irrelevant that the structures are not blocking the sidewalk because the group does not have written permission and the display is "not attractive, it's not the kind of public realm people want." Mayor Sam Sullivan said in June that the site violated a city bylaw and should be removed.
Motive in Question
But Sue Zhang of the Falun Dafa Association of Canada (FDAC) says the group initially received verbal approval for the display, which the city accepted at the time. The real reason for the reversal, she says, has more to do with economic interest and pressure from the consulate than with bylaws. It was soon after BC signed a trade deal with China in May that Mayor Sullivan first announced the appeal site had to go.
"We believe this is no longer an issue of non-compliance with a bylaw," says Zhang. "Rather, we believe that the law has been misused in an attempt to silence righteousness and justice. We sincerely ask that Mayor Sullivan withdraw the petition without delay."
A May 24 Canadian Press report stated, "The [trade] agreement has been signed with Invest Beijing, which has close ties to the mayor's office as well as regional governments."
Many cities in Canada and around the world with similar displays outside consulates and embassies have encountered pressure from Chinese authorities, FDAC says. The regime has pressured both Toronto and Ottawa to remove the protest sites in those cities.
When the City of Ottawa Transportation Committee received a request from the Chinese embassy to remove the protest site across from the embassy in 2002, the committee stood its ground and allowed the display to remain.
"I took it as a question of free speech that since they were not being disruptive, threatening, or causing a safety concern we ought not to shut it down," says Ottawa City Councillor Jacques Legendre. "In fact, the committee felt that way as well, and we refused to acquiesce to the embassy's request."
Legendre says there needs to be a "public policy, a rationale, for banning such things," and in this case there wasn't any because the practitioners are "most respectful" and the site doesn't create a safety hazard.
"The perception of this ongoing demonstration or presence is [that it] has been very passive, extremely so," says Legendre. "It's atypical of demonstrations in Ottawa to be so tranquil."
Vancouver practitioners say their site bears witness to the thousands who have been tortured and murdered since the persecution began. The group has vowed to continue the vigil until the persecution comes to an end.
The communist regime has sought to eliminate Falun Gong, a meditation practice that swept China in the nineties, concerned that it had grown too popular and did not conform to the atheistic ideology of the state. When the crackdown began in 1999, Falun Gong practitioners numbered over 70 million—more than there were members of the Communist Party.
FDAC spokesperson Sophia Bronwen worries that China will use the City of Vancouver's actions in its comprehensive defamation campaign against Falun Gong, and would tout the removal of the display as tacit support for the persecution.
"This act is not neutral; on the contrary, it could be harmful to the practitioners who are suffering so severely in China. By taking the site away the mayor is reducing our voice; he's saying it's not important."
Bronwen says she's surprised that a report by David Matas and David Kilgour confirming the widespread harvesting of vital organs from Falun Gong practitioners in China "didn't awaken Mayor Sullivan's conscience."
The report found that in the seven years since China banned Falun Gong and began imprisoning thousands of its adherents, a steep rise occurred in the number of organ transplants performed in that country. In all, there were 41,500 transplants that couldn't be accounted for; Kilgour and Matas believe incarcerated Falun Gong practitioners were killed to supply the organs for those transplants.
Joel Chipkar, a practitioner in Toronto, says he feels for those living in Vancouver who have been tortured in the persecution, some of whom have family members in labour camps and brainwashing centres. He says if the display is removed, they will lose an important venue to raise awareness about the "ongoing atrocities" in China.
"I would say to Mayor Sullivan and the City of Vancouver that our family and friends are being slaughtered," says Chipkar.
"If something like this was happening to you, or if your family members were in labour camps being tortured and murdered, we would never tell you five years protesting ongoing crimes is enough, now you have to move on."
Mansour Sedighi, who volunteers an overnight shift once a week at the round-the-clock protest, says practitioners don't want to fight with the city over the bylaw, as the practice "teaches respect for all the laws in society." But he believes Mayor Sullivan should look at this as an opportunity to support the group and be a "strong voice for human rights, something Canadian people value."
"He should be proud that there are people who will stand up for justice, stand up for human morality, and stand up for stopping such a brutal and unjust persecution in a peaceful and safe manner."