A highly unusual email sent on May 5 by New Zealand’s foreign minister to members of Parliament has caused an uproar in the country, with opposition politicians assailing the government for catering to the interests of the Chinese Communist Party.
The email had a frank and simple message: parliamentarians should stay away from upcoming celebrations being organized by practitioners of Falun Gong, a Chinese spiritual practice that has been heavily persecuted in China since 1999.
May 13 will be World Falun Dafa Day, and Falun Gong communities around the world often celebrate it with conferences, gatherings, and public concerts. Public figures often attend such events as a show of support and solidarity with the persecuted group.
After the email was leaked, the office of the foreign minister apologized for making a mistake in the address field: “the advice was directed at National Party Members only,” a follow-up email said, according to local press reports. The National Party is the center-right ruling party headed by Prime Minister John Key.
The original email said, in part: “The Chinese Embassy is likely to monitor attendance at events, and can be expected to protest officially should ministers, Members of Parliament or other officials be present.”
It continued: “Given the sensitivities of this event, [the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’] advice is ministers and MPs should not attend World Falun Dafa Day events.”
The advice drew a furious response in New Zealand, and was reported in most major online media outlets, on national radio, and in the country’s major broadsheet newspaper.
The foreign affairs spokesman for the opposition Labour Party, David Shearer, called it “outrageous.” In a comment to the press, he said: “New Zealand has a proud history of free speech, freedom of religion, and an independent foreign policy. It should be Kiwis and Kiwis only who should decide where they go and who they associate with.”
Amnesty International’s Executive Director Grant Bayldon said in a press release, “Amnesty International members in New Zealand and around the world are working hard to stop the imprisonment and torture of Falun Gong practitioners … rather than self-censoring its MPs in an attempt to please China, the New Zealand government should join the international call on China to respect freedom of religion.”
Amnesty’s press release, “Falun Gong have been recognised as one of the most persecuted religious groups in the world.” Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, includes the practice of slow-moving exercises and meditation, and teaches those who practice it to live by the moral tenets of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance.
A statement by the Falun Dafa Association of New Zealand, a volunteer group that organizes practice sites for people to perform the Falun Gong exercises together, said, “The Chinese Communist Party has no right to tell elected members of Parliament what they can attend. This is a free and democratic society. … If members of Parliament want to attend Falun Gong related events then they should be able to.”