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Mayor Sam Sullivan has decided the block of signs and a crude wooden structure in front of the Chinese Consulate on Granville Street must be removed to comply with city bylaws, almost five years after they went up. Photo-Dan Toulgoet

Time to get tough on Falun Gong, says mayor

By Mike Howell-Staff writer

Mayor Sam Sullivan has ordered Falun Gong practitioners to remove a wooden shack and a block-long sign from in front of the Chinese Consulate on Granville Street, near 16th Avenue.

Almost five years after practitioners erected the structures, Sullivan said it's time for the group to obey the city's bylaws that state such structures cannot be built on city property, namely on a boulevard.

"Absolutely no organization has been allowed to keep a structure on public property for almost five years," Sullivan said. "So they have been certainly receiving unusually lenient treatment from the City of Vancouver. As we approach five years for this structure, I think it's time that we applied our bylaws fairly."

Sullivan met with Falun Gong practitioners on May 25 in his office. He and Tom Timm, the city's engineer, told them the structures must be removed but they didn't set a deadline, Sullivan said.

"I hope that they will recognize that this is nothing against them, that they will voluntarily take them down. It's simply adhering to the bylaw of building structures on public property. If we allowed any structures to be built on public property, we would have a really degraded public realm."

The mayor, who speaks Cantonese, said he was not urged by the Chinese Consulate to remove the structures. Sullivan was a councillor in the NPA-dominated council when the shack and sign were built in 2001 but neither he nor the council called for their removal.

So why now?

"I've felt that since I became mayor that this is an unresolved issue that needs to be dealt with. I've taken my time on it, I've consulted with the legal people, I've considered the issues of human rights and concluded a couple of months ago that we needed to correct the situation."

In an email obtained by the Courier that was sent from Timm to practitioner Sue Zhang, Timm wrote that removing the structures should not be misconstrued with a group's right to protest.

"While the city does not wish to stop you from lawfully demonstrating or protesting, it is illegal to erect and maintain structures on city sidewalks and we ask that you respect our bylaws and remove the structures from the sidewalk and boulevard in the 3300-block of Granville Street," Timm wrote. "Since you indicated in our meeting with the mayor that it is a principle of Falun Gong to obey the law, I expect that you will in fact respect our city's bylaw and comply with the request."

Falun Gong practitioners built the structures to protest what they say is the Chinese government's persecution of Falun Gong practitioners in China. The Chinese government calls the group a cult.

Practitioners say otherwise-that Falun Gong is a meditative exercise based on truthfulness, compassion and tolerance. They are not Buddhists, but believe in the teachings of Buddha and Falun Gong's founder Li Hongzhi.

On Monday, a woman sat inside the wooden shack reading from the teachings of Li Hongzhi. There as part of the group's 24-hour-a-day vigil, she stepped out of the shack to point out the number 1,750 posted above the door-that's the number of days practitioners have kept a vigil on the boulevard.

"We are strong in spirit," said the woman, who wouldn't reveal her name, and didn't seem to know about the mayor's order. "We know it's very important to do this."

The shack backs on to the middle of the sign, which is roughly seven feet tall by 120 feet in length. It's made of blue foam board screwed to a wooden frame adorned with pronouncements and photographs to illustrate the practitioners' protest.

"Prosecute Jiang Zemin and his followers" is written next to a photograph of what is believed to be Chinese police officers arresting a Falun Gong practitioner. Further along the sign are photographs of emaciated people said to be practitioners who allegedly had their organs removed in China.

Practitioner Sue Zhang, the recipient of Timm's email, doesn't understand why the mayor-after almost five years-wanted the structures removed. Zhang wouldn't say if the group would comply with the mayor's request.

In Timm's email, he mentions that Zhang said in the May 25 meeting that practitioners received permission from the city to set up the structures outside the Chinese Consulate. Timm said he still hadn't received "information as to how and when this permission was given to you and by whom."

Added Timm: "As the city engineer, let me be clear that you do not have my permission-written or otherwise-to have these structures on the street as the bylaw requires."

According to Zhang, the group has hired a lawyer. "We will talk about this and review all this to the media when the time is proper."

Zhang wouldn't say how many practitioners she represents. "We are not organizational. Anyone can come to learn the practice free of charge, we don't have a membership, we don't even have a name list. If you want to come, you come. If you want to go, you go."

The Courier contacted the Chinese Consulate Monday via its intercom system outside the consulate at 3380 Granville St. A woman who identified herself as Sherry appeared from behind the consulate's large black gates to take a reporter's business card.

Sherry then walked along the sidewalk past the Falun Gong structures, made a phone call and went through another gate to the consulate. Before she did, she told the Courier to wait for a phone call.

As of yesterday morning, the consulate had not called.

published on 06/07/2006

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