China's banning of the Falun Gong (Buddhist Law) religious sect was strongly condemned Friday by the South China Morning Post of Hong Kong. The paper said in an editorial that China is facing more than enough crises already, from the economy to relations with Taiwan, and it should focus on these problems rather than "launch a massive crackdown against a group which has never done anything more harmful than organise peaceful protests." The rise of Falun Gong is a byproduct of China's new materialism, it said. "The collapse of the ideological basis for communist rule in the rush towards a free-market economy has left a spiritual void. It is inevitable that people thrown out of work or otherwise unsettled by the sweeping changes on the mainland should seek solace in some form of religious-like activity. ... Beijing should consider itself fortunate that the popular desire for spiritual inspiration took such a benign form." Falun Gong's only sin was to build a mass organization independent of the Communist Party. "This is something the leadership is still not prepared to tolerate. For all the changes that have taken place in recent years, yesterday's arrests were a reminder of how far freedom of expression remains curtailed on the mainland." The paper reported that more than 70 Falun Gong leaders were arrested in China this week, including Ji Liewu, a mainland businessman in his 40s who was responsible for bringing the sect to Hong Kong.
Announcing the ban Friday, the official China Daily said the sect had engaged in illegal activities: advocating superstition and spreading fallacies, hoodwinking people, inciting and creating disturbances, and jeopardizing social stability. The paper also quoted Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue as saying that Falun Gong had been banned because it had not been registered in the manner required by law. She also claimed that the sect had a declining membership of about 2 million, while other estimates have put it as high as 100 million.
In Israel, Ha'aretz led Friday with the United States urgently pressing Prime Minister Ehud Barak to make implementation of the Wye River accord his top priority and to carry out agreed Israeli pullbacks from the West Bank. Meanwhile, the U.S. administration decided to go easy on Syria, with President Bill Clinton postponing a planned telephone conversation with Syrian President Hafez Assad. Barak told Ha'aretz that "an air of suspicion is clouding the whole issue of Wye" and that "before this suspicion becomes mythology, it must be dispelled and understanding must be reached."
Friday's Guardian featured an interview with former Chilean President Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who has been under house arrest for several months awaiting the outcome of Spain's request that he be extradited and tried there for murder, torture, and other human rights violations. This is the second interview Pinochet has given since his arrest in London last year. The first, last weekend, was with the conservative Sunday Telegraph, which opposes his extradition. The liberal Guardian, by contrast, wants to see him tried, and its reporter, a former human rights activist, noted that his fingers are "flat and meaty like those of a butcher." The general's answers in both interviews were almost identical. He categorically denied all charges against him and complained about Britain's treatment of him. "I wasn't in England as a common bandit," he said, in reference to his arrest. "I was here as a diplomatic figure and had been welcomed as such."
In Germany, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung led Friday on a UNICEF report that more children are now born in poverty than ever before, and the paper discussed the growing AIDS catastrophe in Africa, where 21 million people are infected with the disease. Die Welt led on a new birth control patch, developed by Johnson & Johnson, which it said would offer strong competition to the pill when it is put on the market next year. The Süddeutsche Zeitung of Munich led on a new drive by the German government to get Turkey admitted to the European Union, provided its human rights record is acceptable.