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Protests underway as presidents arrive in the Coachella Valley

Published On: Jun 07 2013 08:06:20 PM CDT
Updated On: Jun 06 2013 06:50:00 PM CDT
RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. -

Supporters of Tibetan liberation and the spiritual movement Falun Gong are holding protest rallies Friday and Saturday to coincide with Chinese President Xi Jinping's meeting with President Barack Obama in Rancho Mirage.

Hundreds of people are expected to attend rallies near Bob Hope and Gerald Ford drives today and Saturday.

Supporters and practitioners of Falun Gong, a spiritual enlightenment movement whose adherents say they are persecuted by the Chinese government, also planned to gather this afternoon at El Cielo and East Ramon roads near Palm Springs International Airport, where Obama will arrive.

Falun Gong advocates say then-Chinese President Jiang Zemin started persecuting and torturing 100 million Falun Gong practitioners in 1999. His successors, Hu Jintao and Xi, have allowed the persecution to continue, according to the U.S. Southwestern Falun Dafa Association.

Falun Gong supporters and practitioners demonstrated on Bob Hope Drive near Sunnylands starting Thursday, and a large group had gathered by 9 this morning. All wore yellow shirts with the movement's tenets -- truthfulness, compassion, forbearance -- printed on the back, and did body poses called the "Five Exercises" behind the barricades.

One of the organizers, Vicky Jiang, said group members came from around California and Arizona, and some had suffered in China for practicing Falun Gong.

She said the goal is to convince Xi and other leaders to stop the persecution -- which allegedly includes torture, organ harvesting and labor camps -- and hold those responsible accountable.

"We would like (Obama) to consider human rights in his conversations with President Xi and put that on the table," said Jiang, who came from San Francisco.

Dafang Wang, who also came from San Francisco, said she, her younger sister and older brother were detained and tortured by officials for practicing Falun Gong in China 12 years ago. Her sister was taken to a labor camp and tortured to death four months later; her brother is still in prison, she said.

"My younger sister was a very, very kind woman, she always wanted to be a good person but she was killed for her beliefs," Wang said.

Wang said guards used electric batons to shock her at a Beijing dentention center; she eventually got out with the help of her husband and a guard sympathetic to Falun Gong. She reached the U.S. on a tourist visa, then applied for asylum.

"I want to appeal to Obama and Xi to end this persecution in China ... there are many, many cases like my family, my brother and sister, happening every day," she said.

Wen Chen, a biologist at Caltech in Pasadena, said many of the group's members have signed petitions and sent letters to Obama.

"We feel like it's our responsibility to speak out," she said.

Tibet activists are asking Obama "to take a stand for Tibet and pressure China to end their atrocities in Tibet," according to Students for a Free Tibet, one of the Tibet rally organizers.

More than 100 Tibetans have turned to lighting themselves on fire to protest China's 60-year occupation of their country, according to New York-based Students for a Free Tibet. Another advocacy group, Free Tibet, says an estimated 1 million Tibetans have died as a result of Chinese occupation through imprisonment, torture and executions.

This morning, a group of Tibet activists put signs with slogans like "It's time for President Obama to take a stand for Tibet" on the barricades lining Bob Hope Drive on the way to Sunnylands, and some carried Tibetan flags.

One of the organizers, Tenzin Gyaltsen, said he arrived from San Francisco around 2 a.m. He said the group will hold a candlelight vigil tonight, and tomorrow someone will don a large head resembling Xi and "show how world leaders have failed to support Tibet and stop the crackdown on Tibet."

Sean Tetler, who lives in Palm Desert, said his wife heard about the Sunnylands summit on Facebook, and he decided to come support the Tibet activists.

"I thought, if they're out here, I want to be there," said Tetler, who works with College of the Desert's radio station and was involved in the Occupy protests in Palm Desert in 2011.

Vietnamese groups were also planning to protest in the desert during the summit. The reason was unclear, although China and Vietnam have had a contentious past and have recently been in dispute over an area in the South China Sea.