By Baldwin Ndaba, Peter Fabricius and Sapa

A member of China's banned Falun Gong movement has been shot in a Johannesburg drive-by attack - and the group claims the Chinese government is responsible.

Nine Australia-based members of the group, which has for years claimed it is being persecuted and its members' human rights abused in China, entered the country on Monday on a trip coinciding with the official visit to South Africa by Chinese Vice-President Zeng Qinghong and Commerce Minister Bo Xilai.

Their purpose was to protest outside South Africa-China Binational Commission (BNC) meetings and to launch a lawsuit alleging human rights abuses and torture against the Chinese government in terms of international human rights law - a routine Falun Gong tactic.

Ironically, after the two countries signed several agreements on Tuesday, Zeng thanked South Africa for recently blocking a United Nations debate into China's human rights record.

Five of the Falun Gong protesters became lost while travelling to Pretoria on Monday, ending up on the N1 South to Bloemfontein. Near Nasrec, their car came under gunfire from occupants of another car, and driver David Liang sustained gunshot wounds to his feet.

Falun Gong spokesperson Leon Wang said: "One gunshot penetrated his left foot and exited on the other side while another smashed his right heel."

Speaking from his bed in Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital on Tuesday, Liang said: "Our attackers just accosted us and in the process started to fire several shots. I was surprised when I saw these people driving at high speed, like us. When I slowed down, they would also slow down.

"We did not see them, but we think that the vice-president and the minister have hired people to kill us. After shooting at us, they did not rob us and simply sped away. We are sure the Chinese government is involved," Liang said.

However, the Chinese embassy in South Africa dismissed the allegations as ridiculous, describing the group as a cult.

Qian Jin, press officer at the embassy, said Falun Gong was a sect which encouraged members to commit suicide.

He claimed they had killed some of their own followers by instructing them not to use any medicine when they got sick.

"Every spring festival, the Chinese Christmas, the Falun Gong members set fire to themselves. We detained (members) not for their religious beliefs, but for harming other people," Qian said.

But Wang laughed off the Chinese government's response as "typical", saying they normally created such "stories to justify the bannings and persecution of people supporting Falun Gong".

National Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi's spokesperson, Senior Superintendent Selby Bokaba, said police were probing charges of attempted murder and malicious damage to property.

However, Bokaba said it would be premature to speculate on the cause of the incident.

"I would advise the media that it is not fair for them to take only one side of a story and say it was an attempted assassination. Our job is to investigate what happened and only then will we be able to determine what was the actual cause," Bokaba said.

A handful of Falun Gong protesters picketed yesterday outside the BNC meeting at the presidential guesthouse in Pretoria, where South Africa and China signed agreements involving education, business and agriculture.

"We share views on a number of issues and there are many similarities between our countries," said Deputy President Jacob Zuma, explaining that South Africa and China had agreed to work together both economically and politically.

Zeng thanked the South African government for helping it kill a debate on its human rights record at the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva recently.

He said the BNC meeting had greatly strengthened the strategic partnership between China and South Africa, including their international co-operation.

"Your government has advocated a one-China policy and supported China at this year's UNHRC, which we deeply appreciate," Zeng told Zuma.

In Geneva, as in the past, China submitted a "no action motion" to ensure its human rights were not debated.

South Africa had previously opposed this motion on the principle that China's human rights record - like anyone else's - should at least be aired.

But official sources said last year that South Africa had departed from this principle itself, by proposing a "no action motion" on a proposal to debate Zimbabwe's human rights record. China supported this motion.

Having abandoned the principle of opposing no action motions, South Africa could no longer oppose the "no action motion" on China this year, the sources said.

South African Foreign Affairs spokesperson Ronnie Mamoepa on Tuesday refused to comment on the Falun Gong allegations that the Chinese government was involved in the attack on its

members.

What is Falun Gong?

  • Falun Gong followers practise a philosophy and five sets of exercises they say lead to spiritual enlightenment and improved health.

  • Falun Dafa is the spiritual movement that practises Falun Gong. Increasingly, the movement itself is being called Falun Gong.

  • Founded in 1992

  • It claims a membership of 70-million in China and 30-million elsewhere in the world.

  • They continually deny being a religion, cult or sect.

  • Falun Gong's founder and followers have a long history of conflict with the Chinese government and the movement was outlawed in China in 1999.

    www.religioustolerance.org/