I work in the “parliamentary triangle” in the Australian Federal capital city of Canberra. The triangle not only houses the machinery of Australian government, but many foreign embassies and missions. Every day, on the way to my work I pass a group of silent protesters, located come rain, hail, or shine, across the road from the huge Chinese embassy precinct.
These dedicated people are protesting about the Chinese government’s persecution of Falun Gong practitioners. I understand that Falun Gong is a Chinese spiritual discipline for mind and body, and it is apparently based on principles of truth, compassion and tolerance. It is practised in at least 60 countries of the world, and there are 100 million practitioners of this discipline around the world.
Apparently in response to Chinese pressure, the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer, has used an interpretation of the Vienna Convention that prohibits the impairment of the dignity of diplomats and embassies, in order to issue for four consecutive years a ban on the use at the Falun Gong protest site of certain prescribed objects that would otherwise be used in the demonstration, including “instruments used to make amplified noise”, and “banners or signs erected or signs affixed to or painted upon objects including vehicles”.
In response, the protest silently continues on every day across the road from the embassy. Australia prides itself as an open, tolerant country, where civil liberties are carefully guarded - not one kilometre from the silent protest there is a very visible and at times very noisy protest that has been in continuous existence for 34 years in the form of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, located across the road from the old provisional Australian Parliament building. There are no noise bans in place there.
I have been assured by people associated with the local Chinese community that if one stops and talks to the protesters, your photograph is taken by the embassy. I do not know if this is true, but I had a most uneasy feeling of being watched whilst I was taking this handheld series in the middle of a cold Canberra winter’s day in mid-2005. Although the protesters assured me that they did not have any fears of appearing in a photograph, I have obscured the visible faces to provide at least some degree of anonymity to the protestors.
As a final note, one of the Falun Gong exercise sites used in Canberra is located at the Downer Oval in the Canberra suburb of Downer – both are named after Alexander Downer’s grandfather, John Downer (1844–1915) who was Premier of South Australia and a member of the first Australian Senate in 1901. Alexander Downer is a third-generation professional politician who might not be aware of the delicious irony of his actions concerning this gentle, unassuming protest.