HONG KONG, Jan 27 (AFP) - Hong Kong democrats campaigning for universal suffrage condemned a parliamentary walkout by pro-Beijing parties Wednesday, as a new row erupted over the barring of a Falungong dance troupe.
The Falungong sect, which is banned in China, accused the communist Chinese leadership of forcing the New York-based dance company to cancel a Hong Kong tour by refusing visas for members of the production crew.
Pro-democracy critics said the Hong Kong authorities' denial of the visas was new evidence of China's heavy hand in the affairs of the financial hub, which was transferred from British rule in 1997 with the promise of autonomy.
Agitation for faster reform in Hong Kong, which has a limited democracy skewed in favour of business elites, came to a head this week with five pro-democracy lawmakers tendering their resignations to force by-elections.
The lawmakers were due Wednesday to set out their demands in Hong Kong's Legislative Council, but the walkout by pro-Beijing members deprived the 60-seat assembly of a quorum and the session was adjourned to next month.
Wong Kwok-hing, one of the members opposed to the campaign for a clear roadmap to universal suffrage, said the resignations were an expensive publicity stunt.
"Wasting taxpayers' money for the by-election. Shameful!" Wong shouted, pointing his thumb down as he led his colleagues out of the colonial-era chamber.
Democrats condemned the walkout as "shameful and ugly" and said it pointed to pressure from Beijing, which has expressed "grave concern" about the referendum plan and wants parties to boycott the forthcoming by-elections.
"Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung, a pro-democracy militant famous for wearing Che Guevara T-shirts and for throwing bananas at officials, mocked the pro-Beijing lawmakers for aping his theatrical tactics in the Legislative Council.
"After condemning me so many times for disrupting the meetings, they are now doing it themselves. Shame on them," said Leung, one of the five lawmakers who is resigning.
Civic Party leader Audrey Eu, two of whose colleagues are stepping down, said the parliamentary boycott showed pro-Beijing forces were "afraid of the people's will".
"There have been a heavy chorus of artillery going around town these few weeks and there is a central theme to all these," she told a news conference.
"They are afraid that people will be given a right to vote in the referendum."
Democratic Party chairman Albert Ho said the denial of the visas to the Shen Yun Performing Arts troupe was a worrying new erosion of Hong Kong's freedoms.
"Obviously, it is a very well-organised plan to suppress the dissident group. There is no excuse for immigration officials to deny them visas," he said.
"The incident has also damaged the reputation of Hong Kong as a liberal and open society," Ho said.
Briefing reporters in Tokyo, Japanese Falungong member Kanae Yamakawa said the rejection of entry visas for seven production crew "is absolutely part of the persecution of Falungong by the Chinese Communist Party".
China outlawed Falungong -- a spiritual movement loosely based on Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian philosophies -- in 1999 as "an evil cult" following a silent mass gathering in Beijing by its members, who report often brutal repression.
The dance company said it had to cancel seven sold-out shows between January 27 and 31 in Hong Kong after authorities denied the visas last week.
Hong Kong's immigration department would not comment on the troupe specifically but said work visas were considered case by case, and said the applicant generally had to offer expertise not easily found locally.
Portraying historical events through classical Chinese dance, Shen Yun also "describes the persecution of Falungong in China, and stresses the importance of believing in one's religion and conviction", Yamakawa said.
"The Chinese communist regime has been seeking to interfere with our performances for years by trying to pressure officials and theatres to cancel our shows," the dance company said in an earlier statement. (By Polly Hui/ AFP)