Auckland Airport has been criticised by human rights groups for caving into the Chinese Government.

The airport company removed a sign promoting Falun Gong, a spiritual movement outlawed in China three years ago.

The Chinese claim Falun Gong is a political cult with practices harmful to its followers and society.

Followers of the practice say it is a meditation system similar to yoga or tai chi and founded on high moral values.

The Chinese consulate in Auckland complained about a display about Falun Gong at the international terminal and it was taken down.

The Human Rights Commission yesterday led a backlash against the airport over its decision to remove the poster, which featured a woman meditating and the words, "The world needs truth, compassion and forbearance".

Chief commissioner Rosslyn Noonan said the airport company appeared to have infringed the right to freedom of expression.

While sometimes there could be good reason to restrict the right of people to speak freely about their beliefs and practices, "in this case the airport's decision appears to be excessive", she said.

Airport management yesterday changed their story on what led to the display coming down.

On Tuesday night, the airport's commercial general manager, Murray Barclay, said the decision to remove the sign was made after complaints were received from the Chinese Embassy.

But yesterday, managing director John Goulter said the company received a letter from the Chinese consulate asking that the sign be removed, but it was already gone.

Mr Goulter said the 1.5m by 1m sign was removed "in line with [the airport's] policy of endeavouring to be politically neutral".

The Chinese vice-consul in Auckland, Ran Bo, said the billboard had upset Chinese tourists passing through the international terminal. "We are not pressing anybody here. We simply convey our concerns on behalf of the Chinese tourists and the local community.

"The judgment is up to the airport itself. The consulate-general here acknowledged highly their action," said Mr Ran.

The Green Party's foreign affairs spokesman, Keith Locke, labelled airport management "spineless" for bowing to pressure from the Chinese Government.

"The Auckland Airport company is not a political body and it should not be adopting the repressive agenda of another Government."

Barry Wilson of the Auckland Council for Civil Liberties said the company's action was "spineless and contemptible".

Amnesty International said it was "surprising and appalling" that any New Zealand authority would join in a Chinese Government campaign against freedom of expression.

The airport decision is the latest in a line of cases where New Zealand has apparently bowed to pressure from China.

In May, the Auckland City Council removed banners promoting the Dalai Lama's visit to New Zealand from Queen St and Karangahape Rd.

It had earlier received complaints from diplomats.

The Queen St banner carried the words "In Exile In New Zealand" and the Karangahape Rd poster said "China Quit Tibet".

In 1999, police actions to deal with protesters during the Apec summit were criticised for infringing protesters' rights.

A demonstration against Chinese President Jiang Zemin delayed a state dinner in Christchurch by 90 minutes as police moved protesters and blocked them from view with buses and sirens.

The Chinese consulate in Auckland is now taking an interest in a Falun Gong march in Queen St at noon on Saturday.