October 30, 1999
Dozens More From Sect Arrested in Beijing
By ERIK ECKHOLM
EIJING -- Dozens more followers of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement were detained Friday on Tiananmen Square, a few of them dragged away shouting, in the fifth straight day of protests while hundreds and perhaps thousands of fugitive believers were said to remain hidden around the city. On previous days, most of those detained on the giant public square were middle-aged and elderly people from out of town, who meekly allowed police to lead them to buses and jail. But Friday, police had to tackle and drag away some younger, shouting adherents who had gathered in an attempt to deliver a letter to political leaders.
All week an eerie, nearly invisible drama played out on the square that is the country's symbolic center -- crowded throughout with plainclothes police officers and hordes of unknowing Chinese and foreign tourists. While surveillance was stepped up at airports and train stations, the city's life appeared on the surface to be normal. Each day this week, clusters of Falun Gong practitioners, mostly from other provinces and often identifiable, amid more affluent tourists, in their slightly dowdy clothes and tennis shoes, appeared on Tiananmen Square with seemingly little more purpose than to be detained. It was a bewildered response, perhaps, to the way their most ordinary lives have been overturned since July 22, when the government outlawed as an "evil cult" the movement that millions of Chinese consider a path to salvation.
As they detained hundreds on Tiananmen Square, the police also spent the week combing other parts of Beijing for unwelcome visitors. This week they detained more than 3,000 people, coming from every part of China but Tibet, a party official told the Associated Press.
Thousands of followers of the banned Falun Gong movement, like those reading at a safe house this week, have been gathering in Beijing.
Falun Gong, which was developed in 1992 by a former clerk named Li Hongzhi, combines elements of Buddhism, Taoism and traditional Chinese notions of cosmic forces in the body. It offers an approach to clean living as well as physical exercises said to bring health and happiness, and somehow it struck a chord in China, spreading rapidly around the country.
Before the crackdown by authorities who charge that Falun Gong aims to subvert society and exploit the gullible, millions of Chinese had been practicing its slow-motion exercises daily, often in groups in public parks. Many merely sampled it, but for those who truly believed they were invoking supernatural powers to fend off disease, Falun Gong became something more intense than a hobby, sometimes causing friction within families.
Though members insist that the group is not political, the Communist government is clearly frightened by its deep appeal and obvious ability to mobilize believers. So it has tried to stamp out the movement by imprisoning top leaders and vilifying the founder, Li, as a charlatan. Li himself -- whose every word is gospel to believers -- is out of reach, in exile in New York.
Communist Party members and government workers were barred from practicing Falun Gong on risk of dismissal, and all followers were warned to avoid public displays of support. But the same government that calls this a dangerous cult seems to have badly underestimated the fervor of its more dedicated followers, who have persisted in their faith through threats and detentions and now pose an embarrassing problem. In recent weeks, group members say, thousands of adherents -- people who until a few months ago were considered upright citizens -- streamed into Beijing, some of them sleeping in makeshift quarters under bridges and in construction sites. Most say they are afraid to return to their home towns, where they are likely to be arrested or hounded by the police.
The out-of-towners have linked up with Beijing practitioners of the movement, including well-educated professionals who communicate with each other and supporters abroad by e-mail and cellular phones. Members were even able to organize a clandestine meeting with foreign journalists in Beijing on Thursday to tell the outside world about intensifying repression.
The trial of at least one leader, Xu Xinmu, a former government official in Hebei province, may start as early as next week, a human rights monitor in Hong Kong said. Xu faces a long prison term for allegedly leaking a secret document concerning strategies for suppressing Falun Gong.
In talks here with Chinese foreign policy officials over the past two days, Thomas Pickering, the U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, said he specifically raised concerns about the crackdown on Falun Gong. "We made it very clear with respect to Falun Gong in particular that we believe the peaceful rights to freedom of religion, freedom of assembly and of speech and of access to the press are all very, very important and need to be protected," Pickering said at a news conference Friday.