July 21, 1999

Beijing Detains Leaders of Sect, Watchdog Says


BEIJING -- In what could be the start of a broad crackdown, dozens of leaders of the Buddhist Law movement were detained by the police on Tuesday in 14 Chinese cities, according to a Hong Kong-based human rights group.

At least 70 leaders of the group, which stunned authorities last April when 10,000 adherents silently materialized in a protest outside the communist leadership's compound here, were picked up in the police sweep that began on Monday night, the Information Center of Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China said. Arrests were reported in Beijing, Tianjin, Dalian and 11 other cities. The Hong Kong organization said that the police searched the homes of the detainees, confiscating books about the rapidly growing movement and addresses of people who attended meetings.

The group, widely known by the name Falun Gong, combines traditional Chinese breathing and meditation exercises with Buddhism, Taoism and the beliefs of its founder, Li Hongzhi, who lives in self-imposed exile in New York.

Falun Gong has posed a ticklish problem for Chinese authorities ever since the demonstration on April 25. The group was protesting local officials' treatment of its members and demanding official recognition, which has not been granted. The government normally keeps a tight leash on mass organizations. And Falun Gong, whose members are devoted to its mixture of martial arts and mysticism, could be a potent force in a country that faces dislocating social and economic changes.

Rumors of a crackdown against the group have circulated widely in recent weeks, despite assurances by Chinese officials that it would be left alone. In a meeting with Falun Gong members last month, a senior government official warned the group not to "promote superstition" or "destroy social order."

Beijing appears to have been laying the groundwork for a crackdown for some time. Over the last two weeks, state-controlled newspapers and television have carried a steady stream of commentaries about the dangers of superstitious beliefs, particularly among Communist Party members. In a front-page commentary on Monday -- its fifth on the topic since the April demonstration -- the Communist Party newspaper, People's Daily, blamed lax officials for the rampant spread of superstitious beliefs. Newspapers and television reports have also begun celebrating people who they say overcame "feudal superstition" -- for example, a rural village where the residents gave up rituals like hanging mirrors over doors.

Although the official news media did not report this week's detentions, officials in Beijing seemed well aware of the possible ramifications. At Zhongnanhai, the sprawling walled compound where President Jiang Zemin and other leaders live, a huge police contingent patrolled the streets on Tuesday night. The western edge of the compound, where the Falun Gong members massed in April, was closed to motor traffic.

Fears of harassment prompted Li, the founder and leader of Falun Gong, to move to the United States last year. On June 2, he said in a letter posted on the Internet that his followers were being treated unjustly. He also suggested that China was negotiating to have him extradited, in return for a $500-million reduction in China's trade surplus with the United States.

Although there were no signs of protest in Beijing, in Hong Kong on Tuesday afternoon about 150 people marched to the local branch of the official New China News Agency. There they delivered a letter appealing to the Chinese government to release the detained Falun Gong leaders. "We wanted to express our shock and concern on this matter," said Sophie Xiao, a spokeswoman for the group in Hong Kong. Ms. Xiao said she spoke on Tuesday with Falun Gong members in Beijing who were worried that the government might declare the group illegal. While not officially recognized, Falun Gong has existed in a kind of grey area, as the government has tried to avoid a confrontation. "We're not trying to threaten anybody," Ms. Xiao said. "People who don't understand us may feel threatened because of the number of people who are doing it and because of how quickly we have grown."

Indeed, from a standing start seven years ago, Falun Gong now claims 100 million members worldwide. Li, 48, a former grain bureau clerk in northeastern China, began his metamorphosis into a spiritual leader in the late-1980s, when he discovered the ancient practice of qigong, in which people seek to channel their vital energies to improve their health and even heal others. By combining qigong with Buddhism, Taoism and his own mystical ideas, Li fashioned an all-embracing philosophy that preaches clean living. Eschewing politics and even the hint of a religious identity, followers of Falun Gong work hard to portray themselves simply as good people.

The detentions, and the heavy police presence in Beijing on Tuesday night, suggest that the Chinese authorities think otherwise.

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company

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