July 22, 1999

China Said to Prepare Ban on Sect; Protests Go On


BEIJING -- Ratcheting up its campaign against an amorphous but fast-growing spiritual movement, the Chinese Government is expected to announce Thursday a nationwide ban against the movement, Buddhist Law, according to reports in three Hong Kong newspapers. The papers said President Jiang Zemin had decided to impose the ban at an emergency meeting of the Politburo on Monday. The independent daily Sing Tao quoted the Government directive as saying the group had "engaged in superstition and disrupted public order, thereby damaging social stability."

As a Buddhist sect tried to rally near the leadership compound in Beijing, policemen yesterday inspected the identification cards and belongings of several women in Tiananmen Square before taking them away in a van.

The Government began a crackdown on Monday, rounding up more than 100 prominent members of the sect in 14 cities, according to members of the group and a Hong Kong-based human rights organization. That prompted protests in Beijing and several other cities as thousands of followers vented their anger against the Government's actions, several members said.

As they did once before, in April, members of the group, known in Chinese as Falun Gong, are taking their grievances to the doorstep of the Communist Party. Early Thursday and on Wednesday, members tried to mass in front of the leaders' compound in central Beijing, a member said. The police quickly herded them into buses and took them away. Thursday morning, the police could be seen shooing a small crowd of people away from the sidewalk facing the ceremonial entrance to Zhongnanhai, the walled compound that houses President Jiang Zemin and other leaders.

It was a silent vigil near the compound on April 25 by 10,000 followers protesting harrassment and demanding official recognition that catapulted the group from obscurity to the top of the agenda for nervous party leaders. Falun Gong had managed to mount the biggest illegal rally in Beijing since the 1989 Tiananmen democracy movement, without any warning to the authorities, suggesting formidable powers of mobilization. Furthermore, the group says it has 100 million members around the world. That number is impossible to verify, particularly in a group that claims no formal organization aside from an allegiance to the teachings of its founder, Li Hongzhi, who relies heavily on the Internet to communicate messages to his followers.

Police warned protestors away from the square.

Li, 48, a former grain bureau clerk in northeastern China who is now based in the United States, started Falun Gong in 1992 as a fusion of the ancient Chinese practice of qigong -- the channeling of vital energies through breathing exercises -- with elements of Buddhism and Taoism. The group's members insist they are interested only in physical and moral uplift and eschew politics. But if Falun Gong's rapid response to the crackdown is any indication, the Chinese authorities may have reason to worry.

Crowds ranging from a few dozen to several thousand demonstrated Wednesday in 30 cities across China, including Shanghai, Tianjin, Dalian, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Wuhan, the Hong Kong-based Information Center of Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China reported. Those rallies came despite a blanket of silence about the detentions in the official Chinese news media. The police declined to comment on the detentions and protests.

Chinese police broke up a demonstration by followers of the Buddhist Law sect near the Chinese leadership compound in central Beijing.

Falun Gong is only one of several quasi-religious movements that have emerged in China since Deng Xiaoping began reforming the economy in 1979 and social controls were relaxed. With its mixture of martial arts and mysticism, it bears enough resemblance to the popular movements that wreaked havoc in the final decades of the last imperial dynasty to make the Communist authorities apprehensive.

As China enters a period of fresh social and economic upheaval, with faltering state enterprises laying off millions of workers and rural incomes stalling, Beijing may have concluded that Falun Gong is too much of a threat.

On Wednesday, hundreds of Falun Gong members began gathering at dawn in the tree-lined streets near Zhongnanhai. Before a crowd could coalesce, the police hustled them on to buses and removed them quickly, said Wang Xiaoyan, the wife of one of the detained leaders, Ji Liewu.

"They wanted to tell the Government that there's no reason to arrest students of Falun Gong," said Ms. Wang, who spoke to several participants by telephone. "As people got near Zhongnanhai, the police were ready. They forced them to leave, to get on buses to take them away."

Ms. Wang said Wednesday that more than 1,000 Falun Gong members were being held in a football stadium outside Beijing. The Hong Kong rights group said people were also being held at two stadiums and other locations. From there, the group said, people were being sent back to their homes in the provinces.

A Hong Kong spokeswoman for Falun Gong described a similar sequence of events in Guangzhou, in the south. Roughly 2,000 demonstrators congregated in front of a government building early Wednesday morning, she said. The police forced most onto buses and they were taken to an unknown destination.

In central Beijing this morning, the fear of unrest hung heavy in the torpid air. Hundreds of riot police and soldiers maintained their positions around Zhongnanhai. Water-cannon trucks were parked in courtyards across the street from the compound, while riot shields were lined up in gleaming rows.

On Wednesday, the police closed a main thoroughfare on the western edge of the compound, causing traffic jams that paralyzed much of downtown. Thursday, pedestrians and bicyclists were allowed back, but cars were still blocked. On the streets nearby, scores of people squatted on the sidewalk, watching the scene curiously. One or two appeared to be meditating, but it was unclear whether they were acolytes of Falun Gong.

One reason the Government is so wary of this group is that its members blend seamlessly into ordinary society. Unlike the flag-waving, slogan-shouting students of 1989, Falun Gong followers tend to be middle-aged people -- a large percentage female, and many retired -- who make the most unlikely of rebels. "We simply follow the law and principles that Master Li Hongzhi taught us," said Sophie Xiao, the spokeswoman in Hong Kong.

While the Government has not yet commented on the crackdown, it continues its campaign of indirect criticism. The main television news program Wednesday evening carried lengthy coverage of a speech by a senior Communist Party ideologue, Gong Yuzhi, in which he denounced the spread of "feudal superstition" in Chinese society.

Such denunciations will not persuade people like Ms. Wang to abandon her allegiance to Falun Gong. "I can only wait for news of my husband," she said. "But I'll definitely continue practicing Falun Gong. We believe that Teacher Li is the truth."

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company

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