November 9, 1999

Crackdown on Sect Yields 111 Arrests, Beijing Announces


BEIJING -- Chinese officials Monday offered the first official tally of the government crackdown on the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, saying 111 people had been formally arrested on a variety of criminal charges, from disrupting state security to stealing state secrets. But that figure does not include the much larger number of Falun Gong members who face other forms of detention, ranging from re-education programs to labor camps. The police have not yet compiled nationwide statistics on those, the officials said.

The vast majority of those detained in Beijing in the last two weeks were not arrested, said Li Bing, a spokesman for China's cabinet, who spoke to a small number of foreign journalists at a news conference. "We just took them to a place for education and returned them to their homes." Li said that perhaps 1,000 group members had converged on Beijing in recent weeks to show their support for Falun Gong, although a representative from his office later called reporters to emphasize that this was only an estimate. It is difficult to estimate the size of the group, because more than half of those who were sent home quickly returned to Beijing, perhaps inflating the head count, said Qian Xiaoqian, another official.

The officials denied reports that any members had been beaten to death while under arrest or in detention. They said that a handful had died while in custody, but that they had either committed suicide or died of natural causes. "There have been no beatings or inhumane treatment," Li said.

Almost daily for the last two weeks, small groups of Falun Gong members from out of town have been detained after sitting and sometimes meditating in small acts of silent protest in Tiananmen Square. A few said they had planned to deliver petitions to the government legislators who were meeting nearby, but apparently they did not succeed.

The popular movement, which blends traditional exercises with Buddhism and Taoism as well as a dash of mystical beliefs, was banned in July and has since been the subject of an extensive vilification campaign in the state-controlled media, at state-owned companies and on university campuses. The country's top leaders, who rarely speak out directly on policy issues, have branded Falun Gong "an evil sect," using apocalyptic metaphors.

"The Falun Gong problem is not a simple one," said President Jiang Zemin, quoted in a new book, "Falun Gong and Cults." "We must not underestimate it," he said, "and even more so, should not be gullible. If this problem is not swiftly solved, it will become a major social disaster."

The Chinese press and human rights groups outside China have reported a succession of formal arrests in the last week, ever since the government approved new laws dealing with cult activity. While some of those arrested, like a former police official, Li Chang, were known to be leaders of the group, others were more obscure. Zhang Ji, a student in Heilongjiang Province in the northeast, was arrested for "spreading information about Falun Gong through the Internet," said the Information Center of Human Rights and Democracy in China, a Hong Kong human rights group.

Falun Gong members in China originally relied heavily on the Internet to organize events and to keep in touch with practitioners overseas, but the group's Web sites are now blocked in China. The group said it had millions of members in China before the ban. It is not clear how many remain, although some followers are still deeply committed. Many adherents said the exercises had restored their health and given them spiritual peace at a time when many Chinese feel left behind by the country's economic transformation.

But the government says 1,400 people have died as a result of the anti-scientific bent of Falun Gong, which it said had prevented members from seeking medical treatment. "They have been sick and not gone for treatment," Li said. "Their families have asked us to intercede." He said at least one of the people who died while under police supervision, Li Ruihua, 47, had a previous heart problem that had been left untreated. Li said another follower, Chen Ying, 18, had committed suicide by jumping from a train while being escorted back to her hometown in Heilongjiang by officials from that area. A third follower, Zhao Jinghua, also had a previous heart problem and died of a heart attack during her "education" period near her home in the eastern province of Shandong, Li said.

The officials did not say how many followers were still being "educated" or how long the process lasted, saying that it was generally left in the hands of officials in the followers' hometowns.

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company

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