Chinese leaders surprised by huge protest

More than 10,000 gather in Beijing to decry sect arrests

April 26, 1999|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- In the largest protest Beijing has seen since the ill-fated occupation of Tiananmen Square 10 years ago, more than 10,000 followers of a quasi-religious sect surrounded the Chinese leadership compound yesterday demanding freedom to practice their beliefs.

The quiet and peaceful demonstration, which broke up late last night, caught China's security apparatus flat-footed at a time when it is on heightened alert to head off just such public protests.

In the past six months, the government has cracked down on democracy advocates and closed or suspended various intellectual journals and publishing houses. With large numbers of state workers laid off and the sensitive 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre less than six weeks away, the regime has also beefed up security around the capital.

Chinese leaders, however, did not seem prepared for the thousands of sect members who came to Beijing to protest the detention of at least seven of their leaders and a recent article in the state-run press that criticized their practices.

The protesters study Falun Gong ("Wheel of Law" in Chinese), a sort of "qi-gong" -- a discipline that blends breathing, meditation, martial arts, healing and a system of beliefs. Some critics say Falun Gong is a cult, which members deny.

The Communist Party strictly limits freedom of association for fear of the emergence of a rival power base.

Falun Gong has more than 70 million practitioners and has been one of the largest-growing groups in China in recent years, as socialism has declined as an ideology. Falun Gong members follow the teachings of the sect's founder, Li Hongzhi, 47, a Chinese martial arts master who lives in the United States and claims to possess healing powers.

A government science journal in the nearby port city of Tianjin recently published an article criticizing Li and his followers. After Falun Gong members staged a protest outside the journal's office last week, police arrested at least seven sect leaders, demonstrators said.

Protesters slipped into Beijing by bus and train over the weekend to press the government for the release of their leaders and recognition of Falun Gong.

"We've been attacked before, but this time was the worst," said a young female demonstrator, referring to the offending article.

Public demonstrations are increasingly common in China these days as the regime presses forward with its painful transition from a command economy to a more market-oriented one. Laid-off workers stop traffic to demand back pay. Farmers march on municipal offices to complain about overtaxation by corrupt officials.

Yesterday's demonstration, though, had an altogether different quality. There were no banners or chants, as there were 10 years ago when more than a million students, workers and others filled Tiananmen Square demanding reform.

Instead, thousands of people from Tianjin and the nearby provinces of Hebei and Shenyang sat or stood quietly outside the vermilion walls of Zhongnanhai, the leadership compound, waiting for word from top officials. Wearing simple Chinese peasant garb, some demonstrators sat on newspapers and read a blue book that contains the sect's teachings. Others sat cross-legged with their eyes closed.

Hundreds of police, in both uniform and plainclothes, descended on the protest, but made no attempt to disrupt it. Some demonstrators refused to even explain what they were doing there.

"You are not a follower of Falun Gong, so I don't want to talk to you," one protester said.

Despite its orderly nature, the demonstration almost certainly came as a shock to official Beijing. Chinese leaders are frightened of large gatherings, which sometimes turn into protests.

Tiananmen Square, a traditional launching pad for anti-government demonstrations, is being renovated in advance of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on Oct. 1. The reconstruction project leaves the historic site conveniently unavailable for large groups to occupy at this politically sensitive time.

Outside Zhongnanhai, a large walled compound which borders the Forbidden City, police handed out fliers about noon urging people to return home. The crowd finally broke up about 9 p.m. after sect leaders reportedly told them that authorities had released seven members who had been arrested last week and that organizers had been promised a meeting with members of the State Council, China's Cabinet.

The protesters walked quietly through the night toward a bus station seeking transport home. Some demonstrators said that they were still waiting for official government recognition of their sect, which they hoped would come today.

"Though they released people this afternoon, the result is unclear so far," said a young woman. "Falun Gong only advocates truth, beauty and kindness. Why did they do such a terrible thing to us?"

The protesters said they were demanding a meeting with Premier Zhu Rongji, who just completed a visit to the United States. The government made no immediate announcement about any meeting with Falun Gong.

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