China bans growing spiritual group

Falun Gong members arrested after series of large protests

July 23, 1999|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- Displaying growing anxiety about the boldness and influence of a spiritual group whose membership rivals that of the Chinese Communist Party, the government here officially banned Falun Gong yesterday, continued to round up its members and portrayed the group on state-run radio as a crazed cult.

In recent days, police have detained at least 10,000 Falun Gong practitioners in 14 cities around the country, according to the Hong Kong-based Information Center of Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China.

In Beijing, police took 5,000 protesting members to two stadiums in the capital's suburbs, the human rights group said. The numbers could not be independently confirmed.

The crackdown followed large protests earlier this week across China by members of Falun Gong, or Wheel of Law, after police arrested about 70 of its leaders.

Police broke up the demonstrations by punching and kicking protesters and dragging some by the hair, witnesses said.

Police presence remained heavy in the capital yesterday. On Tuesday and Wednesday, authorities blocked off the street on the west side of Beijing's Zhongnanhai compound, where much of China's leadership lives, to try to keep the demonstrations from ballooning.

Falun Gong, which is practiced in public parks around China, mixes breathing techniques and martial arts with Buddhist and Taoist teachings. Practitioners, many of whom are middle-aged women, say the exercise and study makes them healthier, better people.

The communist regime, however, sees the group and its estimated 70 million followers in China as a threat to its monopoly on power at a time when Communist ideology is all but dead here, state-run industries are going bankrupt and unemployment is spiraling. The Communist Party has 60 million members.

Falun Gong was founded in 1992 by Li Hongzhi, a former clerk from northeastern China. Its popularity was mostly unnoticed until last spring when a state-owned publication criticized the group and its members staged a bold demonstration outside Zhongnanhai, just west of the Forbidden City.

The protest, which was eerily peaceful, drew 10,000 followers and stunned the security-minded Communist Party. It was the largest unauthorized gathering in Beijing since pro-democracy students seized Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Human rights groups and Falun Gong members deplored yesterday's crackdown.

"This ban affects thousands of ordinary Chinese citizens," said Mike Jendrzejczyk, Washington director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. "The Chinese people have a right to exercise their faiths peacefully."

Jendrzejczyk added that the right to follow one's belief, the rights to free association and assembly were guaranteed by the Chinese constitution and international law.

One elderly practitioner said she doubted that the government could stop Falun Gong, pointing out that she could always practice Falun Gong in the privacy of her home.

"Maybe the government is afraid of too many people gathering together, even though Falun Gong inspires you to be a good person," said the 74-year-old retiree.

As part of a massive propaganda campaign to discredit the group, the Communist Party has stepped up attacks on Li, 47, who now lives in self-imposed exile in New York. Chinese officials say Li was last in China on April 24, the day before the last large protest.

In newspapers and on television yesterday, the government portrayed him as the mastermind behind a series of demonstrations at government buildings and media outlets in the past year that threaten political stability.

Li "is an evil figure, who by deceiving, has been seriously disrupting social order and sabotaging the hard-earned social stability," the state-run Xinhua news service said.

Government officials claim that Li operates a highly organized network of 1,900 instruction stations with more than 28,000 spots around the country where followers practice.

They say that in 1993 and 1994, Li took in nearly $150,000 from teaching people how to exercise and from selling Falun Gong books. He used the proceeds to buy luxury homes in the names of his relatives, the news agency alleged.

Xinhua also painted a bleak picture of the fate of those who practice Falun Gong.

Believing in its healing powers, some members have refused to go to the hospital to treat illnesses and have died as a result. Others have become psychotic and taken their own lives or those of others, the government said.

Convinced that the "Wheel of Law" was in his stomach, a retired worker in North China named Ma Jianmin died after cutting open his abdomen with a pair of scissors looking for it, Xinhua said. Believing his parents were demons, a graduate student named Li Ting stabbed them to death, according to the news service. None of the allegations could be confirmed yesterday.

In addition to declaring Falun Gong illegal, the Communist Party firmly warned its own members not to participate and threatened punishment if they did.

"Those who refuse to correct their mistakes after repeated education will be asked to give up their party membership," Xinhua said.

Pub Date: 7/23/99

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