Police in China enforce ban on Falun Gong public exercises

200 protesters detained at Tiananmen

parks are off-limits to group

July 24, 1999|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- The Chinese government continued to press its ban on the influential spiritual group Falun Gong yesterday, detaining more members, assigning police to public parks where they exercise, and temporarily closing part of Tiananmen Square -- the nation's political heart.

At least seven police arrived at Ritan Park in the capital's embassy district before 7 a.m. yesterday morning and posted signs warning people not to engage in Falun Gong. Some members came to practice, but left after spotting police, a witness said.

Police detained some 200 people who tried to stage a sit-in at Tiananmen Square yesterday morning, Reuters reported. Soon afterward, authorities cordoned off the northern half of the plaza, which is usually filled with thousands of tourists.

Asked to explain the action at a news conference, officials feigned ignorance.

"Actually, I didn't see people were prohibited from entering the Tiananmen Square area," said Li Bing, vice minister of the State Council's information office.

On Thursday, the Chinese government banned Falun Gong, a huge exercise and meditation group whose members say they strive for physical health and spiritual growth. The government has estimated that Falun Gong had as many as 70 million members in China -- more than the Communist Party's 60 million.

Yesterday, with no explanation, government officials down-graded that estimate to 2 million.

Threatened by the group's popularity and formidable organizational skills, the regime attacked it through its state-run press and arrested some followers in April. Falun Gong responded with a mass protest, surrounding the capital's Zhongnanhai leadership compound with some 10,000 members.

The demonstration, which was quiet and peaceful, was the largest since the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989 and caught China's hypersensitive security forces unawares.

After the government arrested 70 Falun Gong leaders earlier this week, the group launched more protests around the country. In recent days, at least 10,000 members have been detained by police. Some were herded into stadiums, according to the Hong Kong-based Information Center of Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China.

Officials declined to say how many people had been arrested, adding that police were accompanying some Falun Gong protesters back to their home provinces in Northeast China.

Responding to a question about holding people in stadiums, Li seemed to suggest that they were simply rest breaks on a long trip home.

"In the middle of the journey, they might have some break to drink a little water, eat a little food and rest a little bit," Li said.

Officials claim that Falun Gong is a dangerous cult led by a handful of `plotters' who have tricked followers into demonstrating against the government while driving some members to murderous and suicidal madness.

A front-page commentary in yesterday's People's Daily, the Communist Party newspaper, claimed that Falun Gong was trying "to develop political power, confronting our party and government." Officials did not explain what sort of political power the group might be seeking.

Falun Gong members -- many are middle-aged women -- say the study and practice of their discipline heals their illnesses and helps make them better people.

The government ban on Falun Gong drew both support and criticism on the streets of Beijing yesterday.

"It is really inappropriate for the government to ban this kind of practice," said a young painter from Shandong Province, who gave only his surname of Liu. "It interferes with the civilian's individual freedom."

Speaking critically of Falun Gong members, a 69-year-old retired civil servant said: "I think these people would be better off reading the works of Deng Xiaoping and Mao Tse-tung."

Falun Gong was founded in 1992 by Li Hongzhi, a former clerk from Northeastern China who now lives in self-imposed exile in New York. Government officials have portrayed him as an evil mastermind with a messiah complex.

"The evil ideas and fallacies of Li Hongzhi have made some Falun Gong practitioners confused and paranoid and even gotten some of them into perversion," said Li Baoku, vice minister of civil affairs.

In a message posted yesterday on the Falun Gong Web site -- www.falundafa.org -- Li, 47, urged the government to use restraint.

"It is my hope that the Chinese government and its leadership will not treat the people who practice Falun Gong as enemies," said Li. "The consequences would cause people to lose confidence in the government and its leadership "

In an interview published yesterday in the Wall Street Journal from his home in New York City, Li said, "The government can punish people's bodies, but they cannot change their hearts."

As the regime continued to tighten its grip -- e-mail users reported that an estimated 1 million addresses had been temporarily shut down -- some pondered Falun Gong's remarkable popularity.

A few pointed to the spiritual void left by the collapse of communist ideology in China, a country that in many ways has become as materialistic and competitive as the Western democracies its leaders once vilified.

"People don't believe the TV and radio and what the government tells them anymore, so they turn to believe such things as Falun Gong," said a 72-year-old man who declined to give his name.

The Communist regime has an intense fear of organizations, especially those it thinks might be able to develop support at a time of high unemployment and rampant public corruption. Last winter, the government arrested scores of members of the nation's first political party and jailed its leaders.

Spiritual groups are particularly worrisome because they have been associated with tumultuous times in Chinese history.

Pub Date: 7/24/99

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