They are mostly middle-aged and elderly practitioners of Falun Gong, a quasi-religious sect that practises spiritual breathing exercises and follows a conservative philosophy compounded of elements from Buddhism and Taoism. The movement is said to number tens of millions of devotees, more than the Chinese Communist Party itself. The followers of Falun Gong and its US-based leader, the former government official Li Hongzhi, have come to Peking to demand official recognition of their existence.
What particularly disturbs President Jiang is that he has had no notice of the arrival of his unheralded guests. In a country where the secret police keep the closest of tabs on every political and human rights dissident, the fact that thousands of people could plan and execute such an audacious protest without the knowledge of the secret police makes a religious movement seem a political threat. So when, this week, tens of thousands of devotees organised peaceful demonstrations in dozens of cities, the authorities did not hesitate. They banned the whole movement, arrested co-ordinators across the country and launched a media barrage against its doctrines and leadership .
The rulers of China must have felt great relief when, in June, the 10th anniversary of Tiananmen Square passed off quietly. After all, the country's rapid economic reforms have created great dislocations, attracting villagers to the city where work is hard to find and hold; and the party's official ideology is completely at odds with the proto-capitalist economy that is growing up under its corrupt tutelage. All of this has brought about a crisis in legitimacy for the Communist Party, which must be nervous about any opposition, even a "spiritual" one that tells them that the end of the world is nigh but that they can be saved by getting into contact with an orb of energy in their bellies.
Falun Gong is not the only New Age-ish manifestation of the religious impulse that official state atheism has to contend with. Evangelical Christianity, village-god temples and ancestor worship have a combined following in the tens of millions. Religious groupings played a significant part in the overthrow of the last imperial dynasty. It would be ironic if a similar coalition were to contribute to the inevitable demise of the last great 20th-century dictatorship.