China caught off guard by cult's protest

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THEY ARRIVED in their thousands, and stood in neat lines shoulder to shoulder along the pavement, or sat cross-legged in a yoga-type pose. At one point a group applauded the sun when it came out from behind the clouds. It was the most audacious - but also the strangest - public demonstration Peking has seen since the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement started exactly 10 years ago.

By yesterday lunchtime, more than 10,000 followers of a bizarre Chinese Qigong cult had taken up their positions, surrounding the Zhongnanhai Communist Party leadership compound on two sides - firmly ignoring police demands to move on. Only at 9pm, after massive numbers of police had been brought in, were the crowds peacefully persuaded to disband, streaming out in groups of several hundred towards the railway station and long- distance buses.

For the whole day, in an almost surreal scene, more than a mile of pavements in the political heart of Peking were lined with the quiet protesters, many demanding the right to practise their "Falun Gong" (Buddhist Law Cult) without interference and complaining about recent Chinese media coverage of their beliefs. "We want a statement from the leaders saying we are a legal entity," said one man. For hours, the protesters remained motionless and largely silent.

There were no banners, no petitions, and most demonstrators did not even want to explain to outsiders why they were there. The police stood by, trying to prevent the traffic seizing up completely, but taking a softly-softly approach towards the protesters. As dusk fell, and public security reinforcements quietly moved into the area, including one van containing helmeted and heavily armed soldiers, the demonstrators remained unperturbed.

The "Falun Gong" claims 60 million adherents across China, and is led by its Qigong martial arts master, Li Hongzhi, 47, who lives in New York. Founded in 1992, it is anti-science, preaches a system of health-enhancing meditation and controlled breathing, and decries modern society, rock'n'roll, homosexuality and drugs. Mr Li's teachings include dire warnings about consumer society, such as: "Death's head, the devil and even images of faeces are sold as toys." He warns that some other Qigong masters are "possessed with foxes or yellow weasels, and some with snakes". Many protesters sat for hours yesterday in the lotus position on folded newspapers, reading the works of Mr Li.

The protesters came from various northern provinces as well as Peking. They were of all ages, but most were middle-aged or elderly. Some were well-dressed but a large number looked quite poor and many appeared to be from towns rather than cities. Many said they were unemployed.

Those who would speak said they were angry that a number of cult members had been arrested in the nearby city of Tianjin last week for holding a sit-in to complain about an article in a local magazine. By yesterday evening, those detainees had reportedly been released in an attempt to placate the demonstrators. A government notice was distributed to the crowds, telling them to go home and reassuring them that they had never been banned from practising Qigong.

The gathering appears to have surprised Peking's tight security network, even though a clampdown is in force ahead of the sensitive 10th anniversary of the 4 June 1989 Tiananmen massacre.

While state security forces have been busy rounding up dissidents and labour activists, they were off-guard to potential problems with disaffected Qig-ong followers.

Like other more orthodox religions, such as Christianity and conventional Buddhism, the number of Qigong followers has soared over the past decade, as Communist Party controls and ideology have waned. China's leaders have repeatedly warned about the negative influence of the rising number of cults, and a year ago launched a crackdown on money-spinning pyramid selling schemes, many of which were associated with cults that had turned ordinary appliances such as foot-massagers and air-conditioners into must-have objects of desire.