Peking may outlaw cult behind rally

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The Independent Online
"IN OUR office there are two people who are members; they spend a lot of time meditating," said a Peking government seamstress yesterday. With police still out in force around central Peking, many ordinary Chinese had not heard of Sunday's silent protest, when more than 10,000 members of the Falun Gong cult, practitioners of the martial art qigong, assembled outside the Communist Party headquarters. But almost everyone seemed to know someone who followed the cult.

The extraordinary demonstration had dispersed by midnight, with cold winds and driving rain aiding the police as they gently herded the thousands from the area. But while the protest ended as peacefully as it had been conducted, inside the party leadership compound at Zhongnanhai anxious officials must have wondered how a network claiming 60 million followers could have organised the biggest demonstration in Peking for a decade right under the noses of China's security apparatus.

"Yesterday, some practitioners staged a sit-down outside Zhongnanhai. The State Council leadership instructed personnel from the complaints bureau to engage in persuasion and dissuasion work," said a State Council spokeswoman for the government. "Regarding some qigong and bodybuilding activities, to our understanding, all levels of government have never banned them."

Across China, Falun Gong adherents follow the teachings and supposedly health-giving meditation and martial arts techniques of Li Hongzhi, a 47-year-old qigong master now living in New York. His main book has been banned in China, and Falun Gong has no status as an official religion, but Mr Li's followers have created the biggest non-government movement in China, and one that vents its displeasure when irked.

Falun Gong says it is not a political movement, but to Peking's eyes it represents a force the government does not control. Qigong is a traditional Chinese martial art, but Mr Li's version also includes warnings about modern consumer society, as well as enthusiasm for levitation. Yesterday, the Religious Affairs Bureau declined to say whether the government considered Falun Gong a cult and therefore banned. "It's up to the Public Security Ministry to decide whether it's a cult," one bureau official said. "We're not clear on this matter," a Public Security Ministry official said.

Rong Yi, a spokesman for Mr Li in New York, said the Falun Gong followers had been angry about an incident last week in Tianjin, 60 miles from Peking, where a youth magazine criticised the cult, prompting a protest in that city. Mr Li said the police had "used force" to break up that demonstration, and detained some believers for a short period of time.

It appears that, through a network of Falun Gong martial arts teachers, the word was spread that followers should make their way to Peking to show their displeasure. And somehow, the security forces failed to notice this huge influx of people.