Strong-arm police fail to erase Falun Gong smiles

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The Independent Online

More than 100 followers of Falun Gong protested in Tiananmen Square yesterday to mark the first anniversary of the Chinese authorities' ban on the sect-like network they describe as an "evil cult".

More than 100 followers of Falun Gong protested in Tiananmen Square yesterday to mark the first anniversary of the Chinese authorities' ban on the sect-like network they describe as an "evil cult".

The police responded with the same methods that have been in force since the ban. Plainclothes and uniformed officers pounced on the devotees sitting in the lotus position or attempting to unfurl banners, and dragged them off to vans and detention in nearby cells.

On a baking day in the Chinese capital, when temperatures reached 36C, security forces closely watched all entry points to the square, and began patrolling the vast plaza in growing numbers. They questioned people walking around, checking identity cards. Whenever Falun Gongfollowers made a show of dissent, alone or in small groups, their protests were quickly smothered.

Tourists who took photographs of police manhandling suspects were forced to surrender their film.

The events at Tiananmen followed an established routine, one at which the Chinese authorities have had plenty of practice. Every year since the student demonstrations for democracy in 1989, dissidents have marked the 4 June massacre by the authorities with brave, brief protests, swiftly followed by arrests.

This June, the protest had dwindled to just one man, but the aggrieved followers of Falun Gong have more than made up for the shortfall; tens of thousands have been arrested over the past year.

For China's leaders, the Falun Gong campaign of civil disobedience is a problem that will just not go away. Police officers and security forces in every province face the threat of demotion if they do not control people from their province travelling to Peking. Yet still they come, mostly middle-aged and educated, quietly angry that the government has outlawed a belief they credit with rejuvenating their lives and curing ailments. The group still boasts of having millions of followers on the mainland, although the government claims adherents are now just 40,000.

Falun Gong represents just the kind of independent mass organisation the Communist Party most fears, especially in the business of hearts and minds where the party once held sway. "The cult has been growing for eight years, so it's very well organised," said Si Manan, an expert on Qigong, the self-healing art combining movement and meditation, and self-appointed crusader against bogus religious groups that just adopt the qigong breathing exercises.

"Li Hongzhi [founder of Falun Gong] has complete power over his followers. He encourages them to protest by saying it's their last chance, and their bravery will be rewarded."

Si, however, also criticises the government's methods. "They launched a massive political campaign that was like the Cultural Revolution, they used hours of television time, and they called Falun Gong "anti-government" - so it's won support outside China. You can't use Marxist terminology to talk to these people, many are mentally sick. You need humanity and science to point out their mistakes."

A Chinese film director in Peking said: "I don't believe in Falun Gong, but religious belief is a basic human right. The government response has been excessive, not strictly legal."

Despite the sensitivity of the subject matter, he intends making a documentary about the followers. "When I see them being dragged away, they are not frightened like most Chinese would be. It seems that their sacrifice is meant to show their dedication."

The Chinese media gave heavy coverage to the government's "decisive victories" over the past year against the "poisonous current". An editorial from the state-run news agency, Xinhua, dominated many papers this week. "The soil and the greenhouse for breeding Falun Gong are yet to be eliminated in China," Xinhua said, before resuming its attack on "foreign hostile, anti-China forces" that "have never stopped their efforts to westernize and disintegrate China".

The government-run China Daily added that Falun Gong "spreads lies and cheats people, and has resulted in more than 1,500 deaths". State media regularly display grisly pictures of people who cut open their stomachs to find the wheel of life (falun) that is central to the group's philosophy. Falun Gong practitioners and human rights groups counter that at least 24 followers have died in police custody.