China bans sect of 100 million over suspected political agenda

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UNNERVED BY the growth of a mysterious spiritual sect, China's Communist leaders yesterday banned the hugely popular Falun Gong, saying it was an illegal organisation thatcheats people and threatens social chaos.

Betraying signs of panic over the suspected political agenda of the Falun Gong, which claims 100 million members and has organisedscores of disquieting vigils outside government offices in recent weeks, a rattled Peking issued a blanket ban on all activities connected with the group even though it appears to comprise mainly of middle-aged people who practise meditation. Violators of the ban will be jailed, the order said, adding that the sect had been "advocating superstition and hoodwinking people".

State television repeatedly broadcast a 70-minute programme debunking the group's leader, a self-proclaimed Buddha, as an "evil person who has had an extremely disastrous effect on society". Citizens were urged to trust in the Communist Party, not superstition and former Falun Gong members were showed turning-in their texts and membership cards.

Peking's crackdown came after three days of massive nationwide protests by the group, which has been seeking official recognition.

While Peking discounts the Falun Gong's claims to 100 million members worldwide, putting the figure closer to two million, it has become increasingly alarmed at the group's tight organisation and at the numbers of Chinese officials and intellectuals who have become involved.

President Jiang Zemin - who is also grappling with an independence- minded Taiwan - was reportedly enraged to discover that the head of the nation's top hospital was among those defending the group's practices, and that Li Hongzhi, the group's leader, was planning to hold a rally in Taiwan at the end of the month. This rally has been postponed following Peking's crackdown.

Li, a former state grain-bureau clerk, founded Falun Gong, which translates as `Wheel of Law', in 1992 and now lives in self-imposed exile in the United States. Preaching salvation from an immoral world on the brink of destruction, he communicates mainly by e-mail and pre-recorded videos. Li has set up 39 Falun Gong teaching centres across China, designated over 28,000 group exercise areas and collected hundreds of thousands of pounds in donations.

Like 58-year-old retired teacher Wang Shouqun, who has been a follower of Li's teachings for three years, most practitioners are middle-aged and middle-class, and blend in with the rest of the population. They throng to China's parks and open spaces in the early mornings to practise traditional meditation and breathing exercises.

"Some people take the Falun Gong more seriously than me and have shrines to Li Hongzhi in their homes. But I think most believers are like me, we just do it to keep fit and strengthen our minds, and there is nothing more to it," said Wang.

But that is not the wayPeking sees it. State television highlighted cases of Falun Gong members who had either developed paranoia and launched themselves on murder sprees or who had committed suicide to reach Nirvana. It showed graphic pictures of a practitionerwho allegedly became convinced he had a "wheel of law" inside his stomach and died after cutting open his abdomen with a pair of scissors.

The Falun Gong first hit headlines in April when some 10,000 members surrounded the high walls of the Communist leadership compound in Peking in a peaceful vigil to demand recognition as a legitimate organisation. That demonstration was the largest in the capital since the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square.

This time the government took no chances. Police swept up Falun Gong members and hordes of practitioners were rounded up.

The Restrictions Imposed On Falun Gong

These are the terms of the ban on Falun Gong declared by China's Ministry of Civil Affairs:

No one may hang or post in any place streamers, pictures, insignias or other signs that advertise Falun Dafa (Falun Gong).

No one may distribute in any place magazines, books, audio and video products and any other propaganda materials that advertise Falun Dafa (Falun Gong).

No one may assemble in any place people for promoting Falun Dafa (Falun Gong) activities, such as "synthesising energy" or "fostering the Falun law".

Activities such as assemblies, parades and demonstrations held in the form of sitting in and submitting petitions, for the purpose of protecting and advertising Falun Dafa (Falun Gong) are prohibited.

All forms of activities inciting the public to disturb social order through fabricating and distorting facts or spreading rumours deliberately are prohibited.

No one may organise, link up and command activities contesting relevant government decisions.