China burns sect's books in crackdown

CHINA'S CRACKDOWN on the mystical Falun Gong sect ballooned yesterday into a fully-fledged witch-hunt, with book-burning sessions across the country and accusations that the sect's leader was planning to overthrow the Communist Party.

State television broadcasts showed quivering officials confessing their errors in following the sect.

In factories and companies, former practitioners were forced to make self-criticisms that harked back to the vicious political campaigns of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), when the nation was plunged into chaos.

Across the country, hundreds of thousands of books and leaflets published by Falun Gong - which were widely available until Peking banned the sect on 22 July - were thrown on bonfires. In the central city of Wuhan, which hosted many Falun Gong rallies in the past, more than 100,000 books were destroyed.

Similar figures were reported in cities from northern Tianjin to south- western Chengdu. Even the predominately Muslim region of Xinjiang got in on the act, destroying 3,200 books and more than 10,000 cassettes.

Peking says two million Chinese were involved in the Falun Gong, which is a mixture of Buddhism and Taoism, involving meditation and breathing exercises.

The sect itself puts the figure in excess of 100 million, but categorically denies any anti-government behaviour and says its followers are good, upstanding members of the community.

Neither side disputes that the Falun Gong's constituency is solidly middle- aged, middle class China, and made up of people such as civil servants, factory managers, office workers and housewives who have probably never been on the wrong side of the government before.

But Peking insists there is a darker force in the inner workings of the organisation and warned yesterday of a conspiracy to overthrow the government.

The official People's Daily newspaper said that sect leader, Li Hongzhi, "deceives the people to deify himself and he deifies himself in a scheme to take the place of the government and rule the world ... his motives are crystal clear".

Peking says that the Falun Gong's string of public protests, particularly the 10,000-strong demonstration outside central government offices in April, are evidence of its hostile political motives.

The number of Communist Party and army members involved has also hit a raw nerve in China's politburo. According to government sources, as many as 700,000 party members are suspected of being heavily tied up with the group.

For bewildered followers of the sect, there is little option but to renounce the group or face unspecified punishment. At least 5,000 key members have already been arrested, and secret police are stationed in parks where the Falun Gong was once popular.