China cracks down as cult unrest grows

Click to follow
The Independent Online
A MYSTICAL Chinese sect that claims 100 million members rose in protest yesterday at a police crackdown on their ranks. Officers had to call for reinforcements and made thousands of arrests.

Members of the Falun Gong, who practise traditional Chinese meditation exercises and follow a mishmash of Buddhism and Taoism, began their protests late on Tuesday night in cities across China after the round-up and arrest of key sect members.

In Peking, 3,000 practitioners gathered north of the government leadership compound of Zhongnanhai. The protesters, mainly middle-aged women and elderly men, held a silent vigil and attempted to converge on the central compound - as 10,000 of their ranks did successfully in April.

According to Chinese police, more than 1,000 of them were rounded up and taken to a stadium in the western suburbs. The leadership compound, which lies next to Tiananmen Square, was sealed off to traffic and hundreds of police were drafted in. The April protest shocked the ruling Communist Party, which counts only 60 million members nationwide, and prompted a thorough investigation into the sect. Within hours of Monday's arrest of up to 70 of the sect's leaders, a letter posted on the organisation's website (http://falundafa.org) appealed to members to "protect" the organisation by explaining their aims to officials and demanding the release of jailed members. In China's southern boomtown of Shenzhen, about 800 sect members protesting outside the city hall were also detained by police. In nearby Canton, more than 10,000 believers converged on the provincial government headquarters, but crowds later dispersed without arrests.

Similar scenes were reported in the north-eastern city of Dalian, the western city of Taiyuan and the eastern city of Shanghai. In Hong Kong, some 40 Falun Gong members also staged a silent protest.

Falun Gong was founded in 1992 by a former state grain bureau clerk, Li Hongzhi, who lives in self-imposed exile in the US but, according to well- informed sources, is currently in Taiwan. Like sect leaders worldwide, Li preaches salvation from an immoral world on the brink of destruction. He says followers can be cured of illness by reading his books and practising a form of martial arts known as qigong, which involves breathing exercises and meditation. Given the Falun Gong's huge following, the Communist Party has stopped short of directly outlawing the cult. But a series of editorials in the official press castigated "superstitious practices" in the lead up to the arrests and urged party members to remember that they were "thoroughly materialists".

Nevertheless, China's swiflty changing society, which is seeing rising unemployment and growing disenchantment with the nation's brash rush into capitalism, remains fertile ground for sects such as the Falun Gong to prosper. Although Peking normally keeps tight control over religious and other mass groups, police have so far been unable to pre-empt the sect's protest gatherings. Practitioners are thought to congregate in apartments close to the scene and then emerge swiftly at a pre-arranged time before security forces move in.

Peking is particularly sensitive to the rise of quasi-religious sects, as groups emphasising the martial arts, miracle cures and a return to traditional morality have wreaked havoc in the past. Last century, a charismatic figure, who claimed to be the brother of Jesus Christ and the son of God, overran the southern half of China with his Taiping rebellion and held sway for more than a decade until 1864. Thirty-five years later, the Boxers, so called because they belonged to a secret society called the Fists of Righteous Harmony, plunged China again into civil war. They were defeated in 1900 when an international force marched into Peking.

Comments