Chinese police detain thousands of Falungong religious cult followers

 

Chinese police yesterday rounded up thousands of followers of a religious sect and tightened security around central government headquarters in Beijing. The crackdown on the Falungong sect follows a protest by 10,000 members in April over harassment by the Chinese authorities.

The Information Centre of Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China claimed at least 30,000 Falungong members had been detained nationwide, with some 10,000 rounded up in Beijing alone.

In Washington, 150 followers gathered outside the Chinese Embassy to urge the release of fellow members of the Falungong sect in China.

The nationwide clampdown began in the early hours of yesterday morning after an order was issued from a meeting called by President Jiang Zemin.

Hundreds of uniformed and plainclothes police lined Beijing's main street and the streets around the Communist Party's central government headquarters.

In central Beijing, police vans were parked at regular intervals and pedestrians were told to keep moving past the government compound.

Police were searching the bags of many passers-by, some of whom argued loudly, while plainclothes officers with walkie-talkies stood at the entrances to all subway stations.

In southern China, around 100 people were detained in Guangzhou and Shenzhen in the early hours of yesterday as Falungong members gathered for their morning exercises, a spokeswoman for the group, Ms Sophie Xiao, said from neighbouring Hong Kong.

Further arrests were being made as some 20,000 people gathered at the Guangdong provincial government headquarters in Guangzhou to protest against the first detentions, she said.

In Shenzhen, 800 to 1,000 people assembled at city government offices, she added.

"Those assembled in Shenzhen were all taken in buses to a school in the outskirts of the city," she said. "They've released some of them, but have kept others for a lecture."

The government's anxiety over Falungong activity is exacerbated by the movement's claims to massive popularity - it says it has 100 million followers, while China's Communist Party has a membership of about 60 million.

Chinese authorities said in a televised address in mid-June that Falungong members can practise their faith but warned them against spreading rumours or inciting differences.

Early this year, President Jiang called for a crackdown on cults using religions to threaten stability, while editorials slamming "superstition" regularly appear in the official press.

"We must suppress cults and the use of religion to engage in illegal activities to maintain social stability in farming villages," Mr Jiang said.

The Falungong sect is seen as a threat to the party's political and cultural dominance and it is widely speculated that Falungong's membership includes high-ranking party and military officials, whose loyalties may be divided.

Li Hongzhi, who now lives in the US, founded Falungong in 1992. The sect combines Qi Gong, a martial art based on meditation and breathing techniques, and the twin notions of reincarnation and karma.

Falungong fills a void for laid-off workers, retired people who suffered through the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution (19661976) and others ill at ease with China's brash new materialism.