1999-04-26  Hong Kong Standard


Sect 10,000 protest in Beijing 



MORE than 10,000 followers of a controversial meditation sect yesterday staged the biggest demonstration in Beijing since the June 4 Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.


The thousands of followers of Falun Gong founder Li Hongzhi held a 13-hour silent protest outside Zhongnanhai _ the headquarters of the Communist Party and Central Government.


The demonstrators began to disperse late last night after organisers assured them that the State Council had agreed to hold negotiations today.


Organisers said the concession came after several meetings with Premier Zhu Rongji. There was no official word on whether the premier had been personally involved, or whether talks would take place.


It was unclear whether any agreement was reached between Mr Zhu and the protesters.


The demonstration was sparked by the arrest of 50 of the sect's members last week in the port city of Tianjin. Those arrested had been staging a one week sit-down protest outside a college which sponsors a magazine that had attacked the sect.


Members of the Falun Gong (the art to master samsara or karma) _ a religion-like, mystical qigong sect, came from provinces all over the mainland for a peaceful protest and to demand legal protection for practising their beliefs.


A middle-aged man in the crowd said the government should give Falun Gong a ``legal environment''.


``The government believes we pose a threat and it has arrested several of our members. We are demanding their freedom,'' said a demonstrator who identified himself as Zhang. ``We communicated by phone and other networks from all over China, to gather here this morning.''


Falun Gong, which is controversial because of a dispute as to whether it is purely a qigong practice, was recently criticised by some official media, including the privileged Guangming Daily, as a superstitious cult.


The sect was founded in 1992 by Li Hongzhi, who claims to have recruited up to 100 million followers all over the country.


Sources said hundreds of Beijing citizens and Falun believers had written to President Jiang Zemin demanding official endorsement of Falun's legal status.


A number of cities, particularly in the northeast _ Li's home region _ had already banned the activities of the sect.


Believers who joined yesterday's protests apparently were worried that the government would ban Falun Gong.


A statement from the government handed out to demonstrators late in the afternoon said those fears were based on rumours that should be ignored.


The demonstrators, up to eight abreast, formed an orderly two-kilometre queue around the Zhongnanhai's northern and western boundaries. They began arriving during the morning and their ranks swelled during the day.


Part of the crowd also gathered near the main gate on the south side along Chang'an street, a short distance from Tiananmen Square. There were no banners or slogans and little talking, with most protesters reading or meditating, some sitting in the lotus position.


Leaders distributed water and food to those who had not packed an evening meal. Others put down sleeping mats and blankets to prepare for a night on the pavement.


By nightfall, policemen posted at 20-metre intervals along the ranks of the demonstrators, who had earlier been politely asked them to disperse, were sitting down on the pavement too.


The gathering underlined concerns among the central leadership of social unrest in a politically sensitive year, which includes the 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown.


It also illustrated the new challenges faced by the Communist Party, not just from pro-democracy activists but from religious and cultist groups which have found a mass following amid rapid social change and upheaval.


``Falun Gong is the biggest threat to the Communist Party, not the China Democracy Party,'' a mainland journalist said, referring to the banned opposition party.


Li Hongzhi is believed to have fled to the United States.