BEIJING Five people set themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square this afternoon on the eve of the Chinese New Year festival, apparently to protest the government's intensifying crackdown on the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement. Four survived with serious burns and one woman died, according to the government's official New China News Agency.
In a brief report, the agency described the group, four women and one man, as Falun Gong adherents from Kaifeng, a city about 350 miles south of Beijing, and said they had been "hoodwinked by the evil fallacies" of the sect's U.S.-based leader, Li Hongzhi.
But leaders of the Falun Gong movement in Hong Kong immediately dismissed the government's claim that the sect was involved, insisting that their belief system forbids violence and suicide and noting reports of disgruntled workers or farmers setting themselves on fire in other parts of China in the past.
A producer and cameraman for CNN witnessed the incident, which occurred about 2:40 p.m., but police immediately confiscated their videotape and detained them. CNN said the journalists saw one man sit down, pour gasoline on himself and set himself ablaze. Then, as they were being detained, they saw four others on fire, staggering forward with their hands raised.
One person was carried into a police van with severe burns on his face, while the four others lay on the ground, shielded from onlookers by a screen erected by police, CNN reported. Police quickly increased their already heavy security presence at the square, systematically stopping passers-by and inspecting their bags.
There was no obvious sign that the individuals who set themselves on fire were Falun Gong members, but other sect members staged scattered protests in the square before and after the incident. Believers in the group's breathing and meditation exercises often descend on the capital in larger numbers around holidays such as Chinese New Year.
"I was very upset when I heard this news, but these people are certainly not Falun Gong members," said Yee-han Hui, a spokesman for the group in Hong Kong. "We are taught to be compassionate to everyone, including ourselves. We would never do such a thing. All of our protests against the government have been peaceful and nonviolent."
Tiananmen Square, in the center of the Chinese capital, has been the site of almost daily, peaceful protests by Falun Gong followers from various parts of the country. The protesters usually unfurl a banner or distribute leaflets before police spot them and swoop in, often kicking and punching followers as they arrest them.
In recent weeks, the ruling Communist Party appears to have escalated its crackdown on Falun Gong, which it considers an evil cult and a threat to its authority. The state-run media launched another public relations campaign against the movement earlier this month, blaming it for dozens of suicide attempts in various cities and hundreds of deaths.
Practitioners of Falun Gong in Toronto told a media briefing yesterday they fear their spiritual beliefs are being targeted unfairly here in Canada by Chinese consular officials.
Lawyer Rocco Galati, who represents the practitioners, pointed to a recent community meeting where Chinese consulate officials labelled Falun Gong practitioners members of a "misguided and evil sect."
He said the remarks incite hatred among Chinese-Canadians against Falun Gong, which is "contrary to the criminal laws of Canada and the Canadian Charter of Rights."
Galati called on Ottawa to bring an end to the inflammatory statements.
Falun Gong is a spiritual belief in the practice of a series of meditations and exercises to heal the mind and body, which was banned in 1999. The Chinese government accused its founder Li Hongzhi of political ambitions and his protest of the ban is an evil plot to destabilize China.
Chinese-Canadian Kunlun Zhang, who spent three months in a Chinese prison camp for practising Falun Gong, said he was forced to renounce his beliefs while in detention.
"They made me sign the document under severe brain-washing and psychological tortures," he said through an interpreter.
Zhang returned to China in 1993 with his wife to care for her ailing mother. He said officials kept him up day and night in an effort to break his spirit and renounce his belief.
"I reject anything that was attributed to me during these weeks of intensive mental manipulation," the former McGill University sculpture professor said.
A spokesman for Falun Gong in Toronto estimates the number of practitioners in the city as in the hundreds only, which she said makes the consulate's actions more extreme. "They brought some of those tactics to Canadian soil," Cindy Gu said.
Galati said the meeting, advertised as a forum to "condemn" the "rampant, anti-Chinese activities" will not be tolerated.
NDP MPP Rosario Marchese said it is time for federal politicians to stand up to the Chinese government.
BEIJING - Bracing for Lunar New Year protests by the banned Falun Gong sect, the government yesterday warned demonstrators would be punished harshly and urged the group's followers not to sacrifice themselves. Front-page editorials in state newspapers accused Falun Gong founder Li Hongzhi of political ambitions and said his calls to protest against the ban were an evil plot to destabilise the country.
``Obsessed'' Falun Gong followers must realise that an ``extremely brutal, extremely evil criminal intent'' lies behind the protests, said the Communist Party's flagship newspaper, People's Daily.
Don't become Li's ``sacrificial objects,'' the Beijing Daily said, warning followers that protesting made them ``enemies of the people''.
``Like a rat crossing the street that everyone shouts out to squash, they will suffer serious legal sanctions and ultimately receive the shameful fate of failure,'' the newspaper said.
The warnings are part of an intensifying crusade against the group aimed at deterring protests over the Lunar New Year.
Peaceful protests by followers have become a daily occurrence in Tiananmen Square during the 18-month-old ban. Acts of civil disobedience have surged around holidays, marring the 51st anniversary of Communist Party rule on October 1 by forcing police to shut down parts of the square.
Premier Zhu Rongji made a widely publicised appeal to Beijing police on Friday, instructing them to take ``strict precautions''. He accused Falun Gong of ``scheming and inciting its die-hard elements and bewitched followers to make trouble in Beijing'', Xinhua News Agency reported.
Falun Gong attracted millions of followers in the 1990s with a blend of slow-motion exercises and hybrid philosophy that the group claims promotes health, morality and, among expert practitioners, supernatural powers.
The group was banned in July 1999 as an evil cult. Official propaganda accuses the sect of leading 1,600 followers to their deaths, mostly by encouraging them to forgo modern medical treatment.
A large protest at the start of the Lunar New Year last February surprised police.
They kicked and beat protesters, a reaction since repeated at every large-scale peaceful protest by the group.
An unknown number of Falun Gong followers are being held in labour camps without trial, and rights groups say at least 92 have died while in police custody.
BEIJING - Following is a list of key events in the past 18 months which have seen the Falungong spiritual movement branded the biggest threat to China's communist regime since the 1989 democracy protests.
April 25, 1999: More than 10,000 followers of the Buddhist-inspired sect sit down around the Chinese Communist Party headquarters in Beijing for an entire day, demanding the right to practise their meditation and breathing exercises. It was the largest demonstration in the capital since 1989, when democracy protestors were massacred on Tiananmen Square.
April 27: The authorities say they are prepared to listen to Falungong grievances but warn of strict measures against any attempt to destabilise society.
May 3: Li Hongzhi, the sect's US-based guru, calls on Beijing to start dialogue with the movement which claims it has 80 million followers in China (two million according to the authorities).
June 6: First questioning of over 100 followers protesting in Beijing.
July 20-22: Thousands of followers rounded up throughout the country. By the end of the year at least 35,000 followers had been arrested, according to official statistics.
July 22: Falungong is formally declared an "illegal organisation." The move coincides with the launch of a media campaign accusing the movement of causing 1,500 deaths.
July 27: US State Department calls on Beijing to exercise restraint.
July 28: China issues an international arrest warrant against Li Hongzhi, accusing him of seeking to overturn the regime. Interpol refused to help with the warrant.
Oct 7: First case of Falungong follower dying in police custody, announced from abroad.
Oct 21: 11 senior figures in the movement arrested.
Oct 25-Nov 1: A week of protests in Tiananmen square in Beijing as parliament adopts law officially branding Falungong as an "evil cult."
Nov 12: First Falungong "show trials" end with four followers sentenced to between two and 12 years prison. Hundreds of others sent to "reeducation through labour" camps for three years.
Dec 26: Four senior figures in the group sentenced to prison terms of seven to 18 years.
Feb 5, 2000: Dozens of followers protest in Tiananmen Square during the Chinese New Year.
Feb/March: Deaths in custody of 15 members disclosed. Several detained members stage hunger strike.
April 19: The official Xinhua news agency reports that a total of 84 Falungong supporters have been given prison terms.
April 25: At least 100 members defy a security net to protest in Tiananmen Square on the first anniversary of their landmark mass demonstration against the Chinese government.
May 11: About 200 members protest in Tiananmen Square to mark their founder's birthday and are detained by police.
July 22: Falungong members are kicked and badly beaten by police in Tiananmen Square in the most violent crackdown yet seen on the group since it was banned exactly one year ago.
October 1: Chinese police round up close to 1,000 protesting members of the Falungong group during clashes in Tiananmen Square on China's National Day.
January 1: Chinese police detain about 1,000 protesting Falungong members in one of the most violent clashes with police.
Falungong founder Li Hongzhi issues a new year statement titled "Beyond the Limits of Forbearance" in which he for the first time he says his teachings make allowances for going beyond forbearance, one of the three principles of Falungong. He says evil cannot be tolerated.
January: The government launches new propaganda offensive against the group, with daily reports in state-owned media accusing Falungong of brainwashing members and misleading them into ruining their lives.
January 23: State news agency Xinhua says five Falungong followers set themselves on fire in a mass suicide attempt, which left one dead. It was not immediately possible to confirm the report from independent sources.
BEIJING - Nurtured by the spiritual void caused by the decline of communism and the rise of materialism, the banned Falungong movement has emerged as a powerful and mysterious force in Chinese society.
More than 18 months after it gained international attention and stunned China's leaders with a 10,000-strong demonstration in the heart of Beijing, the group remains enigmatic and controversial to many Chinese.
The movement was founded in 1992 by former soldier and bureaucrat Li Hongzhi in China's northeastern rustbelt. The area has been hit hard by the reform of state-owned enterprises which has thrown millions out of work.
The group quickly amassed a large following with its claims of helping people purify their body and mind through Li's quirky blend of Buddhist-based philosophy.
But as the movement grew stronger it began to alarm Communist Party chiefs and the mass demonstration in Beijing in April 1999 was the final straw.
Falungong was outlawed as an "evil cult" three months later and the government launched a nationwide crackdown against followers, many of whom came from the ranks of the Communist Party and military.
Tens of thousands of Falungong practitioners have since flocked to Beijing to make almost daily protests in Tiananmen Square despite the threat of beatings and arrests.
China has sentenced 450 followers to prison, sent more than 600 to mental hospitals, placed 10,000 in labor camps and detains 50,000 at any given time, says the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy.
The center also says 104 followers have died in police custody.
But despite the campaign, Falungong has stood defiant and remains the strongest threat to the government since the 1989 pro-democracy movement.
The group is viewed with a mixture of wonder and ridicule by many ordinary Chinese.
While there is little support for the beatings and arrests, many also think practitioners are misguided and quite a number believe the government's claim it is a cult.
Li's essays on the group's many websites are regularly downloaded, photocopied and widely distributed and can mobilize hundreds of people to protest in Tiananmen Square on key dates such as Wednesday's Lunar New Year.
On the eve of the festival China said Tuesday five followers set themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square in a suicide attempt which left one woman dead. The movement denied the event and accused Beijing of smear tactics.
Falungong grew out of a period in the 1980s when China was experiencing a craze in "qigong" martial arts exercises which aim to harness internal energies with meditation techniques.
Qigong popularity rose out of a need to fill a spiritual void. Rapid changes in the economy, such as massive layoffs, and relaxation of social controls left many wondering about the meaning of life.
Li taught his believers that illnesses are manifestations of bad deeds from previous lives which can be healed by practising Falungong.
Practitioners believe quietly withstanding injustice will help them reach their ultimate aim of nirvana -- the Buddhist version of heaven -- after death.
The group claims 70 million followers in China, while the government says it has two million. The figures are impossible to verify.
Li himself is shrouded in mystery and rarely appears in public.
China says he worked on an army farm and as a trumpet player in a band before being discharged from the military in 1982 and finding work as a low-level official in his home town of Changchun.
In 1991 he quit his job and began developing Falungong, and in 1994 he changed his date of birth from July 7, 1952 to May 13, 1951 to coincide with the birthday of Sakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
Falungong says Li possessed supernatural skills at an early age such as the ability to see the words "Truth, Compassion and Forbearance" -- the three tenets of Falungong -- in the corner of his eyes at any time.
But during interviews Li has avoided questions about his claims to have supernatural powers, including the ability to fly.
BEIJING - Five followers of the outlawed Falun Gong set themselves ablaze in central Beijing's Tiananmen Square on Tuesday afternoon, leaving one burned to death and the others injured, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
The followers, a man and four women, soaked themselves in gasoline and set themselves on fire. The one burned to death was a woman, the news agency said.
Police said the five were from the central Chinese city of Kaifeng in Henan Province, according to Xinhua.
Falun Gong mixes Taoist, Buddhist and folk religions and preaches that good health and morality can be attained through meditation and special exercises.
The group's open confrontation with the Chinese government began in April 1999, when thousands of adherents peacefully surrounded Zhongnanhai, the home of China's ruling elite, in central Beijing.
The Standing Committee of the National People's Congress vowed Oct. 30 last year to ''destroy'' the movement.
The group's founder, Li Hongzhi, lives in the United States.
BEIJING - China's official Xinhua news agency said five members of the banned Falun Gong sect set fire to themselves on Tuesday in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in a planned mass suicide, and one woman died.
But Hong Kong-based members of the spiritual movement, which has so far adopted peaceful methods of protest in the face of a fierce crackdown, dismissed the report as part of a smear campaign by Chinese authorities.
There was no independent confirmation of the Xinhua story.
Xinhua said four women and one man soaked themselves in gasoline at 2.40 p.m. (0640 GMT) in two separate incidents in an attempted suicide on the eve of the Lunar New Year festival, the most auspicious day in the Chinese calendar.
One of the women died of her injuries while the others were rescued by police and taken to hospital, Xinhua said.
Tiananmen Square has been the stage for almost daily protests by Falun Gong adherents since the group was banned in July 1999 as an "evil cult."
Several hours after the reported incidents, hundreds of police ringed Tiananmen frisking anybody trying to walk onto the vast plaza and checking all bags. The square was almost empty on a freezing winter evening.
In Hong Kong, Falun Gong spokeswoman Yee Han Hui was sceptical of the Xinhua account.
"I think these people are probably not Falun Gong practitioners because we are told not to kill and, of course, not ourselves," she told Reuters.
"You can't believe Xinhua because it has slandered us for some time."
Another spokeswoman, Ho Lai-Ha, said: "We would not take such dramatic action."
HEADING OFF TROUBLE
Beijing was keen to avoid a repeat of last Lunar New Year, when thousands of Falun Gong followers swarmed into the square to protest against the crackdown, and pictures of police kicking and pummelling elderly believers were broadcast around the world.
China's handling of the peaceful protests faces special scrutiny this year with the International Olympic Committee due in Beijing in February to evaluate Beijing's bid to host the 2008 Games.
The IOC votes on the games host in July.
Xinhua declared the five, all from central Henan province, had been "hoodwinked by the evil fallacies of Li Hongzhi," the sect's founder.
"The police on duty were quick to rescue those involved," Xinhua said.
The incidents would have occurred as China's top leaders, including President Jiang Zemin, celebrated the arrival of the lunar new year -- the Year of the Snake -- in the Great Hall of the People on the edge of the square.
Since January 1, China's state media have stepped up attacks against Falun Gong and its founder, a Chinese former clerk who lives in exile in the United States.
Li denies having any political agenda.
But in a January 1 message posted on the group's official Website (www.clearwisdom.net), Li appeared to urge his followers to take more drastic action by telling them they could rightfully go beyond the movement's principle virtue of forbearance.
Until now protesters have rarely resisted detention, arrest or beatings by police and have even expressed sympathy with their captors, citing their belief in forbearance.
The official People's Daily said on Monday Li was inciting his followers to "clash with the Communist Party" and "destroy social stability."
Beijing has accused Falun Gong of being in league with a whole range of dissident forces, including separatists in the western regions of Tibet and Xinjiang, supporters of Taiwan independence and Chinese democracy activists.
Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, preaches a mixture of Taoism, Buddhism and traditional Chinese breathing exercises. It has shocked the Communist Party by its extraordinary persistence and ability to organise mass protests.
The ban on the sect was triggered by an April protest in which 10,000 members surrounded Beijing's leadership compound demanding official recognition of Falun Gong as a religion.
HONG KONG --The Falun Gong spiritual group, banned on the mainland but tolerated in Hong Kong, is selling works by its leader at two market kiosks, amid warnings from Beijing that the city should not be used for "subversion." Pro-Beijing media have stepped up their criticism of the Falun Gong since it staged an international conference in Hong Kong a week ago.
"The group has used the territory to stage anti-state, anti-central government activities. This has escalated into an international and political anti-Chinese subversive tool," the Beijing-backed newspaper Wen Wei Po said in a commentary Monday.
The ominously worded editorial urged Hong Kong's government to keep the territory stable and to avoid being pulled into political turbulence by "stamping out the illegal activities of the Falun Gong."
Central government officials didn't respond immediately to requests for comment, but pro-Beijing newspapers often reflect the stance of the ruling communist party.
Falun Gong remains legal in Hong Kong, which has retained substantial autonomy and civil liberties since Britain returned it to Chinese rule in 1997.
Beijing has warned, however, that those freedoms don't include the right to engage in subversive activities.
"Hong Kong certainly may not become a base for activities against the motherland organized by the Falun Gong," said an article published Monday in the public forum section of another pro-Beijing newspaper, the Ta Kung Pao.
A spokesman for Hong Kong's Security Bureau, Ho Kai-yin, reiterated the government's stance that all groups are allowed to engage in "legal activities."
"If there are illegal activities, our law-enforcement departments will take action," Ho said.
The issue of what constitutes subversion remains a gray area for the territory, which has yet to enact planned legislation against that crime, as well as treason, sedition and theft of state secrets.
The article in Ta Kung Pao branded Falun Gong's book sales at kiosks in two Chinese New Year markets as a way of "wantonly spreading evil ideas, and enlarging its influence."
"Hong Kong Falun Gong members should really think about whether they have crossed a political boundary," said Lau Kong-wah, a lawmaker from the Beijing-aligned Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong.
A local Falun Gong spokesman, Kan Hung-cheung, said the sales of works by founder Li Hongzhi - which are banned in the mainland - were intended to give the public a "positive introduction" to the group and its beliefs.
Falun Gong has attracted millions of followers, most of them in China, with its combination of slow-motion exercises and its philosophy drawn from Taoism, Buddhism and Li's often unorthodox ideas.
The group was also distributing leaflets condemning the Chinese government's campaign against the group, launched a year and a half ago after the communist leadership became unnerved by its popularity and organizational abilities.
BEIJING -- Bracing for Lunar New Year protests by the banned Falun Gong sect, China's government on Monday warned that demonstrators would be punished harshly and urged the group's followers not to sacrifice themselves. Front-page editorials in state newspapers accused Falun Gong founder Li Hongzhi of political ambitions and said his calls to protest the ban were an evil plot to destabilize China.
"Obsessed" Falun Gong followers must realize that an "extremely brutal, extremely evil criminal intent" lies behind the protests, said the Communist Party's flagship newspaper, People's Daily.
Don't become Li's "sacrificial objects," the Beijing Daily said, warning followers that protesting made them "enemies of the people."
"Like a rat crossing the street that everyone shouts out to squash, they willsuffer serious legal sanctions and ultimately receive the shameful fate of failure," the newspaper said.
The warnings are part of an intensifying crusade against the group aimed at deterring protests over the Lunar New Year, China's biggest holiday, which starts Wednesday.
Peaceful protests by followers have become a daily occurrence in Beijing's Tiananmen Square during the 18-month-old ban. Acts of civil disobedience have surged around holidays, marring the 51st anniversary of Communist Party rule on Oct. 1 by forcing police to shut down parts of the square.
Premier Zhu Rongji made a widely publicized appeal to Beijing police on Friday, instructing them to take "strict precautions." He accused Falun Gong of "scheming and inciting its die-hard elements and bewitched followers to make trouble in Beijing," the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
Falun Gong attracted millions of followers in the 1990s with a blend of slow-motion exercises and hybrid philosophy that the group claims promotes health, morality and, among expert practitioners, supernatural powers.
Seeing Falun Gong's popularity as a threat, Chinese leaders banned the group in July 1999 as an evil cult. Official propaganda accuses the sect of leading 1,600 followers to their deaths, mostly by discouraging modern medical treatment or driving them to acts of ecstatic self-destruction.
Thirty sect members in northern Tangshan city attempted suicide last month in response to Li's exhortations to "take the final step," but were discovered and stopped, The Beijing Youth Daily reported. Twelve others jumped from a four-story building in southern Guangdong province, killing one and leaving two others badly injured, the paper said.
A large protest at the start of the Lunar New Year last February surprised police. They kicked and beat protesters, a reaction since repeated at every large-scale peaceful protest by the group.
An unknown number of Falun Gong followers are being held in labor camps without trial, and rights groups say at least 92 have died while in police custody.
China denies mistreating sect members and says it only sends members to labor camps for illegally protesting, not purely for practicing Falun Gong.
BEIJING-- Is that car following us? Excuse the paranoia, but in mainland China it is often justified. After one aborted meeting, a series of coded e-mails and several furtive phone calls, a simple tail will not foil my plans. I change taxis, one of thousands washed by Beijing's winter slush, and my tail, if such it was, passes into the night.
My heart is racing ahead of the secret rendezvous. To avoid my office wiretap, I call only from obscure phone boxes, or on handsets with freshly swapped SIM cards. It feels part 007, part Mission Impossible. But this is no game. I am meeting some enemies of the state, and for them any slipup could mean life or death.
They are prime targets in a very uncivil war the Chinese government is waging against its own citizens. The two-year engagement has claimed more than 100 victims and imprisoned thousands more. Their crime? Refusal to renounce Falun Dafa, also known as Falun Gong, the spiritual movement banned in China as an "evil cult." The rendezvous point is crowded with people, heavily bundled up against freezing temperatures. I am approached by a "bundle of clothes." We drop the right passwords into a brief exchange, and depart silently on foot for a nearby restaurant. Braving the elements and the security forces, seven followers of Falun Gong have gathered there to explain their beliefs, unshaken despite fearful intimidation.
In a private room, we unwrap our masks against the cold. Two members of the group reveal heavy bruising on their faces. All share the hunted look of people who have endured time in jail, and suffer many privations outside.
Five are still on the run from the authorities. Sacked from their jobs, spurned by nervous friends and relatives, they survive on the spiritual sustenance of Falun Dafa, and the physical charity of fellow believers.
At least they HAVE survived. A 46-year-old woman shows off her war wounds, thighs bruised black and blue, but she knows she was lucky. "The policeman folded his belt in three, with the buckle on top, and hit my head and body," she says. "He gripped my neck and kicked my shins. Then he shouted: 'I'm going to kill you, and throw your body away like a dead dog! We'll make it look like a suicide.'" Detained and beaten on four occasions, she is a veteran of the grim struggle between China's Communist Party leaders and the "social cancer" they fear has infected millions of Chinese. Her latest skirmish came in early January. After protesting peacefully against the government ban, she was dragged from Tiananmen Square to a detention center in Shijingshan, located in southwestern Beijing.
"After police hit my head with a handgun, I went on hunger strike for seven days," she recalls. "They wouldn't let me sleep, and put me out in the yard, covered with snow. They threw water over me that turned to ice, but I refused to tell them my name." She had learned better than to reveal her identity and home address in a southern Chinese province. The last time she did so, this woman was quickly returned to a hostile reception at her local police station -- 45 days inside for "disturbing the social order." Defying almost two years of government suppression, the Falun Gong challenge remains the most sustained challenge to the Communist Party during its 51-year rule. Adherents stress apolitical motives, but their frequent forays into China's political heartland reinforce government paranoia that the movement is a "reactionary force" bent on sabotaging socialist China.
Armed only with their faith, Falun Gong protesters have become a bizarre tourist attraction, playing almost daily on the vast plaza in central Beijing, with gala shows on public holidays or anniversaries of the official campaign against the movement. Evading police cordons that stretch back to their home provinces, disciples of Falun Gong founder Li Hongzhi flock to Beijing's Tiananmen Square by bus, train, bicycle or foot.
Their journeys may have taken days, but their protests will last only seconds. Once they assume the lotus position, or other poses from the group's pseudo-Buddhist exercise regimen, the waiting policemen pounce.
Some demonstrators pull out banners proclaiming cherished principles -- truth, compassion, or forbearance -- or scatter leaflets to the same effect, before police beat them and drag them off by their hair. Tourists who can't resist taking a picture will find their film quickly removed from their camera.
There is no shortage of willing martyrs for the cause, and they are learning from bitter experience. On one woman's first protest trip to Beijing in September 1999, it was almost laughably easy for security forces to target these new arrivals, with their unfashionable clothes and earnest belief the government would reconsider its opposition. Her mission was thwarted in a cheap hotel just 10 minutes from the square.
She said: "A policeman asked: 'Do you practice Falun Gong?' We disciples cannot lie, so I said, 'Yes,' and was detained for 'breaking social order.' But I didn't even get to Tiananmen." Last week, she escaped her tormentors in Shijingshan, when police grew exasperated at her lack of cooperation. She was transferred to another district, where she says officers took pity and released her. Now, she sleeps with difficulty, and moves between safe houses with help from a network of believers, communicating through pagers and public phones to avoid detection.
Like others seated around the table, her next protest could label her a "hard-core element," earning her time in a "reform through labor" camp.
Police are entitled to send suspects to such camps for up to three years without trial. "Ringleaders" get 18 years. Human rights organizations estimate that at least 10,000 Falun Gong members are still detained nationwide in labor camps, detention centers or other penal facilities.
Reports suggest overcrowding in Beijing's holding cells, as police are unable to discover where to return their detainees.
There is good reason to fear deportation. If their treatment in Beijing is horrific, away from the capital anything goes. The central government has told local officials that no action is excessive if it stops them from coming to Beijing. Local officials can lose their jobs or promotions if too many people from their area come to the capital.
Human rights organizations have documented more than 100 deaths in custody of Falun Gong believers in recent years. The United Nations has criticized China for specific cases of torture, like the beating to death of Chen Zixiu, a 58-year-old grandmother, in Weifang in east China. Beijing rejects these "false accusations," and maintains all deaths in custody have been either natural or suicides.
Instead, the Chinese government points to more than 1,500 deaths it blames on Li Hongzhi's mystical concepts such as advocating meditation over medicine. "(Li's) books do not prohibit taking medicine," says a member of tonight's group, a former policeman from southwest China. But, we simply don't need it! We cultivate ourselves, do good deeds for other people, and we don't get sick. We save China so much money on medical bills?" The slow motion moves and breathing exercises of Qigong have been a Chinese staple for centuries. The perceived health benefits of Falun Gong, an eclectic blend of Qigong, Buddhism and Taoism, partly explain the group's popular surge in the mid-1990s, particularly among elderly supporters.
The Communist Party denounces the sect's claims as "anti-science" -- the same kind of feudalistic thinking the 1949 revolution was designed to eradicate. For 30 years, the party inspired an often blind faith in Maoism, but the last two decades of cut-throat capitalist reforms have left gaping ideological holes.
China is changing so quickly, explains another follower, formerly a student at elite Qinghua University in Beijing. He said, "People used to help each other, but now they compete all the time. They do everything for themselves and harm others. I lost hope in society." A friend lent him one of Li Hongzhi's tracts in 1997. Within two days, he was hooked. "Every morning, 300 to 400 students and professors practiced Falun Going at nine separate sites on campus. Nobody bothered us," he said.
Until some 10,000 Falun Gong protestors surrounded the Chinese leadership's compound in April 1999. Angered at a series of critical magazine articles, members of Falun Gong were lobbying for retractions and for legal recognition of their movement. The peaceful protest showed breathtaking audacity and organization. It was the largest demonstration since the Beijing Spring a decade earlier.
And it would provoke a similar response. For seven years the government had preferred to ignore the rise of Falun Gong. But it could not condone such insolence at the gates of power. The result was a crack down that continues to this day.
President Jiang Zemin is well aware of the disruptive role popular movements, and their charismatic leaders, have played throughout Chinese history. Last week, the government stepped up its purge of die-hard elements with a mass campaign to collect 1 million signatures denouncing the group.
The petition drive began in universities like Qinghua, alma mater to two of the followers before me. One of them, a 24-year-old graduate whose beliefs condemn him to piecemeal employment, still cannot comprehend the government's reaction. Falun Gong teaches you to eliminate bad thoughts and think only of others, he says.
The government disagrees, especially on the latter claim. Official pressure to renounce the "cult" has forced many followers to make painful decisions. One 36-year-old woman tells of her regret she has not seen her 10-year-old daughter for 18 months, since her husband asked her to choose between Falun Gong and a "normal" family life. He quickly won a divorce.
None of the believers I interviewed would reveal whether protests are planned to disrupt the International Olympic Committee inspection starting Feb. 20. Beijing's brutal response to the civil disobedience of the Falun Gong may jeopardize its dreams of hosting the 2008 Olympics.
BEIJING - China's leadership is increasingly alarmed and divided by the failure of its campaign to destroy the Falungong as it braces for new protests on the eve of the Spring Festival. For 18 months the spiritual movement has weathered an all-out assault, and despite the violent suppression of peaceful protests it still gathers hundreds of followers in Beijing's Tiananmen Square to mark key dates.
Around 1,000 practitioners were detained in the square on New Year's Day, many of whom were severely beaten by police, and the group has again promised to demonstrate during the festival, which begins on Wednesday.
In a surprising admission of failure, China said earlier this month it had been unable to prevent hundreds of Falungong members protesting daily in the square.
The leadership has since begun a new propaganda assault, describing the movement as a "social cancer" in an attempt to dispel the impression abroad it is persecuting religious believers.
"This indicates the government thinks Falungong is getting stronger. Falungong is also getting more intense, they are spreading flyers and other information," said Frank Lu, director of the Information Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Hong Kong.
Since Falungong was banned in July 1999, the centre has chronicled 104 deaths in police custody.
Group leaders have been jailed for up to 18 years, while Lu estimates around 10,000 have been sent to labour camps and 50,000 are detained at any one time.
But rather than buckle under the pressure the group is becoming more defiant.
Li Hongzhi, the former government official who leads the movement from New York, told followers in a New Year message they no longer needed to adhere to the principle of "forbearance" when faced with persecution.
Followers at the New Year's Day protest said they had been inspired to demonstrate by Li's words.
Falungong combines elements of Buddhism and other religions.
Li teaches the cultivation of a wheel of energy inside the belly of each participant which can bring health and spiritual well-being. He also says he can fly and is an alien.
China says the group is an evil cult similar to Japan's Aum sect and blames it for 1,600 deaths caused by followers forsaking medical treatment in line with Li's teachings.
"They thought they would wipe out Falungong in three months but they have failed and Falungong has grown stronger," said Ziang Erping, one of the movement's US-based spokesmen.
"There is a major split within the senior leadership. There are many leaders who are voicing disagreement with the crackdown." The Falungong reserves particular vitriol for President Jiang Zemin -- its websites carry scores of articles vilifying him as a vicious criminal -- and analysts agree his credibility is in the firing line.
"Jiang bears the major responsibility for ordering the crackdown," said Professor Lau Siu-kai of the Chinese University in Hong Kong.
"The move has not borne fruit and Jiang has pushed the government into a corner. With hindsight it looks rash and over-confident, particularly as China is trying to rebuild its image in the world," he said.
Lau says the leadership underestimated the strength of the Falungong and its strong support base within the Communist Party and the military.
Many party and military veterans were appalled when Yu Changxin, a former air force general in his 70s, was jailed for 17 years after he was accused of being a key leader.
The stakes for the president are high -- there is a damaging power struggle within the Communist Party ahead of next year's party congress when all the key leadership positions are due to change.
Jiang in theory has to retire from his posts as president and party secretary, but he is trying to hang onto power as supreme leader in much the same way as former leader Deng Xiaoping did for many years.
Factions in government believe the violent suppression of protests are hurting China's image just as it battles to overcome the damaging legacy of the military's crushing of the 1989 pro-democracy movement.
Frank Lu says the crackdown does not have strong support within the leadership.
"Jiang can't back down. It involves his power. He's afraid if he gives them a little breathing space, he'll look weak in front of the party and not strong enough to keep being a top leader," he said.
All the signs point to a bigger confrontation.
Luo Gan, a politburo member who has directed the 18-month crackdown, said this week there would be no let-up and he demanded increased vigilance over the holiday to smash new protests.
BEIJING - Chinese leaders told U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan that China aims to ratify a key international human rights pact in the next 2 1/2 months, Annan's spokeswoman said Monday.
News of China's plans comes as the government seeks to keep human rights abuses from sinking Beijing's bid to host the 2008 Olympics. It also precedes the annual meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Commission, where China wages a yearly battle to avoid scrutiny of its civil liberties' record.
During three days of meetings that ended Monday, Chinese officials clarified a timetable for ratifying the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, said Annan's spokeswoman, Marie Okabe.
The officials told Annan that the covenant ``might be or would be ratified during the first quarter by the parliament, and possibly in March,'' Okabe said. ``He was reassured of that and welcomed that.''
U.N. officials, foreign governments and human rights groups have long urged China to ratify the treaty, which it signed in 1997. China also has yet to ratify another key pact, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which it signed in 1998.
Together, the covenants lay down guarantees for civil liberties whose frequent neglect in China have drawn criticism from rights groups worldwide.
One alleged target of recent human rights abuses has been the banned Falun Gong meditation sect. On Monday, China's government braced for Lunar New Year protests by Falun Gong followers, warning in state media that demonstrators would be punished harshly as ``enemies of the people.''
``Like a rat crossing the street that everyone shouts out to squash, they will suffer serious legal sanctions and ultimately receive the shameful fate of failure,'' the Beijing Daily newspaper said.
Front-page editorials in state newspapers accused Falun Gong founder Li Hongzhi of political ambitions and said his calls to protest the ban were an evil plot to destabilize China.
``Obsessed'' Falun Gong followers must realize that an ``extremely brutal, extremely evil criminal intent'' lies behind the protests, said the Communist Party's flagship newspaper, People's Daily.
Okabe said there was less reported progress on the political rights treaty, though Chinese officials told Annan that work on the pact was continuing.
China is keenly aware that its image as a human rights transgressor helped doom Beijing's bid in 1993 to host the 2000 Olympics.
With International Olympic Committee inspectors due in Beijing next month, China's persecuted dissident community has urged the government to free political prisoners. The Olympic committee will choose the host city in July.
Ratification of the pact in March could also boost China's position at the annual meeting of the 53-nation U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva, which opens March 19. For most of the past decade, China has expended successful but embarrassing efforts to fend off censure of its rights record.
Annan capped his trip with a meeting Monday with Chinese President Jiang Zemin.
In particular, Annan said he sought help from Beijing for U.N. peacekeeping operations. China's participation in peacekeeping has been limited despite its 2.5-million-member army, and Annan said he mentioned several areas where Beijing could help.
The official Xinhua News Agency reported Jiang as saying that China ``is satisfied'' with Annan's work - a possible boost for Annan should he seek a second five-year term as secretary general at year's end.
``The Chinese government will continue to support him,'' Jiang was quoted as saying.
BEIJING - Chinese state media attacked the Falun Gong spiritual movement on Monday as police were put on alert for protests by adherents ahead of the Chinese New Year.
With tens of millions of people travelling to join their families for the Lunar New Year on Wednesday, State Councilor Luo Gan, China's top official in charge of security, urged police to be on the lookout for threats to order, Xinhua news agency said.
Hong Kong's Economic Times newspaper reported Premier Zhu Rongji had decreed that preventing holiday protests by Falun Gong was the country's top task. A cabinet spokesman, however, denied knowledge of any such order.
In Tiananmen Square, Beijing's political heart and the stage for almost daily protests by Falun Gong adherents since the Communist Party banned the group in July 1999, several police vans were on stand-by as workers cleared packed snow and ice.
Beijing is keen to avoid a repeat of last Chinese New Year, when thousands of Falun Gong adherents swarmed Tiananmen Square to protest against the crackdown and pictures of police kicking and pummelling elderly believers were broadcast around the world.
China's handling of the peaceful protests faces special scrutiny this year with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) due in Beijing in February to evaluate Beijing's bid to host the 2008 Games.
FRESH ANTI-SECT CAMPAIGN
Human rights groups say Chinese police have tortured scores of followers to death in the drive to crush Falun Gong. Some Western critics of China's human rights record -- and at least one IOC member -- have come out in opposition to Beijing's bid.
But what outsiders see as police brutality unbefitting an Olympic host, China sees as action necessary to maintain stability and to exterminate what it calls an "evil cult " that has cheated and brainwashed followers.
On Sunday, Luo praised Beijing police working to crush the spiritual movement for "not fearing fatigue, keeping up the fight and resolutely smashing Falun Gong's efforts to use major events and holidays to make trouble," Xinhua said.
And the People's Daily, the Communist Party organ, carried eight separate anti-Falun Gong reports or commentaries on Monday in the latest sign Beijing is heating up its attacks on the sect.
Most reports detailed state-led campaigns in provinces, schools and among professional groups denouncing Falun Gong.
One report said one million people in the eastern province of Fujian signed a petition vowing to "root out the evil cult."
"The cult leader Li Hongzhi and his Falun Gong also defy laws and endanger people's lives and minds," it said, referring to the group's founder, who lives in exile in the United States.
A People's Daily commentary said Li was inciting his followers to "clash with the Communist Party ... destroy social stability and economic construction, and curry favour with foreign enemies of China."
Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, preaches a mixture of Taoism, Buddhism and traditional Chinese breathing exercises. It has shocked the Communist Party by its extraordinary persistence and ability to organise mass protests.
China banned Falun Gong in July 1999, calling it an "evil cult." Beijing accuses the movement of causing as many as 1,600 deaths among practitioners, mostly because it discourages medical treatment in favour of meditation and spiritual exercises.
The group says some 50,000 members have been detained and many sent to labour camps without trial since it was banned.
The Hong Kong-based Information Centre for Human Rights and Democracy says at least 98 adherents have died in detention in mainland China, many of them beaten to death by police in their home provinces after being caught at Tiananmen and sent home.
Beijing has acknowledged several deaths in custody but said most resulted from suicide or illness.
A Canadian-Chinese follower of the banned Falun Gong movement who was released from a labour camp in China last week said yesterday he had been repeatedly tortured and feared he would die. Sculpture professor Zhang Kunlun, unexpectedly freed less than two months into a three-year sentence, said Shandong police tortured him with electric shocks when he was arrested in July.
"They threatened me, saying 'If you shout we will shock your mouth'. My arms, legs and body were burned in many spots from the electricity. You could smell the burning skin," said Professor Zhang, 60, who returned to Canada on Monday. "My left leg was badly injured. I could not walk properly. It took over three months to heal."
Professor Zhang, who denied Beijing's claim that he had renounced Falun Gong before being freed, said the police had told him they could do what they wanted. He quoted one officer as telling him: "If you were beaten to death we could simply bury you and tell the outside world you had committed suicide."
Professor Zhang's release eased tensions between Ottawa and Beijing less than a month before a major Canadian trade mission is due to tour China.
Xinhua had said that Professor Zhang was released because of "his good behaviour and sincere repentance". It denied he was tortured and said he thanked his captors for treating him well.
What Is Falun Gong? See "Falun Gong 101", by Massimo Introvigne
FALUN GONG UPDATES
[Home Page] [Cos'è il CESNUR] [Biblioteca del CESNUR] [Testi e documenti] [Libri] [Convegni]
[Home Page] [About CESNUR] [CESNUR Library] [Texts & Documents] [Book Reviews] [Conferences]