More than 10,000 Chinese followers of a cult-like figure who lives in the United States massed on the streets outside the Communist Party headquarters today in the largest, and most unusual, protest since the student-led demonstrations rocked Beijing in 1989.

Clutching the writings of Chinese martial arts master Li Hongzhi, the protesters entered Beijing in the pre-dawn hours in buses and flooded the streets around the Zhongnanhai compound. There they sat almost silently -- five or six deep on the sidewalk, many of them meditating -- throughout the day as their leaders negotiated with government officials. Scores of police looked on.

The protesters were demanding the government take action against a Chinese magazine that last week published an article critical of the cult called "Falun Gong." Followers of Li, who lives in New York, said they were concerned that the article, which argued that Falun should not be practiced by young people, was the government's first step toward banning the cult -- which involves group meditation, exercise and spiritual training. They also said they wanted the government to recognize the sect, granting it legal status.

Today's protest underscored Chinese leaders' fears of unrest in the weeks before the 10th anniversary of the June 4 bloody crackdown at Tiananmen Square. Demonstrations have become commonplace in China as a restive population -- concerned about corruption and unemployment -- appears increasingly willing to take to the streets to press its demands.

The protesters dispersed late tonight after organizers assured them that the Chinese cabinet would negotiate with them Monday. The government had no comment on the protests, which went unreported by China's official media.

"This was an apolitical protest but it also is a very political act," said one senior Chinese academic who has written extensively about China's growing number of cults. "By moving 12,000 people into the center of Beijing, this group was making a very strong statement. By picking this time to move these people, so near to June 4th, the statement had that much more power."

The protest also illustrates a new set of challenges facing the Communist Party, which traditionally has been bedeviled by Western-oriented democracy groups. Cults and religions have proliferated in China, offering a spiritual anchor amid economic and social upheaval. Controling these groups is a huge problem for the party, as shown by the fact that without warning more than 10,000 people surrounded the red-walled party headquarters today.

Indeed, security services in the past six months have cracked down against attempts to form China's first opposition party, a movement of less than 200 people. But tens of millions are believed to be Falun practitioners in China.

Today's protest was meticulously organized. Throughout the day, as protesters squatted in orderly rows, ate Popsicles and nibbled on fruit, others collected wrappers and apple cores to prevent littering.

The Falun protests began last week in the coastal metropolis of Tianjin, 90 miles east of China's capital. There, thousands of Falun followers protested in front of the offices of the Youth Science and Technology Reader and the city government, demanding that the monthly's editors apologize for the article. The magazine refused.

When the protesters tried to surround Tianjin's city hall, police dispersed them, using what one source called "tough tactics." No one was seriously injured, he added, but dozens of people were arrested and the group decided to take its protest to Beijing.

Protesters said they received calls Saturday from local cult leaders and some arrived in the city at 4:30 a.m. Others came from as far away as Zhejiang province, 800 miles south of Beijing.

Falun Gong, or the law of the revolving wheel, advertises itself as "an advanced system of cultivation and practice" -- incorporating elements from the Chinese martial art t'ai chi ch'uan, Buddhism and Daoism. As such, it's a kind of New Age movement with Chinese characteristics. By cultivating an "orb" of energy around the stomach, the theory goes, disease can be cured and spiritual rapture achieved.

Practitioners rejected the charge that they belong to a sect.

"It's not like a sect or a religion. It is not even registered. No money is involved. It is not extremist. It teaches people to be good citizens. Cults and sects have negative connotations," said Zhang Erping, a follower in the United States who runs a translation business in the New York borough of Queens.

Li began preaching Falun Gong in China in 1992, during one of the high-points of a craze here for Qigong, a type of martial art that emphasizes breathing exercises and the concentration of the body's energy in certain places, like the fingertips or the eyes. His sect quickly became popular. The exercises are relatively simple, and he emphasized that anyone could participate.

Li moved to the United States and gave his first seminar in Houston on Oct. 12, 1996, the date of a partial solar eclipse. Since then he generally has picked celestially significant days for his teachings -- often to crowds of thousands. Li's writings have been translated into seven languages; Falun organizations are active around the world and in 18 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. More than 80 Web sites are devoted to the practice.

She Qingsheng, 26, a physician from Beijing who was at today's protest, said Falun is a good way to address the problems in Chinese society and the world, from drugs to the war in Yugoslavia. He said that China's ultra-radical Cultural Revolution destroyed traditional values, creating a moral vacuum.

People need something to believe in, he said, "like Christianity in your country," although he stressed that he did not believe Falun was a religion.

"Why did so many people come today?" he said. "It's a problem of the social system, and a problem of recognition."

CAPTION: Hundreds of Chinese stand on a bridge near the headquarters of the Communist Party, protesting a magazine article critical of Falun Gong.

CAPTION: The protest outside the Zhongnanhai compound was the largest in Beijing since the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy demonstrations were crushed nearly 10 years ago.

CAPTION: Chinese sit on a sidewalk during the silent protest in support of Falun Gong, a blend of meditation and martial arts developed by Li Hongzhi.