Thousands of adherents of Falun Gong, a popular spiritual movement drawing on Buddhism and Taoism, have poured into Beijing over the past few weeks--arriving in buses, on trains and by air--to launch a quiet but stubborn challenge to the Chinese government.
In five straight days of silent protests in Tiananmen Square, and in thousands of trips to a small national government office designed to allow citizens to file formal complaints, they have expressed, peacefully but determinedly, their refusal to accept the ruling Communist Party's decision on July 22 to ban Falun Gong and its practice of "truth, compassion and tolerance."
Security forces have responded each day by arresting at least some of the demonstrators as soon as they assemble on the broad square, driving them off in vans. Faced with resistance by some Falun Gong members in today's protests, police got rough, dragging several participants away by their hair.
It is unclear how this confrontation between Chinese security services and a mass movement that is difficult to control will play out. But for now, an intriguing standoff has arisen between the Communist Party, which seems to view Falun Gong as a threat to its hold on power, and the large, loosely organized, somewhat unfocused movement with no clear political aims but with potentially great political significance.
A scholar with close ties to the government said authorities in Beijing have arrested 3,000 Falun Gong practitioners since Sept. 30, when a handful of devotees suddenly appeared on Tiananmen Square and were hustled off by policeman. The scholar said the city government estimates that thousands more practitioners are in Beijing in small guest houses, private homes, on university campuses and in factories with friends, waiting to add their voices to this unusual defiance of a Communist Party decision.
The protests are a clear sign that, despite its ban and a subsequent crackdown, the Communist Party has failed to crush Falun Gong, which is reputed to have a strong but flexible organization and about 10 million adherents throughout China. The protests also underscore the willingness of many followers to endure jail sentences and rough treatment at the hands of police to further their cause.
"It doesn't matter what they do to me," said a man named Richard, who is a university-educated Falun Gong follower and also a member of the Communist Party. "My practice is legal. I never broke the law. My practice has helped me. I really don't know why the government is doing this."
At times the government has appeared desperate to paint Falun Gong followers as political dissidents and thereby turn the campaign into an ideological battle, similar to its movement to suppress the China Democracy Party, something many Chinese can understand. To this end, on Monday it accused a dozen practitioners of trafficking in state secrets.
The crackdown shows that the Communist Party is unwilling to bend on the question of its authority, even though its tough tactics appear not to be working. Many ordinary Chinese now refer to the crackdown as a "little issue made big" and scoff at the government's Cultural Revolution-style propaganda campaign against Falun Gong.
[In another sign of the Chinese government's determination, the top body of China's parliament passed a law Saturday outlawing cults in general and called on the legal system to "smash them rigorously," the official Xinhua news agency reported.]
One Falun Gong practitioner, Zhao Jinghua, died in police custody in Shandong province after officers beat her because she refused to renounce her beliefs, according to a human rights group in Hong Kong and a friend of the woman. A police official in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang confirmed that a second Falun Gong follower died in police custody. Chen Ying, 18, jumped out of a train while being taken from Beijing to her hometown of Jiamusi, the official said, adding that Chen had traveled to the capital "to make trouble."
In a lightning raid tonight, Chinese police struck a sharp blow against the most prominent members of the banned movement, capturing at least six Falun Gong leaders who were attempting to hide in a village on the outskirts of Beijing.
"I love my motherland," said Wang Baogang, 25, a bank teller from the northern city of Changchun who barely escaped the dragnet. "I don't know why they are doing this. Everyone back home knows I am a good person. Our master says we have to take responsibility in society."
Wang and another woman noticed undercover police waiting for them in the courtyard of a farmer's house and fled Fangshan, a county southwest of Beijing where they had been lured with a promise of safety. Wang's wife was one of the six leaders taken into custody.
Also arrested was She Jingsheng, a police officer from the northeastern industrial city of Anshan, who in an interview Wednesday became the first member of China's public security apparatus to openly call for the Chinese government to end its persecution of the exercise and meditation group.
Qu Dehong, another escapee, has been in Beijing since July 22 battling the ban. He has been arrested three times and released. "We wanted our leaders and the public to know," he said. "They said we were a cult. We needed to show them we aren't."
Chinese analysts in Beijing are split about whether the Falun Gong movement poses a serious challenge to the government.
To analysts such as Wang Shan, who runs a private research institution in the capital, Falun Gong is the first mass movement made up mostly of workers and not controlled by the party since the Communist revolution in 1949. As such, he said, Falun Gong reflects a deep-seated opposition among many of China's dispossessed who, over the last few years, have not benefited from economic reforms.
"It represents their alienation from society," he said.
But other analysts, looking to the fact that Falun Gong's leadership is sprinkled with high ranking, retired military officers and party members, said they believe the movement represents a broader challenge to the government.
"Many people, especially older cadres, are bothered by the moral vacuum in China today," said a senior Western diplomat. "With its Chinese roots and its emphasis on clean living, Falun Gong has provided a convenient way to express opposition to the direction the party is taking--toward patronage, corruption and sleaze."
China banned Falun Gong after 10,000 adherents surrounded the Communist Party headquarters in Beijing on April 25. The party says Falun Gong is a dangerous cult and blames it for the deaths of at least 1,400 people. It accuses Falun Gong's leader, Li Hongzhi, a New York-based martial arts master who says he can cure cancer with a jolt from his fingertips, of being a charlatan and a scam artist.
But Falun Gong followers say their practice is beneficial to the body's qi, or fundamental energy. Before the exercise was banned, scores of people in cities throughout China would practice Falun Gong together at sunrise and sunset. With hands held in front of their bellies, they would "spin the wheel of energy" in trancelike movements.