China stepped up its crackdown today against the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, which protested in silence for a sixth consecutive day, by passing a law that opens the way for death sentences for group leaders.
Police hauled away several dozen protesters as hundreds of tourists enjoying a bright autumn day on Tiananmen Square looked on. There apparently was no repeat of Thursday's violence when police beat, kicked, bloodied and yanked the hair of several elderly protesters.
By a unanimous vote, the 114-member executive committee of the National People's Congress ruled that leaders of religious cults may be prosecuted for murder and endangering national security--two of China's most serious crimes. The government characterized Falun Gong as a "cult" on Thursday, asserting that 1,400 people have died as a result of their involvement in the Buddhist-like spiritual movement. The government charges that most those deaths were a result of Falun Gong encouraging its followers to stop going to the doctor--a charge denied by Li Hongzhi, Falun Gong's leader, who is based in the New York borough of Queens.
"The decision says that courts, prosecutors, police and administrative judicial organs must be on full alert for cult activities and smash them rigorously in accordance with the law," the official New China News Agency reported. In a sign of the government's willingness to impose the harshest possible measures on movement leaders, the news agency mentioned the case of Liu Jiaguo, the leader of a popular group called Principal God in Hunan province. Liu was charged with raping 11 women and executed.
Today's vote marked another step in China's troubled campaign to suppress the Falun Gong movement--which preaches conventional morality and believes its practice is beneficial to the body's qi, or fundamental energy. The suppression campaign began on July 22 and has dominated China's state-controlled airwaves and newspapers ever since.
The persistent protests and the fact that thousands of Falun Gong followers have come to Beijing in recent weeks to oppose the ban are signs that the government is having difficulty crushing the movement. More than 3,000 people have been arrested in Beijing in the last month, and the Beijing Morning Post reported today that police discovered 201 Falun Gong practitioners living illegally in rented rooms in the city during a mid-October sweep.
The crackdown's difficulty apparently stems from two sources. First, after 20 years of economic reforms and unprecedented personal freedom, Chinese people are much less easily cowed by government dictates than before. Second, because of widespread corruption and a crisis in its own values, the Communist Party simply isn't as effective as it used to be at smashing organizations such as Falun Gong, especially when they do not appear to challenge the state directly.
In an attempt to convince Communist Party faithful that Falun Gong constitutes a clear and present danger to China's national security, the New China News Agency quoted Chinese legislators as saying the movement's challenge to the party is "unprecedented in the 50-year history of the People's Republic in terms of the size of its organization, its influence, number of illegal publications as well as the damages it brought to the society."
CAPTION: Military police usher Falun Gong members into a van in Tiananmen Square, where protests continued for a sixth day.