As Chinese police bundled at least a dozen protesters away from Tiananmen Square today, China's top religious affairs official said that social strains caused by China's economic reforms helped swell the ranks of the banned Falun Gong movement, although he vowed that the group would "vanish" soon.
Ye Xiaowen, head of the State Administration of Religious Affairs, also defended China's harsh crackdown on the Buddhist-like exercise and meditation organization, denying that the suppression constituted a violation of human rights.
"Only when you crack down on what is wrong," he said, "can you encourage what is right."
Ye spoke to reporters as small protests against China's ban on Falun Gong continued in Beijing. At least a dozen practitioners gathered on Tiananmen Square, which bristled with police as China welcomed German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to the capital.
According to witnesses, the protesters, mostly dressed in the slightly shabby clothes of China's working class, milled around the square. Police approached them, asked if they were practitioners and then escorted them into a waiting van. Witnesses reported no repeat of the hair pulling and pushing that had marked previous police encounters with the mostly elderly demonstrators. So far, two people are reported to have died in police custody during the crackdown.
China banned Falun Gong on July 22, almost three months after 10,000 followers materialized without warning around the headquarters of the Communist Party in Beijing to demand peacefully that the government legalize the group. Instead, Beijing charged Falun Gong with responsibility for the deaths of 1,400 people--many of whom died because they had stopped taking medication. Falun Gong's U.S.-based founder, Li Hongzhi, has admonished his followers in the past to forgo traditional medical treatments, arguing that true practitioners did not need drugs.
Last week, the government announced that it had determined that Falun Gong was a cult. China's parliament then passed a law banning cults and raising the possibility that some of the cult's leaders could be charged with a capital crime.
Ye said the group constituted a threat to China's security.
"Our government is a people's government," he said. "Any threat to the people and to society is a threat to the party and the government."
So far, several senior Falun Gong leaders have been arrested and charged with crimes. Ye intimated that those people probably will not face the death penalty.
Li Bin, a government spokesman, declined to say how many protesters have been detained in Beijing since the demonstrations began on Sept. 30. A Beijing-based scholar with close ties to the government put the figure at more than 3,000 detained on Tiananmen Square, in safe houses and hotels around the city and in the government's complaints bureau in west Beijing.
Ye said the one lesson for the government in the crackdown is that "we should have outlawed it earlier.
"It took time for people to recognize the dangerous nature of this cult," he said. Indeed, numerous Communist Party members, including Chinese security officials, practiced Falun Gong before it was banned.
Chinese analysts have said that a significant reason for the growth of Falun Gong, which is believed to have about 10 million practitioners nationwide, is a spiritual crisis that has swept through Chinese society. Twenty years of economic reforms that followed 10 years of ultra-radical Maoism during the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution have skewed the moral compass of Chinese society--an observation Ye was willing, in part, to agree with.
"There are people who aren't used to the speed in which China has changed," he said. "They feel upset and disoriented. I do not deny there are such people. . . . so some cults like Falun Gong have emerged to attract them."