Chinese police detained more than 35,000 practitioners of the Falun Gong spiritual movement in Beijing alone between July 22--the day the group was banned--and Oct. 30, a human rights organization reported today.
The Hong Kong-based Information Center of Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China reported that the figure was announced here on Friday during a speech to Communist Party stalwarts by Vice Premier Li Lanqing. According to the account, Li described the campaign against Falun Gong as "long term, difficult and complex" and said Falun practitioners were being "stubborn."
If accurate, the account would be the clearest indication to date of the size of efforts to crush Falun Gong's enduring opposition to the government ban. The human rights organization reported having three sources for the contents of Li's speech but did not identify them.
The number of detained people reported in the operation against Falun Gong dwarfs every political campaign in recent years in China except the crackdown on a student-led democracy movement centered on Beijing's Tiananmen Square. An estimated 15,000 people were sent to jail or labor camps within about 50 days of the attack on student demonstrators by China's army on June 4, 1989.
Human rights officials estimated that 2,000 Falun Gong practitioners have been sent to labor camps in the latest crackdown. Four Falun Gong leaders from the southernmost province of Hainan Island have been sentenced to jail terms. About 300 more await sentencing.
Falun Gong has posed an improbable threat to the government since it surfaced as a national phenomenon earlier this year. The group advocates no ideology. It promotes a mix of New Age beliefs, conservative social values and the cultivation of a "wheel" of energy in the belly of each follower. Its leader, Li Hongzhi, a former musician and night watchman, lives in Queens, N.Y. Most of Falun Gong's followers are retired or unemployed. It also appeals to elderly Communist Party officials and scientists, unlikely sources of dissent.
Nevertheless, the anti-Falun Gong campaign has lasted longer than the crackdown following the Tiananmen Square attack. Some officials and scholars, including some early critics of the movement, have spoken out against the crackdown. For example, a respected teacher from the central Chinese city of Chongqing was recently tried for his participation in the movement, sparking a widespread expression of sympathy among his students at the Chongqing Tax Academy, sources said.
According to the Hong Kong-based group, more than 26,000 of those detained in the past four months were seized in Beijing from July 20 to 22, when the government was preparing the order to ban the group. Another peak occurred at the end of October--around the time of the visit of U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to Beijing--when 4,230 people were detained.
The human rights group quoted Li as saying that not a day has gone by since the ban when a Falun Gong practitioner has not been detained in Beijing. Currently, he was cited as saying, about 60 protesters are arrested daily on their way to a government complaints bureau to protest the ban. The great majority of those detained have been released.
Li reportedly added that an arrest was even made during China's National Day celebrations on Oct. 1. The detainee was a student marching from the prestigious Qinghua University who had prepared a banner reading "Falun Dafa," another way of saying Falun Gong. A Chinese source confirmed that incident independently and added that all student marchers were searched three times before they entered the square.
Parts of Li's speech in the Great Hall of the People were published by state-run media, but details on the detentions were not. The government has not given a full accounting of the crackdown, in part because the numbers would confirm Falun Gong's popularity and the fervor of its members. Li's speech was given to 3,000 party officials, including members of the political department of the Chinese army and other Communist Party security organs.
Chinese sources said President Jiang Zemin ordered the crackdown and has supported it from the beginning, but they said his motivation is not completely clear. Some have said Jiang was disturbed when 10,000 Falun Gong practitioners surrounded Communist Party headquarters in Beijing on April 25. Others have said he ordered the suppression when he discovered that close relatives practiced Falun Gong.
The practitioners who have protested the ban mark the first time a concerted campaign of civil disobedience has been carried out since China became communist in 1949. In Beijing, the protests take two forms. One involves sitting in Tiananmen Square and meditating; police drag those people away. The other involves heading toward the government complaints office; police ask complainants if they are Falun Gong members and lead away those who acknowledge membership.
The government estimates that 2 million Chinese follow Falun Gong; other estimates place the number closer to 10 million. At the height of its popularity, the sect was actively promoted by the government and sold 55 million books--all printed on state-run presses.
CAPTION: Police struggle with a Falun Gong practitioner during a protest in Tiananmen Square on Nov. 16 that resulted in the detention of about 20 people.