The confrontation between the Falun Gong and the Chinese government has reached a new level, Beijing declaring 18-months after it banned the sect that poses a “serious threat”.
The official People’s Daily published complaints yesterday that “Falun Gong addicts” had “spoiled the festive air of the Chinese New Year” by staging a suicide protest last week in Tiananmen Square. It said the sect posed a serious threat to social order and ethics.
The Falun Gong organisation abroad has denied any connection with the incident, in which one person died. But there is evidence that some members have interpreted an ambiguous New Year message from the sect’s founder as sanctioning more extreme forms of action.
Meanwhile Beijing has announced plans to set up urban anti-riot squads, admitting that it is ill-prepared to deal with social unrest. The plan provides for at least 300 specially trained officers in Beijing, and of 200 or more in provincial capitals.
The Chinese press reported the formation of an “anti-cult association”, apparently set up by disaffected former members. Beijing has started a mass signature campaign against the movement.
The struggle with the Falun Gong has complicated relations with the Bush administration. Last week the US state department condemned China’s “crackdown” on the sect. Rejecting such “interference in China’s internal affairs”, Beijing said the arrests of Falun Gong protesters were justified. “Any government with a sense of responsibility will not adopt a laissez-faire policy on such an evil cult,” the spokesman said.
The Falun Gong’s spiritual “master”, Li Hongzhi, insists that his movement has no political ambitions. But the Falun Gong’s overseas website and other publicity now give prominence to US criticism of Beijing.
Mr Li has confused his supporters by warning in his New Year message that the “forbearance” taught by Buddha “does not mean tolerating evil beings”. He said the “law” he propounded did not justify “ignoring terrible crimes”. If the evil went too far, “then various measures at different levels can be used to stop it and eradicate it”.
Ten days later the Falun Gong centre in the US issued a clarification admitting that “certain disciples had some extreme interpretations” of Mr Li’s message, and that some people thought that “we are going to resort to violence”.
Erping Zhang, its spokesman, said Mr Li meant it was time to “bring the truth to light” about China’s atrocities.
“If we are being silent about [Beijing’s alleged lies], it would amount to agreeing with such fabrications and brutality … But the Falun Gong always believed in peaceful and non-violent means to make all of our public appeals.”
The Falun Gong has denied that the attempted self-immolation by five people in Tiananmen Square had anything to do with its members, and it published a complaint to CNN, whose Beijing reporter said that four of the five were seen in flames with their hands held up “in a classic Falun Gong meditation pose”.
But some observers believe it is possible that the five were driven by desperation – and confusion about Mr Li’s “new scripture” – to attempt suicide.
While there is considerable evidence of brutality in Beijing’s efforts to repress peaceful protest, Mr Li’s own motives for encouraging his supporters to risk their lives are far from clear.
Beijing rejects claims that Falun Gong members are being tortured and killed, but says it needs to “act resolutely” against the group’s leaders.