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Wednesday, July 21, 1999 Published at 18:15 GMT 19:15 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Cult defies Chinese leadership

About 400 protesters sit outside Shanghai's city hall

Thousands of members of the quasi-religious Falun Gong sect have besieged government offices in on-going protests in at least six Chinese cities.

BBC's James Miles hears that Falun Gong had been expecting a crackdown
Police rounded up more than 1,000 people - mostly elderly men and middle-aged women suspected of belonging to the sect - and took them in buses to two stadiums on the outskirts of Beijing.

Supporters of the sect, which is believed to have several million members across the country, began to march to Zhongnanhai, the government leadership compound in Beijing on Wednesday.

[ image:  ]
But hundreds of uniformed and plainclothes police prevented them from staging a sit-down protest similar to one in April, in which 10,000 followers alarmed the authorities by demanding official status for the group.

The protests began late on Tuesday, after the organisation announced that at least 70 of its leaders had been arrested in a nationwide operation.

BBC Beijing Corespondent James Miles says the authorities appear to be giving a final push to suppress the cult once and for all.

Mobilising on the Internet

In a letter posted on Falun Gong's US Website, Falun Dafa, the group appealed to members to "protect" the sect by organising, explaining their aims to officials and demanding the release of detained members.

About 10,000 members protested at the government headquarters of the southern province of Guangdong on Wednesday, witnesses said.

In Shanghai, a few hundred members of the sect staged a peaceful sit-in at People's Square in the centre of the city. Witnesses said they left voluntarily without incident.

In the southern town of Shenzhen, about 1,000 sect members protested outside city hall, a witness said.

Movement alarms government

Falun Gong, which practices meditation and preaches a mixture of Buddhist and Taoist philosophies, has been the fastest-growing religious movement in China in recent years.

[ image: A massive silent protest in April unsettled the Beijing government]
A massive silent protest in April unsettled the Beijing government
The sect was founded on 1992 by a former state grain bureau clerk, Li Hongzhi, who now lives in the United States.

The group itself estimates that it has 100 million followers - a claim that has alarmed the Communist Party, which has 60 million members.

Chinese authorities said in a televised address in mid-June that Falun Gong members could practise their faith, but warned them against spreading rumours or inciting differences.

Members of Falun Gong say they are not an organised religion.

"A religious group has an organised structure, temples or churches and special rituals. We have none of that," said one member.

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