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Thursday, July 22, 1999 Published at 23:07 GMT 00:07 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

US condemns Chinese sect ban

"Communist Party members not allowed to practise Falun Gong"

The United States has criticised China's decision to ban the quasi-religious Falun Gong sect, describing the move as "heavy-handed tactics".

David Willis reports: "Punishment awaits those who refuse to severe the links"
The Chinese announcement that the sect was "an illegal organisation" was made on state television.

It followed three days of protests by tens of thousands of followers in some 30 cities after the detention of the sect's leaders.

The US State Department Spokesman, James Rubin, urged Beijing to allow followers of the movement to express their views in accordance with China's international human rights commitments.

[ image: Tens of thousands of sect members have protested peacefully]
Tens of thousands of sect members have protested peacefully
"We are disturbed by reports of the ban and of some heavy-handed tactics being used to prevent Chinese citizens from exercising internationally-protected fundamental rights and freedoms, particularly the freedom of expression, association and assembly and thought, conscience and religion," Mr Rubin said.

He noted that many of the sect's followers appeared to be middle-aged women and that its demonstrations were peaceful.

But a BBC correspondent in the US capital, Rob Watson, says the criticism was gentle - reflecting Washington's deeper concerns about antagonising Beijing at a time of tension between China and Taiwan.

Government allegations

The Chinese leadership accused the sect of being "engaged in illegal activities, in advocating superstition and spreading fallacies, hoodwinking people, inciting and creating disturbances, and jeopardising social stability".

Li Hongzhi tells the BBC his organisation has no political motives
The BBC's Beijing Correspondent, James Miles, says the authorities are now clearly engaged in a final round-up of top leaders of this organisation - the fastest growing religious movement in Communist China's modern history.

In a sweeping crackdown by police, hundreds of sect supporters have been rounded up and thousands more have been held in stadiums around the country.

But the Hong Kong Government has said the sect will remain legal in its territory "so long as members do not break the law".

Widespread popularity

The Falun Gong movement has gained a following of millions since it was launched just seven years ago.

[ image: Police watch silent Falun Gong protestors in Beijing]
Police watch silent Falun Gong protestors in Beijing
The group itself estimates that it has 100 million followers - a claim that has alarmed the Communist Party, which has 60 million members.

The sect combines aspects of Buddhism and Taoism with a religious devotion to its leader - Master Li Hongzhi, a former state grain bureau clerk who moved to the United States two years ago.

Mr Li told the BBC the organisation had no political motives. He expressed regret at the ban and said he would return to China if the government asked him.

The Chinese Government has condemned Master Li's teachings as "superstition".

James Rubin: "Chinese citizens prevented from exercising freedom of assembly and conscience"
Members of Falun Gong say they are not an organised religion with an organised structure, churches or rituals. Falun Gong members often meet in parks to meditate and do yoga-like exercises.

On Thursday morning, the sect's followers continued to protest on mainland China at official attempts to suppress their movement.

In Beijing, devotees again tried to make their way towards the Communist Party headquarters in the centre of the city.

[ image:  ]
Several hundred of them were seen being put onto buses by police about a kilometre from the party compound and driven away.

With discontent growing over unemployment and stagnating incomes, correspondents say that China's leaders are worried that challenges to their rule could quickly lead to even more widespread protests.

The authorities in Beijing appear determined to avoid a repeat of the sit-in demonstration by more than 10,000 Falun Gong devotees outside the party headquarters in April.

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