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Saturday, July 24, 1999 Published at 20:32 GMT 21:32 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Sect leader fears new Tiananmen

Notice of the government ban has been posted across China

The leader of China's Falun Gong religious sect, Master Li Hongzhi, says he is worried the Chinese military might take violent action against his supporters following the banning of the movement earlier this week.

Li Hongzhi speaks exclusively to the BBC's Newsnight: "I have about 100 million followers in China"
And in an exclusive interview with the BBC's Newsnight programme, Master Li urged the Chinese authorities not to use force in dealing with the situation.

"If they do, the consequence will be that the people will lose their faith in the leadership and will not trust the government," he said.

In a statement released to news agencies and on the group's website, Master Li warned there might be bloodshed of the kind witnessed when the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy activists were suppressed ten years ago.

[ image: Li Hongzhi says the group should not be seen as enemies]
Li Hongzhi says the group should not be seen as enemies
He also said that by banning his sect the government risked losing the confidence of 100 million people.

Master Li appealed for dialogue with the Chinese Government and said followers of Falun Gong should not be treated as enemies.

On Saturday 75 minute-long National News Hook-up programme was mainly devoted to criticism of the sect.

There were a total of 33 items broadcast, of which all but two were directly or indirectly about Falun Gong and its suppression.

Meanwhile, the US State Department has accused China of heavy-handedness in its clamping down on the sect and defended the right of its followers to demonstrate peacefully.

Army ordered in

Earlier, China ordered its three million-strong army to take the lead in eliminating the influence of the Falun Gong movement with soldiers told to devote themselves to the struggle against the sect.

[ image: Chinese media has launched a series of attacks on the sect]
Chinese media has launched a series of attacks on the sect
On Thursday, the sect was outlawed by the Chinese authorities, describing it as an organisation that incites disturbances and jeopardises social stability.

The Communist Party leadership has declared its campaign to disband the Falun Gong a serious political struggle that will affect the future of the party and the nation.

However the official party newspaper, the People's Daily, has admitted that membership of the sect has extended into the party and government organisations.

Tiananmen protest

The BBC's James Miles reports from Beijing: Falun Gong followers are being sent back home
In Beijing on Friday, around 200 supporters of the sect were detained by police following a sit-down protest in Tiananmen Square.

The sect supporters were taken away from the city centre in police buses.

A small group of supporters was also removed from an area near the Communist Party compound.

Other sect members arriving in Beijing are being sent back home in convoys of buses.

Rageh Omaar: "Thousands of sect members have been arrested"
State-run television and radio have repeatedly broadcast the government's warnings that Falun Gong is now illegal and that no protests by its members are permitted.

Articles have also accused the sect of misleading and abusing followers, causing some to go mad, commit suicide or murder others.

Officials have warned the cult's millions of members that they face unspecified punishment if they fail to leave the sect.

The ban follows three days of demonstrations in cities across China by thousands of Falun Gong supporters in protest at the detention of 100 sect leaders.

Hong Kong protest

[ image: Silent protest continues in Hong Kong]
Silent protest continues in Hong Kong
Despite the ban in mainland China, Falun Gong members in Hong Kong have been continuing to protest against the ruling after the territory's government declared the group was a legally-registered organisation there.

Some 50 protesters have been holding a silent demonstration outside the official Xinhua news agency complex in the territory.

China said that Hong Kong would decide for itself whether to ban the sect.

Followed by millions

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

David Willis reports: "Punishment awaits those who refuse to sever their links""
The group itself estimates that it has 100 million followers - a claim that has alarmed the Communist Party, which has 60 million members.

BBC Beijing Correspondent James Miles says one of the main reasons behind the crackdown is the party's concern that many members of the avowedly atheist establishment are showing more devotion to the sect than to the Communist leadership itself.

The Falun Gong combines aspects of Buddhism and Taoism with a religious devotion to its leader, Master Li.

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