BEIJING -- China warned followers of a cult-like martial arts group on Wednesday that they would be punished if they jeopardized social stability and called their 10,000-strong weekend protest "wrong".
Followers of the Fa Lun Gong sect shocked the leadership and ordinary residents on Sunday when they besieged China's walled Zhongnanhai leaders' compound in the heart of Beijing in the biggest protest in the capital in a decade.
"This kind of gathering affects public order and people's normal life around the headquarters of the Communist Party Central Committee and the State Council and is completely wrong," an official of the cabinet's complaints bureau said.
"Those who damage social stability under the pretext of practicing martial arts will be dealt with in accordance with the law," the official said in an interview with the state news agency Xinhua.
The language was stronger than the kid-glove statement issued by the State Council, or cabinet, on Monday, which called on protesters to air their views through "proper channels".
In the first coverage of the protest by state media, several newspapers and state television carried the interview with Xinhua, but some newspapers relegated it to an inside page.
The Communist Party newspaper, the People's Daily, remained mum for unknown reasons on the peaceful protest Fa Lun Gong members said was called to press for official recognition of their faith. Dozens of uniformed and plainclothes police, wary of a repeat of the sit-in, patrolled the streets around the leadership compound on Wednesday.
Fa Lun Gong was set up in the northeastern city of Changchun in 1993, born out of a form of martial arts known as qigong -- a breathing exercise based on the theory of inner energy.
The sect boasts 100 million followers, mostly the elderly, women and the sick but also including government officials, university professors and students.
One cult researcher and Chinese sources cast doubt over the sect's membership claim. They say the figure is somewhere between five and 15 million. By contrast, the Communist Party has about 60 million members.
Sunday's protest highlighted concerns among the leadership of social unrest in a politically sensitive year, which includes the 10th anniversary of the crackdown on the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests in which hundreds of people were killed.
Unemployment, which has grown as capitalist reforms begin to bite, has fuelled the anxiety.
The Fa Lun Gong show of strength also underlined new threats the authorities face as the old socialist society unravels, leaving ordinary Chinese bewildered and fearful and prey to cults and folk religions that fill a spiritual void.
The sect's charismatic U.S.-based leader, Li Hongzhi, preaches salvation from an immoral world on the brink of destruction. His books, which rail against homosexuality, rock and roll and drugs and blame science for the evil in the world, are banned in China.
Followers are prohibited from consulting doctors when sick. As a result, some have died, while others have become insane from practicing qigong, said the cult researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Sect members practicing qigong at Beijing's Ditan park around dawn said they were unaware Li turned 48 on Wednesday.
Official sources said Premier Zhu Rongji met representatives of the cult briefly on Sunday and referred their demands to the cabinet's complaints bureau.
They said alarmed authorities were checking whether any officials or soldiers took part in Sunday's sit-in.