BEIJING -- Shocked by throngs of meditating protesters on their front door, Chinese leaders are preparing a methodical campaign to discredit and rein in the martial arts sect they now see as a threat to Communist Party power.
President Jiang Zemin has formed a high-level task force to monitor the group, and government operatives have started taking names and infiltrating the sect, Chinese sources inside and outside the party said.
The swift preparations underscore how rattled senior leaders were by the sudden sight of thousands of silent practitioners of Falun Gong, the Wheel of Law, outside party headquarters on April 25. At once, the group was transformed from an obscure school of Yoga-like exercises and meditation into a challenge to the communist hold on China's future.
During the daylong protest, the devotees sat on the sidewalks around the dark red-walled Zhongnanhai. At a late-night meeting with Premier Zhu Rongji, demonstrators suggested that they, not communism, could save China, said a party source who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"I'm an atheist," the source quoted Zhu as saying. "You can't force me to believe your teachings."
It was the largest demonstration in Beijing -- internal police estimates put the crowd at 30,000 -- since the military crushed student-led democracy protests on Tiananmen Square 10 years ago, and it came six weeks before the sensitive anniversary of the crackdown. On top of that, the protesters surrounded Zhongnanhai, something the students of 1989 did not dare.
Unnerved by their brazenness, Jiang wrote a seething directive chiding security agencies and provincial leaders for being caught unaware and undermining a five-month clampdown on dissent to ensure peace this year.
"We called for 'stability above all' but our stability has fallen through," the party source quoted Jiang's letter as saying. "Our leaders must wake up."
The Wheel of Law has been considered politically neutral. It is one of the many forms of qigong, a blend of Buddhist and Taoist ideas and slow martial-arts exercise that channel unseen forces to benefit health and clear the mind.
The Wheel of Law has become one of qigong's most popular schools since it was founded in 1992 by Li Hongzhi, an ex-soldier who has since left China for the United States. The Chinese government estimates its devotees number 10 million to 70 million.
Wheel of Law followers state total faith in "Master Li" and are convinced practicing his teachings makes people healthier and more moral citizens. His lectures hint of dark forces at work in the universe and suggest expert practice brings clairvoyance and other supernatural powers.
After a magazine article by an eminent scientist warned Chinese youths to stay away from the Wheel of Law, followers thought their practice was under threat. They converged on Beijing from several provinces to demand legal protection for the Wheel of Law.
But the party source contends their demands went far beyond that: The small group of demonstrators who confronted Zhu wanted state media coverage of their teachings and special meeting areas -- privileges granted only to party-approved groups.
Organizers of Wheel of Law activities in Beijing reached by telephone declined comment on the Zhu meeting or the demands. One said all participants in the meeting had left the capital.
Party leaders are convinced by the demonstration that the group is disciplined and well-organized, despite its claims to have no hierarchy. In their eyes, the Wheel of Law verges on the semi-religious secret societies that sought to overthrow unjust emperors.
Leaders will have to move carefully against the group. Unlike the cults they dealt with ruthlessly in the past, the Wheel of Law is prominent in big cities -- where unemployed workers are already angry with government policies, said Wang Shan, an author and political commentator.
A special task force headed by Vice President Hu Jintao and Luo Gan, the party's senior law-and-order official, is coordinating strategy against the Wheel of Law, the party source said.
Officials ordered qigong practitioners and masters to register with authorities in the early 1990s, said Nancy Chen, an anthropologist at the University of California at Santa Cruz. One Beijing resident said police have already started doing so in a village on the city's outskirts.
State media are likely to begin publicizing stories to show the dangers of the Wheel of Law. According to the source, one says that a female devotee in northeastern Chaoyang city jumped to her death from a building, shouting Li Hongzhi's name.