BEIJING -- More than 150 people have been formally arrested in connection with the government crackdown on the Falun Gong spiritual movement, a government official said Wednesday.
He also acknowledged that Falun Gong followers have had more than 35,000 run-ins with the police in the past five months, the first official public tally of the government's intense effort to damp a stubborn group it has labeled "an evil cult."
But Qian Xiaoqian, a government spokesman, dismissed as a "total fabrication" reports from a human rights group based in Hong Kong that 35,792 Falun Gong practitioners had been detained since the government banned the group in July.
Qian said that number represents "the total number of times individuals who attempted to assemble illegally in public places in Beijing since July were persuaded to leave or were taken away from the site." He said the number of individuals involved was in fact lower because some people repeatedly violated the ban and had to be dispersed again and again.
Falun Gong, founded in 1992 by a former Chinese government clerk who now lives in New York, combines traditional Chinese exercises and meditation with elements of Buddhism and Taoism. Adherents say it enhances both physical and spiritual well-being.
Most run-ins took place in the first three days after the government banned the group in July, forcing the popular movement to go underground. Apparently many people were told by the police to disperse while in public parks, where Falun Gong followers customarily gathered to do their exercises.
But there was a spate of detentions in the last month in Tiananmen Square as well, as supporters from other parts of China and even a few from overseas staged small silent protests in an attempt to win government recognition for their movement.
Chinese practitioners from outside Beijing have generally been sent to their hometowns, where they receive "education" from local authorities, officials here have said.
The number of followers of Falun Gong, an ephemeral group that claims to have no formal organization in a country where the government tightly controls information, is hard to determine.
Earlier this week the Information Center for Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China, which is based in Hong Kong, released statistics from what it called a top secret government report on the group and the effort to eliminate it. The rights group said the report was delivered last Friday to the Standing Committee of the Communist Party Politburo by a senior party official, Li Lanqing.
It quoted Li as saying that 35,792 Falun Gong practitioners had been detained. Most -- 26,003 -- were detained between July 20 and July 22. But according to the center, the report said another 4,230 people were detained during the last week of October.
During that week, members of the National People's Congress were meeting to pass a new anti-cult law. In response, a steady stream of Falun Gong members from all over China straggled into Tiananmen Square, where they sat or performed their exercises in silent protest until they were led away by the police.
On the vast stage of Tiananmen, always crowded with tourists, it was difficult to estimate how many practitioners had actually been taken away. Detentions occurred here and there, sprinkled over the course of any given day. They were quick and generally peaceful, though some of those detained said they had been beaten and otherwise mistreated.
While Qian did not dispute the total number of more than 35,000 people involved, he said it did not represent the number of detentions, which have been far fewer.
Most of the 150-plus Falun Gong practitioners who have been formally charged are awaiting trial on charges of violating the new anti-cult law, which allows for lengthy prison terms.
But another larger group has been sent without trial to "re-education though labor" camps, and others remain in short-term detention, rights groups have said. The Information Center in Hong Kong estimates that there are probably 1,000 followers in labor camps.
Qian did not give any numbers for such groups, although he and other officials have previously insisted that members have not been mistreated by the police.
Although Qian said the outcome of the government's efforts had "been good," it is clear that the group's more devoted members are loath to give up Falun Gong and that many continue to practice at home.
The Hong Kong rights group said Li told the Politboro as much in his report. "The fight against Falun Gong is a long-term, difficult and complicated fight," the center quoted him as saying. "Since July 20 there has not been a single day free from worry."
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