Police beat and arrested hundreds of Falun Gong members in Tiananmen Square yesterday, overshadowing National Day celebrations. The protests began about two hours after the official flag-raising ceremony and forced authorities to close the square for about half an hour, despite massive security.
Police detained at least 300 protesters in less than an hour during one of the biggest acts of civil disobedience staged by the group since the Government outlawed it 14 months ago. A US-based Falun Gong activist, in touch with the protesters, claimed that 1,000 sect members had been detained.
More than 100,000 spectators mixed with police and plain-clothes agents to witness National Day celebrations. Military police by the hundreds ringed the square, while hundreds more waited in underground walkways. Police began to detain sect members immediately after they emerged from the crowds to raise their yellow banners. A few began the group's characteristic meditative exercises in front of the pole flying the national flag.
Police swooped in and began kicking and punching sect members, but no sooner had one group been subdued than another would appear. One group unfurled a red banner saying "Falun Gong is good" below the huge portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong looking over the square, but plain-clothes officers soon swept from the crowds and wrestled them away.
Officers forced protesters into police mini-vans, packing them so tightly the doors would not shut. Several large city buses were brought in to take away others. Dozens more sat on the square surrounded by security awaiting more vans. A woman carrying a small child was hit by police, while one plain-clothes policeman was seen beating a protester with a broom. Several children were arrested.
One middle-aged woman, blood running from her mouth, briefly escaped a clutch of officers before being grabbed again, slapped around the head and pulled into a van.
Unable to control the protests, police shut off most of Tiananmen for half an hour, an embarrassing act for the Government on National Day. As police cleared the square, a woman sprinted across the open space until police kicked her legs out from under her. Lying on the ground, plain-clothes police kicked her.
A few onlookers applauded as police carried her away. But the violence stunned most of the Chinese tourists - young children, families, businessmen in suits - admiring the floral displays set up in the square for National Day. Some were knocked to the ground as officers chased sect members. Despite the large number of police and soldiers, they were at times overwhelmed by the Falun Gong followers.
The official press largely avoided the protest, with Xinhua saying "some stubborn Falun Gong cult followers who illegally disturbed the public order at Tiananmen Square this morning were taken away by the local police". The protests showed Falun Gong devotees remain unbowed despite police harassment and a smear campaign in state media in China. Police have detained thousands of followers and several senior organisers have been sentenced to prison terms of up to 18 years.
The Government considers the group, which combines martial arts, Buddhism and the moral teachings of leader Li Hongzhi, the biggest threat to its rule since the 1989 student demonstrations.
The group jolted the Government in April last year by assembling 10,000 followers around Communist Party headquarters to protest against arrests of its members.
In Hong Kong yesterday, about 200 Falun Gong members demonstrated outside the Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai, where official National Day celebrations were held. The members gathered there at about 5pm, went through slow-motion exercises and then sat quietly meditating. They displayed banners and urged the Chinese Government to stop persecution of sect members in China.
Kan Hung-cheung, the spokesman for the sect in Hong Kong, said more crackdowns would follow. "I've heard that the Ministry of Public Security in China had held secret meetings and planned to crack down on Falun Gong in three months," he said.