Beijing -- China on Saturday blamed the outlawed Falun Gong spiritual group for causing the deaths of 17 followers, just as the group was set to open its annual meeting in Hong Kong.
The official Xinhua news agency quoted the government of northern Inner Mongolia as saying the group had caused the deaths, injured one person, and created mental illnesses in six others in the province.
The provincial government said four of the followers killed themselves, while 13 others died because they were ill but refused to be hospitalized or accept medicine under the Falun Gong doctrine, Xinhua said.
The report could not be independently verified, but Falun Gong spokespeople have insisted the group discourage people from committing suicide and advocates seeking medical treatment when ill. The group says it teaches members how to attain high moral standards and physical well-being through meditation exercises.
Members have claimed the teachings have cured a variety of illnesses without medical help. The Chinese government in the past two weeks has launched a major propaganda offensive against the group, publishing editorials and broadcasting negative reports almost daily in state-run media.
The move is likely an attempt to discourage members from protesting on Tiananmen Square on the day of the Lunar New Year on January 24. The story was also released just as the group was set to open its annual international meeting in Hong Kong on Sunday.
Since China banned the Falun Gong in July 1999, it has sent hundreds of defiant practitioners to prison and thousands to labor camps. According to a human rights group in Hong Kong, 98 have died under suspicious circumstances while in police custody. China considers the group the biggest threat to social stability since the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations.