Beijing, China today defended its 18-month-long, sometimes violent crackdown on the Falun Gong spiritual movement, calling the group a "social cancer" and disclosing that 242 of its leaders have been imprisoned.
In two unusual and sometimes bizarre documents, released just a day after 1,000 Falun Gong practitioners from around the world rallied in Hong Kong against the crackdown, the official New China News Agency said the campaign was supported by "people from all walks of life."
The release was timed to counter claims from Falun Gong practitioners and human rights groups that thousands have been jailed and scores killed during the crackdown, the most extensive such roundup since the suppression of the student-led protests around Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. In an apparent bid to address frequent reports that Beijing was persecuting religious believers, the State Council information office said Falun Gong was a "social cancer."
The Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy contends that as many as 10,000 Falun Gong practitioners are being held in more than 300 labor camps and that 98 sect members have died in police custody. Falun Gong is a movement that combines elements of Buddhism and other religions. It is led by Li Hongzhi, a former low-ranking government functionary who left China in 1995 and settled in the United States. Li, who says he is an alien and can fly, teaches the cultivation of a wheel of energy inside the belly of each participant. Through that cultivation, Li promises health and spiritual well-being.
China says Li misled followers into abandoning medical treatment and blames the sect for 1,600 deaths. In a rare disclosure today, the New China News Agency quoted a government information office spokesman as saying 242 organizers of the sect had been jailed and an unspecified number of "stubborn elements" who had broken laws against illegal demonstrations had been sent to labor reeducation camps.
Most members sent to labor camps took part "many times in disturbances, making trouble and disrupting social order," the spokesman said. None are in camps "purely because they practiced Falun Gong." Authorities offered reduced sentences and early release to some detainees to "educate and save them to the maximum extent," the spokesman said.
The spokesman denied reports on Falun Gong Internet sites that a sect member was killed in Beijing's Tiananmen Square during a Jan. 1 protest by hundreds of practitioners. Chinese officials have previously admitted some practitioners' deaths but attributed them to suicide, natural causes or hunger strikes.
China launched its crackdown against Falun Gong in July 1999, six weeks after 10,000 practitioners surrounded the Communist Party headquarters in central Beijing in a bid to win legal status for the sect.
All indications until today were that the crackdown was personally ordered, overseen and prompted by President Jiang Zemin, who viewed the demonstration at party headquarters from behind the blackened windows of a government car. The statements today contend that the crackdown was triggered by complaints by local authorities and ordinary citizens dating to 1996 -- something that the Chinese government has not said before.
"People from all segments of society and the masses had voiced strong complaints that Falun Gong was destroying families, endangering the physical and spiritual health of followers, threatening social order and illegally raising funds," one statement said.
The release cited articles and news programs that appeared before the crackdown began as proof of support for Falun Gong's suppression. Among them were the work of He Zuoxiu, a physicist who has criticized the sect, and a report on a TV program, "Beijing Express," that accused Falun Gong of excesses. But until late 1999, the government protected Falun Gong and took steps to limit criticism of it.
Although the government lauded He in the statement today, it would not allow him to publish tracts against the group in mainstream publications several years ago. And although it mentioned the Beijing TV report today, the government ordered "Beijing Express" to apologize to the group and arranged for several reporters to be fired from the show when it aired.