Beijing -- China appeared to soften the tone of its fierce anti-Falun Gong propaganda campaign on Tuesday, with a Xinhua news agency commentary urging leniency for rank-and-file members who break with the movement.
Xinhua said the majority of followers were "compatriots and brothers and sisters" who should not suffer discrimination after leaving Falun Gong, which China banned as an "evil cult" in 1999.
"Former members of the cult who have woken up must not be looked down upon by their work units, the society or their families," the state agency said.
"Students who were expelled from school for practising Falun Gong should be allowed to return to school," it said.
The commentary said China had helped 98 percent of followers break with the group. Falun Gong had once boasted 60 million members inside China, but the government said it had two million at most. It was not immediately clear if the statement issued late on Tuesday marked a change in policy or merely a shift of rhetoric at a time when China's harsh crackdown on Falun Gong has come under intensified criticism for reported human rights violations.
A delegation of International Olympics Committee inspectors will begin a pivotal four-day survey of Beijing on Wednesday to see if the Chinese capital is fit to host the 2008 Games. China has long maintained that it has punished only Falun Gong leaders who organised a series of protests against the Communist Party in 1999 which triggered the crackdown.
But ordinary followers who have protested on Beijing's Tiananmen Square against the ban have suffered beatings at the hands of police and, in many cases, were stripped of their jobs and state-owned housing, members have said.
Xinhua repeated China's accusation that Western adversaries were behind the homegrown Chinese spiritual movement and vowed to continue battling "stubborn Falun Gong elements."
"The majority of these followers were unaware of the real purpose of the cult leader and unclear about the background and plots of the anti-China forces in the West who are supporting and using Falun Gong," the commentary said.
Xinhua said the anti-Falun Gong campaign targeted "backbone elements, the handful of wire-pullers, plotters and organisers with political motives who want to make trouble, as well as stubborn Falun Gong elements who are continuing their illegal activities."
China ratcheted up its campaign against Falun Gong a month ago, when five purported Falun Gong adherents set themselves afire in Tiananmen Square. One was a 12-year-old girl. One woman, the girl's mother, died.
Falun Gong spokespeople have denied that the five were members of the movement and insisted that suicide ran against its teachings.