Falun Gong Manages Skimpy Rally; Is Sect Fading?

The New York Times/July 23, 2001
By Craig S. Smith

Beijing -- A handful of members of the spiritual movement Falun Gong marked the second anniversary of China's ban on the group by trying to protest in Tiananmen Square.

The police quickly subdued all of the protesters, including one woman who sat briefly in a meditating pose and two women who briefly unfurled a yellow banner before being hauled into one of the white police vans that are now stationed around the clock on the square.

But the absence of larger numbers of protesters on such an important anniversary for Falun Gong's struggle in China suggests that the government's campaign to eradicate the movement is making progress. For the first six months after the start of the crackdown, protests on the square were a daily occurrence and concentrated protests marked many of the dates considered important by the group.

Since the beginning of the year, though, the government has stopped releasing the protesters it picks up on the square, steering them instead into detention until they recant their beliefs or are transferred to labor camps. More than 6,000 followers have been picked up so far this year, according to He Zuoxiu, a physicist and outspoken critic of the group. The strategy has taken the most active members out of circulation.

Nonetheless, the government concedes that the Falun Gong movement is likely to persist and has not relaxed its intense propaganda campaign against the spiritual discipline, founded by a former government clerk who now lives in the United States.

The government's latest effort is an anticult exhibition at Beijing's national military museum. Falun Gong takes center stage among presentations about such groups as David Koresh's Branch Davidians, Jim Jones's People's Temple and Shoko Asahara's Aum Shinrikyo, which was responsible for a nerve gas attack in Tokyo's subway in 1995.

The exhibition features graphic photographs of people the government says killed themselves or others after becoming disoriented by Falun Gong's teachings. Its presentation of Falun Gong focuses on the U.F.O.'s and aliens incorporated in the discipline's belief system and on the Falun, or Dharma Wheel, that followers believe the movement's founder, Li Hongzhi, installs in their abdomens.

State news media today showed pictures of a group of more than 100 former Falun Gong followers visiting the exhibition on Saturday and praising the government for saving them.

Only groups are admitted to the exhibition, an apparent security measure to prevent individual Falun Gong followers from entering the museum and staging a protest there.

On Friday, five Falun Gong followers were put on trial for their suspected role in a group suicide attempt in which five followers set themselves on fire on Tiananmen Square in January. Two people died in the episode.

Falun Gong followers in the United States have denied that the five people who set themselves on fire were members of the movement, although many followers in China believe otherwise. Mr. Li, the founder, has remained silent on the suicides.

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