BEIJING -- A senior Chinese government official met representatives of the Buddhist Law spiritual sect Monday to deny rumors of an imminent crackdown but also to warn them sternly against upsetting social stability, state television reported Monday night.
The unusual report was clearly intended to caution the sect's millions of ardent followers around the country, mainly retirees and middle-age women who practice the group meditation exercises in public parks every morning.
The fast-growing group, known widely by the name Falun Gong, shocked authorities in April by mustering 10,000 members for a daylong vigil here that called for official recognition, which has not been forthcoming.
In recent weeks, Falun Gong members have been riled by reports that there might be a crackdown and that China was seeking the forced return of their leader from the United States. Members from other provinces who apparently came to Beijing to protest have been detained and then sent home.
In the meeting Monday, an unidentified leader from a joint appeals office of the Communist Party and the State Council, or Cabinet, met with the group to denounce the reports of imminent suppression.
Such reports have been spread by a "small group of people with ulterior motives," the official reportedly said, "in the hope of arousing practitioners of Falun Gong who do not know the truth to join in mass rallies, provoke incidents, stir up chaos and destroy social stability."
The founder and leader of the sect, Li Hongzhi, moved to the United States last year, saying that he feared official harassment. The official's reported statements Monday seemed implicitly to attack Li, whose word is gospel in the sect, as one of those who is spreading dangerous rumors.
In a letter on June 2 posted on the Internet (www.falundafa.org) and in advertisements in Hong Kong newspapers, Li said that his followers were being "treated unjustly" and suggested that China was negotiating with the United States to extradite him in return for a $500 million reduction in China's trade surplus with the United States.
The unusual meeting Monday and the news report reflected the Communist Party's quandary. The party usually keeps control over mass movements and religions and does not allow social groups to be led from abroad.
As announced by Li in 1992, Falun Gong combines elements of the traditional Chinese breathing and meditation exercises of qigong (pronounced CHE-goong), said to have health benefits, with Buddhism and Taoism and Li's mystical ideas. Among other activities, followers are urged to harness cosmic forces rather than to use modern medicines to cure disease.
But the group, although secretive and, in critics' view, a religious cult, preaches upright living, is not overtly political and counts current and former officials among its followers. So far, the authorities have avoided an open confrontation.
"Anyone can practice qigong for health purposes," the official reportedly said at the meeting Monday. "But on no account can anyone promote superstition, spread rumors, engage in sedition, destroy social order or hold mass assemblies that affect social stability using the disciplines of qigong as a pretext."