BEIJING -- In a brazen yet benign show of mass protest, more than 10,000 followers of a quasi-religious movement ringed the walled compound housing China's leaders -- the biggest demonstration in the Chinese capital since the 1989 Tiananmen student protests.
The protest, which had little warning, seemed to catch Chinese authorities off guard. Protesters began secretly pouring into the city before dawn and by midday had occupied sidewalks in central Beijing near the off-limits compound for senior leaders next to the Forbidden City.
China's leaders are nervously awaiting the 10th anniversary of the June 4 Tiananmen student protests and have clamped down ruthlessly on political dissidents. But while authorities have focused their worries on unrest among students, democracy activists or labor leaders, the group to defiantly revive memories of Tiananmen turned out to be members of a popular following who did not have political protest in mind at all.
The demonstrators, mostly middle-aged peasants from outlying areas, are followers of Li Hongzhi, a charismatic 47-year-old martial arts expert who teaches his own brand of meditation, exercise and life philosophy called "Falun Gong" -- literally, "Wheel of Law" in Chinese. Li, a Chinese native, now lives in the United States.
Falun Gong is a school of "qigong," a system of healing, martial arts, breathing, yoga-like exercise and beliefs. Followers believe it improves their health. Chinese authorities estimate that there are more than 70 million people who practice Falun Gong. The sect, which claims to have 100 million adherents -- more members than the Communist Party -- is under scrutiny by the government and has yet to be sanctioned as an official school of qigong.
On Sunday, followers were demanding that the government allow them to openly practice their form of qigong. But Chinese authorities fear that it is giving rise to superstition, especially in the countryside. In January, President Jiang Zemin declared war on cults.
In a science journal published in the nearby port city of Tianjin, a government researcher recently criticized Li Hongzhi and his following. In protest, more than 2,000 Falun Gong followers held a sit-in last week outside the magazine's Tianjin offices. Seven leaders were arrested.
Outrage over those detentions sparked the Beijing protest, which attracted people from neighboring Hubei province, as well as farther cities in the northeast. "They wrote about our Falun Gong in such a biased and partial way," said a middle-aged demonstrator. "The researcher wrote about us with malice."
Sunday's demonstration openly defied the government's warnings about social unrest. Although the Falun Gong protesters were well-behaved, the presence of so many demonstrators in the streets north and west of the cloistered Zhongnanhai government compound must have shocked top government officials.
The protest disrupted traffic, drawing hundreds of uniformed and plainclothes police officers to central Beijing. Protesters stretched for more than a mile down Wenjin Street near Beihai Park. Rows of orderly demonstrators stood in silent protest from before dawn until late into the night.
The day had a surreal feel to it. Some protesters sat in the lotus position on the sidewalk with their eyes shut, listening to chants. Others sat on pieces of newspaper and scraps of cardboard as they quietly pored through the blue textbook that the sect considers its bible.
In spots along the sidewalk, demonstrators formed lines that were four- to 10-people deep. No one delivered any speeches, no one carried a banner or sign -- and no one came forward as a leader. Demonstrators, in fact, refused to say much about the protest and repeatedly brushed off questions from foreign reporters.
"You're not a follower of Falun Gong so I don't want to talk to you," one demonstrator snapped.
As public buses rolled down Wenjin Street, which was closed to taxis and non-police cars, passengers looked on at the protesters with stunned looks on their faces.
"It's certainly lively today," said one Beijing resident as he cycled past the crowds.
One middle-aged protester said she and her friends left their village in the outskirts of Beijing at 2 a.m. Sunday in order to walk one mile to a bus stop to catch a ride to the city.
After noon, police tried to disperse the crowd by handing out fliers telling people to go home, but it wasn't until after 9 p.m. that the protesters quietly and obediently broke up the protest without incident.
Demonstrators wore smiles as they left the area, but seemed unwilling to declare victory. Some members of the group reportedly delivered their grievances to top authorities and gained the release of the seven people in detention in Tianjin. Reports of the release could not be confirmed.
"This Falun Gong has not been legitimized yet," said a 20-year-old female protester. "Falun Gong only advocates truth, beauty and kindness. But it seems that society is now degrading us."
Li Hongzhi moved to the United States and gave his first seminar in Houston on Oct. 12, 1996, the date of a partial solar eclipse. Since then he generally has picked celestially significant days for his teachings -- often to crowds of thousands. Li's writings have been translated into seven languages; Falun organizations are active around the world and in 18 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. More than 80 Web sites are devoted to the practice.
She Qingsheng, 26, a physician from Beijing who was at Sunday's protest, said Falun is a good way to address the problems in Chinese society. He said China's ultra-radical Cultural Revolution destroyed traditional values, creating a moral vacuum.
People need something to believe in, he said, "like Christianity in your country," although he stressed that he did not believe Falun was a religion.