BEIJING (AP) -- Falun Gong's followers -- often middle-aged women who meditate quietly in parks, their arms outstretched -- hardly seem like challengers to the power of the Communist Party.
But the sect joins a long list of other quasi-religious movements that for centuries have challenged Beijing, and drawn the wrath of China's rulers.
In its early years, the Communist Party itself was a secret, illegal organization, and its leaders are acutely aware of the power such groups can exercise.
By banning Falun Gong (pronounced fah-luhn gung), Chinese leaders are continuing a long tradition of suppressing such popular movements.
China's history is filled with religious uprisings. The most catastrophic was the 1845-1864 Taiping rebellion, led by a failed scholar who deemed himself the "Son of God."
Some 20 million people died in the uprising, which culminated in a battle in the rebel capital in the eastern city of Nanjing, where 100,000 people were killed.
Falun Gong, which is estimated to have as many as 70 million members, alarmed Chinese leaders with a protest on April 25 that seemed to come from nowhere. More than 10,000 followers silently surrounded the compound in Beijing where President Jiang Zemin and other top officials live and work.
In announcing the ban Thursday, the state-run Xinhua News Agency accused the group of "spreading fallacies, hoodwinking people, inciting and creating disturbances and jeopardizing social stability."
The ban was preceded by a clampdown on other groups deemed by the officially atheist Communist Party to be propagating superstition. Among those arrested was the founder of the Master of God sect, which by official count had 10,000 members spread over 22 provinces. Its leader was sentenced to death.
The founder of Falun Gong, former soldier and martial arts expert Li Hongzhi, lives in New York. Government officials said Thursday that if Li returned to China he would have to "take responsibility" for his role in the movement. But they dismissed rumors that the Chinese government would seek to have Li extradited to China.
Falun Gong borrows heavily from Buddhist and Taoist philosophies and styles itself as a school of qigong (pronounced chee-gong), a traditional Chinese practice that uses meditation and martial arts exercises to channel unseen forces and improve health.
Since bans on cultural traditions were lifted in the late 1970s, qigong has been widely popular with Chinese seeking health and longevity. The government has tolerated some qigong schools, but suppressed others deemed superstitious.
Falun Gong teaches that illness is caused by evil and that by following the three principles of "truth, compassion and forbearance," clairvoyance and other supernatural powers can be obtained. Followers believe Li implants a falun -- a "wheel of law" or miniature of the universe -- into their lower abdomens, where it spins constantly, absorbing and releasing power.
Over the ages many Chinese uprisings have begun as cults led by folk religious heroes who gathered huge followings among the poor and disaffected, often by claiming to have healing powers. In the late 1770s, the White Lotus rebellion against the Qing dynasty was led by Wang Lun, a master of martial arts and herbal medicine.
According to historical accounts, Wang burned to death as his rebels were slaughtered by Qing soldiers.
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