SHANGHAI, China (AP) -- China issued an arrest order Thursday for the leader of the popular Falun Gong meditation group, which was banned last week as a threat to political order.
Chinese leaders regard the group, which has up to 70 million members, as the most serious threat to communist rule since pro-democracy protests in 1989.
The Ministry of Public Security in Beijing said sect founder Li Hongzhi "spread superstition and malicious fallacies to deceive people, resulting in the deaths of many practitioners," the official Xinhua News Agency said.
It said the ministry's order asks public security departments and border posts to find and arrest Li. Li lives in New York. The former Chinese government clerk founded Falun Gong in 1992. He has denied accusations by the government that his group has political ambitions.
The arrest order came amid a government campaign to destroy Falun Gong books and materials. State media said Thursday that 1.55 million items have been confiscated and hundreds of thousands of them destroyed.
Falun Gong is one of many schools of qigong, a practice that tries to improve health through exercise, mediation and attempts to channel unseen forces. Its doctrines draw on martial arts, Buddhism and Taoism. Qigong has been popular in China for decades.
The crackdown appears to have been prompted by a silent protest April 25 by more than 10,000 Falun Gong devotees outside the Beijing compound where President Jiang Zemin lives. The group said it was protesting official harassment.
The arrest order accuses Li of organizing demonstrations without required permits, Xinhua said. "He is thus suspected of having committed the crime of disturbing public order," Xinhua quoted the order as saying.
Li has denied organizing that gathering or other protests, and told reporters he didn't even know about them in advance.
Reports in state media have blamed Falun Gong for at least 16 deaths, saying followers refused medication or committed murder or suicide. Li has denied any connection to deaths of members who he said might already have been ill or unstable.
Some 300,000 Falun Gong books were turned into pulp Wednesday in Beijing, and more were to be destroyed in cities throughout China, state media said.
In Shanghai, authorities fed 45,000 books into a pulping machine Thursday at a ceremony led by city propaganda chief Jin Binghua, the newspaper Xinmin Evening News said.
State media have kept up a steady stream of attacks on Falun Gong. Former members are shown on television denouncing Li, and newspapers quote officials criticizing its doctrines.
National TV newscasts have been expanded to a full hour from their usual 30 minutes and are devoted almost completely to attacks on the sect.
Communist Party members, thousands of whom openly practiced Falun Gong before the crackdown, have been ordered to quit or be expelled from the party.
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