BEIJING -- China broke two days of silence Tuesday to allay the concerns of a martial arts sect whose members staged the largest protest in China's capital in 10 years.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi said concerns by group members that the government was cracking down on their practice were groundless.
On Sunday, 10,000 followers of Falun Gong surrounded Zhongnanhai, the communist leadership compound, to demand freedom to practice without official interference.
Premier Zhu Rongji, who heads the State Council, China's Cabinet, intervened, meeting with representatives of the group to defuse the situation.
"The leaders of the State Council asked the officials of the relevant departments to listen to the opinions of these people," Sun said at a media briefing.
Sun's comments were the government's first public remarks on the protest. The demonstration unnerved Chinese leaders because it came close to the 10th anniversary of the bloody crackdown on the 1989 democracy movement, which occurred just blocks away in Tiananmen Square.
The sudden appearance of the protesters on the doorstop of the leadership's posh living and working compound was a powerful display of the group's discipline and organization.
Founded in 1992 by Li Hongzhi, a martial arts master who now lives in New York, Falun Gong borrows heavily from Buddhism and Taoism and styles itself as a form of "qigong," a traditional practice that uses exercise and meditation to improve spiritual and physical health.
The government is wary of the group's appeal. It has by official count 70 million members, more than the 58 million members of the Communist Party. But so far the government considers Falun Gong to be a type of qigong and not a religious cult.
"With regard to qigong and body building, governments at various levels have never banned this," Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun said.
Sunday's protest was intended to get the central government to clarify its stand on Falun and ensure the group can practice legally, said Rong Yi, a spokeswoman for Li in New York.
Falun followers converged on Beijing after a critical magazine article on the group appeared in nearby Tianjin city and police roughed up devotees who went to protest the report, Yi said.