Thousands protest silently outside China government headquarters

Associated Press/April 26, 1999
By Renee Schoof

BEIJING -- In the largest demonstration in Beijing since Tiananmen Square a decade ago, more than 10,000 people silently protested outside China's leadership compound Sunday to demand the right to freely practice a form of meditation.

Instead of loud calls for political change, adherents to Falun Gong -- a brand of meditation and exercise -- quietly and peacefully occupied sidewalks along the streets outside Zhongnanhai, where China's top leaders work.

From early Sunday until their orderly, peaceful dispersal late in the evening, people of all ages stood or sat on the sidewalks and did not block traffic.

Police sealed off the streets to all but buses and bikes. Uniformed police watched the crowd, but there were no attempts to interfere with the protesters.

It was unclear what prompted the sudden demonstration. But a young protester who gave his family name as Sun said followers were seeking legal protection and the right to practice Falun Gong. Officials in some areas were "meddling" and preventing people from practicing, he said.

Falun Gong (pronounced fah-luhn gung) borrows from qigong, a system of controlled breathing, martial arts, meditation and healing that has been popular in China since bans on cultural traditions were lifted in the late 1970s.

While the government sanctions qigong as a unique Chinese tradition, officials are keeping their eye on the growing appeal of Falun Gong, which has 70 million to 100 million adherents in China by official count -- 12 million more members than the Communist Party.

Falun Gong was founded in 1992 by Li Hongzhi, a Chinese native who now lives in New York and lectures in the United States and other countries, but no longer in China.

Li tells followers that they can achieve enlightenment and protection from evil forces through his system. In Beijing, "Master Li" is revered by followers who read his books, listen to his tapes and gather by the hundreds in parks, department store parking lots and other public places to exercise and meditate.

Followers say Falun is not a religion, but a system of meditation and exercise that brings them good health. Critics have said Li claims to be more important than Buddha or Jesus and that Falun could become a cult.

Sunday's gathering began early in the morning, possibly prompted by fears that the government might ban Falun. A one-page statement from the government handed out to demonstrators late in the afternoon said those fears were based on rumors that should be ignored.

Demonstrators stood or sat along the streets as if waiting for a parade. When word from group leaders spread that it was time to leave, the participants picked up trash and carried it out, walking in orderly groups.

Chinese authorities usually prevent any large organized groups from gathering. Security is especially tense in Beijing because of the current 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, seven weeks of pro-democracy demonstrations that ended with a military assault that killed hundreds on June 4, 1989.


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