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Washington Post: Falun Gong Stays Locked In Struggle With Beijing

April 27, 2000 |   Ted Plafker Special to The Washington Post

Wednesday, April 26, 2000; Page A28

BEIJING, April 25 -- One year after a mass protest sparked a crackdown on the Falun Gong spiritual movement, followers of the group remain locked in a simmering battle of wills with Chinese authorities that shows little sign of ending.

On the government's side are two powerful weapons: the vast, state-run media and the huge Chinese police establishment. Falun Gong seems to have an inexhaustible supply of adherents with an unshakable belief in their cause and a willingness to be arrested for demonstrating for the right to practice.

In the latest confrontation, nearly 100 Falun Gong followers were detained today for holding a defiant demonstration in Tiananmen Square marking the anniversary of the daylong sit-in at a nearby government building that catapulted the little-known movement to prominence.

"Falun Gong is good; it's just good!" a middle-aged woman screamed today as she and another woman were dragged by plainclothes officers into one of several police vans that cruised all morning around the vast square.

"Falun Dafa is the way of truth!" she shouted, using another name for the complex practice of exercise and meditation.

Such scenes have played out almost daily since 10,000 adherents staged the sit-in last April. The government responded to that demonstration by branding the group "an evil cult" and steadily escalated its condemnation until July, when the group was banned.

In the same time period, countless newspaper articles and television shows have vilified Falun Gong's leader and founder, Li Hongzhi, as a charlatan who has duped followers, conspired against the government and, by discouraging followers from seeking medical care, caused the deaths of more than 1,500 people.

Li has lived in New York for several years, but has not appeared in public since July.

Police throughout China have been authorized to deal as harshly as they see fit with those who refuse to renounce Falun Gong. Many adherents have been subjected to severe abuse and a number have died, according to human rights groups.

Falun Gong claims 70 million Chinese practitioners. In addition to the 35,000 arrested since the ban, the group says, 5,000 have been sent to labor camps without trial and at least 15 have died in police custody as a result of abuse and torture.

Many Chinese consider the high-intensity campaign against Falun Gong to be an overreaction to a group with bizarre but harmless beliefs, especially given the government's claim that the group has only 2 million practitioners. But according to one Asian diplomat, Falun Gong's recalcitrance poses an alarming and unfamiliar challenge.

"Things are getting looser all the time in China, and the government accepts that people can more and more do what they want," he said. "But such clear-cut, open defiance must be a very scary thing for them."

A government statement last week said the crackdown "has shown no mercy" and has succeeded in persuading 98 percent of practitioners to cut ties with the group. But the statement also acknowledged that protests occur nearly every day and warned that "the struggle against Falun Gong is long-term, complex and serious."

(c) 2000 The Washington Post Company