Wednesday April 24, 4:48 PM
Security was tight in central Beijing ahead of the third anniversary of a massive Falun Gong demonstration that prompted China to ban the spiritual movement.
Dozens of uniformed civilian and paramilitary police as well as plain-clothed officers were patrolling the vast Tiananmen Square Wednesday in a show of strength apparently aimed at scaring off potential protesters.
On April 25, 1999, about 10,000 Falun Gong followers surrounded the Zhongnanhai headquarters of the Communist Party, a few hundred metres from Tiananmen, to protest against official harassment.
The highly organised demonstration caused consternation among the communist leadership, particularly after Falun Gong membership was found to be widespread in its own ranks.
The government labelled Falun Gong [Jiang regime's slanderous term omitted] three months later, calling it the biggest threat to social stability since the 1989 Tiananmen democracy protests.
Since the banning of the group, rights organisations estimate that hundreds of Falun Gong followers have been given jail terms and tens of thousands sent to labour camps without trial.
The group claims that about 400 members have died after being abused by police since the ban.
The atmosphere at Tiananmen was tense on Wednesday afternoon, with police checking visitors' identity documents and appearing to pay special attention to foreigners.
"Are you a long-term resident of Beijing?" one police officer asked a foreigner.
One souvenir seller told AFP there had been small-scale demonstrations on Wednesday.
"Falun Gong," she whispered. "They come here to protest every day."
Other people in the square would only say they did not know anything about any protests.
Most high-profile demonstrations by the banned movement have taken place on the square, in front of the famous giant portrait of Mao Zedong, the founder of communist China.
Sophie Xiao, a spokeswoman for Falun Gong in Hong Kong, said she did not know if there would be any protests in China.
"I won't be surprised if there are protests, and I won't be surprised if there are not," she said, pointing to the stern methods adopted by authorities to quell the group's [practitioners] inside the mainland.
Most demonstrations over the past months have been by overseas Falun Gong sympathisers who have flown to China to air their anger over the Tiananmen crackdown.
Earlier this month, an American was deported after holding a solo protest on the square in support of Falun Gong.
In the largest incident of its kind so far, an estimated 59 foreigners protested on Tiananmen in February.
"The more persecution, the more outside people will have queries," Xiao said. "More and more people come from abroad (to protest), because it has become an international concern."