WIRE:07/20/2000 04:54:00 ET

BEIJING, July 20 (Reuters) - Chinese police picked up scores of Falun Gong members trying to protest in Tiananmen Square on Thursday ahead of the first anniversary of the start of a draconian crackdown on the spiritual movement. Most of those detained were middle-aged and female Falun Gong adherents, witnesses said. Similar demonstrations involving small numbers have occured almost daily in the vast square, the focus of pro-democracy demonstrations in 1989 which were crushed by the army with huge loss of life. Falun Gong members usually emerge from throngs of Chinese and foreign tourists to unfurl protest banners or simply begin the distinctive exercises of the movement. On the approach of any significant event, like a holiday or anniversary, Tiananmen Square is heavily reinforced by plainclothed and uniformed police ready to pounce on anyone who looks as though they might belong to the movement. The Communist Party on Thursday declared a "decisive victory" in its crackdown on a movement it accuses of undermining social stability and "unspeakable political aims." Since it banned Falun Gong On July 22, 1999 -- and later declared it an "evil cult" -- key leaders of Falun Gong have been jailed and hundreds if not thousands of followers have been sent to labour camps without trial. Human rights groups have documented 24 Falun Gong deaths in police custody in the past year. "China has achieved a decisive victory in the fight against Falun Gong after unremitting and determined efforts," said a front-page commentary in the People"s Daily. "However, like all evil forces, the Falun Gong cult will not voluntarily step down from the historical stage," it said. A Western diplomat monitoring the group said: "Sometimes the people they are declaring victory against aren"t so cooperative." The Communist Party mouthpiece urged people to "have a better awareness of the duration, acuteness and complexity of the fight against Falun Gong." Falun Gong, which combines meditation with a doctrine rooted loosely in Buddhist and Daoist teachings, first rattled the atheist Communist Party with a 10,000-member protest in Beijing on April 25, 1999. Beijing says Falun Gong cheats its followers and blames it for 1,500 deaths by suicide or refusal to accept medical care in favour of faith in the teachings of founder Li Hongzhi. The government, which says the group never had more than two million members, says membership has dwindled to roughly 40,000. Falun Gong says it has tens of millions of followers in China and 40 other countries. "There is a spiritual vacuum in China and its very hard for the Communist Party to recognise this," said a second diplomat. "That void will continue until they lift the restrictions on normal religious activity," he said. China forces believers of Christianity, Buddhism, Islam and other faiths to join state-controlled "patriotic" religious bodies which many shun.