China's detention and torture of Falun Gong followers, and continued public protests by members of the spiritual movement, are raising the stakes over the rights of the banned group to practice their beliefs.
Yesterday the Beijing government said four Falun Gong leaders had been charged with organizing a cult, the day after the national legislature rushed through a law to retroactively criminalize many Falun Gong activities.
And for the past seven days, Falun Gong followers from virtually every corner of the country who heard the law was being considered have converged on Tian-anmen Square, staging silent, peaceful protests in the political heart of communist China.
State security agents armed with video cameras and directional microphones, along with police in uniform, have swarmed among the tourists and other visitors in the square to identify and detain Falun Gong members.
The party-directed People's Daily newspaper said yesterday new regulations on "The Crime of Organizing or Using Evil Religions" would become effective immediately.
The paper defined evil religions as "illegal organizations that use religion, qigong, or other labels to deify their founders, spread superstition and heresy to misguide others, or lead members to endanger society."
Followers of the movement typically blend into Tiananmen's crowds of kite-flyers and picture-taking sightseers until they identify themselves by meditating in a cross-legged lotus position or performing Falun Gong's graceful martial arts exercises.
But for the past week it's taken only seconds before each protester is dragged away into police vehicles.
Falun Gong, a mix of Buddhist philosophy and qigong breathing exercises, Taoist meditation, and a millennial mission to save the world, was abruptly banned three months after the group coordinated a massive April sit-in around the Communist Party's headquarters in central Beijing.
Since the crackdown began, estimates Mr Lu, "At least 10,000 Falun Gong followers have been detained, including 200 people who have been identified as the group's leaders or core members."
The US State Department said in a recent report on religious freedom that during Beijing's grand inquisition of the past few months, "tens of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners were reportedly detained [and] required to write statements disavowing the Falun Gong."
Lu says some practitioners who refused to recant have already been sent to prison camps, without trial, for terms of up to three years in a process called "reeducation through labor."
But the willingness of the movement's members to sacrifice themselves to draw a spotlight on the crackdown seems to be expanding.
Rights watchdog Lu says at least 3,000 Falun Gong members have been detained in Beijing alone over the past week.
Falun Gong claims it has 100 million followers worldwide, but Beijing says the group has only 2 million members in China.
"In reality, no one really knows how many followers Falun Gong has, but the government is unwise to anger such a shadowy and unpredictable force," says a Western official.
During a massive propaganda attack launched in midsummer, Falun Gong has been labeled an "evil cult" and compared to the American Branch Davidians and the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo.
At an Oct. 29 press conference following talks with senior Chinese leaders, US Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering indirectly called on Beijing to halt its crackdown.
"Wherever people want peacefully to pursue their religious beliefs in ways that are obviously not going to perform violence on others," then that right should be recognized under UN covenants that China itself has signed, Pickering said.
Although the Chinese Constitution says legitimate religious beliefs and practices will be protected, "the Communist Party has always tried to control and contain religion, whether Buddhism, Christianity, or Taoism," says the Western official.
Communist parties traditionally rely on control and fear to rule, and the Chinese Communist Party is no different," he adds.
News of the deaths of five Falun Gong members in detention and prison beatings have spread among Falun Gong's followers via the Internet.
Mr Lu and others say the party's handling of the Falun Gong is a sign of its lack of confidence in its moral legitimacy to rule. But the clampdown could also backfire, they say.
"There are Falun Gong members throughout the [Communist] party, the police, and the military, along with a faction of pro-reform leaders who think the group is benign or beneficial," Lu says.
Although the group has been accused of endangering state security by holding peaceful protests, "Falun Gong never had the goal of or the power to overthrow the government," Lu says.
But, ironically, the persecution of the group could destabilize the party by "exposing and deepening splits between hard-liners who launched the crackdown and those who oppose it," Lu adds.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society