China's Communist leaders are trying to use show trials and harsh sentences meted out to leaders of the Falun Gong spiritual movement to warn a range of political and religious groups not to challenge the party's authority.
But this strategy could backfire, says a Western official.
"The [Chinese] government might succeed in driving many religious and political activists underground, but die-hards could be driven to organize a new wave of protests" against the repression, adds the official, who asked not to be identified.
Beijing abruptly announced on Christmas Eve that four Falun Gong leaders would be tried two days later, and the rushed, one-day proceedings ended in convictions and jail terms of between seven and 18 years.
"The trial was very carefully managed at a very high level and timed to coincide with the Christmas holiday to minimize Western press coverage," adds the official.
Western diplomats and rights groups that monitor China say the severity of the punishment and lack of legal safeguards in party-staged trials of Falun Gong are likely to infuriate millions of followers throughout China and the world.
"Many Falun Gong members have posted protest articles on the Internet, and the Communist Party itself says that the group holds demonstrations every day in Tiananmen Square," in central Beijing, says Frank Lu, who heads a Hong Kong-based rights watchdog agency.
"The world is watching in disbelief as the Chinese government is putting on a show trial to sentence innocent Falun Gong practitioners," the group says on its Web site. "The charges made against these people are fabricated, groundless, and are in violation of the Constitution of the [People's Republic of China] and of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights."
The group, which claims 100 million members worldwide, with most followers in China, says it "is being brutally persecuted in China because the number of Falun Gong practitioners exceeds the membership of the entire Communist Party."
The outnumbered party, which has 60 million members, has orchestrated a crackdown in which "tens of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners suffered inhuman treatment like arrests, beatings, torture, [and] dismissal from school and work," the group says.
Li Hongzhi, the Falun Gong founder who lives in exile in New York and now heads the Chinese security bureau's most-wanted list, is similarly using the Internet to communicate with his outlawed followers. In a statement on the same Web site, Mr. Li says that "if the persecution continues, it could cause the people to lose confidence in the Chinese government and its leadership."
Li is calling for a dialogue with Beijing and says that if the crackdown continues, "human lives could be at risk."
"What would occur would be beatings, killings ... another Tiananmen incident," he warns. Li is referring to massive pro-democracy protests here in 1989, when Chinese troops and tanks were deployed in a violent crackdown whose casualty tolls range from several hundred to several thousand.
Security was tight around Tiananmen Square over the weekend, and dozens of suspected Falun Gong practitioners have been detained there in the last few days, says the Western official.
One of the main charges against the Falun Gong leaders involved "endangering state security" by organizing 10,000 followers to surround Zhongnanhai, the party's leadership compound, and overrunning Tiananmen in April.
The demonstration was the largest staged here since the 1989 crackdown on dissent, and Chinese President Jiang Zemin "ordered the security forces to prepare for a full-scale assault on Falun Gong," says a Chinese official.
But Falun Gong leader Li Chang, a senior police official at the time, and two of his co-defendants warned followers of the impending clampdown. They have been subsequently charged with "leaking state secrets." "It's kind of Kafkaesque to be charged with releasing secrets on the campaign against Falun Gong" when the group was still legal in early July, says the Western official.
The four Falun Gong leaders were arrested days before the party abruptly banned the group on July 22, and the legislature later rushed through a law on "evil religions" to retroactively criminalize many Falun Gong activities.
Another major charge against the Falun Gong defendants is that the group counseled followers to improve their health through a series of breathing exercises and Buddhist meditation rather than through medical care.
"Falun Gong teachings led to the deaths of 1,400 Falun Gong members, and the leaders are therefore responsible for the unintentional killing of these followers," says Liu Nanlai, a legal scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government think tank.
Rights monitor Lu says the state "used fake evidence on this charge of unintentional homicide.... How can they prove that Falun Gong's leaders are responsible for these deaths?"
The Western official agrees. "There is only a very tenuous link, if any, between the leaders of Falun Gong in Beijing and practitioners throughout the country, and it's virtually impossible to prove the defendants unintentionally killed anyone," he says.
"This trial is meant to send a message to other religious groups, including Christians, and to the China Democracy Party that no organized protests will be tolerated," he adds.
But rights monitor Lu says the sentences, along with impending trials of another 200 senior Falun Gong leaders, "are angering not only Falun Gong followers, but also ordinary Chinese and legal scholars opposed to the crackdown."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society