On China's most sacred public space, they unfurled protest banners. In the midst of China's most revered holiday, the Spring Festival, they shouted "Falun Gong is good."
Yet unlike in the past, the more than 40 adherents who were quickly detained yesterday were not ethnic or native Chinese. Rather, these Falun Gong protesters - in a clear bid to raise attention to their shattered cause prior to President Bush's first state visit to China next week - carried American, Canadian, German, and other foreign passports.
The absence of locals underscores how completely China has quashed what it calls an "evil cult." But the detention of foreigners may be a prod for the Bush adminstration to challenge Beijing on the issue of religious freedom.
"Chinese security forces have been very effective in rolling up all organized political dissident movements," says Andrew Nathan, a China scholar at Columbia University. "The recent revelation of how coordinated and widespread has been the crackdown on all kind of religious groups in the past couple of years certainly offers an opportunity for an administration that believes in freedom of religion to say something."
In the past year, say experts, Beijing has redoubled efforts to crack down on sects and religious groups that exist outside the official Chinese churches. China officially recognizes a "freedom of religious belief" in its Constitution, but such freedoms must be exercised within state-controlled churches.
Chinese officials, wary of bad publicity and seeking to downplay yesterday's Falun Gong protest, dismissed it in the state media service Xinhua, "this turmoil at the center of the Chinese capital was aimed to undermine the happy atmosphere of the Spring Festival." It categorized the 40 as detainees.
Falun Gong activists in New York told The Associated Press that as many as 100 members went to China to protest, and 14 from Europe were arrested in their hotels prior to yesterday's protest.
Last year, the festival was interrupted by five Falun Gong members who set themselves ablaze on the square.
Still, the numbers of foreigners involved in yesterday's protest combined with a series of statements and reports by religious groups this week, do notch up the human and religious rights issue, something Mr. Bush reportedly feels strongly about. And a variety of groups are applying new pressure.
Yesterday a Vatican news service offered the names of 33 priests being kept under house arrest in China. On Monday, a detailed report by a New York religious-rights group unveiled alleged Chinese internal security documents that advise police to "use force" against and "infiltrate" Christian worship places.
With the Bush administration "reformulating its whole foreign policy due to Sept. 11," as former State Department China researcher Carol Lee Hamrin puts it, it is too early to know what kind of emphasis the White House will place on an issue whose Washington articulation is deeply resented by the Chinese.
The White House has praised China for helping US intelligence officials in Afghanistan, and China has been eager to show its cooperative side in the US-led war. Relations between the two countries have been warming markedly after a rocky period last spring when US and Chinese military aircraft collided off China's coast. Yet Bush briefly raised human and minority rights issues during the Shanghai economic summit in China last October: "Especially religious rights, and a warning [to China] not to use antiterrorism against minorities," Ms. Hamrin says, "despite the necessary urgent focus on countering terrorism."
On Monday, the New York-based Committee for the Investigation on Persecution of Religion in China issued a 141-page document that contains seven internal security documents urging a comprehensive and systematic crackdown on Falun Gong and underground Christian "home churches" where believers congregate independent of state oversight.
Most of the documents reiterated familiar and long-standing fears in China of "foreign powers" that "conspire" to cause ordinary Chinese to rebel against the state. A variety of "cults" are deemed to be a "crawling danger to domestic security and defense."
One transcript of a speech by Sun Jianxin, a vice director of public security in Anhui province, accused the Vatican of "waiting for any opportunity to intervene in the internal affairs of Catholic churches in our country."
China views the Falun Gong, whose exiled leader Li Hongzhi lives in New York, as a danger to state security. Falun Gong members, many of them blue collar workers, often say that their morning discipline of exercises, similar to the traditional "qi-gong," fill a spiritual void in their lives.
Two years ago, the sect was declared illegal. At that time, the grass-roots faith could muster hundreds of thousands of silent Chinese protesters at sites around China.
China shut down the Buddhist-inspired Falun Gong movement after a series of surprise protests at the posh Zhongnanhai neighborhood shocked Party officials who were concerned that any group could organize so effectively outside their purview.
Today, most Chinese Falun Gong have been arrested, marginalized, or driven deep underground in a campaign reportedly overseen by President Jiang Zemin himself. Falun Gong arrests have led to some 170 deaths in detention, say rights activists, and to the establishment of a series of special "re-education camps" around the country.
In the past year, Chinese authorities have also begun to train their sights on a plethora of small Christian fundamentalist and evangelical groups, many with ties to the US.
Yesterday, a Hong Kong businessman arrested for bringing bibles to a Pentecostal group called "The Shouters" in China's Fujian province, was released after the White House expressed interest in the case. But two of his colleagues remain in jail.