The Chinese government kept up its aggressive campaign against an outlawed millenarian sect over the weekend, arresting suspected ringleaders, identifying thousands of practitioners and conducting mandatory ideological study sessions for Communist Party members.
Since banning the Falun Gong group Thursday, authorities have continued to lambaste the sect as a social menace and flush out members in an effort to get them to sever ties with the organization. Thousands of people have been identified and registered by local authorities as Falun Gong followers in cities across China.
The sect, led by a Chinese national who lives in New York, blends Buddhist and Taoist teachings with meditation exercises, which followers claim can heal diseases and confer supernatural powers.
The nationwide crackdown began last week with a roundup of prominent members of Falun Gong. These arrests triggered large-scale, coordinated protests by group members, which authorities suppressed.
Here in the Chinese capital, 20 to 30 leaders of the group have been arrested, sources said. They await possible criminal charges that could land them in labor camps if they are convicted, a Hong Kong newspaper reported.
Most of the rank-and-file Falun Gong followers are being registered by the government but not formally put under arrest, sources said. Sect members are expected to renounce their ties to the organization through self-criticisms and study sessions in their work units.
On Sunday, state-run media continued to blast Falun Gong, calling it a dangerous cult and labeling its exiled leader an "evil figure." On "Straight Talk," a popular TV talk show, guests spoke of the harm suffered by Falun Gong practitioners because of teachings that warn against seeking medical treatment for illnesses and that predict the imminent end of the world.
"Believe in science," the show's host told viewers. "You must not believe in superstition."
Since Thursday, work units have been conducting ideological study sessions in an effort to identify Falun Gong believers, but the severity and intensity of these sessions vary. One Beijing resident said his workplace merely called a casual meeting lasting just a few minutes; another described a full day of reading newspaper articles, writing essays and discussing the issue in small groups.
Several workers in one Beijing resident's work unit said they were Falun Gong practitioners.
Most of them "had to write a self-criticism saying, 'I'll stop practicing Falun Gong,' and that was it," the resident said. All will have one-on-one follow-up sessions with a government functionary to reinforce the party line.
Two of the acknowledged Falun Gong followers, a married couple who participated in last week's protests, were brought to a stadium outside Beijing, where several thousand adherents from the capital and surrounding areas have been bused by authorities to be registered since the protests broke out. The couple's home was searched, and sect materials such as videotapes and books were confiscated, the resident said.
A government circular ordered work units to submit names of Falun Gong followers by the end of the weekend. Work unit leaders were cautioned to be on the lookout for practitioners who might resort to desperate actions, sources said.
Whereas ordinary residents have been told to cut their ties with the organization while still being allowed to practice the meditation exercises privately, Communist Party members have been ordered to disavow Falun Gong completely or face expulsion. Cadres were summoned to half-day study sessions both Saturday and Sunday, one party source said.
Anthony Kuhn of The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this story.