BEIJING -- After a week of secret deliberations, China's top legislative body issued a stringent new "anti-cult" law yesterday designed to aid the government's crackdown on the Falun Gong spiritual movement.
Yesterday, for the sixth straight day, dozens of followers were detained in Tiananmen Square, next to the Great Hall of the People, where the legislators met. Many came from other cities in the hope of persuading officials that Falun Gong was not a social threat. Instead, they were picked up as soon as they were identified by the scores of plainclothes police roaming the vast square.
The new law, reportedly passed by a vote of 114-0 with two abstentions by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, "calls on courts, prosecutors, police and administrative judicial organs to be on full alert for cult activities and smash them rigorously," the New China News Agency reported.
News accounts suggested that the law would be used -- apparently retroactively -- in prosecuting organizers of the Falun Gong movement, which was banned on July 22 and has been vilified for months in the official news media, with thousands of its adherents detained.
Among other things, the law allots jail terms of three to seven years to cultists who "disrupt public order" or distribute publications "spreading malicious fallacies." Those found organizing or recruiting face terms of seven years or more.
The standing committee is led by Li Peng, a former prime minister who played a prominent role in the crushing of the student democracy movement in 1989, and includes the most powerful and trusted members of the parliament. On important issues it carries out the secret directives of the Communist Party, led by Jiang Zemin.
The announcement a week ago that the committee would be adopting a new law on cults helped set off daily silent demonstrations here by unrepentant believers. They insist that Falun Gong -- which combines slow ritual exercises with mystical theories of health and happiness -- is not a cult or a political danger.
The crackdown has brought on a crisis with surreal aspects for the government, which had hoped that the popular movement would dissolve after it was officially condemned as a fraud and key leaders were jailed.
Instead, thousands of fervent believers, from graduate students in Beijing to retired clerks and bureaucrats in provincial cities, have refused to repudiate a practice they regard as vital to their well-being.
Falun Gong members say that thousands of desperate practitioners, most of whom faced harassment or imprisonment in their hometowns, have converged on Beijing, where they are trying to elude the vast police dragnet.
Officials have privately said that more than 3,000 people were detained in Beijing in the past week, most of them not in the public setting of Tiananmen Square. Many were immediately sent to their home provinces, where they may face imprisonment or other punishment.
Some local people were quickly released -- with their company managers, university department chairmen or neighborhood government officials ordered to help "re-educate" them. Some who were identified as organizers will be held for possible serious charges.
By late Friday, at least 10 of the 30 Falun Gong members who took part in a clandestine news conference with foreign reporters on Thursday had been arrested, an organizer said yesterday.
Some of the believers who came to Beijing have described a worsening pattern of persecution in the provinces.
According to a report yesterday from a human rights monitor in Hong Kong, for example, a women's labor camp in the northeastern city of Changchun now holds 50 Falun Gong believers, including 12 schoolteachers who refused to give up the practice and who were sentenced -- without trial -- to one year in prison.
Yesterday's official news report of the anti-cult law says it "stresses that deceived followers and practitioners should be differentiated from cult leaders." Local governments are supposed "to educate those deceived while punishing a small number of cult leaders and those who have committed crimes."
But the struggle with true believers in the back alleys of Beijing last week suggests that exterminating the movement -- if that is possible -- will be far uglier than party leaders may have expected, requiring harsh punishment for thousands. In conversations last week, many Beijing residents said they felt that the government had overreacted to the rise of Falun Gong.