Police ringed Tiananmen Square with checkpoints yesterday, trying to head off threatened protests by the outlawed Falun Gong sect a day after five members set themselves on fire in China's symbolic heart.
The fiery protest left one woman dead, injured the other four and signaled a dangerous turn in the intensifying 18-month-old standoff between the spiritual movement and the communist government.
In response, Beijing police imposed the tightest security in the square in years, marring yesterday's start of the Lunar New Year, China's biggest public holiday. Hundreds of uniformed police and plainclothes security officers, their walkie-talkies crackling in the cold winter air, patrolled the vast plaza and its immediate surroundings.
At pedestrian underpasses and crosswalks leading to the square, police checked identification papers, searched bags, made people turn out their pockets and open their coats and jackets, and looked down their sleeves, apparently to see whether they were hiding anything inside.
To test whether people were affiliated with the sect, police made some repeat the phrase "Falun Gong is an evil cult" or made them denounce Li Hongzhi
The inspections weeded out some sect members, while a few others still managed to protest.
A man climbed atop a mound of shoveled snow inside the square and held up a banner before police, rushing at him from three sides, knocked him over. One officer pressed a knee into the protester's body, pinning him to the ground until a van drove up.
"Falun Dafa is good," another man shouted from inside a police van, using an alternative name for the group.
Another man in his mid-30s who held up a red banner also was quickly spirited away, a witness said.
Despite the few flashes of protest, the intense security enforced calm on the snow-brushed square. Families, couples and groups of visitors strolled and snapped photographs. The scene was a marked contrast to last Lunar New Year, when police kicked and pummeled protesters to quash scattered outbursts of defiance in a scene of violence and chaos since repeated on major public holidays.
Falun Gong attracted millions of followers in the 1990s with its slow-motion exercise and New Age philosophy that believers say promotes health, good citizenship and supernatural powers.
Practitioners have waged a sustained campaign of civil disobedience in Tiananmen ever since the government banned the group in July 1999, accusing it of misleading followers, causing deaths and threatening Communist Party rule.
Tuesday's attempted group suicide appeared to mar the largely peaceful image of the sect's campaign. The five, soaked with gasoline, set themselves on fire, according to the official Xinhua News Agency and a camera crew from the US-based television network CNN, which witnessed the protest.
CNN reported that four of the protesters staggered forward, their bodies on fire and arms raised in a pose of meditation typical of Falun Gong.
Spokesmen for group founder Li, in New York, denied the protesters were Falun Gong and said the act was part of a Chinese government smear campaign.
"This so-called suicide attempt on Tiananmen Square has nothing to do with Falun Gong practitioners because the teachings of Falun Gong prohibit any form of killing. Li Hongzhi, the founder of the practice, has explicitly stated that suicide is a sin," the group said in a statement.
The statement said 120 practitioners have died in custody and noted that China has denied mistreating any followers, attributing deaths to natural causes.
The attempted suicides came after weeks of intensifying rhetoric on both sides. Li has called for more aggressive action against the government crackdown.
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