Zhong Gong would be the second offshoot of a traditional health practice known as qigong to be banned since a protest by 10,000 Falun Gong followers in April provoked worry among China's communist leaders about the popularity of the groups.
Like Falun Gong, Zhong Gong has attracted huge numbers of followers, including senior government officials. The unfolding crackdown against Zhong Gong, as described by a Hong Kong-based human rights group, appears to apply many of the tactics used in the early stages of the campaign against Falun Gong.
Police have quietly moved against the group while trying to round up its leaders. Already more than 100 Zhong Gong propagation centers in 20 provinces and major cities have been closed since November, the Information Center of Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China reported.
Zhong Gong founder, Zhang Hongbao, has gone into hiding to avoid arrest, but police have started confiscating the assets of his Qilin Group, a conglomerate based in the port city of Tianjin, the center said.
Spokesmen for the police and the State Council, China's cabinet, refused initial comment on the report. A government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that Zhong Gong was branded an "evil cult" and that the crackdown had been ordered, but not publicized.
His comments supported the Information Center's claims that internal Communist Party documents have labeled Zhong Gong an "evil cult." Such a tag would effectively ban the group because cults are illegal under Chinese law.
After Falun Gong's April 25 demonstration, Chinese leaders worried that the group's fervor and organization challenged their political authority. They banned Falun Gong in July and ordered police checks on other popular qigong sects and their leaders.
A court in central Zhejiang province last month sentenced a leading member of Zhong Gong to two years in jail for illegally practicing medicine.
Falun Gong and Zhong Gong are both loosely tied to qigong, a traditional practice in which exercises are used to channel unseen forces into the body. All are said to promote health and can bring practitioners supernatural powers. Falun Gong adds a spiritual dimension, claiming its practice also improves morality.
Zhong Gong was founded in 1988 by Zhang Hongbao and has since attracted 20 million followers, the center said.
The center said Chinese President Jiang Zemin once consulted a senior Zhong Gong master in 1992 to try to cure arthritis and back problems. Government officials would not comment on the claim.
Leading members of Zhong Gong have called on followers to resist the government clampdown and defend the practice, the center sid, although it did not specify how.
The government has been unable to suppress Falun Gong despite the more than six-month ban. Members continue to meet and occasionally stage protests in Tiananmen Square, the last one an attempt to cover the portrait of Mao Zedong with a picture of Falun Gong guru Li Hongzhi on Jan. 24.
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