MEMBERS of a peaceful Chinese spiritual movement say that more than 1,500 of its supporters have been detained in the run-up to the Olympic Games and that one of them, a popular folk singer, has died in custody.
The arrests have been carried out against Falun Gong, a group that practises traditional meditation and exercise. The Chinese government banned Falun Gong in 1999, calling it “an evil cult”.
The official media have not reported the arrests, but there has been lively discussion among music fans on Chinese websites over the fate of the singer Yu Zhou, 42. “F*** authority. Another beautiful soul has left the world,” commented one distraught fan.
Falun Gong representatives said Yu was arrested on January 26 while returning home from a concert in Beijing. His family were called to the Qinghe district emergency centre on February 6 to view his body, which was covered in a white sheet.
Yu’s relatives were told that he had died of diabetes or as the result of a hunger strike. They replied that he had never suffered from diabetes and refused official demands for an immediate cremation, the group said.
Yu won a following among young Chinese for his mellow folk ballads. His group, Xiao Juan and Residents from the Valley, released two successful CDs and appeared on the Phoenix television channel.
Yu was a graduate of Beijing University. He married Xu Na, 40, a poet and painter who was imprisoned between 2001 and 2006 for her association with Falun Gong. The group said she was also arrested on January 26 and remains in custody.
It was not possible to verify Falun Gong’s allegations. Officers at the Tongzhou district detention centre would not respond to telephone inquiries.
Friends and colleagues of Yu said they have lost contact with the parents of the couple, whose homes were said to be under police surveillance.
However, a member of Yu’s band, contacted by telephone, said in response to a question about his reported death: “It is not suitable to answer this question. As you know, if I answer it I will be in trouble.”
While global attention has focused on the uprising in Tibet, the renewed attack on Falun Gong shows that the state security apparatus is determined to crush any domestic opposition before the Beijing Games start in August.
“It is increasingly clear that much of the current wave of repression is occurring not in spite of the Olympics but actually because of the Olympics,” said Amnesty International, which has detailed numerous arrests and the harassment of Chinese civil rights activists.
Now operating from exile, Falun Gong said that at least 1,878 of its adherents had been arrested since January 1. The detainees included 156 people in Beijing. Of these, 26 were residents of the Chaoyang and Shunyi districts, which host Olympic venues.
Falun Gong was founded in 1992 by Li Hongzhi, a former government grain clerk who is said to have achieved enlightenment. At first it attracted little official attention. As it grew in numbers, however, the group clashed with the authorities and a ferocious crackdown was launched.
The US State Department estimates that at least 100,000 Falun Gong members have been imprisoned, locked up in psychiatric hospitals or sent to “reeducation” camps, where they are made to denounce Li.
The group itself says several thousand of its followers have died in prison as a result of torture and beatings.