(RNS) A spiritual sect similar to the outlawed Falun Gong movementhas been banned by the Chinese government.

The Hong Kong-based Information Center of Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China said 100 offices of Zhong Gong--which practices "qigong" traditional Chinese meditation and breathing exercises--have already been shut down by Chinese officials.

The government ban of Zhong Gong follows the December closing oftheir largest training base, located in northwestern China. Chineseofficials have also closed about 60 offices of a company connected tothe Zhong Gong movement in Inner Mongolia, Guangxi and Yunnan provinces,the Information Center said.

The crackdown on Zhong Gong--which claims 10 million followers inChina--began in November after Chinese president Jiang Zemin declaredthe group a cult. Chinese police descended on the group's main office inBeijing, confiscating assets worth 50 million yuan ($6.02 million).

Chinese officials banned a similar popular meditation sect lastsummer, the Falun Gong, which combined elements of Buddhism, Taoism andqigong meditation and exercises.

Officials outlawed the group after its followers launched a seriesof protests--including one that drew more than 10,000 people toBeijing--demanding official recognition of the faith.

More than 5,000 Falun Gong members have been sentenced to laborcamps without trial and another 300 sent to jail since September,according to the Information Center.On Tuesday, two sisters who were part of the Falun Gong leadership were sentenced to six- and seven-year prison terms, while 30 other Falun Gong members who participated in a protest were sentenced to prison terms of up to two years.

China tightly controls all religious and spiritual expressions within its borders, and considers all such unauthorized activities as threats to the political status quo.

The Falun and Zhong Gong movements insist they have no political aspirations. The government generally feels that the groups present a threat if no no other reason than that they command the allegiance of large numbers of people.

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