Checkpoints ringed Tiananmen Square, marring the beginning of the lunar new year, the most auspicious date in the Chinese calendar. Police inspected identification papers, bags, pockets and coat sleeves to ferret out suspected Falun Gong followers.
The intrusive security came after five people, believed to be Falun Gong members, doused themselves with gasoline and set themselves on fire on Lunar New Year's Eve. The attempted group suicide killed one and may have marked an ominous shift in Falun Gong's sustained campaign of civil disobedience against the communist government's ban.
Witnessed by a CNN camera crew, the fiery protest drew swift disavowal from principal Falun Gong members in New York, where group founder Li Hongzhi is believed to spend much of his time. They cited Falun Gong teachings that explicitly forbid murder or suicide.
``You cannot kill or take a life. It really is a sin. And when you study Falun Gong, you are not a practitioner if you do this,'' said group spokeswoman Gail Rachlin. ``These are obviously people who are misguided, but I don't believe they are practitioners.''
Falun Gong attracted millions in China in the 1990s, preaching a mix of Buddhism, Taoism, traditional Chinese meditative exercises mixed with a dash of New Age philosophy. Followers believe Falun Gong promotes health and teaches morality. Alarmed by the group's popularity and organization, Chinese leaders outlawed Falun Gong in July 1999 and accused it of leading 1,600 people to their deaths.
Manipulating the group's creed of ``truthfulness,'' police at pedestrian underpasses and crosswalks leading to Tiananmen Square asked suspected followers Wednesday to repeat the phrase ``Falun Gong is an evil cult'' or made them denounce founder Li, asking, ``Is Li Hongzhi a good or bad egg?''
Some followers managed to slip through the cordon and the hundreds of uniformed police and plainclothes security officers patrolling the vast plaza and its immediate surroundings.
``Falun Dafa is good!'' shouted another man from inside a police van, using an alternative name for the group. Police took away four others, among them a man who held up a red banner and another who yelled Falun Gong slogans as three plainclothes officers grabbed him.
Flashes of protest aside, the square was generally peaceful, filled with families and tour groups taking photos and enjoying the holiday. Most grudgingly accepted the security checks, although some, turned back because they had not brought their government-issued ID cards, complained.
By late Wednesday, as temperatures fell to 17 degrees and a chill wind washed over the square, police stopped checking IDs and only a few dozen people strolled the plaza.
China's wholly state-controlled media made no mention of the suicide or the increased security, filling their pages and airtime instead with reports on festive celebrations nationwide.
The calm on the square was a far cry from last lunar new year when police beat protesters to quash scattered acts of defiance in a scene replayed nearly every public holiday since. Followers, in touch with U.S.-based activists, promised more protests to mark the opening hours of the Year of the Snake.
Seemingly inspiring a more desperate fervor - and drawing strident criticism from Chinese media - was a missive from Falun Gong founder Li dated Jan. 1 and put on group Web sites. In it, the man followers call Master Li suggested the crackdown demanded more vigorous action.
``If the evil has already reached the point where it is unsavable and unkeepable, then various measures at different levels can be used to eradicate it,'' the message said.
In a sign that the words caused confusion, practitioners inside China posted a message nine days later acknowledging that there had been ``some extreme interpretations.'' They cautioned against extreme actions, warning that, otherwise, ``the world will see us as a violent force and will turn around and oppose'' us.