Police swarmed over groups of followers--middle-aged women and children among them--wresting away banners and knocking protesters to the ground. A uniformed officer locked his arms around a woman's neck, pulling her away. Others were dragged along the ground by their arms or clothes.
All told, police detained more than 100 group members in a 10-minute explosion of seemingly coordinated protests across the vast plaza in central Beijing. Police immediately cleared the square, slightly earlier than scheduled for a midmorning visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
That the protests happened, and in such numbers, showed the popular spiritual movement's resilience despite a year of persecution and a police force on alert for demonstrations this week--the anniversary of the crackdown against the group.
A year ago Thursday, security agents detained dozens of key organizers of the sect. Group members, tipped off by fellow believers in the upper ranks of the communist government, met the arrests with mass protests. Two days later Chinese leaders publicly banned Falun Gong as a public menace.
A smear campaign in state media, the jailings of thousands of members and pressure on followers to renounce ties to the group have thinned Falun Gong's ranks. But members have persisted in defiant protests, mounting the most sustained public challenge to the Communist Party in 51 years.
Followers have streamed into Beijing this month for protests, and police have picked up at least 200 practitioners from Tiananmen Square every day for the past week, said a Communist Party official involved in security work.
Chinese leaders have ordered police in Beijing and other cities to watch airports and railroad and bus stations to prevent followers from reaching the capital, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Name lists of practitioners have been distributed to local police stations, the official said. He added that followers who have renounced their ties have been put under surveillance while those who refused have been detained in police stations.
``Still some have slipped through our net,'' the official said.
The government has called Falun Gong an unprecedented threat to communist rule. It has accused Falun Gong of cheating followers and causing 1,500 deaths, mostly of followers who it said refused medical treatment according to what it claims are the group's teachings.
Founded eight years ago, Falun Gong--also called Falun Dafa--attracted millions of followers with its blend of slow-motion physical exercises, meditation and ideas drawn from Buddhism, Taoism and its founder, an ex-government grain clerk. Followers believe practice unleashes energy from a spiritual orb, or Wheel of Law, in the stomach and promotes health, moral living and supernatural powers.
Tuesday's protest seemed triggered by eight followers who boisterously unfurled a yellow banner, its red Chinese characters partly reading ``The Wheel of Law forever turns.'' As police ran to detain the group, other banners emerged from among clumps of followers in other parts of the square.
The police clampdown in Beijing has been complicated by the commitment and discipline of Falun Gong followers. Four in five of those arrested in recent days have refused to tell officers their names or hometowns, making it difficult for city police to file the proper arrest forms, the party official said.
Instead, police have commandeered a stadium in western Beijing to hold those detained until their hometowns can be determined and they can be shipped off to local detention centers, the official said. He said police from surrounding provinces already have been ordered to Beijing to take back their followers.