THE latest reports from the Tiananmen battlefield suggest China is not doing all that well in a war it should not be waging. The contest, of course, is the year-old one between the central Government and the Falun Gong organisation. Early yesterday, perhaps 140 members of this odd cult were arrested in the square for assuming the lotus position and unfurling banners emblazoned with their sect's identifying characters. Many seemingly harmless people, some of them clearly new arrivals from the countryside, were kicked and beaten by policemen who sometimes acted more like common thugs than upholders of law and order. The ongoing effort would be 'a long-term, tortuous and complicated one', warned a lengthy dispatch from Xinhua, the official news agency. That much was obvious to hundreds of bystanders in Tiananmen, but why it is happening at all is less clear, at least to an outside world which sees the harsh campaign causing grave damage to China's global image. However, the Chinese Communist Party was born as a political conspiracy against established order, and has always viewed groups not under its control as potential enemies - perhaps no less conspiratorial or duplicitous in method. When about 10,000 Falun Gong members suddenly gathered in Beijing last year in silent protest against alleged mistreatment, the party panicked. In subsequent weeks, the movement was outlawed and many members arrested. The sect does have weird aspects. It combines traditional qi gong exercises with the notions of reincarnation and karma. Its seldom-seen leader lives in New York, where his Web site includes doctored photos of him levitating or meditating in places where he is clearly not. To most non-believers, his doctrine makes little sense. But the group has no known political agenda, other than wanting persecution to end. Beijing says 1,500 people have died and 600 have gone mad from following its beliefs, but evidence is sketchy. Many of the jailed or beaten members are middle-aged workers with no links to any activist cause, but who seem to have found spiritual solace not available elsewhere. A more confident government and ruling party, secure in their mandate, would not need to harass such believers, however strange they may be. A bit of relaxation would do wonders for Beijing's overseas image while easing domestic tensions as well.