Beijing - Hoping to validate its crackdown on Falun Gong, China on Tuesday portrayed five people who set themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square as obsessive sect members, among them a 12-year-old girl who cried out to her mother to be saved.
In its first comprehensive account of the attempted group suicide on Jan. 23, the government said seven Falun Gong followers - not five as it previously reported - sought to commit suicide in hopes of "ascending to heaven."
State television broadcast security camera footage of followers engulfed in flames and police rushing to put them out with fire extinguishers. One man, his body and clothes charred and blackened, sat crossed-legged - a distinctive Falun Gong meditation pose - after police had doused the flames.
Of the five who succeeded in setting fire to themselves, 36-year-old Liu Chunling died. Her 12-year-old daughter, Liu Siying, was among four others seriously injured, the government's Xinhua News Agency said.
"Mom, uncle, help! Help me!" Xinhua said the girl cried as she caught fire. China Central Television showed her lying on Tiananmen's flagstones, her face, eyes and lips charred black in a cobweb pattern. "Mom. Mom," she whimpered.
Police stopped two others from igniting themselves, among them a woman who drank gasoline from a Sprite bottle and repeatedly yelled, "Let me go to heaven!" after officers took away her lighter, Xinhua said.
Falun Gong has denied that the four women and one man who lit themselves on fire were members of the group. It said the group's founder, Li Hongzhi, clearly prohibits suicide in his teachings and described brief Chinese government accounts of the act last week as an attempt to defame the group.
The attempted group suicide appeared to be the most radical act in what has largely been a campaign of civil disobedience against the communist government's 18-month ban on the group. It came three weeks after Li, who lives in New York, called for more vigorous action to protest the crackdown.
In the lengthy state media accounts and a separate editorial, the government attempted to fix blame on Li. The reports reiterated claims that the sect has caused more than 1,600 deaths and cited Li's Jan. 1 essay posted on group Web sites in which he suggested the crackdown was pushing the sect "beyond tolerance."
"The tragic participants in this self-immolation were cheated, poisoned and controlled by Li Hongzhi, serving as the canon fodder and sacrificial objects for Li to reach his most evil goal," Xinhua said in the editorial.
The reports dwelled on 12-year-old Liu. She suffered burns over 40 percent of her body, an injured windpipe and fourth-degree burns to her face, and all her fingers may have to be amputated, Xinhua said. "A healthy girl has become a life-long physically impaired person in an instant."
Liu's mother, who died of her burns, introduced her to Falun Gong last March, Xinhua said. It said fellow practitioners encouraged Liu to set herself on fire by telling her the flames would not hurt her and would lead her to paradise.
"Didn't you know using a lighter to set fire to yourself would hurt?" state television showed a hospital nurse asking the girl, whose gauze-covered body lay flat on a gurney. Liu replied she didn't know. She was shown telling a TV reporter: "Auntie, I thought the road to the heavenly kingdom was golden."
Falun Gong's mixture of slow-motion exercises and eclectic philosophy drawn from Buddhism, Taoism and Li's ideas attracted millions of Chinese before it was outlawed in July 1999. Practitioners claim Falun Gong improves health and morality and gives experts supernatural powers.
Unmentioned in the state media reports was the crackdown's relentless pursuit of practitioners. A Hong Kong-based rights group has counted more than 100 deaths of followers, mostly as a result of police abuse. Thousands are reported to have been put in prison camps and deprogramming centers. The unrepentant have been fired from their jobs and hounded from their homes.
Xinhua said the seven "obsessive" Falun Gong followers came to Beijing from the central city of Kaifeng. They put gasoline in plastic bottles of Sprite because "gasoline looks similar to Sprite," they each carried two lighters and agreed to ignite themselves at 2:30 p.m. at different locations on Tiananmen's vast plaza, it said.
"The actions of the self-immolators - going to Tiananmen Square with the intention of 'ascending to heaven' and 'completion,' sitting in meditation, shouting cult slogans - clearly proves that they were genuine 'Falun Gong' obsessives," Xinhua said in a separate commentary.