Too Hot to Handle

Self-immolations in Tiananmen Square ratchet up tensions between Falun Gong and China's leadership

Time, Asia/February 5, 2001
By Hannah Beech

The fiery protest by Falun Gong members in Tiananmen Square was captured only on a grainy TV clip. They did not wear saffron robes, nor was their desperate act immortalized in a photograph of bright flames engulfing stoic martyrs. Instead, they were wrapped in somber padded jackets, and their fiery protest was captured only on a grainy T.V. clip. But like the self-immolating monks of Saigon nearly four decades ago, the five believers who quietly doused themselves with gasoline in Tiananmen Square last week seemed to be lighting a torch for their spiritual survival.

If the smoky haze around the snowy square has dissipated, the questions surrounding the dramatic incident have not. A Beijing arm of the outlawed spiritual group Falun Gong strongly suggested the protesters, one of whom died, were devotees. "We heeded a call from our master to strengthen our fight against evil," said a member of the group based in the Chinese capital. Yet hours later, Falun Gong's New York head office distanced itself from the act: "This so-called suicide attempt on Tiananmen Square has nothing to do with Falun Gong practitioners because the teachings of Falun Gong prohibit any form of killing."

This lack of solidarity is adding to a growing desperation among the meditation group's rank and file, many of whom feel out of touch with their exiled master and misguided by his overseas ministers. Ever since Beijing outlawed it as an "evil cult" two years ago, Falun Gong-an eclectic mix of Taoism, Buddhism and Qigong breathing exercises-has prided itself on its organizational acumen. In April 1999, the group achieved the impossible, silently assembling 10,000 adherents in front of Beijing's walled leadership compound. Even as thousands of its members were thrown into labor camps and more than 100 were allegedly tortured to death in police custody, the group kept up its peaceful protests, unfurling banners in Tiananmen Square on a near daily basis. But despite its outward cohesion, Falun Gong is struggling to redefine its philosophical heart. "We all believe in Falun Gong," says an acolyte from Chengdu, central China. "But not all of us believe in the same Falun Gong."

Certainly, the government would be delighted by any disarray within the group's ranks. Despite an unrelenting propaganda campaign-Beijing claims that 1,700 followers have died because of eccentric Falun Gong practices-most Chinese view the group as harmlessly kooky. Yet for the nation's control-crazed rulers, no group, not even firebrand dissidents who call for immediate political reform, is as menacing as these quiet meditators who have mounted among the most sustained protests in the history of the People's Republic.

For its part, Falun Gong continues to claim that it has no overarching political agenda. Still, the group has taken to describing Jiang Zemin as a "demon worshipper" infected with "Mad Power disease." And on January 1, its mysterious master, New York-based Li Hongzhi, upped the ante by releasing a curious scripture that appeared to allow violence in extreme cases when protesting ill treatment. For some Falun Gong followers, the words were a welcome call to arms. "It is not in Falun Gong's nature to be violent," says a retired teacher, who was arrested last year for her ties to the group. "But only Falun Gong believers have the bravery to die for their cause."

Such fervor caused Li's handlers to recast the New Year's message. Says New York spokeswoman Gail Rachlin: "The essay is about stepping out and telling of evil, not about creating evil." Such fine-tuning may be too subtle for the thousands of believers who flock to Beijing to voice their protest. Indeed, New York's disowning of the five immolators has bewildered some Falun Gong adherents living in China. "I know that violence is against the spirit of Falun Gong," says a 53-year-old factory worker from Nanjing. "But why don't our foreign friends support us when we are in trouble?" For his part, the master has not expounded further on the subject.

Beijing, busy burnishing its image in its bid for the 2008 Olympics, has carefully blocked any mention of the Tiananmen immolations in the official Chinese-language press. But its troubles may not be over. Anonymous flyers distributed last week in Shanghai and Wuhan mailboxes ominously spoke of the necessity of taking "extreme measures."

"Tiananmen is China's national political altar," says veteran human-rights watcher Robin Munro. "Blood spilled there consecrates a cause." For the five Falun Gong extremists, perhaps only fire could purify the nation's spiritual center.

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