To Fight Sect, China Publicizes a Public Burning

New York Times/January 31, 2001
By Erik Eckholm

Beijing -- One week after five people described as Falun Gong members set themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square, China finally informed its own people tonight. It broadcast grisly police videos of the burning believers as part of a newly intensified campaign to discredit the outlawed spiritual group.

Last Tuesday the government's foreign language news services, read by foreign reporters and people abroad, briefly announced that one man and four women, whom they described as Falun Gong adherents from the city of Kaifeng, had set themselves on fire in the square in central Beijing that day and that one woman had died. But domestic television, radio and newspapers were not allowed to describe the events until this evening, when the authorities broadcast a graphic 20-minute television program about the incident and issued extensive new condemnations of the spiritual group for the Wednesday newspapers.

For the first time, the authorities said that one of the badly burned people was a 12-year-old girl, the daughter of the 36-year-old woman who died in the flames. Clearly aiming to stir up public outrage against the tenacious spiritual group and its leader, Li Hongzhi, who lives in the United States, the television show included close-up film of the charred girl, a fifth-grader identified as Liu Siying, writhing on the marble surface of Tiananmen Square and crying "Mama, Mama!" Later from the hospital, the child, who has severe burns on 40 percent of her body, was reported to have said that her mother had promised that the flames would transport them to paradise.

After the attempted immolations last week, at the beginning of the Lunar New Year, China's biggest holiday, leaders of Falun Gong abroad said they did not believe that the five were followers and said "Master Li" prohibits suicide. Tonight, group spokesmen in New York again said that "there is no proof" that the people described in Chinese news media accounts were genuine Falun Gong practitioners.

The official accounts could not be independently verified, but they appeared to offer detailed evidence that the protest had been undertaken by ardent Falun Gong believers who had plotted it together. The authorities provided the names and backgrounds of the five who burned themselves after dousing their clothes with gasoline carried in plastic Sprite bottles. They also provided details about two other people, not mentioned before, saying they had been stopped at the last minute from lighting themselves.

The carefully orchestrated official accounts released tonight emphasized what were portrayed as the irrational and cruel sides of Falun Gong and its leader. They marked a new phase in the government's almost frenetic battle to shape public opinion against a group that has refused to wither away since it was banned in July 1999 as an "evil cult" and many of its domestic organizers were arrested.

Like several other groups, Falun Gong promises its adherents health benefits and spiritual salvation through meditative exercises. It says it is nonpolitical. In the effort to justify a crackdown that has sent thousands of formerly upright citizens to labor camps and led to more than 100 deaths in police hands, the government first labeled Falun Gong a fraud that misled sick people into forgoing needed medical care, supposedly resulting in more than 1,600 unnecessary deaths. Later it contended that the group had covert aims to overthrow the Communist Party.

More recently, officials have begun charging that the group is an instrument of hostile foreign powers and, as the program tonight did, that it causes followers to lose all sense of reality. As a case in point, one of the burn victims and his relatives were shown tonight persisting in their assertion that Falun Gong is the key to spiritual salvation.

In interviews, many citizens, while suspicious of Falun Gong's mystical claims and leader-worship, say that they have become weary of the government's incessant denunciations of a group that has attracted millions of followers, from small-town retirees to university scientists. Many people have said in private that the government created a problem for itself by demonizing the group. But tonight's program clearly stunned many viewers and may have influenced some to harden their views against Falun Gong.

"Exercise for your health is one thing, but this is spoiling people's minds," said a 32-year-old shop owner who saw the program tonight. Some Beijing residents saw fliers in their residences urging them to watch tonight's program, a special edition of a popular newsmagazine show, "Focus,"' which folows the evening news each day.

Started in 1992 by Mr. Li, a former government clerk, Falun Gong combines elements of Buddhism, Taoism and Chinese theories of qi, or cosmic energy forces. In Mr. Li's rendition, those who practice the right exercises activate an invisible wheel in the abdomen that sucks in good energy and expels bad forces, improving health and happiness.

Mr. Li also attacked corruption in modern society. Those in advanced stages of practice, he wrote, may experience supernatural effects like flying or being in two places at once. Tens of millions of Chinese, many of them middle-aged or elderly people worried about the high cost of medical care, were attracted to the clusters of Falun Gong followers who exercised in public parks. But the government began planning to stamp out the group after 10,000 members staged an audacious, illegal demonstration in Beijing in April 1999, demanding recognition and an end to the mounting public criticism of the group.

Since the group was outlawed, a steady stream of believers has traveled to Beijing and demonstrated in Tiananmen Square, where they have been quickly detained and taken away in vans for shipment back to their local police and "re-education." Official frustration with the continued defiance has been joined by fear that Falun Gong protests could mar the visit by the International Olympic Committee next month to inspect Beijing as a possible site for the 2008 Olympics.

The television special this evening showed a man identified as Wang Jindong, 51, of Kaifeng in the central province of Henan, engulfed in leaping flames as he sat cross-legged in the square. After the police doused him with fire extinguishers, the video showed, he continued to sit in the meditating position, his face and body blackened.

The program featured an interview with one of the women who failed to ignite herself, identified as Liu Baorong, 54. Ms. Liu, who was said to have traveled from Kaifeng with the group, said she had undergone a total change of heart after seeing the others enveloped in black smoke. She said she had expected the group to be shrouded in white smoke and feeling no pain as the members ascended to heaven. But the authorities, in the television program and in articles released to the press this evening, especially featured the 12-year-old girl.

"She had been a lovely and pretty girl with a nickname of `happy- nut,' " stated the profile of Liu Siying by the New China News Agency. Her mother taught her to practice Falun Gong last March and brought her to Beijing with a promise that "the flame could not hurt you," the girl is reported as saying.

"It will only pass through your body and you will enter heaven in a twinkling," she reportedly was told by her mother. "But now," the profile says, "her severely burned face and hands tell people that she may never be happy again."

The girl is reported as telling nurses that "Mom fooled me." But when she asked to see her mother, the article says, the nurses did not have the courage to tell her that her mother was dead.

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