China's anti-Falun Gong drive plays well on street

Reuters/January 31, 2001
By Paul Eckert

Beijing -- Beijing's intensified bid to discredit the Falun Gong spiritual movement using gruesome pictures of a fiery group suicide attempt appeared to resonate on the streets of Beijing on Wednesday.

Especially effective were pictures of 12-year-old Liu Siying, her face burned away and a hand turned into a blackened claw after she, her mother and three others doused themselves in petrol and set fire to themselves in Tiananmen Square last week.

Liu's mother was the only fatality in the most dramatic of hundreds of Falun Gong protests in the square. But she got no sympathy from people reading newspapers posted along the street.

For 60-year-old retiree Yu Changhe, the pictures supported the government's assertion that "Falun Gong is poison."

"That woman was influenced by Falun Gong leader Li Hongzhi and went on to poison her daughter," he told Reuters.

Another bystander, a woman surnamed Lan, agreed.

"What a pity that that could happen to a child. Falun Gong really is harmful," she said.

China's Communist rulers are using the plight of Liu Siying, now lying critically injured in hospital with burns over 40 percent of her body, to generate sympathy for an anti-Falun Gong campaign known mostly for police brutality and crude propaganda.

Major newspapers and state television were plastered on Wednesday with grisly images of the girl, who they said was persuaded by her mother to join the self-immolations on the eve of Lunar New Year.


Burning Children

Overseas Falun Gong organisations say they doubt seriously the five were Falun Gong members, insisting the movement forbids all killing, including suicide. They demand independent proof that the five were real believers.

But diplomats who monitor China's 18-month-old crackdown on Falun Gong -- which has provoked condemnation from many Western capitals -- say this time the Communist Party may succeed in capturing some moral high ground from the beleaguered sect.

"If those persons are Falun Gong, and most indications are that they were, the authorities are handling it right," said a Western diplomat. "It's ugly seeing them exploiting the little girl, but they are saying 'Look, they burn children and how can you support a group that burns children?"'

The mood was radically different in 1999, when China banned Falun Gong and branded it an "evil cult" which brainwashed its followers.

Then, shrill attacks from China's shrill state media propaganda invited uncomfortable comparisons with the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, when perceived enemies were targeted in fanatical campaigns.

The campaign was reported to have helped boost cable television subscriptions in Chinese cities as sophisticated viewers cringed at seeing scholars, farmers and workers paraded before state TV cameras to recite scripted denunciations of Falun Gong.


"Make Them Normal Again"

There was some quiet sympathy for a group seen as oppressed, even though few Chinese learned of protests by Falun Gong practitioners or of the price many paid for a remarkably sustained campaign of civil disobedience.

Some Falun Gong adherents who have repeatedly protested at Tiananmen Square, or have refused to recant their faith, have lost their jobs and apartments. Others suffered incarceration and forced medication in mental hospitals or were beaten to death, members and human rights organisations say.

But after taking in the grim newspaper photos posted near his Beijing residence on Wednesday, 52-year-old Wang Fuyi said: "Such terrible suffering makes it clear that Falun Gong must be eradicated."

"We also have to find a way to re-educate these people to make them normal again."

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