Kaifeng, China -- There is a neighborhood on the eastern side of this once-glorious city called Apple Orchard, but there are no apple trees here, only drab concrete buildings and clusters of unemployed men loitering on mud streets. It was here, in a fourth-floor apartment in Building Six, that Liu Chunling and her 12-year-old daughter, Liu Siying, lived.
The mother was a quiet woman who kept to herself, the daughter a lively schoolgirl who never failed to smile and say hello. Neighbors recalled that there was something both strange and sad about Liu Chunling, that she sometimes hit her child, that she drove her elderly mother away, that she worked in a nightclub and took money to keep men company.
But no one suspected that Mrs. Liu, 36, might have joined the banned spiritual movement Falun Gong. And hardly anyone noticed when she and her daughter disappeared.
And then there they were on television, their bodies engulfed in orange flames in Tiananmen Square. Liu Siying was shown lying on a stretcher, her face and lips charred black, whimpering, "Mama, mama." Her mother, the newscast reported, was already dead.
What drove the Lius and three others from this city in central Henan Province, about 560 kilometers (350 miles) south of Beijing, to pour gasoline on their bodies and set themselves afire on Jan. 23, eve of the Chinese New Year?
An intense battle is underway to answer that question, with the five individuals cast in turn as victims of an evil cult, righteous protesters against a repressive government or desperately estranged people on the margins of a fast changing society.
The Communist Party has begun a campaign to use the incident to prove its claim that Falun Gong is a dangerous cult and to turn public opinion in China and abroad against the group it outlawed 18 months ago and has tried to crush.
Every morning and night, the state controlled media carry fresh attacks against Falun Gong and its U.S.-based leader, Li Hongzhi. Schools have been ordered to "educate" pupils about the sect.
Discussion meetings have been organized in factories, offices and universities. Religious leaders as far away as Tibet have delivered denunciations. In Kaifeng, the post office issued an anti Falun Gong postmark, and 10,000 people signed a petition against the group.
China also has used the incident to pressure Hong Kong to ban Falun Gong, testing the strength of the "one country, two systems" setup that gives the former British colony autonomy over its affairs. Falun Gong exists legally in Hong Kong, but the territory's security chief warned Thursday that the police intend to monitor the group's activities closely.
Falun Gong leaders insist that the Lius and their companions could not have been members of their movement, which promotes a mix of Buddhism, Taoism and traditional Chinese breathing exercises. They have said Falun Gong clearly forbids both violence and suicide and have suggested the government may have staged the incident.
Other human rights activists say the five set themselves on fire to protest the government's crackdown on Falun Gong, which has resulted in thousands of arrests and as many as 105 deaths in police custody.
All but Liu Siying, 12, had protested Beijing's actions against Falun Gong in Tiananmen Square previously, according to the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy.
There is a tradition of politically motivated suicide in China. At the start of China's last dynasty, in the 1640s, hundreds of people killed themselves rather than live under the Manchus. More than 250 years later, several students committed suicide to protest the Qing Dynasty's refusal to establish a constitutional republic. And countless Chinese took their lives to escape the abuse of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution.
But there is hardly any precedent for public self-immolation. In Kaifeng, a city of 700,000 that was China's imperial capital and one of the world's most populous cities at the turn of the last millennium, most residents took a dim view of what the Lius and the others did.
"They disgraced Kaifeng, and they disgraced China in front of the whole world. It was just too much!" said Tang Shaohua, 60, who runs a grocery.
But even in Kaifeng, there are signs that the government's propaganda campaigns have lost some of their effectiveness. Several residents expressed weariness with the barrage against Falun Gong.
"I'm not saying I don't believe the government, but I'm not saying I believe it, either," said Liu Xiaoyu, 39, as she made dumplings in Kaifeng's night market. "The government controls the news. We all know that now."
A cabdriver, Wang Chaohui, said he believed that Falun Gong was a religion like any other and added that it would be unfair to blame the acts of five individuals on a group with millions of practitioners.
Mr. Wang said that the question China must confront is why so many people believe in something like Falun Gong. "People are dissatisfied with society," he said. "That's the problem."
Like the rest of China, Kaifeng has experienced a revival in all kinds of religions as communist ideology has lost its appeal. Over the past decade, residents have turned in large numbers to Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism - and Falun Gong.
Before the group was banned, hundreds practiced its meditation exercises in the city's parks. Falun Gong has attracted a cross section of Chinese: party members, senior army officers, bureaucrats, teachers and millions living on the margins of society. In Kaifeng, where several factories have closed and the economy has slumped, many are searching for something to believe in.
The state media have said little about why the five who set themselves on fire might have joined Falun Gong. Beijing denied requests to interview Liu Siying and the three other survivors, who remain hospitalized with serious burns.
But Liu Chunling's Apple Orchard neighbors described her as a woman who led a troubled life. State media identified Hao Xiuzhen, 78, as her adoptive mother. Neighbors said they quarreled often before Mrs. Liu drove the woman from their home last year. "There was something wrong with her," said neighbor Liu Min, 51. "She hit her mother, and her mother was crying and yelling. She hit her daughter, too."
There were also questions about how Mrs. Liu supported herself and about the whereabouts of her daughter's father. Neighbors said Mrs. Liu was not a native of Kaifeng, and that a man in southern Guangdong Province paid her rent.
Others, including a neighbor, Wen Jian, 22, said Mrs. Liu worked in a local nightclub and was paid to dine with and dance with customers.
None ever saw her practice Falun Gong.