January 31, 2001
2001 The New York Times
To Fight Sect, China Publicizes a Public
By ERIK ECKHOLM
BEIJING, Jan. 30 ó 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.