January 24, 2001

5 Linked to Banned Sect in China Set Themselves on Fire in Protest


BEIJING, Jan. 23 Five people believed to be members of the banned Falun Gong spiritual group doused themselves with gasoline and set themselves on fire in the middle of Tiananmen Square this afternoon, a dramatic act of protest on the eve of China's most joyous holiday, Spring Festival, or Chinese New Year.

One women died and the four other people were severely burned "in two suicidal blazes," said the New China News Agency.

The self-immolation and very public suicide is the most dramatic act so far in the 18-month war of wills between the Chinese government and Chinese members of Falun Gong, which the government has labeled an "evil cult."

While small acts of defiance by individual Falun Gong members have become a daily occurrence in Tiananmen during the last year, they have been mostly silent affairs that passed in the blink of an eye, as the police snatched banners and hustled protesters into vans.

They pale in comparison with today's chilling scene. Witnesses described Falun Gong members staggering across the vast expanse of the square, arms raised in the group's meditative pose and flames streaming from their bodies.

Police officers rushed to douse the flames and erected a shield to keep onlookers from seeing the injured and the dead, said a CNN television crew whose members witnessed the event and were detained briefly. And their tapes were confiscated.

One man from the protest was carried to a police van with burns on his face.

Such scenes are certainly anathema to the Chinese leadership, which is going all out to win the 2008 Olympics for Beijing, over the objections of human rights groups. Tiananmen Square, the political epicenter of Beijing, is slated to be the setting for beach volleyball.

Falun Gong spokesmen in New York and Hong Kong immediately distanced the group from today's event, expressing skepticism about whether the dead and injured were Falun Gong members.

"In Chapter 7, the first sentence says it is forbidden to take a life that includes to take your own," said Gail Rachlin, a New York-based spokeswoman for the group, referring to the writings by the group's founder, Li Hongzhi, a Chinese citizen now in exile in the United States. "So when the Chinese government talks about all these people committing suicide, it's not true. It's totally against what we believe."

The Chinese government had clearly been bracing itself for the potential of intensified protests by Falun Gong, both during the Chinese New Year celebration this week and again when the International Olympic Committee visits Beijing at the end of February. This week, the police had taken extra precautions and hoped to head off spectacles.

During the holiday period last year, small groups of Falun Gong members were constantly popping up in the square, unfurling small banners or adopting meditation poses. As has generally been the case, most were poor middle-aged people from the countryside.

Hundreds, at least, were arrested in that holiday period. And a number were pushed and kicked as they were herded into police vans, sometimes with foreign television cameras rolling. Some were ultimately sent to labor camps, but many were sent back to their home provinces for "education" often lectures by local officials the government policy at that early stage of its battle with the group.

Since then both sides have become more intransigent.

Falun Gong blends Buddhism, Taoism and the eclectic philosophy of Mr. Li with slow-motion exercises that followers say do miracles for their physical and emotional health. It denies any political agenda.

On Jan. 1, Mr. Li sent out a message on the Web site of the group suggesting that its cardinal principle of "forbearance" might not always be appropriate. And protest activity has become increasingly defiant as members have started covertly pasting up the group's leaflets in subway stations and slipping them under apartment doors.

Since late last year, the numbers of protesters arrested on the square have been increasing often dozens a day and the government has become increasingly frustrated. In addition, some protesters are coming to Beijing without identity papers and have refused to tell the police where they are from, making it hard to return them to their home areas.

Since the group was banned 18 months ago, hundreds of thousands of members have been detained by the police, at least briefly. More than 10,000 are in labor camps and an unknown number have been committed to psychiatric hospitals, according to human rights groups; they say they have confirmed that about 100 have died from beatings.

In recent weeks, the Chinese state news media have stepped up propaganda against the group, calling it a tool of foreign anti-Chinese forces and defending the government ban as "the will of the Chinese people."

"The people have expressed their deep concern over the cult's harmful effect on families, the health of the Falun Gong practitioners themselves, China's social stability as well as its illegal profits," the government news agency said.

Last week several newspapers contained long accounts about hundreds of Falun Gong members who had been released from labor camps or whose sentences had been reduced, generally after giving up their practice and denouncing the spiritual group. At least one of those members, a sculptor named Zhang Kunlun who holds both Canadian and Chinese passports, denied once he had returned to Canada that he had broken ties with Falun Gong.

A brief report about the suicide today put out by the news agency said the five "cult members," who were all from Kaifeng, in Henan Province, had been "hoodwinked by the evil fallacies of Li Hongzhi." The gruesome event was not reported on the television news.

The square remained open into the evening, but on a freezing day police officers generally outnumbered the usual strollers and tourists. After the immolation, there were at least a few of the more commonplace Falun Gong protests on Tiananmen, which are by now regarded with only mild curiosity by Beijing residents.

In late afternoon, as a middle-aged man in a worn padded jacket tried to unfurl a small yellow banner only to be escorted away by police officers an onlooker remarked, "Another one from the countryside."

Still, there were signs of the disaster that had come earlier in the day: Fire extinguishers had been added to the array of police vans and other equipment that now routinely graces the square. The police were frisking people and checking identity papers, giving extra scrutiny to those who carried water bottles, smelling the contents to check for gasoline.

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

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