5 members of Falun Gong set themselves on fire

1 dies in Beijing

group disavows act

January 24, 2001|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - Five members of the banned spiritual meditation group Falun Gong set themselves on fire yesterday in a suicide attempt at Tiananmen Square on the eve of Chinese New Year, according to Xinhua, China's government-run news service.

A woman died, and four men were injured and taken to a hospital by police, said Xinhua, which blamed the act on "the heresy of Li Hongzhi, ringleader of the evil cult Falun Gong."

Falun Gong members in Hong Kong denied that the group was behind the act, saying it ran counter to the lessons of compassion, tolerance and forbearance taught by Li, the group's exiled leader.

"Even if it's true, I'm sure they are not genuine Falun Gong practitioners," said Hui Yee-han, a spokeswoman for the Hong Kong Association of Falun Dafa, another name by which the group is known. "All the time, our appeals are peaceful, nonviolent and lawful, so it's totally impossible that any of our practitioners would do this to themselves."

The self-immolation - witnessed by a CNN television crew - occurred about 2:30 p.m. at the beginning of the most auspicious holiday on the Chinese calendar, Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival, as it is known here. During the festival, for which the government has declared a weeklong holiday, several hundred million people return home to mark the new year according to the Chinese lunar calendar.

Security remained tight last night in Tiananmen Square. The sprawling concrete plaza in the heart of the capital was filled with police officers, cars and vans, which are often used to haul away Falun Gong protesters.

A Falun Gong demonstration was expected in the square today.

Falun Gong first grabbed international attention in April 1999, when 10,000 followers stunned the Communist Party and surrounded the leadership compound in Beijing to protest government criticism and treatment of the group.

The regime responded by banning Falun Gong several months later, branding it an "evil cult" and blaming it for the deaths of 1,500 of its own adherents. The party fears any organization that can mobilize citizens and potentially challenge its monopoly on power.

Falun Gong was founded by Li, a former government clerk, and combines slow motion exercises with meditation and ethical teachings. Followers deny that they oppose the party and say that practicing Falun Gong improves their health and has provided them spiritual guidance - something generally lacking in modern Chinese society, where the ideological influence of communism has evaporated.

At the height of its popularity in China, Falun Gong appeared to have many millions of members - though the exact number is disputed. Thousands of Falun Gong members remain in government detention, according to human rights groups.

In a rare admission last week, the Chinese newspaper, Legal Daily, reported that a labor camp in the nation's frigid northeast held 470 followers.

Since the ban, 92 members have died in police custody, according to the Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy, a one-man, independent news agency based in Hong Kong.

Falun Gong, though, has shown remarkable staying power.

Although its ranks have thinned, the group has staged many demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, the political epicenter of the nation.

Police have responded by beating, kicking and dragging members by the hair and tossing them in vans.

Xinhua said the five protesters who lighted themselves on fire were from Kaifeng, a city several hundred miles away in central China. This suggested to some observers that the regime can't keep Falun Gong members from streaming into the capital to demonstrate.

During politically sensitive anniversaries and national holidays, police carefully check ID cards at train stations in Beijing to try to catch Falun Gong members. Hours after yesterday's protest, however, several hundred people exited trains at Beijing West Railway station and strolled through security checkpoints that were left unattended.

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