Beijing televises fiery footage

Official news agency airs self-immolations to fault Falun Gong

`They can be anybody'

January 31, 2001|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - In an attempt to further discredit Falun Gong as crazy and dangerous, China's government-run news media aired stunning video images last evening of the five purported members of the banned group who immolated themselves in Tiananmen Square earlier this month.

In one sequence, police armed with fire extinguishers surrounded a woman who resembled a human torch with fire pouring several feet from her body. The force of their fire extinguishers appeared to knock her to the ground, where she collapsed in a charred heap as white clouds of flame retardant hung in the air.

Another video clip, apparently taken by police with a video camera, showed a man identified as Wang Jindong sitting on the square in Falun Gong's favored lotus position and appearing to talk to himself. Wang's flesh was seared and his hair burned and blackened.

In interviews videotaped afterward, some of the victims - including a 12-year-old girl - told interviewers they had hoped their suicides would lead them to heaven, while people identified as their family members blamed the act on the teachings of Falun Gong.

The graphic images, which were part of lengthy news reports broadcast on China's local, national and international stations last night, were designed to undermine claims from Falun Gong representatives that the five people - one of whom died - were not practitioners. The reports also serve as the latest salvo in a propaganda offensive to portray the group as a crazed cult that sacrifices its members and whose behavior is spiraling out of control.

"The tragedy once again demonstrated the evil nature of Falun Gong and sounded an alarm to those obsessed with the cult," according to the state-run Xinhua news service.

Early this morning, a Falun Gong spokeswoman in Hong Kong again denied that the burn victims were connected to the group, the only one of its kind to stage protests with any regularity in Tiananmen Square, the political heart of the nation.

"They can be anybody," said Hui Yee-han, a spokeswoman for the Hong Kong Association of Falun Dafa, another name by which the group is known. "Even if this is a real incident - some people setting themselves on fire - it's totally not in line with our beliefs."

According to last night's reports, the group entered the square Jan. 23, the eve of Chinese New Year, carrying plastic lighters and soft-drink bottles filled with gasoline. At the appointed time, about 2:30 p.m., they began lighting themselves on fire in different spots on the plaza, which faces the famous, giant portrait of Mao Tse-tung.

A CNN crew captured part of the event on camera before police detained them and seized their videotape. Yesterday's images did not appear to come from the CNN tape, but from security cameras overlooking the square and hand-held cameras issued to police. In deciding to air the footage, the Chinese regime is banking that the images will provoke outrage and anger toward the group and its leader, Li Hongzhi, who lives in exile, and has lived in the United States.

One victim, a 12-year-old identified as Liu Siying, was pictured lying on the square afterward with a seared face, calling out "Mama, Mama." Her mother, identified as Liu Chunling, died after setting herself on fire as well, Xinhua said yesterday.

In a bedside interview aired on state television, Liu, who was wrapped in gauze from head to toe and struggled to speak with a tube in her trachea, said she was told that after she lighted herself on fire she was "going to paradise."

"I thought I would die immediately as long as I was on fire," Liu added, as the camera then focused on her blackened fingers and later a stuffed, white and pink bear placed on the edge of her bed.

Falun Gong accused the Chinese government of interviewing purported burn victims who were not even at the scene of last week's immolation.

"The Chinese government has now added two more persons to the group," the statement said. "They are now claiming that one of these was a 12-year-old girl. CNN eyewitness reports had said that there were only five people involved, one woman and four men, in which the woman was known to have died from her injuries. What is the real story?"

Falun Gong demonstrations have been almost uniformly peaceful acts of civil disobedience; whatever provoked people to attempt suicide is still unclear.

There has been speculation that a Jan. 1 message, "Beyond the Limits of Forbearance," posted on the group's Web site by Li, might have served as inspiration. In the message, Li seemed to suggest that followers might have to take stronger steps in the future.

Last night, though, Hui, one of the group's spokeswomen in Hong Kong, said members could not have interpreted the message as a signal to kill themselves.

"It can't be possible, because any sane person will know that fire will hurt," Hui said.

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