BEIJING - The Falungong spiritual movement Wednesday denied Chinese allegations thatseven people who tried to burn themselves to death in Beijing last week were members of the organization.
US-based members of the group issued the denial after state-run Chinese media Tuesday launched a massive new anti-Falungong campaign, detailing the alleged circumstances surrounding the January 23 mass suicide attempt.
Since the teachings of the group explicitly make any form of killing a sin, the seven -- including a 12-year-old girl -- could not possibly have been Falungong adherents, said Zhang Erping, a US-based spokesman.
"The Falungong is peaceful and makes it very clear that you are not allowed to kill, let alone commit suicide," he told AFP.
One woman, the mother of the 12-year-old, died in the incident, while four others survived with severe burns and two were stopped by police before they could go ahead with the suicide attempt, according to state media.
"Hoodwinked by the malicious fallacies of Li Hongzhi, founder of the Falungong cult, seven practitioners plotted the appalling suicidal blaze at Tiananmen Square in central Beijing," the official Xinhua news agency said.
The six women and one man were driven by the scriptures of guru Li to "forget death and life" and believed that their suicides would end with them reaching "nirvana," it said.
In a separate commentary, Xinhua linked the group suicide attempt to mass suicides brought on by other sect leaders around the world.
The Falungong on Tuesday issued a statement which did not directly deny the people attempting suicide were members of the group, but said there was no proof they were adherents.
"Those who have read books of Falungong will clearly see that the language used and the actions exhibited by (the suicide group) are foreign to genuine Falungong practitioners," the statement said.
Falungong spokesmen said that no members of the group could possibly have misunderstood a ban against suicide, which they said was one of the basic principles of the organization.
"We don't believe these are Falungong practitioners," said Gail Rachlin, another US-based spokeswoman. "We are telling our practitioners that suicide is a sin."
Falungong said it was eager to know the truth about what actually happened on Tiananmen, and it urged China to allow the United Nations, international human rights groups and foreign media to investigate.
Zhang, the other spokesman, said the Chinese government had tried to set up the group with the incident.
Although he declined to speculate about the details of the alleged plot, he said there were several "fishy" aspects of the Chinese explanation of the suicide.
He said police officers stationed on Tiananmen were able to produce fire extinguishers within a minute after the suicide attempt.
"Police officers never carry fire extinguishers around," he said. "How come the police were carrying fire extinguishers on that day?"
Since Beijing banned the Falungong movement in July 1999, accusing it of being an "evil cult," 104 followers have died in police custody, according to the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy.
BEIJING - 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 spiritual group.
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 died.
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 flames.
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 practitioners.
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 themselves.
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 nonpolitical.
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 parks. 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 again."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.
BEIJING - Seeking to whip up public outrage against the Falun Gong sect, Chinese state newspapers on Wednesday splashed gruesome pictures of a 12-year-old girl who was part of a fiery group suicide attempt on Tiananmen Square.
The girl, her face burned away and a hand turned into a blackened claw, is in critical condition in a Beijing hospital.
She and her mother were among five members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement who doused their clothes in gasoline and set fire to themselves last Tuesday. The mother died of her injuries.
"Shock, Pain, Indignation," screamed a front-page headline in the Beijing Youth Daily as part of an all-out media campaign aimed at using the self-immolations to try to discredit Falun Gong at home and abroad.
Another mother and daughter pair were also part of the suicide bid, the 19-year-old daughter a beautiful and brilliant music student whose face is now burnt beyond recognition.
Chinese-language state media ignored the story for a week until China Central Television on Tuesday broadcast graphic close-up pictures taken by surveillance cameras on the square, and ran interviews with relatives of the victims.
In another sign of its hardened resolve, Beijing issued a stern warning it would not allow the group to use Hong Kong as a base.
Just weeks ago, Hong Kong hosted a conference by 1,000 followers of the movement, angering Chinese authorities.
"Hong Kong Falun Gong has taken off its mask of 'no participation in politics, no action against the government and no involvement in any political forces' and directed their attacks at the central government," China's semi-official China News Agency quoted a spokesman of the Central Goverment Liaison Office in Hong Kong as saying.
Overseas Falun Gong organisations have expressed scepticism the five were Falun Gong members, and condemned what they describe as a smear campaign by Beijing.
Responding to the latest media offensive, the New York Falun Dafa Information Centre insisted the spiritual movement forbids all killing, including suicide, and said there was no proof the five were real believers.
"It is a tragedy that those who originally set fire to themselves had been driven to such a desperate act, whether because they were so disenfranchised by Chinese society or because they had been set up by the Chinese regime," the information centre said in a statement.
The 12-year-old girl, Liu Siying, suffered 40 percent burns to her body after her mother persuaded her to join the self-immolations on the eve of the Lunar New Year, the media reports said.
Bandaged from head to toe in a hospital ward, the girl was quoted saying she believed the flames would not hurt her and that she would reach paradise, which she described as a "wonderful world with gold everywhere."
State television on Monday showed the girl's still-smoking body sprawled on the square after the flames had been doused. She was murmuring "mama, mama" through blistered lips.
The media also dwelled on the story of Chen Guo, the music student who performed in Singapore at the age of 12. The reports blamed her mother for her obsession with Falun Gong.
State television showed relatives of the fifth survivor, Wang Jindong, saying they were not worried about his horrific burns because he was a disciple of Falun Gong.
Chinese media said police had also stopped two other Falun Gong members before they could set themselves on fire.
FALUN GONG SAYS SUICIDE A SIN
Beijing has been angered by international criticism of its crackdown on the group, which it calls an "evil cult," and fears the negative publicity may even derail its bid to host the 2008 Olympics.
It is also frustrated at the stubborn loyalty of adherents to the sect's U.S.-based leader Li Hongzhi, who has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
The latest media campaign linked to the burnings has triggered anger and revulsion against the Falun Gong by many ordinary Chinese.
But overseas, it seemed just as likely to draw yet more attention to Beijing's ruthless crackdown on the sect.
Beijing's hard line on Falun Gong in Hong Kong risked sparking sparking controversy if it is seen as interference in the territory, which was promised a high degree of autonomy after it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
"Anyone who has read the texts knows that suicide is a sin," Falun Gong spokeswoman Gail Rachlin told Reuters by telephone from New York. "This is not something any true Falun Gong practitioner would commit."
"This is why we've called on the Chinese government to let an independent third party -- a human rights group or United Nations or the media itself -- investigate this." One of those stopped by police, Liu Baorong, said she had been inspired by Li's recent statements.
HONG KONG - Beijing has issued a stern warning that any attempt to turn Hong Kong into a centre for the Falun Gong spiritual movement or an anti-China base will not be tolerated.
But followers of the movement in Hong Kong remained defiant, vowing to continue their activities in the territory and speak out against China's crackdown on the group.
"We are suppressed and we want to speak the truth. We want the Chinese government to stop suppressing the Falun Gong," Kan Hung-cheung, the movement's spokesman in Hong Kong, said on Wednesday.
"We will not stop calling for an end to the persecution in China of Falun Gong," said Sharon Xu, another Falun member.
Beijing's attack was the strongest yet against the group and came weeks after some 1,000 followers from around the world held protests and a conference in the former British colony which returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
China has outlawed the movement, which it labels as an "evil cult," and has of late stepped up a vilification campaign against it.
But the movement is legal in Hong Kong, which retained a high degree of autonomy under the so called "one country, two systems" concept after the handover of sovereignty.
China's semi-official China News Agency quoted a spokesman for the Central Government Liaison Office in Hong Kong as saying Beijing would not permit Hong Kong to become a base for Falun Gong activities directed against the mainland.
"The central government will not allow any organisation or anyone attempting to turn Hong Kong into a centre for Falun Gong activities and using Hong Kong as an anti-China base, damaging "one country, two systems" and Hong Kong's stability and prosperity," the spokesman said late on Tuesday.
He said recent activities by Falun Gong adherents in Hong Kong had become increasingly political and international.
"Hong Kong Falun Gong has taken off its mask of 'no participation in politics, no action against the government and no involvement in any political forces' and directed their attacks at the central government," the spokesman said.
The Hong Kong government has declined comment.
GROUP DISTANCES ITSELF FROM FIRE DRAMA
On Tuesday, Chinese state media issued dramatic pictures and reports of five Falun Gong members who set themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square last week, in an apparent attempt to discredit the banned movement.
But Kan questioned the authenticity of the images, and distanced the group from the self-immolation incident.
"The report yesterday cannot confirm those people are in fact Falun Gong members... it is not beyond the Chinese authorities to resort to underhand means to smear us, including that of concocting the pictures," he said.
"Falun Gong members cannot kill, cannot commit suicide, so these people cannot be real Falun Gong members," Kan said.
The group has previously said that 110 mainland believers were known to have died as a result of China's persecution - including those beaten or tortured to death in detention - since Beijing launched its crackdown in July 1999.
China has acknowledged several deaths in custody, but says most resulted from suicide or illnesses.
Political analysts in Hong Kong said Beijing's latest warning will put pressure on the territory's government to keep the group in check.
"It will have the indirect effect of exerting pressure on the Hong Kong government to do something about the Falun Gong in Hong Kong," political analyst Lau Siu-kai, a sociology professor at the Chinese University, told Reuters.
BEIJING - Hoping to validate its crackdown on Falun Gong (news - web sites), China on Tuesday portrayed five people who set themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square as obsessive sect members, among them a 12-year-old girl who cried out to her mother to be saved.
In its first comprehensive account of the attempted group suicide on Jan. 23, the government said seven Falun Gong followers - not five as it previously reported - sought to commit suicide in hopes of ``ascending to heaven.''
State television broadcast security camera footage of followers engulfed in flames and police rushing to put them out with fire extinguishers. One man, his body and clothes charred and blackened, sat crossed-legged - a distinctive Falun Gong meditation pose - after police had doused the flames.
Of the five who succeeded in setting fire to themselves, 36-year-old Liu Chunling died. Her 12-year-old daughter, Liu Siying, was among four others seriously injured, the government's Xinhua News Agency said.
``Mom, uncle, help! Help me!'' Xinhua said the girl cried as she caught fire. China Central Television showed her lying on Tiananmen's flagstones, her face, eyes and lips charred black in a cobweb pattern. ``Mom. Mom,'' she whimpered.
Police stopped two others from igniting themselves, among them a woman who drank gasoline from a Sprite bottle and repeatedly yelled, ``Let me go to heaven!'' after officers took away her lighter, Xinhua said.
Falun Gong has denied that the four women and one man who lit themselves on fire were members of the group. It said the group's founder, Li Hongzhi, clearly prohibits suicide in his teachings and described brief Chinese government accounts of the act last week as an attempt to defame the group.
The attempted group suicide appeared to be the most radical act in what has largely been a campaign of civil disobedience against the communist government's 18-month ban on the group. It came three weeks after Li, who lives in New York, called for more vigorous action to protest the crackdown.
In the lengthy state media accounts and a separate editorial, the government attempted to fix blame on Li. The reports reiterated claims that the sect has caused more than 1,600 deaths and cited Li's Jan. 1 essay posted on group Web sites in which he suggested the crackdown was pushing the sect ``beyond tolerance.''
``The tragic participants in this self-immolation were cheated, poisoned and controlled by Li Hongzhi, serving as the canon fodder and sacrificial objects for Li to reach his most evil goal,'' Xinhua said in the editorial.
The reports dwelled on 12-year-old Liu. She suffered burns over 40 percent of her body, an injured windpipe and fourth-degree burns to her face, and all her fingers may have to be amputated, Xinhua said. ``A healthy girl has become a life-long physically impaired person in an instant.''
Liu's mother, who died of her burns, introduced her to Falun Gong last March, Xinhua said. It said fellow practitioners encouraged Liu to set herself on fire by telling her the flames would not hurt her and would lead her to paradise.
``Didn't you know using a lighter to set fire to yourself would hurt?'' state television showed a hospital nurse asking the girl, whose gauze-covered body lay flat on a gurney. Liu replied she didn't know. She was shown telling a TV reporter: ``Auntie, I thought the road to the heavenly kingdom was golden.''
Falun Gong's mixture of slow-motion exercises and eclectic philosophy drawn from Buddhism, Taoism and Li's ideas attracted millions of Chinese before it was outlawed in July 1999. Practitioners claim Falun Gong improves health and morality and gives experts supernatural powers.
Unmentioned in the state media reports was the crackdown's relentless pursuit of practitioners. A Hong Kong-based rights group has counted more than 100 deaths of followers, mostly as a result of police abuse. Thousands are reported to have been put in prison camps and deprogramming centers. The unrepentant have been fired from their jobs and hounded from their homes.
Xinhua said the seven ``obsessive'' Falun Gong followers came to Beijing from the central city of Kaifeng. They put gasoline in plastic bottles of Sprite because ``gasoline looks similar to Sprite,'' they each carried two lighters and agreed to ignite themselves at 2:30 p.m. at different locations on Tiananmen's vast plaza, it said.
``The actions of the self-immolators - going to Tiananmen Square with the intention of 'ascending to heaven' and 'completion,' sitting in meditation, shouting cult slogans - clearly proves that they were genuine 'Falun Gong' obsessives,'' Xinhua said in a separate commentary.
LONDON -- The confrontation between the Chinese government and the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement has reached a new level, with Beijing preparing for a new offensive against the "dangerous sect," The Guardian of London reported Monday.
Beijing has announced plans to set up urban anti-riot groups, admitting that it is ill-prepared to deal with social unrest. the government said the sect posed a serious threat to social order and ethics after it had "spoiled the festive air of the Chinese New Year" last week by staging a suicide protest in Tiananmen Square, The Guardian reported, citing the official People's Daily.
The plan provides for at least 300 specially trained officers in Beijing, and of 200 or more in provincial capitals.
The struggle with the Falun gong has complicated China's relationship with President Bush.
Last Thursday, China sharply rejected condemnation by the new administration of President George W. Bush for Beijing's crackdown on the Falun Gong. Chinese officials said Washington should stop using the excuse of Falun Gong to interfere in China's internal affairs.
The Falun Gong has denied that the five people who set fire to themselves in Tiananmen Square had anything to do with its members. The incident last Tuesday, involving five alleged Falun Gong followers, left one woman dead and four people injured.
China rejects claims that Falun Gong members are being tortured and killed, but says it needs to "act resolutely" against the group's leaders.
Beneath the red and green pagoda-style rooftops of Chicago's Chinatown on Sunday there were the sounds of marching bands, the acrid smell of firecracker smoke and shiny, colorful dragons dancing about with the help of dozens of quick stepping feet.
But also celebrating the Chinese New Year, which officially began Wednesday, by marching in Sunday's annual parade along Wentworth Street were 50 members of the Falun Gong movement, followers of a spiritual exercise based on choreographed movements similar to t'ai chi or yoga.
In addition to helping usher in the Year of the Snake on the Chinese calendar, practitioners said their second annual parade appearance and graceful, hourlong exercise demonstration were done to educate people about a discipline creating controversy and spurring crackdowns in China.
Practitioners noted that other Eastern exercises--considered less a threat to the government--are different than Falun Gong, also called Falun Dafa.
"They just do the exercise," explained Falun Gong member Yu "Hubert" Zhou. "The Falun Gong, we have the philosophy, which is different than the Communist Party where they try to guide the beliefs."
Meditation and adherence to moral values--such as truthfulness and benevolence--are also part of Falun Gong, practitioners said about the discipline developed in 1992 by Li Hongzhi in China.
Practitioners are quick to point out, Falun Gong is not a religion or a sect, but an exercise for improvement of the mind and body.
Since July 1999, however, the Chinese government has banned Falun Gong, calling the group as an "evil cult."
The Chinese government's persecution of the group prompted a testy exchange on Thursday between Beijing and Washington. A few hours after Secretary of State Colin Powell told China's ambassador in Washington to respect civil liberties, China said such remarks could hurt relations between the two countries.
Several local participants who moved from China told stories of beatings, interrogations and confiscation of property after expressing public support for the discipline.
And, they dismissed Chinese government reports of recent suicides by Falun Gong followers as state propaganda.
"It's really about independent spirit. In China there is no check and balance. [Communist Party leadership] has all the power," said Falun Gong member Carolyn Lu, 36. "We are really hoping for all the kind-hearted people in the world to stop this crime against humanity." Six New Year's revelers joined the yellow-clad Falun Gong members going through their movements Sunday for an impromptu lesson.
"I felt it was pretty calming because everything is done in even and steady motion," said David Roufs, 29, of Rogers Park. "It seems to me that they are being persecuted because they look toward themselves, not the state, for power."
What Is Falun Gong? See "Falun Gong 101", by Massimo Introvigne
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