BEIJING -- Five persons 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 on Tuesday afternoon, a dramatic act of protest on the eve of China's most joyous holiday, the Lunar New Year.
One women died and the four others were severely burned ``in two suicidal blazes,'' said Xinhua, the government news agency.
The self-immolation and public suicide is the most dramatic act so far in the escalating 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 Square over the past year, they have been mostly silent affairs that passed quickly, as police snatched banners and hustled protesters into vans.
They pale in comparison with Tuesday'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 rushed to douse the flames and erected a shield to keep onlookers from seeing the injured and the dead, said members of a CNN television crew who witnessed the event and were detained for a short time.
Such scenes are certainly anathema to the Chinese leadership, which is pushing to win the 2008 Olympics for Beijing, over the objections of human rights groups.
Falun Gong spokesmen in New York and Hong Kong immediately distanced the group from Tuesday's event, expressing skepticism about whether the dead and injured were Falun Gong members.
``In Chapter Seven, the first sentence says it is forbidden to take a life -- that includes to take your own,'' said Gail Rachlin, a New York-based spokesman for the group, referring to the writings by the group's founder, Li Hongzhi.
The Chinese government had clearly been bracing itself for the potential of intensified protests by Falun Gong, both during the Lunar New Year celebration this week and again when the Olympic Selection Committee visits Beijing at the end of February.
They had hoped to avert a spectacle like the one during the holiday period last year, when small groups of Falun Gong members were constantly unfurling small banners or adopting meditation poses in the square.
BEIJING -- In a graphic escalation of the protest against the ban on the group, five alleged followers of the Falun Gong meditation sect set themselves on fire Tuesday in Tiananmen Square, state media said.
One woman died in the incident here hours before millions of Chinese rang in the Lunar New Year, and the four other demonstrators were injured, the official New China News Agency said. All five apparently came to Beijing from Henan, a poor, landlocked province that has witnessed a large religious revival in recent years.
But a Falun Gong spokesman in New York disavowed the protesters, saying they were not sect members but unrelated demonstrators whose actions the government was using to "smear" the group.
"The Chinese government is trying to shift the blame onto Falun Gong," spokesman Erping Zhang said.
The attempted self-immolations occurred in two groups in Tiananmen Square shortly after 2:30 p.m., state media said. The protesters, four women and a man, doused themselves with gasoline and set themselves ablaze.
Despite the disavowal from New York, a CNN camera crew on the scene reported that four of the demonstrators had raised their arms in gestures of devotion to Falun Gong before they were subdued and the flames on their bodies were extinguished.
If the protesters were Falun Gong adherents, the actions would constitute a step beyond anything the sect has attempted in terms of defiance. In recent months, the rhetoric of the group's founder, Li Hongzhi--who lives in New York--has taken on an increasingly apocalyptic tone, matched by intensifying vilification from the Communist regime.
The government regards Li as a political subversive bent on overthrowing the state, an impression that China's top leaders formed in April 1999, when thousands of Falun Gong practitioners surrounded the Beijing government compound in a surprise protest. That action led to the prohibition against the sect three months later.
More Falun Gong protests are expected today, the first official day of the Year of the Snake. Since the Communist regime outlawed Falun Gong, the group has mounted almost daily demonstrations in the Chinese capital and has used national holidays for larger-scale protests to spotlight the continuing suppression of its beliefs.
Last year during the New Year's holiday, hundreds of adherents protested in Tiananmen Square. Falun Gong spokesmen say followers have been detained in past days in a preemptive strike against such demonstrations.
Most of the protests in Tiananmen Square have involved followers unfurling Falun Gong banners and performing the slow-motion exercises that the sect advocates as a path to good health. Chinese police usually pounce on protesters within seconds and cart them off to detention centers on the edge of the city.
Zhang, the group's New York spokesman, said that practitioners embrace peaceful and nonviolent protest and would not resort to anything like the self-burnings that occurred Tuesday.
"Our teaching forbids us from any forms of killing, [including] ourselves," he said.
Still, the fiery protests came just three weeks after exiled founder Li issued a statement to his followers that appeared to encourage stepped-up actions against the Beijing regime--even to the point of martyrdom.
If the group faces an evil force, Li wrote on January 1, "then various measures at different levels can be used to stop it and eradicate it." Setting aside the principle of "forbearance," one of Falun Gong's chief tenets, is acceptable in such a case, he said.
The group says that nearly 80 followers have died in police custody since the ban on Falun Gong was issued in July 1999. Hundreds more practitioners have been arrested.
Li's teachings promote a strict moral code and tell of cosmic reckonings to come. In August, he counseled disciples to lose their attachment to their earthly lives and to prepare for "consummation." Falun Gong's opponents, he warned, "will soon have to pay for all of their sins as they themselves are being completely eliminated during the Fa's [the Law's] rectification of the human world." For its part, the Chinese government has declared Falun Gong members "enemies of the people," as an editorial in the People's Daily put it Monday.
A faithful core of disciples has waged a cleverly organized, near-continuous protest campaign that has clearly given the government headaches in its attempt to stamp out the sect.
Within two hours of the attempted self-immolations Tuesday, security had been beefed up in Tiananmen Square, with uniformed and plainclothes police guarding every entrance to the plaza and even frisking some visitors. Officers were also posted at subway exits near the square--one of Beijing's most popular tourist spots, which makes entirely closing off the plaza a difficult matter.
The Communist regime finds itself in a tricky position as it continues its campaign to crush the movement but at the same time improve its image abroad in order to win its bid to host the Olympics in 2008.
Last weekend, Chinese leaders told visiting U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan that Beijing might ratify a key human rights pact, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, sometime in the first quarter of this year.
Human rights advocates have also pressed Beijing to ratify another agreement, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The government has merely signed both treaties.
Five members of the banned Falun Gong religious sect set themselves alight in Tiananmen Square in a suicide attempt yesterday on the eve of the Chinese New Year while tens of millions of people across the country lit firecrackers to chase out evil spirits.
Beijing has outlawed such pyrotechnics in the capital for fear of injury to person or property.
One woman died of her self-inflicted burns, according to the state-run news agency Xinhua, while policemen guarding the square against expected protests managed to douse the flames on the other three women and one man who were taken to hospital. The extreme nature of their protest marked a drastic extension of the 18-month war of attrition since Beijing banned the spiritual movement as an "evil cult".
A CNN camera crew that witnessed yesterday's events said the protesters doused their clothes in petrol before setting themselves on fire. Four women staggered around the vast plaza with their hands held high above their heads as flames leapt from their bodies.
One man was seen being carried into a police van with severe burns on his face and other bodies were laid out on the ground, hidden by a police screen. Xinhua repeated the government line that die-hard followers who persisted in their beliefs had been "hoodwinked by the evil fallacies of Li Hongzhi", the founder of Falun Gong who is based in America.
Beijing accuses Li of plotting with "hostile foreign forces" to destabilise China, set back economic reform and, above all, to overthrow the 51-year-rule of the Chinese Communist Party.
The success of protesters in penetrating police cordons to reach China's political heart is profoundly embarrassing to party leaders. After Falun Gong followers disrupted last year's public holiday, when many Beijingers flock to the square, greater vigilance had been expected.
Yet this public suicide attempt, on the most auspicious day of the Chinese lunar calendar, could suit Beijing's battle plans. While the new yearis traditionally a time for family reunion, the protesters chose instead to mutilate their bodies.
Chinese society frowns upon suicide because of lingering Confucian precepts that oblige children to treasure their bodies. Exceptions are allowed as a last resort to protest against extreme injustice. Falun Gong believers have endured widespread persecution, and up to 100 may have died in custody under torture.
Although suicide runs counter to the group's principles, many followers have already lost jobs and families by refusing to recant. A spokes-man for the group in Hong Kong said that the report might be part of a smear campaign by Beijing. "I think these people are probably not Falun Gong practitioners because we are told not to kill and, of course, not ourselves," Yee Han Hui said.
Practitioners interviewed by The Independent in Beijing this week stressed they would "protect Falun Gong with their life", and would not rest until their master's name had been cleared.
Recent comments by Li Hongzhi entitled "Beyond Forbearance", one of the group's sacred tenets, may have prompted yesterday's radical step. Inspired perhaps by Chairman Mao's comment that "a single spark can light a prairie fire", the protesters hope the flames of their sacrifice will ignite public anger at their plight.
More likely, their action will provoke a fiercer official response in the new year of the snake. The government can boast further "proof" of the group's cult-like behaviour as it increases its media campaign to convince the Chinese public.
Beijing blames Li Hongzhi's mystical philosophy for more than 1,500 deaths, principally through his advice that meditation is more powerful than modern medicine.
Other fatalities are said to have occurred when confused believers slit open their bellies to find the spinning Falun, or "wheel of law", Li claims to secrete inside each follower.
For the authorities, the protests are all the more difficult to handle because Beijing is under scrutiny from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) over its bid to host the 2008 Olympic Games. The IOC arrives in Beijing next month to assess the bid, and announces its decision in July.
Last night, thousands of police swamped the plaza. Officers frisked anybody trying to get on to the square, combed through bags and checked IDs. Hand-held fire extinguishers were close at hand. The square itself, traditionally filled with revellers during New Year festivities, was almost empty after the attempted suicides.
BEIJING - Thousands of Chinese police clamped a ring of steel around Tiananmen Square Wednesday as they violently crushed small sporadic protests by the banned Falungong sect following a group suicide attempt.
Uniform and undercover officers set up cordons at every entrance to the square in central Beijing to prevent protests by the spiritual movement to mark the first day of Chinese New Year.
China said five members of the group set themselves on fire in the square Tuesday, and that one woman died. A CNN camera crew witnessed the suicide and saw people in flames in a "classic Falungong meditation pose".
The Falungong movement in the United States strongly denied the five were practitioners and accused China of smear tactics.
The incident raises the stakes in the stand-off between the group and the government, which banned the sect as an "evil cult" in July 1999.
During Wednesday around 10 practitioners managed to slip through the net to make a series of scattered protests on the square, waving red banners or chanting Falungong slogans.
They were immediately tackled by dozens of police officers and dragged to nearby vehicles. Some were punched in the face and kicked.
Other followers were detained as undercover officers checked identity cards of everybody entering the square. Police also roamed the central esplanade asking if people were Falungong members.
China mounted the huge security operation to prevent a repeat of last year's Lunar New Year protests by thousands of followers. The alert was stepped up after the self-immolations on Tuesday afternoon.
An eyewitness account on CNN.com described how one man sat down on the ground, poured gasoline over his clothing and set himself ablaze near the Monument to the People's Heroes.
Seconds later four other people set themselves on fire, raised their hands above their heads and staggered around as flames engulfed their clothes.
One badly burned victim was seen writhing in agony as police looked on without offering help. Two ambulances arrived around 25 minutes later to take the injured away.
China has not released the names of the victims but said they were four women and a man from the central province of Henan.
Police refused to give any more details and hospitals around Beijing refused to answer questions about the injured.
Tiananmen Square has been the stage for almost daily protests by Falungong followers since the group was banned, with large demonstrations coinciding with important days in the Chinese calendar.
The Falungong statement said the five could not have been group members because the movement's teachings firmly oppose suicide or violence.
"This so-called suicide attempt on Tiananmen Square has nothing to do with Falungong practitioners because the teachings of Falungong prohibit any form of killing," said the statement.
The suicide came several weeks after Falungong founder Li Hongzhi, who lives in New York, issued an ambiguous Internet message which indicated the group was no longer prepared to accept China's brutal crackdown.
"The way evil is currently performing shows that they are already utterly inhuman and completely without righteous thoughts. Such evil's persecution can no longer be tolerated," said the message, widely distributed around China.
New York-based Falungong spokeswoman Gail Rachlin told AFP there was no way any follower could have misunderstood the message and turned to violence.
China's state-controlled media, which launched new propaganda offensive against the movement this month, has accused Falungong followers of violence and suicide in the past.
China says 1,600 followers have died after forsaking medical treatment in line with Li's teachings.
The Hong Kong-based Information Centre for Human Rights and Democracy says 104 sect members have died in police custody, while around 600 have been jailed and tens of thousands sent to labour camps.
Falungong combines Buddhist-based philosophy and slow-motion meditation exercises. It teaches the cultivation of a wheel of energy inside the belly of each participant which can bring health and spiritual well-being.
BEIJING - Police checkpoints ringed Tiananmen Square on Wednesday to head off threatened protests by the outlawed Falun Gong sect a day after five members set themselves on fire in China's symbolic heart.
The fiery protest left one woman dead, injured the other four and signaled a dangerous turn in the intensifying 18-month-old standoff between the spiritual movement and the communist government.
In response, Beijing police imposed the tightest security in the square in years, marring Wednesday's start of the lunar new year, China's biggest public holiday. Hundreds of uniformed police and plainclothes security officers, their walkie-talkies crackling in the cold winter air, patrolled the vast plaza and its immediate surroundings.
At pedestrian underpasses and crosswalks leading to the square, police checked identification papers, searched bags, made people turn out their pockets and open their coats and jackets, and looked down their sleeves to see if they were hiding anything inside.
To test whether people were affiliated with the sect, police made some repeat the phrase ``Falun Gong is an evil cult'' or made them denounce Li Hongzhi, the group's U.S.-based founder, asking: ``Is Li Hongzhi a good or bad egg?''
The inspections weeded out some sect members, while a few others still managed to protest. A man climbed atop a mound of shoveled snow inside the square and held up a banner before police, rushing at him from three sides, knocked him over. One officer pressed a knee into the protester's body, pinning him to the ground until a van drove up.
``Falun Dafa is good,'' another man shouted from inside a police van, using an alternative name for the group. Witnesses saw police leading four other people away, among them a man in his mid-30s who held up a red banner.
Despite the few flashes of protest, the intense security enforced calm on the snow-brushed square. Families, couples and groups of visitors strolled and snapped photographs. The scene was a marked contrast to last lunar new year, when police kicked and pummeled protesters to quash scattered outbursts of defiance in scenes of violence since repeated on major holidays.
Falun Gong attracted millions of followers in the 1990s with its slow-motion exercise and New Age philosophy that believers say promote health, good citizenship and supernatural powers.
Practitioners have waged a sustained campaign of civil disobedience in Tiananmen ever since the government banned the group in July 1999, accusing it of misleading followers, causing deaths and threatening Communist Party rule.
Tuesday's attempted group suicide appeared to mar the largely peaceful image of the sect's campaign. The five, soaked with gasoline, set themselves on fire, according to the government's Xinhua News Agency and a CNN camera crew, which witnessed the protest.
CNN reported that four of the protesters staggered forward, their bodies on fire and arms raised in a pose of meditation typical of Falun Gong.
Spokesmen for group founder Li, in New York, denied the protesters were Falun Gong and said the act was part of a Chinese government smear campaign.
``This so-called suicide attempt on Tiananmen Square has nothing to do with Falun Gong practitioners because the teachings of Falun Gong prohibit any form of killing,'' the group said in a statement.
The statement said more than 120 practitioners have died in custody but noted that China has only acknowledged a few deaths and attributed them to natural causes or suicide.
Still the attempted group suicide came after weeks of intensifying rhetoric on both sides. Li has called for more aggressive action against the government crackdown. But with Beijing bidding this year to host the 2008 Olympics, the government is keen to gain the upper hand in the struggle.
BEIJING - Falun Gong members staged fleeting protests on Tiananmen Square on the Lunar New Year festival on Wednesday, a day after five adherents of the spiritual movement set themselves on fire in an attempted group suicide.
Penetrating a police net, at least three Falun Gong practitioners managed to sneak onto the vast plaza in a new act of defiance, according to a Reuters witness.
One middle-aged woman repeatedly shouted "Falun Dafa is good" as officers grabbed her and frog-marched her away.
Fire extinguishers were stacked at points around the square after Tuesday's dramatic protest in which a man and four women doused themselves with petrol and set themselves ablaze.
The official Xinhua news agency said one of the women died of her injuries. There was no word on the condition of the others.
Hundreds of police patrolling Tiananmen Square made for a tense atmosphere in the capital on what should have been the most joyful day of the year, the start of the Year of the Snake, when families get together to feast and light fireworks.
Chinese tourists who visited the square to ring in the new year were frisked and checked for identification by uniformed and plainclothes officers at all entry points.
BALL OF FIRE
Tuesday's protest began when a man who had been sitting on the ground erupted into a ball of fire.
Four women were seen staggering about with their arms above their heads in an apparent Falun Gong gesture of devotion as orange flames leapt from their bodies, a CNN witness said.
Chinese-language state media made no mention of the fiery protests even though they have reported previous alleged mass suicide attempts by the group. The sole official account appeared on Xinhua's English-language wire service.
The silence could indicate that Chinese leaders are debating whether to use the incident as new fodder in a propaganda campaign to discredit Falun Gong and justify Beijing's often brutal crackdown on the group.
Beijing may fear that publicising the protest, which occurred despite tight security and with leaders celebrating in the nearby Great Hall of the People, would make the police look inept.
Some observers have suggested that the acts of self-sacrifice might even galvanise sympathy for the movement the way student hunger strikes ignited popular support for pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Beijing has long asserted the group is a doomsday cult that drives its followers to insanity and self destruction.
But authorities fear the reported torture and deaths of Falun Gong members detained by police could scupper its bid to host the 2008 Summer Olympics.
The International Olympic Committee will inspect the city in February and vote on a host city in July.
City authorities have said Tiananmen Square would be the venue for the beach volleyball competition.
The sight of police punching and kicking elderly Falun Gong demonstrators in Tiananmen Square has become commonplace since the movement was banned in July 1999 as a threat to social stability and Communist Party rule.
Xinhua said those who set themselves on fire had been "hoodwinked by the evil fallacies of Li Hongzhi," the New York-based Chinese founder of Falun Gong, also called Falun Dafa.
Li preaches salvation from a corrupt world through meditation and the study of texts based loosely on Buddhism and Daoism.
Falun Gong members in Hong Kong and New York said they doubted their fellow members would attempt suicide.
"This so-called suicide attempt on Tiananmen Square has nothing to do with Falun Gong practitioners because the teachings of Falun Gong prohibit any form of killing," the Falun Dafa Information Center in New York said.
"There are many other groups and many other Chinese citizens disenfranchised by injustice and corruption in society to protest the (Chinese) regime using either confrontational or extreme measures."
Kan Hung-cheung, a spokesman for Falun Gong followers in Hong Kong and chairman of the Hong Kong Association of Falun Dafa, told Reuters: "Falun Dafa clearly requires practitioners not to kill or commit suicide -- suicide is a sin.
"If some Falun Gong practitioners really set themselves on fire -- which is very unlikely -- I have to say Falun Gong has never asked practitioners to do this," said Kan, who Chinese state media has singled out as "a core member of the evil cult."
BEIJING - 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.
What Is Falun Gong? See "Falun Gong 101", by Massimo Introvigne
FALUN GONG UPDATES
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