|Tiananmen Square self-immolation incident|
The Tiananmen Square self-immolation incident took place in Tiananmen Square in central Beijing, on the eve of Chinese New Year on 23 January 2001. The incident is disputed: the official Chinese press agency, Xinhua News Agency, stated that five members of Falun Gong, a spiritual movement whose members are persecuted in mainland China, set themselves on fire to protest the treatment of Falun Gong by the Chinese government. Falun Gong sources disputed the accuracy of these portrayals, noting that Falun Gong’s teachings explicitly forbid violence or suicide. The Falun Dafa Information Center suggested the incident was staged by the Chinese government to turn public opinion against the group and to justify the campaign against it. Western journalistic sources argue based on evidence uncovered both from the footage of the incident, and through journalistic research, that the incident was entirely staged. 
According to Chinese state media, the five people were part of a group of seven who had travelled to the square together. One of them, Liu Chunling, died at Tiananmen under disputed circumstances and another, her 12-year-old daughter, Liu Siying, died in hospital several weeks later; three survived. A CNN crew present at the scene witnessed the five setting themselves ablaze and had just started filming when police intervened and detained the crew. The incident received international news coverage, and video footage was broadcast later in the People’s Republic of China by China Central Television (CCTV). The coverage in the CCTV showed images of Liu Siying burning and interviews with the others in which they stated their belief that self-immolation would lead them to paradise, a belief that is not supported by Falun Gong’s teachings. Two weeks after the event, The Washington Post published an investigation into the identity of the two self-immolation victims who were killed, and found that “no one ever saw [them] practice Falun Gong.”
Human Rights Watch (HRW) believed the incident was among one of the most difficult stories for reporters in Beijing at the time to report on because of a lack of independent information available. A wide variety of opinions and interpretations of what may have happened emerged: the event may have been set up by the government, it may have been an authentic protest, the self-immolators “new or unschooled” practitioners, and other views. Journalist Danny Schechter notes that the Chinese government’s claims about the incident remain unsubstantiated by outside parties.
The campaign of state propaganda that followed the event eroded public sympathy for Falun Gong, and the government began sanctioning “systematic use of violence” against the group. Posters, leaflets and videos were produced detailing the supposed detrimental effects of Falun Gong practice, and regular anti-Falun Gong classes were scheduled in schools to expose the “dangers” of the practiceThe incident
On 23 January 2001, the eve of Chinese New Year, five people on Tiananmen Square poured gasoline over their clothes and set themselves on fire; another two people were prevented from igniting the gasoline.
A CNN film crew, who were there on a routine check for a possible Falun Gong protest, observed a man sitting down on the pavement north-east of the Monument to the People’s Heroes at the centre of the square. He proceeded to pour gasoline over himself and set himself ablaze. Police officers on the square noticed what was happening, quickly approached the man and extinguished the flames. Shortly afterwards, another four people on the square set themselves alight. One of the four, a man, was detained and driven away in a police van. According to the CNN report, there were at least two males among the five people, and there was no children on the site. But CCP medias claimed the five people were four females and one male, including a 12-year-old girl. The CNN crew was filming these events when military police stepped in and detained the crew. The authorities then put out the flames consuming the other four people’s clothing. A police van came to collect the badly burnt man, and two ambulances arrived almost 25 minutes later to collect the other four. The square was completely closed, and security was tight the next day, the most important of the traditional Chinese holidays; police monitored public access to the square for the New Year celebrations, had fire extinguishers ready, and prevented Falun Gong members from opening banners.
Of the five people who set themselves alight, one, Liu Chunling, died at the scene; another, her 12-year-old daughter, Liu Siying, died in Beijing hospital two months later, in March; the other three were left severely disfigured.
Media campaign and public opinion
The self-immolation incident was given prominent coverage in the official Chinese media as evidence of the alleged dangers of Falun Gong practice. Coverage of the event resulted in increased support for the Party’s suppression efforts against Falun Gong, and eroded public sympathy for the group. According to Philip Pan, the Communist Party “launched an all-out campaign to use the incident to prove its claim that Falun Gong is a dangerous cult, and to turn public opinion in China and abroad against the group[…] Every morning and night, the state-controlled media carry fresh attacks against Falun Gong and its U.S.-based leader, Li Hongzhi.” Posters, leaflets and videos were produced, detailing the supposed detrimental effects of Falun Gong practice. The New York Times reported that the public was “bombarded with graphic images of the act on television and in newspapers.” In China’s schools, regular anti-Falun Gong classes were scheduled. Eight million students joined the “Anti-Cult Action by the Youth Civilized Communities Across the Nation”. Twelve million children submitted writings disapproving of the practice.
Within a month of the Tiananmen Square incident, authorities issued a document entitled The whole story of the self-immolation incident created by Falun Gong addicts in Tiananmen Square, containing colour photographs of charred bodies. The State Council‘s “Office for the Prevention and Handling of Evil Cults” declared after the event that it was now ready to form a united front with the global anti-cult struggle. Meetings took place in factories, offices, universities and schools to educate people about Falun Gong. The Government announced that religious leaders from across the country had delivered denunciations of Falun Gong. In Kaifeng, the post office issued an anti-Falun Gong postmark, and 10,000 people signed a petition denouncing the group.
Time reported that prior to the self-immolation incident, many Chinese had felt that Falun Gong posed no real threat, and that the state’s crackdown had gone too far. After the event, however, China’s media campaign against Falun Gong gained significant traction. The World Organization to Investigate the Persecution of Falun Gong reported that hostility toward Falun Gong from the general public escalated, the government had stepped up its campaign, and alleged that “hate crimes” targeting Falun Gong increased. One western diplomat commented that the public changed from sympathising with Falun Gong to siding with the Government, popular consensus seemingly shifted by human-interest stories and accounts of rehabilitation efforts of former practitioners. Østergaard believes that, in retrospect, the New Year scripture was Li’s greatest gift to the state, as the self-immolations marked a turning point which ended domestic support for the movement.
Violence and reeducation
In the aftermath of the event, the government began sanctioning more severe forms of torture and punishment against Falun Gong adherents in an effort to have them renounce the practice. The Washington Post reported that Chinese authorities benefited from the turn in public opinion against Falun Gong that followed the self-immolation, seizing on the opportunity to sanction “the systematic use of violence against the group.” According to the Post, authorities “established a network of brainwashing classes and embarked on a painstaking effort to weed out followers neighbourhood by neighbourhood and workplace by workplace.” The “reeducation” tactics employed included beatings, shocks with electric truncheons, and intensive anti-Falun Gong study classes.
According to a report published in the Wall Street Journal, in February 2001 the 6-10 Office “stepped up pressure on local governments” to implement the anti-Falun Gong campaign. In particular, it issued new, detailed instructions requiring that all who continued to actively practice Falun Gong were to be sent to prison or labour camps, and individuals who refused to renounce the practice were to be socially isolated and monitored by their families and workplaces. This was a shift from the past, when local officials sometimes tolerated Falun Gong on the condition that it was practised privately.
Impact on Falun Gong’s resistance
The self-immolation necessitated a change in tactics for Falun Gong. Tiananmen Square had been “permanently contaminated” as a venue for protest, according to journalist Ethan Gutmann, and Falun Gong’s daily demonstrations in Beijing nearly ceased altogether. According to Human Rights Watch, practitioners may have concluded “the protests had outlived their usefulness for demonstrating Chinese abuses or for informing an overseas audience of Falungong’s harmlessness.” Diaspora practitioners living oversees focused their attentions on getting the word out about the treatment of practitioners by the Chinese government, issuing reports to the United Nations and human rights organisations, staging public marches and hunger strikes outside of China, and documenting human rights abuses on websites. Within China, practitioners used mass mailings and handed out literature to “spread the truth” and counter the government’s charges against them. In an August 2001 press release, the U.S.-based Falun Dafa Information Center noted this shift in strategy, and said that Chinese practitioners “sometimes also manage to post large posters and banners in major thoroughfares. They even set up loudspeakers on rooftops or trees around labour camps and in densely populated areas to broadcast news about the human rights abuses.”
In 2002, Falun Gong practitioners in Changchun successfully broadcast the False Fire video on Chinese television, interrupting the station’s scheduled programming for 50 minutes. Liu Chengjun, a Falun Gong practitioner who hacked into the satellite feed, was arrested and sentenced to prison, where he was allegedly beaten to death 21 months later. The remaining five individuals behind the television hijacking were also imprisoned, and all have reportedly died or been tortured to death in custody.
Fate of the self-immolators
Five of the people involved in the incident were sentenced in mid-2001. Although the official Xinhua news agency had described the proceedings as an “public trial,” only the final day in the month-long trial was public, and consisted mainly of the reading of verdicts. The Guardian reported that on the last day of the one-month trial, Xinhua had, by mid-morning, issued a full report of the verdicts; the People’s Daily had produced its own editorial by the afternoon.
Liu Yunfang, named as the mastermind, was given a life sentence; Wang Jindong was given 15 years. Two other accomplices – a 49-year-old man named Xue Hongjun, and a 34-year-old Beijing woman named Liu Xiuqin who apparently provided the group with lodging and helped in the preparation of the incident – were sentenced to 10 and 7 years in prison respectively. Liu Baorong, who had “acknowledged her crime”, escaped punishment because her role in planning the event was minor.
After having long denied foreign media access to the self-immolation victims, in April 2002 the Government arranged for foreign press to interview the purported survivors of the self-immolation in the presence of state officials. The interviewees refuted claims that the self-immolation was staged, showing their burn injuries as evidence, and denounced Falun Gong while expressing support for the authorities’ handling of the group. When asked why they set themselves on fire, Hao Huijun replied that she had realised the futility of writing letters and demonstrating by waving banners, “so finally, we decided … to make a big event to show our will to the world. … We wanted to show the government that Falun Gong was good.” At the time of the interview, Chen Guo and her mother were said to still be in the hospital, both having lost their hands, ears and noses. Both her mother’s eyes were covered with skin grafts. Wang Jindong, showing burns to his face, said he felt “humiliated because of my stupidity and fanatical ideas.” Liu Baorong, who did not set fire to herself, spent months in “reform through labour and reeducation.”