China: Whether the self-immolations of 23 January 2001 in Tiananmen Square were a fabrication; if so, who is making the allegations and based on what evidence (2001 to November 2004)
Falun Gong spokespersons have denied that the self-immolations of 23 January 2001 in Tiananmen Square were carried out by practitioners of the movement, as Chinese state media have claimed (CNN.com 24 Jan. 2001; AFP 31 Jan. 2001; Schechter 2001, 20). Following the release of a report on the incident by Xinhua News Agency on 23 January 2001, Falun Gong issued a statement declaring that "[t]his 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" (CNN.com 24 Jan. 2001).
A video recording of the incident, produced by New Tang Dynasty (NTD) TV, a privately-owned Chinese television station (Clearwisdom.net 13 Nov. 2003), notes that the incident of 23 January 2001 was "the most highly publicized event" used by the Chinese government to "persecute" Falun Gong practitioners and to "turn public opinion against" the movement (NTD TV 2001). NTD TV also carried out an analysis of footage of the incident that appeared on the Chinese state television channel, China Central Television (CCTV). Aspects of the footage highlighted by the producers of the recording to support the claim that the self-immolations were a fabrication include the following:
- Police were carrying 25 pieces of fire-fighting equipment on the day of the immolations when they were not normally known to carry fire extinguishers while patrolling the Square.
- One of the women involved in the immolations, Liu Chunling, appears to be hit on the head by a blunt object as police attempt to put out the fire. The video recording argues that Liu died from a severe blow to the head.
- The camera zooms in on the scene as it unfolds; however, surveillance cameras in Tiananmen Square are fixed. The video recording also rejects the claim made by the Chinese media that the incident was recorded by CNN since, the group argues, CNN cameramen were arrested and their equipment confiscated prior to the incident.
- The man involved in the self-immolation, Wang Jindong, shouts comments that NTD TV says do not form part of Falun Dafa teachings. According to the group, his sitting position also does not reflect the full or half lotus position characteristic of Falun Dafa teachings.
- The hospital treatment of the victims as recorded by Chinese state media is inconsistent with proper care of severe burn victims: for instance, patients were not kept in sterile rooms; moreover, the girl who allegedly underwent a tracheotomy appeared to be able to speak and sing clearly mere days after the surgery (NTD TV 2001; see also WOIPFG Aug. 2003).
The producers of the video recording also point out that prior to 23 January 2001, there had been no incident of self-immolation among Falun Gong practitioners in the world (2001).
Interruption of television programming in China by the Falun Gong for the airing of a video recording on the self-immolation incident of 23 January 2001 reportedly began in early 2002 (AFP 11 July 2002; see also AFP 7 Mar. 2002 and New York Times 5 Apr. 2002). The video shown in the northeastern city of Changchun in March 2002 claimed that the self-immolation was staged by the Chinese government (New York Times 5 Apr. 2002; see also AFP 7 Mar. 2002). Similar videos were also aired in Liaoning Province and Sichuan Province (ibid.). AFP reported in an 11 July 2002 article that the Falun Gong was using telephones, faxes, interruption of Chinese television programs and the Internet within China to spread its message about the "persecution" of its followers. One of the main objectives of the campaign, according to Agence France Presse (AFP), was to address the immolation incident of January 2001 (11 July 2002).
The World Organization to Investigate the Persecution of Falun Gong (WOIPFG), set up in January 2003 (WOIPFG n.d.), purportedly undertook "comprehensive, objective and independent investigations and follow-ups" of the incident, which included running a speaker verification analysis of three CCTV programs on which Wang Jindong was interviewed (Aug. 2003). According to WOIPFG, the National Taiwan University Speech Processing Laboratory, which conducted the analysis, concluded that "the 'Wang Jindong' who appeared on the first Focus Interview program isn't the same [person] as the 'Wang Jindong' who appeared on the second and third programs" (n.d.; see also WOIPFG 19 Apr. 2003). This evidence, WOIPFG asserts, confirms that Wang Jindong "was role-played" (n.d.). WOIPFG also claims it received "reliable information from inside the Chinese government and the Police Bureau [purporting that] the 'self-immolation' was staged to frame Falun Gong" (n.d.).
In his book on the Falun Gong, journalist Danny Schechter writes that the 23 January 2001 immolations "smell ... like a stage-managed incident that's being blatantly exploited for political reasons" (2001, 24). He quotes an Associated Press TV reporter as saying that " ... it would certainly fit in with typical China strategy to stage an event this year and make the show their own" (Schechter 2001, 21).
An official statement on the self-immolations, which was provided by Falun Gong spokespersons in the United States and reproduced in Falun Gong's Challenge to China , notes that
[t]here is so much that remains unclear and unknown about the circumstances surrounding the incident. And no one knows what occurred in the week after the actual event and before the Chinese media outlets finally released their fully engineered news articles and television programs. We must remember that the Chinese regime is so tightly controlling every aspect of this case that none of Xinhua's claims have been corroborated by independent sources (Schechter 2001, 21).
Human Rights Watch (HRW), in a January 2002 report on the Falun Gong, commented that "...questions about the incident [of 23 January 2001], such as whether practitioners were involved ... remain unresolved." In a 23 November 2004 telephone interview with the Research Directorate, the senior researcher on China for HRW asserted that it would not have been possible for independent organizations to conduct an independent investigation of the incident. According to the senior researcher, 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 information and difficulties in ascertaining the extent of control of the information (23 Nov. 2004). The Washington Post reported in a 4 February 2001 article that the Chinese government denied media requests to interview the immolation survivors. In its video recording, NTD TV noted that only the Chinese state media had been given access to the survivors (2001). According to Schechter, videotapes taken by CNN cameramen were confiscated at the time of the incident and were never aired (Schechter 2001, 20).
However, in a 5 April 2002 New York Times article, it was reported that Chinese officials had for the first time "allowed a small group of foreign journalists to speak with six people involved" in the self-immolations of 23 January 2001, "including the three who had set themselves on fire." In the presence of officials, the "self-immolators" insisted that they were not "government stooges" but, in fact, long-time Falun Gong followers; one of them performed Falun Gong exercises at the request of a reporter and another, Wang Jindong, spoke of health benefits associated with the practice (New York Times 5 Apr. 2002). The interviews, the newspaper reported, appeared to be an attempt on the part of the government to counter efforts by Falun Gong since the beginning of 2002 to "promote.... its beliefs and publicize.... its suppression in China" (ibid.). But, the article notes, "[w]ith propaganda streaming in from seemingly opposite ends of the universe, the conflicting claims are difficult to assess" (ibid.).
This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim for refugee protection. Please find below the list of additional sources consulted in researching this Information Request.
Agence France Presse (AFP). 11 July 2002. "Falungong Using Phones, Faxes, Internet to Directly Reach Chinese." (FBIS-CHI-2002-0711 15 July 2002/WNC)
_____. 7 March 2002. "Deux films produits par le Falungong montrés à la télévision chinoise." (Courrier AFP)
_____. 31 Jan. 2001. "Falungong Denies Tiananmen Suicide Group Were Genuine Followers." <http://www.cesnur.org/2001/falun_jan11.htm> [Accessed 6 Dec. 2004]
CNN.com. 24 January 2001. Rebecca MacKinnon. "Falun Gong Denies Tie to Self-Immolation Attempts." <http://archives.cnn.com/2001/ASIANOW/east/01/23/china.falungong.03/> [Accessed 6 Dec. 2004]
Falun Dafa Clearwisdom.net. 13 November 2003. " 'Self-Immolation' Analysis Movie Wins Columbus International Film & Video Festival Award." <http://www.clearwisdom.net/emh/articles/2003/11/14/42247.html> [Accessed 16 Dec. 2004]
Human Rights Watch, New York. 23 November 2004. Telephone interview with senior researcher on China.
_____. January 2002. "Dangerous Meditation: China's Campaign Against Falungong." <http://www.hrw.org/reports/2002/china/index.htm> [Accessed 19 Nov. 2004]
New Tang Dynasty (NTD) TV. 2001. False Fire: China's Tragic New Standard in State Deception. Digital Video Disc.
The New York Times . 5 April 2002. Elisabeth Rosenthal. "Former Falun Gong Followers Enlisted in China's War on Sect." (NEXIS)
Schechter, Danny. 2001. Falun Gong's Challenge to China: Spiritual Practice or "Evil Cult"? New York: Akashic Books.
The Washington Post . 4 February 2001. Philip P. Pan. "Human Fire Ignites Chinese Mystery; Motive for Public Burning Intensifies Fight over Falun Gong." (NEXIS)
World Organization to Investigate the Persecution of Falun Gong (WOIPFG). August 2003. "Second Investigation Report on the 'Tiananmen Square Self-Immolation Incident.' " <http://www.upholdjustice.org/English.2/S_I_second_report.htm> [Accessed 22 Nov. 2004]
_____. 19 April 2003. "Report on Speaker Verification: National Taiwan University Speech Processing Laboratory." <http://www.upholdjustice.org/English.2/speaker_verification.pdf> [Accessed 22 Nov. 2004]
_____. n.d. "New Evidence Confirms Alleged Falun Gong 'Tiananmen Square Self-Immolation' Was a State Conspiracy." <http://www.upholdjustice.org/English.2/new_evidence.doc& [Accessed 22 Nov. 2004]
Additional Sources Consulted
Oral sources: Human Rights in China.
Three oral sources did not provide information within the time constraints of this Response.
Internet sites, including: Amnesty International, BBC, Center for Religious Freedom (Freedom House), Center for Studies on New Religions, Clearwisdom, CNN.com, Weatherhead East Asian Institute (Columbia University).