On January 23, 2001, five people set themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing. State-run media said they were Falun Gong adherents, but some observers called the official story into question…
At approximately 2:40pm on January 23, 2001, a man sitting in cross-legged position set himself ablaze on Tiananmen Square. Minutes later, several other individuals followed suit.
According to official reports, one self-immolator named Liu Chunlin died at the scene. The rest were taken to hospital.
Who filmed this?
Footage of the self-immolation aired on the state-run China Central Television beginning on January 28, 2001. The footage included both overhead scenes of the square, as well as a number of close-up shots.
When pressed for explanations about the source of the footage, Chinese media reported that the close-up scenes were filmed by CNN.
[State-run newspapers] said the harrowing, close-up shots of the incident broadcast on China Central Television were taken from videotape confiscated from CNN -- addressing for the first time questions by overseas Falun Gong leaders about why the government happened to have a camera crew in place to film the incident.
Eason Jordan, CNN's chief news executive … said the footage used in the Chinese television reports could not have come from CNN videotape because the CNN cameraman was arrested almost immediately after the incident began.—Philip P. Pan, The Washington Post, February 9 2001
But CNN’s reporters said this was impossible; they never got close enough, and were detained almost as soon as the incident began. Instead, they said they observed cameramen with large, broadcast-quality cameras filming in cooperation with the police.
How quickly were the flames extinguished?
Eye-witness accounts, as well as reports in Chinese state-run media, note that the flames on the self-immolators were extinguished very quickly—within about 90 seconds.
In footage of the event, police appear to have multiple pieces of firefighting equipment on hand. Some observers have raised questions over the rapid response times, noting that police do not routinely carry fire extinguishers on the Square. Some others have suggested that the firefighting equipment may have been in police vans or buses that happened to be nearby.
What else does the footage reveal?
Soon after the self-immolation, Falun Gong practitioners in China and abroad began highlighting a number of apparent inconsistencies in the Chinese government’s account of event, and carefully dissected the footage shown on CCTV.
They noted that the CCTV footage appeared to show a police officer forcefully striking one of the self-immolators on the head, whereupon she falls to the ground. In another scene, a police officer idly holds a blanket over the head of one self-immolator, only dropping it after the man shouts a slogan linking him to Falun Gong.
One interpretation of these scenes is that the event was staged, and that police officers may have deliberately killed Liu Chunling to increase the emotional impact of the story.
Within hours of the self-immolation, state-run media outlet Xinhua published the following press release. The report, which was published in English, said that the self-immolators were Falun Gong practitioners from the city of Kaifeng:
Can I trust the objectivity of the Chinese press?
China’s state-run media, such as Xinhua and China Central Television, serve as the official voice of the Chinese Communist Party. Rather than holding the powerful to account, these media outlets are required to support the party’s political objectives. The media are forbidden from reporting on certain topics, and receive political guidance on how important issues should be presented. In the case of Falun Gong, news media were required to toe the party’s line. Dissenting views, or opinions supportive of Falun Gong, were verboten, and former media workers report that they sometimes fabricated stories to defame the practice.
Why was the event reported so quickly?
News about politically sensitive events in China is tightly controlled. In general, a rigorous process of vetting and approvals is needed before such events can be reported in the state-run press—a process that can take days.
Many stories are never reported at all. For instance, Chinese media almost never reported on the daily occurrence of peaceful Falun Gong demonstrations on Tiananmen Square. News of other self-immolation events, such as those in Tibet or where the victims are petitioners, are frequently suppressed.
But following the January 23 self-immolation on Tiananmen Square, news was released almost immediately, apparently bypassing regular approvals processes.
Does Falun Gong promote suicide or self-immolation?
Reports in China’s state-run press said that the self-immolators were driven by Falun Gong’s teachings to commit collective suicide, and that they believed they could attain “nirvana” by setting themselves on fire.
But Falun Gong practitioners themselves—as well as Western academics who have studied the practice—note that suicide and killing are forbidden by Falun Gong’s teachings, and the statements made by the self-immolators in the official press were at odds with the beliefs and principles of the practice.
Victims were taken to a nearby hospital specializing in burn care. In the days following the event, reporters from the state-run China Central Television gained access and filmed interviews with four victims. The medical team caring for the patients said that they all required tracheostomies and suffered third or fourth-degree burns.
Some observers have noted that it is unlikely the victims could have been speaking clearly after receiving tracheostomies. Furthermore, they observe that the hospital staff and journalists are behaving negligently as to infection prevention, and that the tapes show an absence of monitoring equipment on the victims.
Talk to the victims
Western journalists, diplomats and human rights organizations were forbidden from speaking with the self-immolation victims. Even family members of the victims were barred from seeing them in hospital. Only reporters from the state-run China Central Television and Xinhua News Agency were granted permission to interview them, and access to the victims was controlled by the 610 Office.
The government has forbidden foreign media, diplomats and human rights observers from investigating. —Ian Johnson, Wall Street Journal, February 19 2001
Even before the self-immolation event, foreign reporters who attempted to cover Falun Gong faced a number of obstacles: the Chinese government monitored their communications, and they were frequently tailed by police or harassed when attempting to meet Falun Gong practitioners or report on protests. Some were expelled from the country and had their visas revoked.
Despite these restriction, Philip Pan of the Washington Post traveled to the hometown of the self-immolators. He spoke with the neighbours of Liu Chunling, the woman who died.
Liu had been described in Chinese press as being “obsessed” with Falun Gong, yet Pan found no evidence that she had ever practiced it. Her neighbours disclosed that she was a troubled woman who worked as a prostitute and beat her mother and daughter. No one ever saw her practice Falun Gong.
The mother was a quiet woman who kept to herself, the daughter a lively fifth-grader who never failed to smile and say hello. Neighbors recalled there was something both strange and sad about Liu Chunling, that she sometimes hit her child, that she drove her elderly mother away, that she worked in a nightclub and took money to keep men company. […] None ever saw her practice Falun Gong. —Philip P. Pan, The Washington Post, February 4 2001
This was hardly the profile of a typical Falun Gong devotee. Practitioners were generally known by their neighbours. They also adhered to a strict code of personal moral conduct, which is incompatible with prostitution or physical violence. Some observers have speculated that Ms. Liu may have been a new or unlearned student of Falun Gong, who failed to understand or enact the tenets of the practice - however, this contradicts the initial state run media descriptions of her long term committed practice. Others have suggested that she never practiced at all. She may have had other motives for self-immolating, or she may have been coerced by the Chinese police to self-immolate, perhaps with false assurances that she would be safe.