Falun Gong emphatically denied that the people could have been practitioners on the grounds that the teachings explicitly forbid suicide or any form of killing. In a press statement, issued on the same day of the incident, the Falun Dafa Information Center characterized the event as "another attempt by the PRC regime to defame the practice of Falun Gong" and called on China "to allow the world media and international human rights groups to investigate this case to clarify the facts." Falun Gong and third-party commentators, pointing to apparent discrepancies in the government's version of events, assert the incident was staged in order to turn public opinion against the practice and build support for the ongoing persecution.
According to Time magazine, the government's media war against Falun Gong gained significant traction following the act. CNN commented that the campaign is probably the government's first effort to gain public support for the persecution of Falun Gong, and is reminiscent of its past political movements such as the Korean War and the Cultural Revolution.
Amnesty International states that despite the persecution, many Falun Gong practitioners continued to hold exercise sessions in public, usually as a form of silent protest against the persecution and imprisonment of practitioners. Some of these silent protests were held outside important seats of government or in places with political significance such as Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Amnesty points out that these were attended by large numbers of people, including significant numbers of elderly people and women, and that they have been entirely peaceful.. The government declared these sessions to be "illegal assemblies" and the practitioners were put under detention or sent to forced labor. Amnesty states that among the thousands detained were ordinary workers, farmers, teachers and academics, university students, publishers, accountants, police officers , engineers, people from a variety of other professions and government officials According to some sources over 35,000 Falun Gong practitioners had been arrested for peaceful protests in Beijing alone.. In March, 2000 Amnesty International called on the Chinese government to stop "...mass arbitrary detentions, unfair trials and other human rights violations resulting from the crackdown on the Falun Gong..."; Amnesty expressed acute concern that Falun Gong practitioners had been "...tortured or subjected to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in detention." Another bulletin in December 2000 cited reports of torture, detention and ill-treatment, some ending in death, and condemned the authorities' "callous disregard for the lives of people detained solely for their peaceful activities."
According to TIME, prior to the event, many Chinese had felt that Falun Gong posed no threat, and that the persecution had gone too far, but the purported self-immolation marked a turning point in its anti-Falun Gong campaign. A paper from Falun Gong human rights group World Organization to Investigate the Persecution of Falun Gong (WOIPFG) suggests that Jiang Zemin considered that the public was not responding as desired a year after initiating the crackdown: China had failed to "annihilate Falun Gong within three months", the persecution had met with international condemnation, as well as resistance from highly ranked Party officials. Amnesty International states that the Chinese government's "propaganda campaign capitalised on an incident on 23 January 2001 when five alleged practitioners, including a 12 year-old girl and her mother, set themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square."
On 23 January 2001 (Chinese New Year's eve) a group of men and women attempted to set themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square, five succeeded at ignition. A man sat down on the pavement northeast of the Monument to the People's Heroes at the center of the square, poured gasoline on his clothes and set himself on fire. Moments later four more people set themselves alight. CNN was in tiananmenn square during the incident and reported the alleged suicides. As they were taping, military police stepped in, detained the crew, and confiscated their tapes. Danny Schecter notes that video tapes confiscated from CNN are never aired. Police with fire-extinguishers put out the flames, reportedly within the space of a minute.
Seven days later, China's official TV aired the footage of five people engulfed in flames. The footage, the state-controlled news claimed, was taken by nearby survaillance cameras. In later reports which appeared in state run media, the number of self-immolators rose from five to seven – two of whom apparently had failed to ignite themselves. One of the self-immolators, Liu Chun-ling reportedly died on the scene. A few months later, state media announced the death of Liu Si-ying, who, according to state-news, had been hospitalized with severe burns following the incident. The other three were reported to have been "severely disfigured". Beijing denied requests from western journalists to interview Liu Siying and the three other survivors; only China Central Television and the official New China News Agency were permitted to speak to their relatives or their colleagues.
On the very same day of the incident, Falun Gong in New York issued a press statement stating that the incident was "yet another attempt by the PRC regime to defame the practice of Falun Gong" and called for the "PRC regime to allow the world media and international human rights groups to investigate this case to clarify the facts.". Falun Gong says that practitioners could not have been involved in the incident, pointing out "...The teachings of Falun Gong prohibit any form of killing. Mr. Li Hongzhi... has explicitly stated that suicide is a sin." Falun Gong sources accused the PRC Government of attempting to discredit the practice of Falun Gong. Falun Gong related commentators also pointed out that the main participants' account of the incident and other aspects of the participants' behaviour were inconsistent with the teachings of Falun Dafa.
Initially, the New York Times stated that conflicting claims were difficult to assess "[w]ith propaganda streaming in from seemingly opposite ends of the universe... especially since the remaining Falun Gong practitioners have been driven underground." The reporter opined that one of the victims was able to "fluidly perform" Falun Gong's signature slow-motion exercises in front of Western media. CNN had reported that four of the victims were seen in flames, with their hands held "in a classic Falun Gong meditation pose", causing Falun Gong to file a complaint to CNN. Schecter notes that among Falun Gong practitioners, a primary reason for suspicion that the event was staged is that the people shown in the footage aren't conducting the exercises properly. One western diplomat commented that the public changed from sympathising with Falun Gong to siding with the Government after the event; "human interest" stories and accounts of "rehabilitation" efforts of former practitioners shifted popular consensus.
According to an initial Falun Gong press statement, "Much remains unclear and unknown about the circumstances surrounding the incident", including what took place in the week between the incident and when the "fully engineered news articles and television programs" were released. Schechter doubted Falun Gong would deny being involved in the incident if it was a genuine protest. Anthropologist Noah Porter opines that even if the participants considered themselves to be practitioners, they are no more representative of Falun Gong than Christianity is represented by people "who shoot and bomb abortion clinics." In the National Review, the Laogai Research Foundation suggested that it was "hardly a far-fetched hypothesis" that the government allowed or staged the incident to discredit Falun Gong, as the government vowed to crush the practice before the eightieth anniversary celebrations of the Communist Party in July. The article concluded that the "PRC's propaganda coup" against Falun Gong relies upon popular understandings of other immolations in recent Asian history such as the 73 year old Buddhist monk in Saigon. The foundation states that "...this situation is not clear", and for the Communists, this was just "another lie."
The Falun Gong human-rights group WOIPFG saw the incident as a major tool in the government's "global campaign to vilify Falun Gong practitioners to the Chinese people..." WOIPFG believed that hostility toward Falun Gong from the general public in China escalated, the campaign "clearly intensified," and that "hate crimes" targeting Falun Gong increased. It further alleged the death toll during police arrests or in prisons, labor camps and "brainwashing centers" all sharply increased. Danny Schechter notes that CCP's claims are unsubstantiated by outside parties.
Discrepancies pointed out by NTDTV's False Fire
Many commentators, including Danny Schechter, Philip Pan, and Ian Johnson have pointed out discrepancies in the chinese government's version of the events. Falun Gong related sources have also pointed out several discrepancies in the state broadcast version of the events, Reporters Sans Frontiers and Danny Schechter note that the a few days before the incident, the chinese authorities and media had launched a new campaign against Falun Gong.
Schechter notes that Chinese police "just happened to have fire extinguishers at hand", and the victims were "rushed" to the hospital after their agonies were "thoroughly photographed" for state television. He also notes that while the government controlled media uncharacteristically released the story at once, "it took a week of production" before the footage was finally aired. CNN was in Tienanmen square at this time but its video tapes were confiscated and never aired.
False Fire, a video programme, produced by the Falun Gong related New Tang Dynasty TV attempts to deconstruct the event, and points out several apparent inconsistencies in the Chinese Government's version of the story. The documentary won a Certificate of Honorable Mention at the 51st Columbus International Film & Video Festival.
International Educational Development (IED), a human rights NGO, said, after viewing False Fire, that it had "discovered that [the act] had in fact been staged". Charles A. Radin of the Boston Globe stated "In the slowed version, it appears that Liu Chunling . . . collapsed not from the flames but from being bludgeoned by a man in a military overcoat.”
Philip Pan of Washington Post questioned why the Chinese government happened to have a camera crew in place to film the incident. While the Chinese government claimed the close-up footage came from confiscated CNN tapes, CNN dismissed the possibility stating that their cameraman was arrested almost immediately after the incident began. Pan notes that "[t]he close-up shots shown on Chinese television appear to have been taken without any interference from police. In some, the camera is clearly behind police barricades and positioned directly above the apparent sect members. In addition, footage from overhead surveillance cameras in Tiananmen Square appears to show a man using a small hand-held video camera to film the scene, not a large TV news camera."
Wall Street Journal's Ian Johnson was skeptical due to the speed with which the story was covered, observing that the state media "..reported the victim's death with unusual alacrity, implying that the death took place earlier than reported or the usually cautious media had top-level approval to rush out electronic reports and a televised dispatch, The 7 p.m. local evening news, for example had a filmed report from Mr Tan's hometown of Changde, a small city in Hunan province. Most reports for the evening news are vetted by noon, so the daily broadcasts rarely carries reports from the same day, let alone an event that happened at noon and involved satellite feeds from relatively remote parts of the country."
Falun Gong related sources note a European journalist based in Beijing as stating " I have never seen policemen patrolling on Tiananmenn Square carrying fire extinguishers. How come they all showed up today? The location of the incident is at least twenty minutes round-trip from the nearest building - the People's Great Hall."
According to Beatrice Turpin of Associated Press TV who covered Falun Gong inside China for Associated Press TV, "[t]here was a big brouhaha with Falun Gong protests and footage of police beating practitioners last Chinese New Year and it would certainly fit in with typical China strategy to stage an event this year and make the show their own."
The Age described the immolation incident as the Communist Party's main piece of "evidence" in its campaign to portray Falun Gong as "dangerous" similar to Aum Shinrikyo or Jim Jones' cult in Guyana. It states that this attempt has "fallen flat," and the "ready availability of fire-extinguishers and official TV teams and the lack of verification about the victims" raises questions about Falun Gong involvement, and whether the incident was staged.
In a CBC documentary, Clive Ansley, Chair of CIPFG and China Country Monitor for Lawyers Rights’ Watch Canada states: "You've got Falun Gong people this country.. oppressed over and over again, they are not allowed to speak, they are not allowed to assert any of their rights as citizens and the level of frustration must be terribly high... I can understand people doing that.. that does not mean.. the movement is evil. But, ironically, we ultimately found out that it was a fraud anyway. It wasn't real, the people involved weren't Falun Gong members, it was completely staged by the government.
Philip Pan of Washington Post located the home of the two purported self-immolators, Liu Siying and Liu Chunling, who state media had claimed were daughter and mother, in Kaifeng, a town in a region that drew negative publicity after a recent fire in a disco killed hundred and scarred many others. Based on his reports, analysts opine that it is doubtful if the immolators could have been practitioners. Pan discovered that the young girl's mother, Liu Chunling, was not locally known as a practitioner but was depressed, mentally unstable, was accused of beating her daughter and mother and worked as an escort in a local night club. David Ownby notes that "this is hardly a typical profile of a practitioner."
One of the main discrepancies pointed out by practitioners is that the people shown on the footage are not performing the exercises correctly. The video false-fire draws particular attention to Wang Jindong, pointing out that neither his sitting position nor hand position reflect the positions required in the exercises of Falun Gong. WOIPFG states that analysis of the broadcasts by Speech Processing Laboratory at National Taiwan University , concludes that the first person named as Wang Jindong who appeared on CCTV was not the person who appeared the second and third times. Falun Gong related sources also assert that images of Wang Jindong that appeared in different state controlled media reports seem to be of different people .
The Guardian's John Gittings thought that Li had confused his supporters in his New Year message "that the 'forbearance' taught by Buddha 'does not mean tolerating evil beings'." According to Gittings, ten days later, Falun Gong in New York said that "certain disciples had some extreme interpretations [and thought] we are going to resort to violence". Falun Gong said that Mr Li meant it was time to "bring the truth to light" about China's atrocities, using peaceful ways to expose and resist the persecution.
China scholar David Ownby refers to the same scripture, and said that he found no evidence of it being interpreted as a call to violence or retaliation: "[Li] assures his followers that they are right to want to eradicate the evil forces and that this evil will indeed be eradicated—although the form taken by such apparent militancy, beginning in the spring of 2001, was that of sitting in a meditative posture and 'emitting righteous thoughts.'"
The Asian Wall Street Journal wrote that the danger of putting Li's scripture as cause for the immolations "implies, insidiously, that the blame lies with the victims... the fundamental, human issue is the Chinese government's brutal campaign to wipe out Falun Dafa and the misery resulting from it." They write that in the face of the "brutalities" visited on practitioners, "it's not so difficult to imagine why a few persons would have succumbed to despair. And that makes them deserving of our pity rather than our cynicism."
Following the incident, Tiananmen Square was shut down. Seven days after the event, China Central TV aired their footage of five people in flames, said to be taken by nearby surveillance cameras.
According to Amnesty International: "[An] important part of the government’s propaganda campaign has been publicizing statements from people claiming to be former Falun Gong practitioners who denounce Falun Gong, speak of the damage the practice has brought to Chinese society, praise the government for its firm action against the movement, and eventually show their deepest gratitude towards the government’s saving them from being brainwashed by the 'evil cult'.
Associated Press writer Christopher Bodeen wrote that "China's government is seizing on the dramatic suicide attempt by purported members of the Falun Gong sect to try and sway a public that has stood up on the sidelines during the eighteen month long crackdown"
The New York Times' Erick Eckholm opined that the Chinese government's propaganda was "as wooden and anachronistic as ever. First, suppress the news. Then, days later, orchestrate a crescendo of extreme television, radio and newspaper reports and editorials. Finally, marshall relatives of the duped victims to utter condemnations of the evil Master Li, then ask major groups -- from leaders of Catholic, Buddhist and Muslim churches to the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce -- to issue shrill denunciations."
The government immediately used the twelve-year-old Liu Siying as an example that Falun Gong was "harmful to children". Analysts point out that she had become a "poster child" and "sympathetic symbol" and that her image, circulated widely, outraged many. Western media was denied direct access to the victims. A media parade that followed incited 8 million students to join an "Anti-Cult action by the Youth Civilised Communities Across the Nation".
According to Government sources, she was able to speak through "approved media outlets", saying that her own mother told her to set herself on fire to reach the "heavenly golden kingdom". Within a month, chinese state authorities issued a glossy pamphlet entitled The Whole Story of the Self Immolation Incident Created by Falun Gong Addicts in Tiananmen Square featuring color 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. The IHT reported state controlled media attacked Falun Gong and Li Hongzhi morning and night, on a daily basis. Meetings took place in factories, offices and universities; schools were ordered to "educate" pupils about Falun Gong. The Government announced that religious leaders from across the country had delivered denunciations. In Kaifeng, the post office issued an anti-Falun Gong postmark, and 10,000 people signed a petition denouncing the group.
By March 2001, before the National People's Congress, Premier Zhu Rongji and former Premier Li Peng made it clear that the "elimination" of the group was top priority. An anti-cult exhibition targeting Falun Gong was held in July 2001 at the China People's Revolution Military Museum in Beijing; Beijing newspapers have run exhibits of "former practitioners" "thanking" the Communist Party of China for "rescuing" them.
On February 28, Chinese officials held a rare press conference "to re-iterate that recent events proved the depravity" of practitioners. Ian Johnson notes that the chinese official, Mr Liu, "spent much of the news conference dodging questions about Falun Dafa practitioners who, according to human-rights and United Nations officials have died in police custody."
According to Reporters Without Borders, in February, state media accused CNN, the Associated Press, and Agence France-Presse news agencies of having "encouraged" the immolation at Tiananmen Square. The authorities also threatened journalists with legal action for "homicide." Reporters sans frontières' foreign correspondents in Beijing state this was an attempt by the regime to discredit foreign coverage of the country's repression against the Falun Gong movement. A CNN official confirms that one of his teams was arrested that day near Tiananmen Square and that police confiscated their videotapes. These footage were never aired.