China's image-polishing collides with protests

Yesterday's Tiananmen Square incidents test the resolve of Falun Gong and the government.

Five Falun Gong members tried to immolate themselves yesterday at symbolic Tiananmen Square on the evening of the most important holiday in China, Lunar New Year. This public protest dramatically raises stakes in the group's two-year battle with authorities to be recognized as a legitimate organization.

The act comes just as Beijing is trying to put its best foot forward for an Olympics delegation due to visit here on Feb. 9 - a fact that members of the spiritual movement are keenly aware of. In recent days, state-controlled Chinese news media have taken the most aggressive stance so far against what China sees as a serious threat, and what it routinely calls "an evil cult" and a "social cancer."

At the same time, in three days of meetings with UN officials in Beijing, including Secretary-General Kofi Annan, China committed to ratifying an important human rights pact in the next 2-1/2 months to help better its chances of winning its bid to host the 2008 Olympics. (The US has also signed but not ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.)

At about 2:30 p.m. yesterday in the square, several CNN reporters witnessed four women and a man dousing themselves with gasoline and setting themselves ablaze. One woman reportedly died.

Some Falun Gong leaders abroad claimed the act was a hoax committed by Chinese authorities, saying that suicide is forbidden by the teachings of Li Hongzhi, a former low-ranking Chinese official whose interpretation of qigong, the ancient practice of meditation and exercise, has spawned a worldwide movement. Members believe that the body and mind can be rejuvenated through disciplined exercises centering on a "wheel of energy" located in the abdomen.

The Lunar New Year's Eve day of protests and arrests at the square suggests that in China, many Falun Gong members have taken a new step - past their supporters abroad - to publicize their case.

By nightfall on a frigid evening here, some 120 security vans were parked around the huge expanse of concrete at the entrance of the Forbidden City, itself a center of Chinese cultural and political identity. Hundreds of Army police and plainclothes officers thronged the unusually empty square. One soldier twice smartly saluted a casually dressed man on a bicycle. "Have a Happy New Year," said one policeman wryly to reporters, referring to today's holiday, a time when the country slows down for a week, and roads jam with travelers going home to visit family.

Having outlawed Falun Gong, whose adherents tend to be middle and lower-middle class, with a surprising smattering of high government officials and their families, Chinese authorities seem unable to contain the spread of the group, also known as Falun Dafa. Following what seemed a several-month lull, both Chinese officials and Falun Gong members have escalated the rhetoric, with the Falun Gong targeting President Jiang Zemin.

Posters plastered around Beijing have appealed to the masses, claiming that the group is moderate and benign, that the crackdown against them has led to the deaths in detention of many members in newly created camps, and that the entire anti-Falun Gong project is a vendetta against them by Mr. Jiang.

At the same time, Chinese officials have used the media, a variety of scholars, official religious leaders, and self-described "rehabilitated" former Falun Gong members to mount their own campaign against the group.

Official news sources have described group members as extreme, and have pointed to some of the more unorthodox ideas of Mr. Li. His doomsday prophesy that the world will end in 20 years says that only Falun Gong members will survive an apocalyptic asteroid smash-up with the earth. Officials claim some 1,600 Falun Gong members have died by refusing to see modern medical doctors and relying instead on Falun Gong.

Chinese leaders have also recently begun to say that outside groups and those with foreign interests are responsible for the tactics and continued presence of Falun Gong. Baoping Kan, a young professor at the Yanjing Theological Society, a Protestant group, said on a half-hour TV program called "Dialogue" on Sunday that "Falun Gong just wants to add weight to the Western attack on China."

The stakes were raised even higher Saturday by Luo Gao, a member of the Communist Party Politburo, at a Beijing security conference. Mr. Luo argued that nothing less than the "survival" of the party was at issue, stating that the group had "degenerated into nothing but a tool used by hostile foreign forces" aimed at ruining "China's reforms."

Critics sympathetic to China argue the government has, with its policy of ever more severe crackdowns in the past two years, created its own Frankenstein public relations monster. What has most concerned Chinese officials is the appearance of a well-disciplined, growing group conducting skillful protests, almost completely outside the purview of party channels.

A cab driver who had been alerted that the square had been blocked off to traffic says, "I don't talk about the Falun Gong with any of my friends. It is an illegal cult that is dangerous for Chinese." Many Chinese fear speaking about a group that their government has targeted so vociferously as antisocial.

Material from wire reports was used in this article.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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