For a week following the self-immolation attempts of five Falun Gong members at Tiananmen Square on the eve of China's top holiday, the Lunar New Year, most Chinese were unaware of the dramatic martyrdom attempts.
Yet Tuesday night, in a massive anti-Falun Gong media blitz, anyone with access to a TV could see shocking police video of five people in flames at China's most symbolic public space. Cameras in a modern hospital burn unit also recorded the four survivors in critical condition. One, a 12-year-old girl covered in bandages, told a nurse she had been informed by Falun Gong elders that death would be instant and lead to a "heavenly golden kingdom."
Some 20-minutes of film and three full pages in newspapers like the Beijing Youth Daily included quotes of pain and regret by survivors, detailed interviews with family and friends, maps of Tiananmen showing where each immolation took place - all marking the heaviest official denunciation of the popular but outlawed meditation group in more than a year.
The comprehensive reports seem designed to counter the claims of Falun Gong leaders outside China that the attempted suicides were a hoax by nonmembers, experts say, and to indelibly impress upon the Chinese public that the cult, as Chinese officials call it, is dangerous to public health. "Suffocate the evil" is the current official phrase used on Beijing billboards regarding China's policy about the sect.
Indeed, the graphic pictures, which included a man swathed in flames with hands folded, chanting Falun Gong phrases, will likely seem bizarre and unpalatable to many ordinary Chinese, who are taught values of public decorum and moderation, experts say.
Some Western scholars and editorialists, however, have compared the image to that of Thich Quang Duc, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk who famously set himself alight in 1963 in Saigon to protest US military advisers.
Before yesterday, no news was forthcoming about the welfare of four of the victims. A CNN tape of the immolation had been confiscated, and attempts to contact hospitals by some reporters were fruitless.
"China has given no coverage like this since the summer of 1999 when Falun Gong was first declared illegal," says Thomas Gold, a sociologist of China at the University of California, Berkeley. "It probably does play strongly into a view on the street that the group is crazy. But if they are so small and crazy, why is so much attention paid to them?"
The Falun Gong movement borrows from both Daoist and Buddhist traditions of mind-body exercises, and grew from a small provincial sect led by "Master" Li Hongzhi, a former Chinese official, to as many as 100 million adherents on the Chinese mainland in the mid-1990s.
The group ran into trouble after a series of peaceful mass protests - intended to give them formal recognition as an organization - culminated in a 10,000-strong April 25, 1999 mass sit-in at Zhongnanhai, the compound in Beijing for China's top brass. Largely ignored and benignly tolerated until then, Falun Gong was quickly viewed as a threat to public order and security, and banned three months later.
Speculation among China watchers has arisen over whether a statement by Mr. Li on Jan. 1, titled "Beyond the Limits of Forbearance," incited the recent flaming protests. Falun Gong officials steadfastly deny this. Yet writings attributed to Falun Gong members in China suggest otherwise: "After Master's new scripture ... was released," states one note in circulation in the US, "certain disciples had some extreme interpretations of it."
The issue does have touchy international ramifications. A statement last week by Secretary of State Colin Powell calling for religious freedom in China resulted in a strongly worded warning to the US to steer clear of such questions.
"China demands the US government to respect the stand of the Chinese government on the Falun Gong ... so as to avoid harming US-Sino affairs," stated Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao.
Chinese officials often compare the Falun Gong to the erstwhile Branch Davidian sect in Waco, Texas. The Davidian compound was stormed by federal agents in 1993, leading to an inferno, an operation officially regarded as legitimate.
"It looks hypocritical to the Chinese to be lectured about religious freedom, when a Texas cult deemed dangerous by the US got squashed," says a US-based China watcher.
Since Jan. 23, security at Tiananmen Square has been the tightest in memory. Police now check the IDs of Chinese to determine if they are from outside Beijing, as most Falun protesters are. Reporters witnessed police asking some Chinese to repeat "Falun Gong is evil" - something a true believer will not say.
Still, protesters do get through. On a recent icy day, a tall Chinese teenager holding aloft a red Falun Gong banner ran through the middle of tourists and holiday well-wishers for a few seconds before he was tackled and quickly marched to a waiting security van.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society