February 21, 2001

What could be more dramatic? People are setting themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing. CNN is there. The police just happen to have fire extinguishers on hand, and the victims are rushed to a hospital after their agonies are thoroughly photographed for state television. While the government-controlled media uncharacteristically releases the story at once, it takes a week of production before video footage is aired.

Soon, horrific images are rocketed around the world, seeming to confirm China's charges that an evil cult is ordering brainwashed members to commit suicide. Citing this new "evidence," the government insists that what it has been saying all along about those "fanatical" Falun Gongers is true, and these people must be banned as a threat to themselves and the nation. On February 16 another suicide is attributed to Falun Gong. Alongside a charred body an uncharred note is found allegedly claiming the victim did it to support Li Hongzhi's spiritual practice.

The Wall Street Journal's Ian Johnson, one of the most insightful journalists following this story, had his suspicions aroused by the speed with which this story was covered, observing that the state media "reported [the victim's] death with unusual alacrity, implying that either 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 broadcast 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."

For news readers and media consumers, perception often trumps unclear realities. In a world where dramatic images overshadow complex issues, Falun Gong stands convicted of crazed cult behavior. Case closed!

Score a big one for Chinese President Jiang Zemin's crusade to "crush" and discredit a growing spiritual movement that continues to resist a state-ordered ban despite the detention of an estimated 50,000 practitioners and over a hundred dead in police custody. Already, on the strength of this one incident, The Financial Times proclaimed a "winner," as in, "Beijing Wins Propaganda War Against Falun Gong." Note the headline. It doesn't refer merely to one skirmish in a protracted media war that has gone on for 19 months, but to the war itself.

Many other respected news organizations disseminated the same story the same way even though they were unable to verify it independently, instead using accounts from Communist Party-controlled state media, especially the Xinua news agency. Now, as new questions are raised and doubts expressed, it may turn out that the world media have been misled into becoming an uncritical transmission belt for Beijing's bullying.

Firing Line

The first incident happened on January 23, days after Jiang intensified his official, nationwide, anti-cult media campaign. CNN was in the Square and reported on the suicides but its tapes were confiscated, so we never saw them. Seven days later, China's official TV shocked the nation with footage of five people engulfed in flames, pictures said to be from nearby surveillance cameras. Now a tragically disfigured victim of the incident, 12-year-old Liu Siying, says that her own mother told her to set herself on fire to reach the "heavenly golden kingdom" in some accounts, or "nirvana" in others. She has become a sympathetic symbol, even a poster child for alleged abuses by the "evil cult." Her image is everywhere; her tragedy has outraged all China. (In this respect she is the Elian Gonzalez of China!) Yet only approved media outlets there have been permitted access to her. Western reporters have been barred from direct contact.

Was she a Falun Gong practitioner? That seems doubtful, after The Washington Post's Phillip Pan traced her to her home in Kaifeng (a town that experienced an even more tragic disco fire recently, killing hundreds and scarring many others). Pan discovered that the young girl's mother, who died in the Tiananmen fire, was not known locally as a practitioner, but was depressed, mentally unstable and accused of beating her daughter and mother.

Significantly, one of the CNN producers on the scene, just 50 feet away, says she did not even see a child there. The government says doctors performed a tracheotomy on the victim, but a pediatric surgeon said that, if that were true, the child wouldn't be speaking right away.

Falun Gong spokespeople have been quoted as denying that they ordered, orchestrated and participated in this incident. But in their statement, which has not been carried in full anywhere, they go further and indict the Western press: "It is troubling to us that the party line from the PRC [People's Republic of China] mouthpieces, Xinhua News Agency and CCTV, is being given so much airtime and so much credibility by the foreign press. Xinhua and other state-run media outlets are generally never considered credible sources, as even they openly admit that their function is to disseminate propaganda for the Chinese regime. In fact, Xinhua is the Party line.

"There 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."

And why would Falun Gong deny its role in the incident if it was a protest? The Longhai Foundation, which monitors Chinese prisons, had similar questions in the National Review: "Was this event staged or allowed to happen by China's government in order to discredit the Falun Gong? It is hardly a farfetched hypothesis. China's government has promised to extinguish all problems connected with the Falun Gong in advance of the 80th anniversary of Chinese Communism, which Beijing plans on celebrating this July. ... Justin Yu, a journalist for World Journal, the Chinese-language daily, reflected on the confusion faced by many Chinese over what to believe. The PRC's propaganda coup against the Falun Gong relies upon people's understanding of events in recent Asian history, such as the 73-year-old Buddhist monk in Saigon whose self-immolation was a form of protest to fulfill his beliefs, [like] Koreans cutting off their fingers and the Japanese ritual of hari-kari. But this situation is not clear. Who do we believe ?the Communists? They have lied to us so many times, another lie for them is nothing."

I asked Beatrice Turpin who covered Falun Gong in China for Associated Press TV and wrote about her experiences for MediaChannel what her suspicion was. She responded from her home in Thailand: "There 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."

Grounds for Skepticism

Falun Gong practitioners initially told me their suspicions were aroused for three reasons:

the people in the Square, said to be long-time practitioners, didn't do the Falun Gong exercises correctly;

authorities did not show any pictures or Falun Gong signs or books (which prohibit suicide) that protesters usually bring with them into the Square;

and a school one of the victims was said to have graduated from was in fact closed at the time. They also say that there is no concept of "nirvana" in their beliefs.

These are perhaps small details, but they may be telling.

In a press release, Falun Gong pointed to other inconsistencies: "Xinhua News Agency claims that within a minute of the man setting himself ablaze, police had dashed over to him with four fire extinguishers and quickly put out the flames. A European journalist based in Beijing, however, told us: "I have never seen policemen patrolling on Tiananmen Square carrying fire extinguishers. How come they all showed up today? The location of the incident is at least 20 minutes roundtrip from the nearest building ?the People's Great Hall. If they were to have dashed over there to get the equipment, it would have been too late." Is it even possible that the police could have responded with not one but four fire extinguishers within the space of a minute if they didn't have prior knowledge that this was going to occur?

"In terms of response time, another foreign journalist in Beijing expressed shock that Xinhua was able to release the first report on the incident almost immediately and in English, no less. Every Chinese citizen knows that every report from Xinhua usually has to first go through several rounds of approval by higher-ups and is generally 'old news' by the time it is published. Moreover, state-run media have never released any photos or video of Falun Gong protests in the course of 18 months of persecution to the foreign press, so why now and with so little hesitation? And why only in English and not in Chinese?"

The issue was raised with me again and again during a recent four-city tour speaking about my new book on the Falun Gong. Some people told me Falun Gong must be crazy if it does crazy things. When I challenged the assumption that we in fact know all the details, eyes glazed over. Perhaps that's because once people hear "facts" that seem to confirm their own assumptions, they don't want to hear more, even if the original "facts" may be wrong or misleading.

Hot images sear themselves into the brain; retractions and clarifications rarely do. In the newly published Tiananmen Papers, on how the Communist Party handled the student protests in 1989, journalist Orville Schell, dean of the Journalism School at Berkeley, discusses the many forgeries and falsehoods the Chinese government and others have concocted and circulated over the years. Disinformation and misinformation are the trade craft of intelligence agencies in many countries, especially China. It is not surprising that Beijing is denouncing these new documents as fake. Clearly, their publication is embarrassing to the secretive rulers of China, especially President Jiang Zemin, whose hard-line role in those events has been revived in the official persecution of Falun Gong.

Where Are The Skeptics?

Why did the deeply ingrained, institutionalized skepticism of our own media crumble so quickly in the face of what smells like a stage-managed incident that's being blatantly exploited for political reasons? Why would so many American news outlets be so gullible? Is it because the whiff of spirituality and mysticism in a culture few of us understand makes some of us uncomfortable in our journalistic practice?

In my investigation into Falun Gong, I document a disturbing pattern of U.S. media outlets echoing China's charges, including the frequent use of pejorative words like "cult" and "sect" and even "mishmash." In some respects the media in our own country also reflect a one-dimensional, stereotyped perspective, downplaying and denigrating a force that doesn't fit into simple left-right political categories and which they may have trouble relating to because of its Asian character and roots in [] traditional qigong. Falun Gong is too often treated like the classic "other," too weird to be taken seriously or show sympathy toward. (Incidentally, I am not a Falun Gong practitioner, but our company has produced videos for Falun Gong, which gave me access and information I used to write and produce a film and a book on the subject.")

At one of my bookstore appearances in Chicago, someone compared Falun Gong and the current situation in China to David Koresh's Branch Davidians and the 51-day siege in 1993 by federal law enforcement officers in Waco, ostensibly to seize guns and protect children from abuse, a comparison China has invoked to make the case that it's only doing what the U.S. government did in combating its own dangerous cult. Someone jumped up to challenge the analogy, arguing that Koresh and company were violent and Falun Gong is not. He was right: There is no direct comparison, except in terms of the response to what happened. Only the hard right-wing in the United States criticized the government's brutal military intervention, which reminded me of the words of that American lieutenant in Vietnam: "We destroyed the village in order to save it."

The lack of empathy people felt for the families under Koresh's mad control led to many rationalizing or not speaking out against the bloody and illegal suppression that occurred in Waco. Once people are dehumanized in our eyes, we may lose compassion for them and turn the other way when their rights are violated, especially if we dislike their politics and consider them unsympathetic victims. If you want to know the details of where dehumanization leads in China, check out Amnesty International's recent report on the pervasive use of torture, which is often directed at nonviolent Falun Gong practitioners. Beijing, natch, calls that a forgery too.

On February 17, more than a thousand Falun Gong practitioners protested nonviolently in Los Angeles against the persecution going on in China. Few media outlets showed up at their press conference, even though this is a story making headlines worldwide. (I couldn't find any story about it the next day in The Los Angeles Times, although their book review carried a discussion of what happened in Tiananmen Square in l989.) Media indifference fans public indifference. China's media are doing what you would expect, but how to explain the attitude of the Western media, which has covered the story so episodically?

In light of the prominent media play this "mass suicide" story received, it is not too late to thoroughly investigate not only what happened but whether and why we were all taken in.