Thursday 25 January 2001

A light dusting of snow in Tiananmen Square yesterday covered the scene of a brief but horrible tragedy. Gruesome reminders were the fire extinguishers standing near some police vans.

Hours earlier on the eve of Chinese New Year, normally the most joyous festival on the Chinese calendar, four women and a man doused themselves with petrol in the square. Then, in an act of defiance, or perhaps of sheer lunacy, they set fire to themselves.

The incident recalled ghastly images from the early 1960s when Buddhist monks burned themselves alive in protest against the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam.

The Chinese Government was unusually quick to identify those involved as members of Falun Gong, an outlawed spiritualist movement that has dogged the authorities over the past two years. Beijing derides Falun Gong [], but has been unable to curb its protests. Several followers were earlier detained in unrelated protests in Tiananmen, where such episodes have become a daily event.

But the Falun Gong yesterday denied those involved were followers of the movement.

Witnesses said the women staggered, their arms raised, around one section of the vast plaza. The man remaining seated, engulfed by flames for some minutes before the police extinguished them. Video footage shows a column of smoke rising from one edge of the square as onlookers stare aghast.

The victims were spirited away to an emergency medical centre. One woman later died, according to the official Xinhua news agency, which said the five were from central Henan province. Yesterday the survivors were resting in the Ji Shui Tan Hospital in Beijing, which specialises in burns cases, but could not be interviewed. Beijing police refused to elaborate further on the incident.

Police detained a sixth person said to be carrying flasks of petrol. A CNN television crew who saw the incident was detained by police and videotape seized.

Falun Gong members in China risk imprisonment, even death, in their persistent campaign to be allowed to practise their idiosyncratic beliefs that combine elements of Buddhism, Taoism, "qi gong" deep breathing exercises and meditation. For the past two years they have used occasions such as national holidays and New Year to highlight their beliefs and embarrass the government with highly visible protests.

"This so-called suicide attempt on Tiananmen Square has nothing to do with Falun Gong practitioners because the teachings of Falun Gong prohibit any form of killing," the group said in a statement issued in New York. "Mr Li Hongzhi, the founder of the practice, has explicitly stated that suicide is a sin."

The denial was echoed yesterday by Falun Gong representatives in Hong Kong and Australia. "As far as I'm concerned, no real Falun Gong practitioner would do that," Holly Wei, a Sydney-based spokeswoman for the organization said.

Another Australian spokesman, Michael Pearson-Smith, said that a police claim that the victims were "walking with arms raised in a typical Falun Gong position" was completely erroneous as such a gesture was not part of Falun Gong practice.

According to Falun Gong, the incident in Tiananmen Square is part of an ongoing campaign by the Chinese Government to discredit the movement, saying every arm of the government had "fabricated countless lies against Falun Gong throughout this crackdown".

Yesterday, officials were taking few chances of further protests. Tiananmen Square was ringed by marked and unmarked police vehicles, with several others parked on the snow-covered paving of the vast space. Hundreds of uniformed and plain-clothed police and soldiers checked the identity papers of every person seeking access to the square to celebrate the arrival of the Year of the Snake. Some people were searched.

Some analysts believe the incident may lead to a new crackdown against the Falun Gong movement, which has so far resisted vigorous attempts by the authorities to quash it. In recent days, the official media has carried several anti-Falun Gong articles, accusing "foreign elements" of using the group as a "tool" in a attempts to overthrow the government.