(Kaiwind.com) On the day of Chinese New Year Eve, January 23, 2001, seven Falun Gong followers from Henan province, including Wang Jindong, Hao Huijun and her daughter Chen Guo, staged a self-immolation in Tian'anmen Square, which led to two dead and three seriously burnt. Fourteen years passed, and this incident has been a more representative of how dangerous cult can destroy its followers’ lives, which are be studied thoroughly by cult research institutions and experts around the world. Recently, Tony Smith, an ex-member of Falun Gong, was interviewed by Facts.org.cn about the tragedy and other issues regarding the spread of cults. His interview covers the motivations of Falun Gong for their actions surrounding the incident as well as other cults who have carried out similar tragedies. It concludes with a brief discussion of what can be done to combat cults and prevent future incidents.
1．Do you know the self-immolation incident at Tiananmen Square on January 23, 2001? What do you know about the incident?
Mr. Tony Smith: I saw news reports of the self-immolation incident at Tienamen Square on January 23, 2001, but do not know much about it beyond the news reports and the denials of Falun Gong involvement by Zhang Erping and Li Hongzhi.
2．After the incident, a self-immolator Wang Jindong elaborated how he was instigated by teachings of Falun Gong to commit self-immolation. But Falun Gong denied that the self-immolators are practitioners of Falun Gong. What do you think is the reason for Falun Gong’s denial?
Mr. Tony Smith: As of now, it seems clear to me in hindsight that the denials were not honest, and that Falun Gong in China had seen that American public opinion had been favorable to self-immolating Buddhists during the Vietnam era so Falun Gong set up people like Wang Jindong to do self-immolation in an attempt to get favorable public opinion in China and America. When that attempt failed, and there was no favorable public opinion, the denial was an unsucessful effort to avoid responsibility for what had happened.
3．Margaret Thaler Singer, a late cult expert, said she had read all available teachings of Li Hongzhi that had been translated into English. Through these readings and talks with Falun Gong practitioners and their family, she found out that Li Hongzhi just taught some common methods of physical exercise, such as Tai chi and breathing practice. He used these methods as pretence to attract followers. Then he led them astray, making them believe everything he said and believe that Falun Gong would make them different. Have you ever read any teachings of Falun Gong? Which part of the teachings do you think may lead practitioners to commit such kind of self-injuries?
Mr. Tony Smith: I have read many of the publications of Falun Gong and have even helped the Beijing group in their translations from Mandarin to English. My translation work was done in the 1990s while I was studying physics at Georgia Tech. Some of my fellow students, from China, told me about Falun Gong and asked me for help with translation to English being done by Falun Gong people in China. Although I know very little Mandarin, I do know colloquial English expressions, so they would show me drafts of English translations done back in China and discuss with me (in English) the meanings of original Mandarin characters and I would tell them whether or not the draft English translations were accurate, and if the drafts were not accurate, I would propose Engliish translations that seemed to be more accurate.
While doing that, I read a lot of Falun Gong publications. My impression back then was that Li Hongzhi was mostly repeating and summarizing Daoist and Buddha-School history and ideas that had been around for hundreds, even thousands, of years and that he was trying to make those traditional ancient Chinese ideas well-known to the general public of China and the world.
At the time back then, Falun Gong was the most popular source for people to get in touch with traditional ancient Chinese ideas, since that was a time before the Confucius Institutes had been set up,so many people came to trust Falun Gong as putting them in touch with traditional Chinese ideas and practices including Tai Chi, breathing, etc. In a few cases, some people were so trusting that they could be manipulated by Falun Gong to do extreme things like self-immolation.
4．Do you think that Falun Gong’s instigation infringed upon the human rights of its practitioners in the self-immolation incident?
Mr. Tony Smith: Manipulation of trusting people into doing things like self-immolation is indeed a violation of their basic human rights.
5．The self-immolation incident in Tiananmen Square is not the only case of group self-immolation committed by cult members. On August 22, 2013, three Japanese members of the Unification Church set fire to themselves in Gapyeong in South Korea. One person died in the self-immolation incident and two got fatally injured. According to laws in your country, what should the government do to deal with such kind of self-immolation committed by cult members?
Mr. Tony Smith: The best way that a government can protect its citizens from such manipulation is for the government to actively reach out to its citizens, telling them the true facts about cults. The Facts.org.cn web site is a good example of this.
6．Internet has become an important platform for cults to spread their teachings. Do you have any suggestions or advice on combating cults via Internet?
Mr. Tony Smith: The internet can provide people with a truthful connection to things that they feel they need, such as connection with traditional ideas and healthy practices like Tai chi. The Confucius Institutes and their internet web sites are good examples of this.
Tony Smith graduated from Princeton Univeristy in 1963 before attending the University of Georgia and being accepted to the bar in Georgia in 1965. Mr Smith was in the US Air Force reserves until 1971 and a partner in Neel and Smith law firm until 1987. He studied for a PHD in Physics at Georgia Tech during the 90s but left without a degree. During his time at Georgia Tech, Mr. Smith got involved with Falun Gong but on 8 March 2003, he wrote that he no longer recognizes Li Hongzhi as an authentic teacher or master. He followed up that declaration with an apology for supporting Falun Gong and criticsising the Chinese government.