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Interpreting the 1.23 Incident - James R. Lewis

2017-01-23 Source:facts.org.cn Author:James R. Lewis

James R. Lewis

University of Troms? 

It is in fact time to let go of your last attachments. As cultivators, you already know that you should…let go of all worldly attachments, including the attachment to the human body. Dafa disciples [rid themselves] of all ordinary human attachments, including the attachment to their human lives, in order to reach the realms of higher beings.

— Li Hongzhi, From “Eliminate Your Last Attachment(s)” 


One of the most dramatic events in the ongoing conflict between the Falun Gong (FLG) movement and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was the self-immolation of five practitioners out of a group of seven – which included a talented young music student as well as a 12-year-old girl – on the 23rd of January 2001 (subsequently referred to as the “1.23 Incident”), which was the date of Chinese New Year’s Eve in that particular year.[1]

These followers chose Tiananmen Square as the site of their protest against the government’s crackdown on FLG, a crackdown that had begun in earnest in 1999, following an earlier protest in Tiananmen Square. Though security services dowsed the flames in short order, one practitioner died in the square and four were seriously burnt (plus one of the latter burn victims subsequently died).  

Falun Gong quickly distanced itself from the event. With 24 hours of its occurrence, FLG issued a press release which asserted that Chinese authorities had orchestrated the self-immolations in order to frame the organization. New Tang Dynasty TV, an enterprise created by Falun Gong followers, also eventually produced a widely-distributed video, False Fire, which supported the claim that the event was faked. The government, for its part, initially 

… attempted to quash news of the event, even though Western journalists had been present and had recorded it; the tape was immediately confiscated by authorities. But soon the government realized they could use this as an opportunity to muster opposition to Falun Gong. A week after the incident had occurred state television broadcast some footage showing the twelve-year old daughter of one of the practitioners, rolling around in agony. The government framed the deaths as ‘cultic suicide,’ and discredited them as a form of protest. (Farley 2014, 222-223) 

Though there were accusations that the directive to immolate themselves came directly from Li Hongzhi (LHZ – Falun Gong’s founder-leader), there are other possibilities, given the decentralized structure of the movement at the ground level. There was also a spate of FLG suicides or attempted suicides in China at around the same time as the Tiananmen Square event – suicides to which few observers have called attention. Finally, there are certain aspects of suicide in Chinese culture – especially within the Chinese Buddhist tradition – that can be brought to bear on the interpretation of this tragedy. 

My purpose in this essay is to assess the plausibility of conflicting interpretations of the 1.23 Incident. Naturally, the two major parties to the controversy which forms the background for this incident – namely the Falun Gong organization vs. the government of the People’s Republic of China – dismiss each other’s perspectives as self-evidently false. Specifically, PRC authorities consider that FLG’s defenders have been duped by Falun Gong propaganda, while FLG supporters “summarily dismiss everyone” who gives serious consideration to the Chinese position “as either being on Beijing’s payroll or mindless zombies, and every single piece of accusation against them as Beijing-backed propaganda” (Yue 2017). 

Because I anticipate that many readers of this essay will be Westerners – inclined to defend the human rights of ‘innocent’ Falun Gong practitioners as ‘self-evidently’ the correct position which any well-meaning person should take – let me preface my remarks by referring the reader to another essay in which I discuss why PRC authorities came to perceive FLG as a threat to the social order, as well as the esoteric theory of karma that motivates practitioners to “deliberately seek” (Palmer 2001, 17) being brutalized and even martyred: “Sucking the ‘De’ out of Me” (https://www.academia.edu/12926903/Sucking_the_De_Out_of_Me). (In this regard, also refer to Palmer 2003.) 

The intention of my earlier essay was not to completely absolve Chinese authorities of all responsibility for the conflict, but rather to argue (1) that there were at least two sides to the controversy, and (2) that the image of Falun Gong as an innocent, “passive and victimized group that needs to be ‘saved’” (Liu 2005, 14) was a conscious creation of the Falun Gong organization, designed to evoke support from non-Chinese audiences. In another essay, co-authored with Nicole S. Ruskell, “Innocent Victims of Chinese Oppression, Or Media Bullies?” (http://www.cesnur.org/2016/daejin_lewis_ruskell.pdf), we analyzed the specific strategies by which FLG has been able to successfully promote this image to the world outside of China.[2] 

Let me finally address my use of Chinese sources. I know that many Western observers – and especially Falun Gong adherents – automatically dismiss the accuracy of mainland sources, such as Facts on Falun Gong (facts.org.cn). I should thus note that, in a number of cases, I have been able to check media articles that have been re-posted on the Facts on Falun Gong (Facts) website against the originals, and found that they were reproduced faithfully, without modification, even when such articles included criticisms of PRC authorities. Additionally, Facts has always represented my work accurately, without exaggeration. Thus while it is obvious that Facts has a strong critical point of view that focuses on the dark side of Falun Gong, from my experience they do not do so by inventing negative information. Lastly, though it probably does not need to be stated explicitly, the majority of references I utilize in my analysis of Falun Gong are not from PRC sources, with many from FLG sources or from sources supportive of Falun Gong. 

To now shift to my analysis: The two basic opposing viewpoints were established almost immediately in the aftermath of the incident; these were: (1) the self-immolations were directly ordered by Li Hongzhi vs. (2) the immolations were staged by the PRC for propaganda purposes. The first of these interpretations of events was provided to CNN reporters (who were present in Tiananmen Square at the time): To quote from the initial CNN report: 

A CNN producer and cameraman saw a person sit down on a pavement, pour gasoline on his clothes and set himself on fire. Flames shot high into the air against a backdrop of a gray Chinese New Year’s Eve afternoon with piles of snow packed onto the square. Police ran to the flames and extinguished them within minutes, as security personnel rushed to the area near Peoples’ Heroes Monument at the square’s center. As military police apprehended the crew and physically restrained them, the crew witnessed four more people immolating themselves. They raised their hands above their heads and staggered slowly about, flames tearing through their clothing….

  Police issued the CNN crew a statement after their detention on Tiananmen Square confirming that one person had died and four were injured. Police said another person had been detained on the scene with two flasks of gasoline. According to the statement, the Falun Gong followers had burned themselves under the direction of Li Hongzhi, leader of the “evil cult” (MacKinnon 2001a). 

Falun Gong’s official response appeared so quickly that it was able to be included in a second CNN report the very next day: 

Falun Gong issued a statement saying: “This so-called suicide attempt on Tiananman Square has nothing to do with Falun Gong practitioners because the teachings of Falun Gong prohibit any form of killing. Mr. Li Hongzhi, the founder of the practice, has explicitly stated that suicide is a sin.” …

  The statement accused China’s state-run news agency Xinhua, which also identified the burn victims as Falun Gong members, of lying. It said the Xinhua report was “yet another attempt by (China) to defame the practice of Falun Gong” and called on international media and human rights groups to investigate. The statement did not offer its own explanation of the incident (MacKinnon 2001b). 

However, the Falun Gong organization eventually developed a sophisticated and detailed interpretation of the incident, asserting that it was a propaganda event staged by PRC authorities, as laid out in subsequent FLG publications (e.g., He 2014a; He 2014b; He 2014c) and in the New Tang Dynasty TV documentary, False Fire (http://www.falsefire.com). For their part, Chinese authorities began a renewed media campaign – renewing the initial campaign that had originally been conducted in 1999, following the official banning of Falun Gong: 

Television images of emotionally charged hospital scenes of self-immolation victims, particularly the repeated (contrasting) images of the young college student and the primary school girl before and after the incident, worked to dispel any initial doubt, indifference or even antagonism that many people had towards the state-led media campaign against Falun Gong (Yu 2009, 128). 

Charges and counter-charges regarding the interpretation of this event have repeatedly been hurled back and forth between Falun Gong and PRC authorities over the past sixteen years. A full analysis of these accusations would go beyond the scope of the present paper. Instead, I will restrict myself to discussing what I regard as strong points made by each side of this controversy regarding the details of the 1.23 Incident, and then put forward evidence to support an alternate interpretation of the event. First, let us examine Falun Gong’s analysis of one particular point.

Liu Siying, the 12-year-old girl who was set on fire by her practitioner-mother during the incident, was subsequently treated in Jishuitan Hospital and lived for another two and a half months, until her death on 17 March 2001. None of her relatives were allowed to visit her during this time, and the only reporters allowed to interview her were from the Xinhua News Agency, China’s official news agency, and from CCTV (China Central Television), another state-owned enterprise. Falun Gong spokespeople have called attention to the fact that Liu Siying was fully covered in gauze and that the CCTV reporter who interviewed her for a special televised program on the 1.23 Incident was not wearing a sterile mask or other protective clothing, further asserting that these would have been standard practices in burn wards. Though the latter point about standard practices can be disputed (depending on how long it has been since the patient was burnt), the careful isolation of Liu Siying and the apparent effort to disguise her identity when she (or someone else posing as Liu) was interviewed by CCTV makes Falun Gong’s counter-interpretation seem plausible. Video footage had been shot of Liu Siying in flames while screaming for her mother during the incident, and that footage was subsequently used as a core icon in the TV campaign against FLG. Thus it would have made sense to have tried to manipulate every aspect of what the public knew about this young girl. 

Wang Jindong

To get a sense of what I regard as the less compelling aspects of Falun Gong’s analysis of the event, we can consider a sample detail in FLG’s discussion of Wang Jindong, one of the individuals who planned the self-immolations. Wang has been a central figure in the war of words over the proper interpretation of the 1.23 Incident (he passed away a number of years ago). Though he remained faithful to Li Hongzhi for some time following his self-immolation attempt, Wang eventually rejected Falun Gong, and subsequently authored a moderately lengthy statement in which he described the background leading up to the incident, his actions on the day of the self-immolations, and his subsequent reflections. The video recording of Wang setting himself on fire as well as his later statements have been subjected to minute analysis and criticism by FLG followers, who, echoing the organization’s original response, have even denied that the individual in the video was ever a member. For example, Falun Gong analysts call attention to the shoes worn by the individual identified as Wang Jindong, asserting that they were the same as those worn by uniformed policemen – a coincidence easily explained by Wang as a gift from a former employer (refer to his 2015 [2003] statement). 

For the interpretation of the 1.23 Incident, I tend not to be interested in these details. Rather, I find myself instead focusing on a statement attributed to Wang Jindong which makes an extremely compelling point, whether or not Wang was the actual author of this statement: 

Could the government arrange the 12-year-old student? Could the government buy over the two mothers and two daughters? I would like to ask the rumor makers, would you let your family attend self-immolation if you are given 100 million Yuan? (Wang 2015 [2003]) 

The general point being made here is obvious: If the 1.23 self-immolators were not Falun Gong followers, then what could have motivated them to set themselves on fire? And however much one was being paid, could any mother have doused her daughter with gasoline and then set her alight?  

Let me add that Wang’s statement came vividly to mind when I met Chen Guo, the music student who set herself on fire along with her mother on that fateful day. Chen Guo struck me as quite sweet. Unfortunately, her face was a “blotchy mass of grafted skin with no nose and no ears” (Page 2002). Formerly a talented musician who, as a young girl, had already won international acclaim for her mastery of the pipa, a traditional stringed instrument, I was forcibly struck by the depth of her tragedy when I started to shake her hand – only to remember that that she had lost both of her hands in the incident. Her explanation for why she and her fellow self-immolators made their extreme sacrifice? – “We wanted to strengthen the force of Falun Gong” (Ibid.). 


Chen Guo in an interview 

This spirit of devotion contrasts sharply with the tone of Falun Gong’s initial press release, which bluntly denied that any of its members were involved in the incident: 

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. Mr. Li Hongzhi, the founder of the practice, has explicitly stated that suicide is a sin (Quoted in Schauble 2001). 

It seems that by redefining the self-immolators as non-practitioners, they felt they could deny any connection with Falun Gong. However, over and above the question of what could have motivated non-practitioners (as FLG claims) to set themselves and their children on fire, there is alternative evidence that the self-immolators were all followers. Thus, for example, with the exception of 12-year-old Liu Siying, all of the self-immolators “had protested Beijing’s actions against Falun Gong in Tiananmen Square previously, according to the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy” (Pan 2001). (And note that this information center is not under the control of PRC authorities.) 

It should also be noted that being abandoned by the Falun Gong organization did not seem to discourage other followers from following in the Tiananmen Square protesters’ footsteps. These additional suicides are compelling evidence (1) that other practitioners independently interpreted Li Hongzhi’s call to action as a call to make the ultimate sacrifice, and (2) that while one might be able to reasonably make the case that PRC authorities staged the 1.23 Incident, it is highly unlikely that authorities staged multiple suicide events all over China – events that were neither videotaped nor featured in the Chinese news media: 

On February 16, another adherent immolated himself on a residential street in Beijing. By the time the police arrived just a few minutes later, Tan Yihui, just twenty-five, a shoe shiner from Hunan province, had died (Farley 2014, 223). 

The self-immolations continued when on July 1, Luo Guili set himself alight in a city square in Nanning in southern China. Barely nineteen years old, he died the following day of severe burns and heart and lung failure (Farley 2014, 223).

[O]n June 29 [of the same year], 16 Falun Gong followers in a labor camp in Harbin attempted mass suicide by hanging themselves with ropes fashioned from bedsheets. Ten of them, all women, died. [Additionally,] eleven sect members in a reeducation center had undertaken mass suicide and three died from the attempt (Chang 2004, 28). 

There were also numerous cases of practitioners committing suicide by throwing themselves off of buildings (Wang 2015 [2003]; Li 2014). In October of 2016, I had a conversation with a former deputy provincial leader of Falun Gong who told me that at least eleven of her former associates killed themselves by leaping from rooftops. 

Regarding the labor camp and reeducation center suicides, Falun Gong’s response was that these followers had been tortured to death and that “the camp had labeled their deaths suicide to cover up its crime” (Smith 2001). As was previously noted, in most disputes between Falun Gong and the Chinese government every major accusation is matched by a counter-accusation. However, in this case, I would argue that neither Chinese authorities nor the Falun Gong organization were likely behind these various suicides and attempted suicides. Rather, the fact that they were carried out in no discernable pattern seems to indicate that they were not undertaken under the direction of either Li Hongzhi or the Chinese state.

At the practitioner level, there seems to be little or no direction from the Falun Gong leadership. In fact, the lack of such governance from the top has allowed schisms to develop under local leadership (e.g., refer to: Thornton 2003, 264; Bell and Boas 2004, 282). Rather,

In light of the Chinese government’s persecution of Falun Gong, founder Li Hongzhi had fashioned an apocalyptic ideology to motivate his disciples to instigate and participate in civil disobedience. [However,] Would-be activists were not formally invited to become a member of an activist team. There were no formal instructions on how to dissent. [Instead,] Civil disobedience actions were planned at local meetings. (Farley 2004, 224) 

It was thus most probably that a group of ground-level practitioners organized and carried out the self-immolations – or at least this was the scenario given in Wang Jindong’s account, and in interviews with survivors that were published in Chinese sources such as in the People’s Daily: 

Her face scarred with massive skin grafts and her hands missing, Chen Guo recalls the events which led her to set herself on fire in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square more than a year ago.

“I remember Li Hongzhi … published a lecture entitled ‘Beyond Tolerance’ and after reading it, we decided not to wait any longer,” Chen said. “We felt we must strengthen the force of Falun Gong in a special way and at that time we thought of self-immolation.” …

[Wang Jindong added that,] “We went to Tiananmen square on January 23, 2001. I was one of the main organizers and I burned myself first.”

“We went there just wanting to attain the ‘all-round fulfillment’ claimed by Li Hongzhi,” he said. (People’s Daily 2002) 

As a background for understanding the motivations of these protesters, it should be understood that, 

Mr. Li’s cryptic exhortations to followers on the Falun Gong Web site [had] grown increasingly strident, chastising those people who cannot endure torture or even death in defense of his cosmology, which holds that Falun Gong is engaged in a struggle with evil beings for the redemption or destruction of the universe. ‘‘Even if a dafa cultivator truly casts off his human skin during the persecution, what awaits him is still consummation [and] Any fear is itself a barrier that prevents you from reaching consummation,’’ Mr. Li wrote. (Smith 2001)


The apocalyptic teachings of Li Hongzhi could well have precipitated the self-immolations through a veiled call to civil disobedience and the promise of salvation for martyrs. Li teaches that the ‘Ending Period of Catastrophe’ is almost here, that contemporary society is degenerate and will be purged. The only ones who will be saved are those who are genuine Falun Gong practitioners. Li called Jiang Zemin, then president of the People’s Republic of China, “the highest representative of the evil force in the human world” who is being manipulated by higher beings to persecute the Falun Gong. According to Li, only when the evil is eliminated can practitioners return home through Consummation to the Falun Dafa paradise. (Farley 2004, 224-225)

LHZ’s essay mentioned by Chen Guo, the title of which is sometimes translated as “Beyond the Limits of Forbearance,” paints a vivid portrait of the evil currently threatening to overrun humanity, and instructing his followers that they should not continue to simply passively forebear the advance of evil beings (especially those who persecute Falun Gong):

Forbearance (ren) is not cowardice, much less is it resigning oneself to adversity. … [Additionally,] Forbearance is absolutely not the limitless giving of free rein, which allows those evil beings who no longer have any human nature or righteous thoughts to do evil without limit. … If the evil has already reached the point where it is unsaveable and unkeepable, then various measures at different levels can be used to stop it and eradicate it. … the way the evil beings are currently performing shows that they are now completely without human nature and without righteous thoughts. Such evil’s persecution of the Fa can thus no longer be tolerated. (Li 2001) 

This is, of course, an overt call to action. However, as I have already indicated, there were no specific directions given for exactly how one should respond to that call. But why would the protesters (both the Tiananmen Square practitioners and other, later practitioners) choose martyrdom as their way of responding to the suppression of Falun Gong? It turns out that LHZ has both praised and encouraged martyrdom. 

Thus, for example, at a gathering in Montreal in May 2001 that was attended by sociologist of religion Susan Palmer, 

[Li Honzhi] congratulated the martyrs of Tiananmen Square [apparently referring, not to the 1.23 protesters, but to other protesters who had made the ultimate sacrifice] who have “consummated their own majestic positions” and presumably earned a posthumous enlightenment, or a crown of martyrdom: “Whether they are imprisoned or lose their human lives for persevering in Dafa cultivation, they achieve Consummation” (Palmer 2003, 356).[3] 

Palmer discusses the philosophy of karma and martyrdom behind these protests, and rightly notes that, “While Western politicians, journalists and human rights groups respond to social justice arguments, for the practitioners themselves, it is spiritual and apocalyptic expectations that fuel their civil disobedience” (Ibid., 349). 

If we want a broader understanding of the Falun Gong suicides, it should first be noted that suicide as a form of political protest has taken place in a wide variety of different societies (Fierke 2013; Graitl 2014), including in traditional and contemporary China (Yu 2012; Lee & Kleinman 2003), with self-immolation being especially popular because it is so dramatic that it tends to leave a greater impression on onlookers (Biggs 2005; Hedges 2015). Secondly, there is a long tradition of self-immolation in Chinese Buddhism (Jan 1965; Benn 2007) and, despite criticisms that they are not ‘really’ Buddhist (Lao 2012), LHZ nevertheless claims that FLG belongs to the Buddhist tradition. (Though pre-modern Buddhist self-immolations were not political protests, but were rather conceived as a ‘gift of the body.’) 

While there are plenty of precedents for Buddhist self-sacrifice in the Jataka Tales, it is Chapter Twenty-Three of the Lotus Sutra – an important Mahayana Buddhist scripture – that provides the primary reference for later religious self-immolations. In this particular chapter, Sakyamuni tells the story of the bodhisattva Medicine King who, after anointing himself and his robes with fragrant oils and even drinking some of the oils, sets himself on fire. His body subsequently burns for 1200 years. He is then praised by numerous celestial beings and is reborn into a more fortunate realm, where he makes additional sacrifices (Benn 2009, 108-112). While there are discussions of self-immolations in other sutras, none have been as influential as the one described in the Lotus Sutra. 

Though historically there was a history of conflict between self-sacrificing Buddhists and the state (e.g., refer to Chapter Three of Benn 2007), the contemporary deployment of self-immolation as political protest by Buddhists seems to have begun with Thich Quang Duc’s self-immolation in Vietnam on 11 June 1963. (Biggs 2005, 173-175) Thich Quang Duc’s dramatic self-sacrifice was intended to call world attention to the plight of Vietnamese Buddhists who were being persecuted by the dictatorship of Ngo Dinh Diem, a practicing Catholic. The event took place at a busy intersection in Saigon, where reporters had been invited to witness the self-immolation.


I have recounted these various precedents – from suicides undertaken as forms of political protest to religious suicides in Buddhist texts – NOT to say that any particular set of events or any particular text directly influenced the Tiananmen Square protestors. Rather, I am simply pointing out that protestors’ decision to self-immolate did not arise in a vacuum, and that there were numerous historical and contemporary examples of suicide as a form of resistance, both in China and elsewhere, that could have suggested self-immolation as an appropriate form of protest. When combined with Li Hongzhi’s apocalyptic vision and his urgent but non-specific call to action, it is not difficult to see how these practitioners could draw the conclusion that they should go ahead and make the ultimate sacrifice to ‘defend the Fa.’

To summarize, in this paper I revisited the controversy over the Tiananmen Square self-immolators, drawing from both primary and secondary material. However, rather than dwelling on the claims and counter-claims put forward by the Chinese government and the Falun Gong organization, I shifted my primary research focus to other factors that could shed light on this event. My conclusion was that rather than a PRC plot or an action directly ordered by the Falun Gong organization, it seems more likely that this was a demonstration planned and executed by local leaders – though indirectly inspired by a combination of Li Hongzhi’s violent apocalyptic vision, his call to non-specific action against the Chinese government, examples of prior suicide protests and, perhaps, religious suicides in the Chinese Buddhist tradition.





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[1] The beginning of each new year is determined by the day of the new moon; thus the date varies from year to year.

[2] FLG has been able to influence other media via its extensive presence on the web (Yu 2009, 132), through its direct press releases and through its own media. Falun Gong has also been able to propagate its point of view indirectly, through other, non-FLG sources, which creates the impression of multiple sources for the same narrative. Thus, for example, “The press often quote Amnesty International, but Amnesty’s reports are not independently verified, and mainly come from Falun Gong sources” (Kavan 2005). Additionally, Falun Gong followers and/or sympathizers de facto control the relevant webpages in Wikipedia, a standard source for journalists operating under tight deadlines (Bell and Boas 2003, 287). On this last point, refer, e.g., to Sheng Jiang (2015) “Is Falun Gong’s Wikipedia page objective?” https://www.quora.com/is-Falun-Gongs-Weikipedia-page-objective (Accessed 19 June 2016) and User: Colipon/Falun Gong. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Colipon/Falun_Gong (Accessed 20 June 2016).

[3] Although Li Hongzhi made these remarks almost five months following the 1.23 Incident, he had articulated the same or similar ideas prior to 23 January 2001. Refer, for example, to his 5 July 1998 letter to Jian Xiaojun in which he asserted that practitioners who died in an automobile accident on a mission to spread Falun Gong had “obtained consummation” (Li 1998, reproduced in Kaiwind 2006).