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  January 27,  

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Part 1: From sport to suicide

By Francesco Sisci

BEIJING - The Chinese Year of the Dragon ended with five followers of the Falungong movement torching themselves in Tiananmen Square, China's holiest ground, in an act of defiance against the government. The next day, January 24, the poisonous Year of the Snake started with hundreds of policemen patrolling the square in temperatures well below zero.

The self-immolations - one successful, four attempted - were reminiscent of those of Vietnamese Buddhist monks opposing the US military intervention in Vietnam in the 1960s. More moderate Falungong followers were shocked and hurried to claim that their master, Li Hongzhi, self exiled in America, expressly forbids suicide. In China, suicide is a sin against the ancestors and Tuesday's action is bound to convince more common people that Falungong is indeed a cult, as the government claims.

Actually, a few days before the suicide the government had scored a significant victory over the sect after months of stalemate. "Focus", China's most popular TV news program, interviewed some Falungong followers detained after a wave of protests around January 1. On camera, the Falungong members said they had no names because had become gods.

"I'm god, does god have a name? The name of god is god, I have no name," pronounced a follower who looked as if he had lost some of his wits. One detainee, an elderly woman, refused to be treated for dangerously high blood pressure, claiming that she was afraid of nothing because Master Li Hongzhi was protecting her. It was an implicit reply to the sect that had denounced the death of dozens of followers in detention.

China Central Television, for once, was flooded with letters of support for the government crackdown on the sect. The government seemed to have found the right tool to isolate the zealots. In cases of future protests, it would let the Falungong speak for themselves.

The Tiananmen suicide seems therefore to be a reply to the government. The sect will no longer surrender prisoners who can easily be used by the government in its propaganda efforts, but will move to a mode of protest that will show the government in the worst possible light.

The suicide could mark the end of a stubborn wave of peaceful protests that has gone on for almost two years since some 10,000 Falungong members laid siege to Zhongnanhai, the enclave containing the residences and offices of the highest-ranking members of the Communist Party, on April 25, 1999. It could signal a start of new, bloodier confrontations for the sect which wants ... Well, what does it want?

Abroad, spokesmen for the sect say they want freedom to practice their faith, because the government has forbidden public gatherings. However, Beijing has made clear that it won't persecute believers practicing the discipline in the privacy of their homes.

One may wonder why it is so necessary for Falungong to have public gatherings. Certainly, limitations on the right of free assembly are violations against human rights. Yet, all governments forbid assemblies in certain areas, and the prohibition of demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, though repulsive, doesn't itself constitute a human rights infringement.

One could thus construe that Falungong advocates freedom and Western values, and is just a bit too gung-ho. But this analysis doesn't compute.

Why do they protest so stubbornly while Buddhists loyal to the banned Dalai Lama, Protestants, and Catholics of the underground church who prayed for the Pope at the risk of their own lives during the tough years of the Cultural Revolution, do not join the struggle? Why can millions of underground Christians pray at home, or in small semi-clandestine churches, submitting themselves for decades to the danger of routine police raids, while Falungong can't?

These questions take us back to the Falungong demonstration of April 25, 1999. Before that day, and in fact up until July of that year when the sect was banned, Falungong was free. Every day, in almost every park in Chinese cities, there were groups of devotees practicing their morning rites.

But that April 25 the Falungong wanted more than that. They wanted to be fully recognized as a religion.

Previously, they had been officially under the state's sports administration, like many other disciplines based on the ancient Chinese breathing exercise called Qigong. A promotion to one of the official religions of China, like Buddhism, Taoism, and Catholicism, would elevate the Falungong leadership to the formal Chinese People's Consultative Conference, headed by Li Ruihuan, number four in the communist hierarchy, and thus closer to the heart of Chinese power.

The April 25 protest had a twist which looks strange if one believes the Falungong are freedom fighters: they demanded severe punishment for an elderly, soft-spoken and well-mannered physicist named Professor He Zuoxiu.

Prof He was guilty of having penned an article moderately critical of the Falungong in an obscure weekly published in Tianjin with a circulation of a mere few thousand.

A few of weeks earlier, in March, the Falungong had mounted a demonstration in Tianjin demanding the magazine retract the article and publish a eulogy of the sect. Such demonstrations were not new. In the previous few years Falungong had organized several protests against those who dared speak ill of it, and it always obtained what it wanted.

In one of the best-known cases, the same Prof He in 1998 had given an interview to Beijing Radio in which he cautioned youngsters against practicing Falungong. The following day, the sect organized a protest around the radio station's premises and obtained a retraction and another program speaking in favor of Falungong.

From as early as 1997 there had been warnings about the sect, yet the government had urged all official propaganda departments not to raise any fuss by airing negative views about it.

Falungong followers have told me that they were particularly concerned about Prof He because "he spoke for some one else, he represented the voice of someone in the government who was against the Falungong and had long prepared for the crackdown". "Nonsense," replied Prof He when I confronted him with the Falungong explanation. "If I had the support of the central government I wouldn't have been writing in an obscure Tianjin weekly but in the [official party organ] People's Daily."

The motivations for his article were simple: his best student, whom he loved like a son, had gone insane by practicing Falungong. He felt a moral obligation to warn other youths about the discipline, the more so because he felt he had done little when the young man had started practicing. He had thus embarked on his solitary campaign, and said it had taken him months to get his article published.

Surprisingly though, the Tianjin magazine did not give in to the Falungong demands in March 1999, and even more surprisingly, the police intervened to stop the protest. A scuffle between police and demonstrators ensued in which, for the first time, some Falungong followers were arrested. This, in turn, prompted the April 25 protest, when the Falungong demanded it be recognized as a religion and that Prof He be punished.

(Special to Asia Times Online)

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