What could be more dramatic? People 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. The victims are rushed to a hospital but only after their agonies are photographed for state television.
Soon, these images of immolation rocket around the world, seeming to confirm China's charges that an evil cult ordered brainwashed members to commit suicide. Citing this new "evidence," their government insists, this proves what it has been saying all along about those 'crazy Falun Gongers' is true. These people must be banned as a threat to themselves and the nation.
For news readers and media consumers, perception often trumps unclear realities. In a world where dramatic images overshadow complex issues, Falun Gong looks bad. Case closed!
Score a big one for president Jiang Zemin's crusade to "crush" and discredit a growing spiritual movement that is still resisting a state-ordered ban despite the detention of an estimated fifty thousand 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 a media skirmish, but to the war itself.
other respected news organizations disseminated this same story the same way,
even though they were unable to verify it independently, only sourcing Communist
Party controlled outlets. Now, as new questions are raised and doubts expressed,
it may turn out that the world media has been misled into becoming an all too
uncritical transmission belt for Beijing's bullying.
The event happened on January 23, days after Jiang intensified his anti-cult media campaign. CNN reported on it but its tapes were confiscated, so we never saw them. Now China is threatening to prosecute CNN for "murder" on the grounds that it allegedly had pre-knowledge of the incident.
Seven days later, China's official TV shocked the nation with footage of five people engulfed in flames, pictures supposedly from nearby surveillance cameras. Now, a tragically disfigured victim of the incident, a young girl, 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. Yet, only approved media outlets there have been permitted access to her.
Was she a Falun Gong practitioner? That seems doubtful, after the Post's Phillip Pan traced her to her home in Kaifeng, a town which experienced an even more tragic disco fire in December killing hundreds, and scarring many others. He discovered that her mother, who died in the Tiananman 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 fifty feet away, says she did not even see a twelve year old there. The government says doctors performed a tracheostomy on the victims but a pediatric surgeon said, if true, the child wouldn't be speaking right away.
Falun Gong practitioners told me their suspicions were aroused for four reasons: 1) the people in the square, said to be long time practitioners, didn't do their exercises correctly; 2) authorities did not show any pictures or Falun Gong signs that usually accompany protestors or books (which prohibit suicide), and 3) because when they checked on a school one of the victims was said to have graduated from, they found it was closed at the time, and 4) there is no concept of "nirvana" in their beliefs. These maybe small details, but they could be telling.
Why did the deeply engrained instititutionalized skepticism of our own media collapse so quickly in the face of what smells like a stagemanaged incident being blatantly expoloited for political reasons? Why would so many American news outlets be so gullible?
In my investigation into Falun Gong, I document a disturbing pattern of US media outlets echoing China's charges, including frequent use of pejorative words like "cult" and "sect." In some respects the media in our own country also reflects a one-dimensional stereotyped perspective, downplaying and denigrating a spiritual force that doesn't fit into simplistic categories and which we may have trouble understanding because of its mystical character and roots in a mix of a Buddist cultivation practice, Taoism and traditional qigong. Falun Gong is often treated like the classic "other," too weird to be taken seriously or show sympathy towards.
In light of the prominent play this "mass suicide" received, it is not too late to thoroughly investigate not only what happened but whether and if we were all taken in.
are are rarely political. They are universal cries of personal despair---and
they happen where you least expect them. In ten years, there have been ten very
visible student suicides at MIT, many by jumping, according to the Feb 4th
Boston Globe. Says a teammate of 22 year hockey star Lucy Crespo Da Silva who
ended her life in December, "There just seem to be upset people
Danny Schechter edits Mediachannel.org, a global media website and is the author of "Falun Gong's Challenge to China: Spiritual Practice or 'Evil Cult' (Akashic Books, 2000) and a film of the same name.