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,Mr. Rick Alan Ross, a famous American cult expert and author of Cults Inside Out, was interviewed by Facts.org.cn (aka Kaiwind.com for Chinese version) about the Tian’anmen Square Event. Additionally, Mr.Rick Alan Ross expressed his concerns about other questions in the field of cult study.
1．Do you know the self-immolation incident at Tiananmen Square on January 23, 2001? What do you know about the incident?
Mr.Rick Alan Ross: I have studied and written about the horrible Tiananmen Square tragedy in my book “Cults Inside Out: How People Get In and Can Get Out” and personally met with both Hao Huijun and her daughter Chen Guo. My book is dedicated them. They are the most tragic cult victims I have ever personally met and I greatly admire their willingness to share their story to help others avoid being victimized by cults. They are living examples of truthfulness, compassion and forbearance.
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.Rick Alan Ross: I have met and interviewed both Hao Huijun and her daughter Chen Guo. They were both deeply involved with Falun Gong. I have also frequently received email from Falun Gong practitioners protesting my reports about the group and its leader Li Hongzhi at CultNews.com. Sadly, it seems to me that members of Falun Gong insist upon accepting bizarre conspiracy theories about Chinese government plots regarding the self-immolation, rather than consider the most obvious explanation regarding that event in Tiananmen Square. That is, that Falun Gong and its fanatical teachings and subsequent influence were directly responsible for the tragedy. One of the most distinguishing characteristics of destructive cults is that they rarely if ever accept meaningful responsibility for any of their mistakes or wrongful acts. In this sense a destructive cult is often doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again, because of its unwillingness to take the necessary first step required for correction, which is to acknowledge mistakes and bad behavior. Li Hongzhi and Falun Gong practitioners seem unable to do this and instead routinely dismisses criticism as “persecution” or as somehow being part of a Chinese Communist plot. Instead, Li and his followers should seriously reflect upon what they have done wrong.
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.Rick Alan Ross: I have not read all of Li Hongzhi teachings, but I have reviewed Margaret Singer’s writings and many reports about Li and his followers. In my opinion Margaret Singer’s observation, that Falun Gong reflects the characteristics of a cult, is correct. I include quotes from Li and Singer within my book “Cults Inside Out,” which has a chapter about Falun Gong. This chapter offers a brief history of Li Hongzhi and recounts his various supernatural claims based upon his writings, statements and interviews. There is also a chapter in my book specifically about a Falun Gong intervention that took place in the United States. I was retained by an American family to get their daughter out of Falun Gong. In my opinion the daughter was tricked into becoming involved in Falun Gong and unaware of the true nature of the group. She initially believed that Falun Gong was simply a form of physical exercise and meditation, rather than about believing in the supernatural claims of its leader of Li Hongzhi. During the intervention I discussed with the daughter some of Li Hongzhi’s most controversial claims and teachings. For example, exaggerated claims of the health benefits produced by the practice of Falun Gong, the ability of Falun Gong to slow aging, the restoring of the menstrual cycle of elderly women, Li’s seemingly racist analogies and his hateful homophobic statements. I have corresponded through email with a number of Falun Gong practitioners who have defended Li Hongzhi, his fantastic claims and hateful comments. Rather than deny that Li made such claims or statements, they instead insist that they are true and/or somehow represent a positive philosophy. In these exchanges I have noted the apparent inability or unwillingness of Li’s followers to consider or even reflect upon alternative ideas. They appear unable to objectively consider any criticism of Falun Gong. Instead, Li’s followers often repeat the same slogans and mantras about “persecution” and Chinese Communist conspiracies, extolling their leader as apparently absolute and infallible. Based upon my research and interaction with Falun Gong members I am deeply concerned about how the teachings of Li Hongzhi can potentially contribute to medical neglect, hateful attitudes, isolation and family estrangement.
4．Do you think that Falun Gong’s instigation infringed upon the human rights of its practitioners in the self-immolation incident?
Mr.Rick Alan Ross: In my opinion the self-immolation tragedy that took place in Tiananmen Square was a flagrant violation of human rights. I consider it a frightening example of the power of destructive cults and how such groups can use coercive persuasion to gain undue influence over people. How else can anyone explain that terrible event? It is impossible for me to accept the fanciful conspiracy theories proposed by Falun Gong. Instead I accept the most obvious explanation and the personal and painful testimony offered by Hao Huijun and her daughter Chen Guao. They paid a horrible price for their devotion to Li Hongzhi and his teachings. In my opinion Li is ultimately responsible for what happened to the people that participated in the self-immolation at Tiananmen Square. And for this reason in my view Li Hongzhi infringed on the human rights of his Falun Gong followers.
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.Rick Alan Ross: The United Sates has a cherished tradition of protecting religious rights. In our American Constitution such rights are guaranteed through a strict separation of church and state. Other countries have different traditions and therefore have responded to destructive cults in various ways. In the US hate speech and potentially destructive teachings are not against the law. A cult group known as the Waco Davidians died in a fire rather than surrender to government authorities in a standoff that took place in Sate of Texas more than twenty years ago. Eighty Davidians died including 25 children. At that time government officials were pursuing an investigation of the cult leader David Koresh for weapons violations. The standoff began after a judge issued a warrant to search the cult compound concerning illegal firearms. This reflects the response to destructive cults in the United States. That is, a group or leader may be prosecuted based upon specifically illegal behavior. Cults in the US can believe whatever they wish, but they cannot do whatever they want in the name of those beliefs. Various cult members and their leaders have been prosecuted in the US for medical neglect, child abuse, sexual abuse, tax fraud, weapons violations and various other criminal acts. There is no law in the United States that specifically prohibits destructive cults or the coercive and often damaging persuasion practiced by such groups. Instead, only their specific illegal acts may result in legal consequence, through a civil lawsuit or criminal prosecution.
6．Internet has become an important platform for cults to spread their tea chings. Do you have any suggestions or advice on combating cults via Internet?
Mr.Rick Alan Ross: The Internet has been both a blessing and a curse to destructive cults. They can use the Internet and the World Wide Web to recruit and retain members. This is routinely done through various cult websites and the use of Internet based platforms such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Cult members may also communicate using Skype, message boards and discussion groups. However, the curse of the Internet for cults is the eay access to information that it affords to people to historical information about cults. In 1996 I began compiling online files about controversial groups and movements, some that have been called “cults.” This online database is now known as the Cult Education Institute at (www.culteducation.com). What was once a modest website effort is now a virtual online library with an ever increasing archive that includes historical information about hundreds of controversial groups and leaders. This includes religious groups, multilevel marketing schemes, self-help training companies, therapy and philosophy groups. Cults present themselves in many forms and guises. It is through sharing historical information about them and educating people that we can best prevent the harm done by destructive cults. Understanding who they are and how they work is the best defense. It is this knowledge, which can be provided quite effectively through the Internet. In this way the Internet has become an effective tool in combating potentially dangerous cults.