Dr Heather Kavan :two documents may have played an especially important role as catalysts to the self-immolations

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. To mark the 14th anniversary of the tragedy, Dr Heather Kavan was interviewed by Facts.org.cn about the tragedy and other issues related to cults who carry out such actions.


Dr Heather Kavan:Senior Lecturer, School of Communication, Journalism & Marketing, Massey University, New Zealand,the investigator of religions, cults and ‘altered states’.  

1.  Do you know the self-immolation incident at Tiananmen Square on January 23, 2001? What do you know about the incident? 

The self-immolations at Tiananmen Square were controversial, and we may never fully understand what went through the people’s minds as they set themselves on fire. The incidents were in the international news in 2001. In January 23 of that year, at the height of Falun Gong protests in Tiananmen Square, a man and two mother-daughter pairs burnt themselves alive. They appeared to be followers of Li Hongzhi, protesting the Government’s ban on their spiritual practices. Three survived – Wang Jindong, Chen Guo and her mother Hao Huijun.

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? 

The members I spoke to seemed genuine in their belief that the self-immolators were not Falun Gong members. I think this was because there was a video circulating widely after the incidents, in which the commentator suggested the Chinese Government staged the attacks to discredit Falun Gong. Since that time, the survivors and organisers have told American and Chinese journalists that they were Falun Gong members and were inspired by Li’s teachings. However, some Falun Gong members dispute the interviews.  Personally, I think dwelling on whether or not the self-immolators were Falun Gong members misses the point – regardless of what they believed at the time, they are human beings who suffered terribly, and they deserve our empathy.

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? 

I’ve read Li Hongzhi’s teachings. They have a more aggressive and strident tone than the teachings of other spiritual leaders. There are many sections in them that support acts of martyrdom, and two documents may have played an especially important role as catalysts to the self-immolations. Weeks before the incidents, Li issued an ambiguous statement to followers entitled “Beyond the limits of forbearance” in which he told them they can set aside his teaching of forbearance and use “various measures at different levels” to eradicate evil. Also, in the six months leading up to the burnings, Li issued a statement called “Eliminate your last attachment” telling practitioners that the time had come to let go of the attachment to the physical body and to let go of life and death.

4.  Do you think that Falun Gong’s instigation infringed upon the human rights of its practitioners in the self-immolation incident? 

Any form of coercion, religious or political, infringes on people’s human rights. Dogma has long been a way of manipulating people, and it’s extremely easy for well-meaning, conscientious people to get caught up in religious dogma. This is because it’s human nature to search for meaning beyond the limitations of current scientific knowledge. In my opinion, everyone has the right to look for answers that satisfy them at a deep level.  But problems arise when leaders tell people that their spiritual path is the only correct one and those who do not follow it are inferior. This belief inevitably leads to mistrust and often to violence.

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?

There have not been any cases of religiously-motivated self-immolations in New Zealand where I live, as the practice is most closely associated with Buddhism. Traditionally, self-immolation has been a way of making the ultimate protest against a society the self-immolator believes is unjust. When a child is involved, the situation is extremely challenging because it’s clear an adult has manipulated him or her.      

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? 

Currently, a minority of more extreme Falun Gong members seem to be predominating on the internet. I think they are best ignored. I believe the vast majority of people on both sides of the conflict between Falun Gong and the Chinese government want peace. Now that fourteen years have elapsed, and arguments over the motives and identities of the self-immolators have been replayed exhaustively, it would be good to see a shift towards peace and unity. There’s a well-known adage, “If you knew a person’s story, you would never judge them.” That’s an appropriate saying for the anniversary of the self-immolations.