‘Immolations and Ramifications’

Transmission 6-10 Phase 2 is today (January 23rd 2011) releasing the Missing Fragment T610: 1-23 Immolations & Ramifications. Although understood best within the context of watching Transmission 6-10, this fragment dissects the evidence of an incident on January 23rd 2001 (a decade earlier), and the aftermath and ramifications of that day.

Today, reports are coming in of a man setting himself on fire in Saudi Arabia, sparking protests in the process. This is one of a series of self-immolations in North Africa and the Middle East that appear to have been triggered by a man who set himself alight in mid-December, 2010, in Tunisia.

Reports on the Tunisian man vary, depending on the source. Most agree, however, that 26 year-old Mohamed Bouazizi committed the act as a desperate cry against poverty. Mohamed died from the burns he suffered. This act resulted in angry protests against the Tunisian government, who many felt ruled with an iron fist, and led to the ousting of the President.

“Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shrivelling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning flesh… I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered to even think.” The Making of a Quagmire, David Halberstam.

David was witnessing first-hand the self-immolation of a monk in Saigon, Vietnam, in 1963. The monk was reported to be protesting against discrimination of his belief. Self-immolation is also well documented in Afghanistan, where women are reported to commit the act in protest and to escape from oppression in their marriage.

Each case of self-immolation is individual. It is distinct and driven by a deeply emotional plea, risking ones own life and inflicting serious pain upon oneself. 

“As of 11 April 2015 there have been about 138 reported self-immolations in Tibet since 27 February 2009.”


January 23rd 2001, 10 years ago today. Five people set themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square. The Chinese State media reported the four women and one man were Falun Gong practitioners. They appeared to be protesting against the escalating persecution of their belief, like the monk in Saigon. In some Buddhist sects, the act of self-immolation is considered a means of achieving Enlightenment.

If the above link from The Economis is read carefully, nothing, when it concerns the Chinese Comunist Party is ever straight forward. No single event in the brief history of Falun Gong (the protests in Tianjin and Zhongnanhai, the Night of the Long Knives or Battle for Tiananmen Square) has been as contentious and contestable as the topic of this blog. Evidence quickly surfaced to suggest that the official CCP account of the incident was highly suspicious.

At a recent screening of Transmission 6-10 at Kingston University, when learning about this incident, one of the audience members expressed how he felt deep sympathy towards those who self-immolated that day, and how they must have been desperate.

But at the time, Chinese public opinion turned heavily against Falun Gong. There were public statements of denouncement and petitions against the practice. Inside the prisons, the torture became more severe and the number of deaths escalated. This self-immolation had brought increased hatred towards Falun Gong, as state run media ensured that the act was seen as one of evil, rather than desperation – thus fanning the flames of resentment over a public growing weary from  being bombarded with propaganda against Falun Gong.

Something separated the Tiananmen self-immolation from those in North Africa, Afghanistan or Vietnam. Investigations in 2001 began to reveal that footage of the incident showed something more sinister had happened. It looked like a staged hoax, instigated by the Chinese regime to further their campaign against Falun Gong. Further, rather than seeking to be martyred for their sacrifice, as would be the case of many self-immolations, Falun Gong stated almost immediately afterwards that the five people were not practitioners…it was something that went against their deepest beliefs.

Up until that point inside China, the public had already been deluged on a daily basis with propaganda against Falun Gong; “dangerous” “brainwashed” “evil cult.” Many knew it was untrue, as this strategy was not something new. According to ourinterviewee Ethan Gutmann, despite this media campaign, the Chinese public really weren’t supporting the crackdown on Falun Gong. The self-immolation changed that.

Beyond China’s borders, some Western media followed the regime’s version of events, while others dissected the evidence to conclude it was a hoax.

“I have never seen policemen patrolling on Tiananmen Square carrying fire extinguishers. How come they all showed up today? The location of the incident is at least 20 minutes round-trip from the nearest building — the People’s Great Hall. If they were to have dashed over there to get the equipment, it would have been too late.” This eye-witness testimony came from a European journalist, interviewed by Danny Schechter. Holes were starting to show in the story.

Xinhua News Agency (one of the Chinese regime’s State media) had been the first to report on the incident, and were the only ones allowed to interview those who self-immolated. In response to a journalistic investigation by Philip P. Pan, which revealed many questions about the validity of the evidence, Xinhua began to change the story.

Ms Liu Bairong, was one of two previously unmentioned practitioners during initial reports on the incident. No footage existed to suggest she was in Tiananmen Square that day, but a week later she appeared on China Central Television claiming she had gone to the square with the intention of self-immolating, but couldn’t do it when she saw the others burning. It is possible that she changed her mind, but then, would someone who was willing to sacrifice their life in the name of what they ‘believe’, within a single week turn against those beliefs…and public ally vilify their former practice of self-cultivation?

Whatever their intentions, they were not in keeping with previous Falun Gong public demonstrations in opposition to the persecution. Their actions led to ramifications they could not have envisaged. The lives that were lost and destroyed on that day, and during the subsequent years, are a tragedy…and never since, in China or abroad, has there been an act of self-immolation or violent protest by practitioners of Falun Gong.

Regardless of what conclusion you draw from the events that day, one thing can be certain. This self-immolation created an incredible barrier of distrust towards Falun Gong practitioners, who were seeking public support to stop the persecution they were facing. A decade on, that necessity for support has only increased, with the escalating severity of the persecution, and equal lack of diplomatic intervention.

T610: 1-23 Immolations & Ramifications

Screen Shot collage from T1-23