How a Staged Self-Immolation Manipulated Public Opinion in China
China was bewildered one morning in late 1971 when it awoke to find that Lin Biao, Chairman Mao’s trusted successor, had actually been a “political swindler,” an “intriguer,” and a “man with foreign connections” all along.
The Chinese press later said that he had masterminded a scheme to assassinate Mao, but that it had been thwarted, whereupon he tried to escape to the Soviet Union. On the way, they said, his plane crashed. Photos were circulated but could never be verified. All of Lin’s revolutionary slogans were dropped, rallies were organized, songs were sung, and Party newspapers went to great lengths explaining why the plot of the “renegade and traitor” had somehow not been uncovered earlier.
No one will ever know what really happened to Lin Biao—it has been suggested that Mao saw him as a threat and had him liquidated—but his case is one of many in a history of political stunts enabled by a controlled media environment and relentless propagandizing. Lin’s story is also an important object lesson in the enigmatic and often deadly world of the Chinese communist propaganda campaign, a form of mass persuasion that persists to this day.
‘Focus’ TV Program
Fast forward 30 years. It’s Jan. 31, 2001, a week after Chinese New Year’s Eve, the biggest occasion in the country. Families are still together, everyone is at home, and after dinner many tune in to the national broadcaster, China Central Television (CCTV), to watch the investigative news program “Focus.” On this day, in fact, flyers had been distributed around residential buildings urging people to tune in.
Hundreds of millions of viewers were again bewildered to be told that what they thought was a peaceful qigong practice—Falun Gong [also known as Falun Dafa]—was actually an “evil religion” that engaged in acts of self-immolation. The authorities aired a 20-minute-long documentary that had been one week in production, of supposed Falun Gong practitioners who had set themselves alight on Jan. 23.
There were numerous and obvious holes in the story: From the logical—if self-immolation were a part of Falun Gong teachings, why was this the first time? To the nonsensical—how did the number of self-immolators jump from five in the original reports, to seven a week later? To the practical—Philip Pan of the Washington Post proved at least two participants were not Falun Gong practitioners; the supposed self-immolators were wearing fire-protective clothing; the police quickly rushed to the scene with fire extinguishers, not normally on hand on Tiananmen Square, and others.
But these minor problems did not stop the authorities from pushing forward with their plans.
And their plans were ambitious. The ensuing media campaign put the one against Lin Biao to shame. In the days following the incident there were three, four, and five articles in every issue of the 24-page mouthpiece newspaper People’s Daily. In the first 18 months of the persecution of Falun Gong that began on July 20, 1999, 966 articles “exposing and criticizing” Falun Gong were published in the People’s Daily. In 2001, 530 more were to follow.
Falun Gong, a popular Chinese spiritual practice, was banned and persecuted in China in 1999, in a campaign led by Jiang Zemin—but unlike in previous mass political movements, this one had trouble properly capturing the imagination of an increasingly disinterested public. The immolation changed all that.
And it wasn’t limited to People’s Daily. In researching this article before the 10th anniversary of the largest act of political theater in modern Chinese history, The Epoch Times scoured electronic databases and found that propaganda about the immolation appeared not only in newspapers, magazines, and academic journals, but in national and provincial yearbooks, economic reports, business magazines, hygiene reports, chemistry articles, retiree publications, elementary school textbooks, teacher training manuals, and just about every corner of the printed word in China during 2001 and in the years following.
The most effective message, however, was communicated through television broadcasts. Specifically, the Party made images of a 12-year-old girl’s apparently burnt body the centerpiece of the campaign to discredit Falun Gong. Many were convinced. The authenticity of the images was thrown into question, however, when just days after the apparent burning, and having supposedly undergone a tracheotomy, she was filmed singing, which ought to have been impossible. Chinese audiences were not exposed to these contradictions, however.
Peter Zheng, a Falun Gong practitioner now living in Illinois, was in Wuhu City in Anhui Province at the time. “They broadcast every day, basically every channel, for a week, speaking conservatively,” Zheng said. “Other programming stopped, they used this as an excuse. Apart from the immolation they would report other anti-Falun Gong news, confession statements, reports, investigations, murder cases, analysis from all sorts of angles of the [Chinese Communist Party] CCP’s reports, all these things.”
After the initial saturation of the airwaves the volume of reports diminished, but CCTV continued a steady drumbeat of reports about the immolations and attacking Falun Gong.
In March 2002, NTD Television broadcast the award-winning documentary False Fire analyzing the inconsistencies in the immolations story, and after that China’s state-run media “quieted down” according to Sun Yanjun, who was an associate professor of psychology at Capital Normal University at the time.
In China, vigorous outward propagandizing of the Party line always goes along with the repression of alternate voices. In the case of the immolation, no independent investigation was allowed, no independent access to or cross-examination of the alleged victims, and no critical analysis in any domestic media. Western media reports often simply repeated what official Chinese media said.
Falun Gong practitioners’ attempt to present an alternative narrative of the incident, by hacking a television satellite and broadcasting a documentary, ended in the capture and murder of six people, including the young radiologist Liu Haibo, who had an electric baton forced into his rectum and was electrocuted to death, as recounted in Ethan Gutmann’s detailed mini-history report published in the Weekly Standard.
Persecution Becomes Accepted
Interviews with people in China and foreign press reports at the time indicate the impact of the one-way media bombardment. Martin Regg Cohn wrote for the Toronto Star: “The fervor of the campaign suggests the Communist Party remains paranoid about the challenge to its authority. … Despite its stage-managed air—a throwback to the shrill tactics of the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution—the renewed government crusade seems to have struck a chord with ordinary Chinese.”
It had a powerful impact. The Epoch Times interviewed a range of people who were in China in 2001: a Tsinghua University professor, a boat captain from Liaoning Province, a mine worker from the Northeast, and a kindergarten teacher from Anhui Province. They had roughly the same story to tell. People went from sympathizing with Falun Gong before the propaganda campaign to despising it: from being often baffled by the persecution to either accepting it or even being willing to join in.
“If you’re looking from the outside you can see all the problems in the story,” says Helen Nie, 41, now in Illinois. “But in that environment, you’re trapped, you’re taken in by the plot. It’s very convincing: the people involved are old, young, a kid, a university student, I didn’t think about the suspicious points. I believed it, and I was extremely angry.” At that time she had practiced Falun Gong for several years; she says she can imagine the feelings of people who lacked that background.
The lies that state media initially came up with against Falun Gong, starting from July 20, 1999, when the persecution began were “extremely childish,” Ms. Nie says. Many members of the public dismissed news reports that wrote, for example, Falun Gong practitioners would cut their stomachs open or spontaneously go insane—but they were presented with a more complex narrative in 2001, and compelling imagery to boot.
“It was insidious in that it worked on peoples’ sympathy,” says Ms. Nie. “As people had sympathy with the burn victims, the corollary was that they began hating Falun Gong.”
Liu Hongchang, a miner and Falun Gong practitioner who was in Beijing at the time and now lives in Holland, was arrested on Feb. 9, just a week after the footage was aired. Propaganda was still being broadcast, even in the prisons. Inmates and guards were vicious, he said: “Look, you think practicing Falun Gong is good? Look at them!” A Chinese boat captain who was in Japan at the time said the news was being spread there, too.
Sun Yanjun believes there were several reasons the propaganda was believed: “The images were terrifying, which had an impact on people. People had a habit of watching CCTV news; they didn’t analyze it and didn’t understand how the CCP was controlling everything they saw.
“Also, for more than a year, the CCP propaganda had been telling people that Falun Gong practitioners were not normal and did not value human life. This had an impact and prepared the way for the immolation hoax.”
Alongside social animus came an increase in the brutality quotient. The Washington Post reported in August 2001 that the immolation was a “turning point” in the CCP’s campaign, and “freed the party’s hand” to use extreme violence against staunch believers.
“The immolations had a huge effect,” an insider told Post reporters. “Previously, most Chinese thought the crackdown was stupid, like a dog catching a mouse. After those people burned themselves and the Party broadcast that little girl’s face on TV for almost a month straight, people’s views here changed.”
James Ouyang was victim to the violence in the wake of the propaganda, the Post reported. Captured by police, he was “methodically reduced … to an ‘obedient thing’ over 10 days of torture.” He was made to stand against a wall and received high-voltage electric shocks if he moved.
Torture deaths also leapt up after the immolation propaganda. According to the Falun Dafa Information Center, in 1999 there were 67 torture deaths, in 2000 there were 245, but in 2001 they jumped to 419. That number—representing those who can be confirmed by name, date of death, and circumstances, and is a probably just a fraction of the total—remained at around 400-500 from then on.
An oddity not often commented on in reports of the propaganda surrounding the incident is the divergence between the domestic and the international messaging: to Western journalists the event is marketed as a protest action by desperate Falun Gong practitioners. But to the domestic Chinese audience it is couched as a matter of Falun Gong doctrine that immolation is a means of “entering Heaven.”
Perhaps seeking once more to revive the persecution of Falun Gong, official state media Xinhua published an update on the alleged victims of the immolation on Jan. 21, pre-empting the 10-year anniversary on Jan. 23. It was republished in over a dozen newspapers and also translated into English. No pictures accompanied the report this time, and the CCP propagandists changed one significant fact from their earlier version of the story: In 2001 only one person “burned to death on the spot” on Jan. 23; in 2011, suddenly there were two.
This article was originally published on Jan. 25, 2011.