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[VID] When Lighting Yourself on Fire... Backfires

CLICK HERE TO WATCH IT NOW INTRO It’s January 23, 2001, 9AM. In Beijing, seven visitors in town for the holiday from Kaifeng depart a friend’s apartment, where they’ve been staying for several days. For their day out, each brings a bottle of Sprite.[1] Within the



It’s January 23, 2001, 9AM. In Beijing, seven visitors in town for the holiday from Kaifeng depart a friend’s apartment, where they’ve been staying for several days. For their day out, each brings a bottle of Sprite.[1] Within the hour, they arrive at their first stop: Tiananmen Square: a massive plaza in the city center once home to legendary pro-democracy demonstrations but these days more popular with cult members protesting religious persecution — regardless, one of the capital’s biggest attractions.[2]

Unfortunately, the plaza was closed for some kind of event, but instead of contenting themselves by proceeding on their itinerary and returning the next day for the New Year’s celebrations, the group determined to hang around and peruse the area nearby, agreeing to meet again at 2:30.[3] They synchronized their watches.

Four-and-a-half hours later, one of the group’s members returned to the area and began walking toward the People’s Heroes Monument in the square’s center. But on his way there, as though he needed some rest, Wang Jindong stopped, took a seat on the ground, pulled out his Sprite,…and poured it all over himself. The gasoline fumes burned his nostrils. Then he lit himself on fire.[4]

Nearby police rushed at him, extinguishing the flames and erecting barriers to hide him from view. He was still alive. Distracted by Wang, the police were slower to notice when suddenly four more bodies went up in flames around the square: Wang’s friends.

Before the officers could reach them, one perished, as the others stood up and began stumbling around, waving their arms in the air, panicking as the pain became unbearable.[5] They came to protest on behalf of Falun Gong — a new religious movement banned in China since 1999. They believed their faith in master Li’s teachings would render them immune to the scorching pain.[6] They were wrong.

While in other times and places self-immolation may be a successful catalyst for political change, in a nation as atheistic as China, self-destructive superstition is less likely to gain sympathy…especially when the government responds by publicizing graphic media of the event across the country alongside articles castigating an illegal cult as a cause of mass-suicide demonstrations.[7]

Meanwhile, Li Hongzhi, great master of Falun Gong, disowned the demonstrators. He was against suicide, he argued, and so they must be very bad followers, or the whole thing was staged by the government.[8] By so transparently throwing attempted martyrs under the bus, Li exposed himself as not just a liar but a heartless, vicious one at that. Public opinion—once sour on the repression, now began to warm to the government’s years-old campaign, which officials in turn intensified.[9]

School programs demanding children state their allegiance to science spread across the country. Companies—both Chinese and foreign-owned—were compelled to identify Falun Gong practitioners in their workforce. Those apprehended were sent to re-education, or, if they proved tough to convert, instead shipped to labor camps to first be broken physically.[10] Reliable estimates place the number killed in the campaign over 3,000.[11]

But all that is just the beginning.



Before going any further, it’s worth quickly clarifying — what actually is Falun Gong? And who is Li Hongzhi?

Well, Falun Gong began in 1992 as a variant of qigong — a form of slow movement exercise extremely popular in China at the time. By 1999 it had garnered at least 3 million practitioners and even the support of the government who saw in Falun Gong’s founder, Li Hongzhi, a useful cultural ambassador. However, after it took on increasingly spiritual and religious attributes, Falun Gong started to worry the CCP. Years of tension followed, until the CCP’s treatment of Falun Gong got harsher, and the movement responded by staging a massive protest outside the central government headquarters, terrifying the party. What came next was a nationwide ban, followed by an intense crackdown.[12] So it was in this context that those five people set themselves ablaze in Tiananmen Square two years later.


Luckily for Li, he’d left China a couple years before the crackdown—maybe he sensed the coming change in the political winds.[13] Pretty soon, he settled in, of all places, New York—more on that in a minute.[14]

But Li wasn’t retiring in defeat—anything but. In his view, to fight back, Falun gong needed to go global. Just look at this graph; starting in 1999, when the CCP’s crackdown hit, Falun Gong events outside of China skyrocketed, as the organization sought to share its story of repression with the world.[15]

And it wasn’t just events, either. In 2000 some of Li’s top lieutenants founded the Epoch Times, a newspaper meant to expose the wicked truth of the CCP’s abuses.[16] Just a few years later, Li established Shen Yun, a ballet aiming to tell the story of how the CCP destroyed Chinese culture and, of course, Falun Gong.[17]

Now, you may be thinking, “This sounds great!” Cultural output! Freedom of the press! And, yeah, fair enough. But…there are a few kinks in this story.

Set aside for now that the Epoch Times would go on to become one of America’s most prominent far-right conspiracy rags, or that Shen Yun explicitly calls the theory of evolution “a deadly idea.”[18] Because it wasn’t Li leading this crusade against the CCP. No, he was busy developing Falun Gong’s theology, so that his followers would do all this for him. Suddenly, it became a core belief of Falun Gong that the battle between them and the CCP was just one level of a multidimensional conflict between good and evil. If practitioners didn’t participate, they’d be on the side of evil itself.[19]

And, since fighting evil by achieving global reach for your newspaper and ballet is actually kind of resource and time-intensive, it turned out that the best thing loyal Falun Gong practitioners could do was volunteer…a lot. Many Epoch Times “journalists” work for free, churning out factually dubious clickbait.[20] And while Shen Yun’s skilled dancers are compensated, the practitioners who put on the show…are not.[21]

“Ok,” you might be thinking, “this doesn’t sound great, but it’s not that crazy for a religious group to use volunteers!” And, sure, even if Falun Gong’s demands outstrip basically every modern established religion, that’s fair enough.


Except, consider for a moment just exactly what Falun Gong preaches. The core teaching is that Li’s a supernaturally gifted teacher meant to help his followers achieve moral, spiritual, and physical perfection through this particular exercise. But you can’t just do the qigong. You actually need Li to implant a spinning wheel inside you, which allows you to collect good energy from the universe through qigong and observance of the three moral virtues: compassion, forbearance, and truthfulness.[22]

Okay, a little odd but heart’s in the right place, right? Well, good news and bad news. Good news is you don’t have to travel to New York for Li to implant the wheel — he can do it from anywhere in the world using his mind powers.[23] Whew. Bad news is that Li instructs his followers to lie to outsiders about Falun Gong…So, truthfulness may be a hard one.[24] Oh, and more bad news: homosexuality and interracial marriage are evil.[25] More specifically, they corrupt the soul and leave room for aliens to possess human bodies, which Li explains, saying, “The human body is the most perfect in the universe. It is the most perfect form. The aliens want the human body.” And don’t ask what the aliens look like. According to Li, “You don't want to have that kind of thought in your mind.”[26]

Okay, but lots of religions believe things that seem wild to outsiders, and plenty hate gay people and reject evolution. Still, bad. But let’s talk about that whole anti-evolution schtick from Shen Yun. As it happens, in their effort to corrupt and possess humanity, those sinister aliens also invented technology, science, and ideas like evolution. These things, Li says, lead man away from qigong and spiritual perfection by convincing them modern medicine can heal them, keeping their bodies and souls weak and vulnerable. Oh, and the aliens are also using modern science to clone humans so they can possess their soulless bodies. So there’s that.[27]

The trouble with all this is, well, the people Li’s basically killed with his teachings. Back in ‘99, Beijing justified the crackdown with an estimate that Falun Gong had caused 1,400 preventable deaths and suicides, although real, reliable numbers are almost impossible to come by thanks to the group’s secrecy and their ongoing propaganda war with Beijing. Still, consider one Colleen May of Sydney, Australia. One day she said to her daughter, “I met these lovely people in the park and they do meditation once a week and I’m going to go down and do that with them.” Soon, she stopped taking the medication for her high blood pressure. Subsequently hospitalized, Colleen pulled out her IVs and spat medicine back at the nurses, believing all along that to use it meant she wasn’t a good enough believer in Li. If only she could believe harder, he would use his powers to heal her.[28]

At 75 years old, she died of entirely preventable illness. In her daughter’s words, “two tablets a day, and she would still be with us…I would always say mum was going to outlive me.”[29] Even worse, Jonathan Lee, Falun Gong’s spokesperson, rejected the notion Li discourages the use of modern medicine, saying, “There’s nothing preventing me from going to hospital,” then in the same breath, “But in the meantime, thanks to Falun Gong, I don’t need to go to hospital.”[30] In other words, Colleen was wrong to believe those things, and if she had been a better practitioner she in fact would have remained healthy. If only she had believed harder.


Consider also Janin Liu, who like the many laborers behind Shen Yun and the Epoch Times, volunteered his time to Falun Gong, working on the construction of Dragon Springs: Li’s secretive and sprawling 400-acre estate in upstate New York. While on the job in 2008, Liu fell from a structure and died.[31]

Under normal circumstances, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration would launch an investigation into such a tragedy — were proper precautions observed, and was Liu even qualified for this work. But Liu had been a volunteer worker, a Falun Gong practitioner from Toronto, and OSHA can only investigate employee deaths and injuries. Moreover, Liu’s own family, thanks to Falun Gong’s beliefs about spinning wheels and modern medicine, refused an autopsy.[32]

And this is what really gets at the core of Li Hongzhi’s character, what makes him and his movement so nefarious. Liu had been engaged in dangerous work, for no pay, building Li a massive compound, a monument to the greatness of the religion he’d built, and in the end, his total sacrifice met with no accountability for those who had used him.

Because built into Falun Gong, its doctrine, its formal structure, is Li’s exceptionalism, his superiority to everyone else—Falun Gong practitioner or otherwise. In Li’s own condescending words, “You can think of me as a human being.”[33]

Consider the Tiananmen Square incident. When five people set themselves on fire in an act of terrible, extraordinary devotion, Li was across the globe, safe from any retribution, any repression. And when he was called upon to respond, he didn’t honor the fallen believers. He didn’t even acknowledge their pain. Instead, Li just disowned them.

They had set out to prove their devotion. Yet all they achieved was to intensify the crackdown and, perhaps worse, expose their divine leader as uncaring and oblivious to their suffering.


This story isn’t meant to excuse the atrocities the CCP still regularly commits against religious minorities. In fact, the sins of the party were the focus of our previous video on the origins of Falun Gong. Instead, we mean to highlight the similarities between these mortal enemies: Li and the CCP. Each victimizes the same people: the innocent followers of Falun Gong who deserve neither to be sent to re-education camps, nor to be educated by a master who persuades them to die of preventable illness. Further, each abuses these people for the same reason: in a quest for control. Just as the government demands devotion to Marxism and social conformity, so too Li demands extraordinary devotion of his followers to him. It is this totalizing approach to religion, which insists that only the teachings of Li Hongzhi—not modern science, not a conception of natural human equality, not even a democratically legitimate government like America’s—has any authority at all, that brings people to devote their labor and their lives to Li, to light themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square, to die building the great master an enormous monument.

  1. Xinhua. Obviously Xinhua is a government-owned and -directed media source. As such, its reliability is limited, but thanks to government prohibitions on interviews of the individuals, it is near-impossible to find any independent sources with much detail to offer. We have relied on this as sparingly as possible. ↩︎

  2. CNN ↩︎

  3. Xinhua ↩︎

  4. CNN ↩︎

  5. Ibid. ↩︎

  6. Xinhua ↩︎

  7. NYT ↩︎

  8. Minghui, “Press Statement: Who's Behind Tiananmen Self-immolation?↩︎

  9. TIME ↩︎

  10. Ibid. ↩︎

  11. Amnesty International ↩︎

  12. Spectacles Media, “How a Cult Broke China’s Government,” YouTube, August 6, 2023, ↩︎

  13. David Ownby, Falun Gong and the Future of China, (Oxford University Press, 2008), 126. ↩︎

  14. Jonathan S. Landreth and J.S. Greenberg, “The Way We Live Now: 8-8-99: Questions for Li Hongzhi; Eye of the Storm,” in The New York Times, 8 August 1999. ↩︎

  15. Andrew Junker, Becoming Activists in Global China: Social Movements in the Chinese Diaspora (Cambridge University Press: 2019), 115. ↩︎

  16. Alesso Perrone and Darren Loucaides, “A key source for Covid-skeptic movements, the Epoch Times yearns for a global audience,” in Coda, 10 March 2022. ↩︎

  17. Nicholas Hune Brown, “The traditional Chinese dance troupe China doesn’t want you to see,” in The Guardian, 12 December 2017. ↩︎

  18. Perrone and Loucaides, “Epoch Times yearns;” Jia Tolentino, “Stepping into the Uncanny, Unsettling World of Shen Yun,” in the New Yorker, 19 March 2019. ↩︎

  19. Junker, 96-98. ↩︎

  20. Ibid., 42; Brandy Zadrozny and Ben Collins, “Trump, QAnon and an impending judgment day: Behind the Facebook-fueled rise of The Epoch Times,” for NBC, 20 August 2019. Darren Loucaides and Alessio Perrone, “The media giant you’ve never heard of, and why you should pay attention,” for OpenDemocracy, 10 March 2022; Ben Hurley, “Me and Li — Why I left Falun Gong after being a devoted believer for a decade,” on Medium, 22 October 2017. ↩︎

  21. Matthias Gafni, “Behind the blitz: Falun Gong practitioners spend millions on Shen Yun ads. How do they do it?” in the San Francisco Chronicle, 11 January 2020. ↩︎

  22. Ownby, 82. ↩︎

  23. TIME interview. ↩︎

  24. Heather Kavan, “Falun Gong in the media: What can we believe?,” Power and Place ANZCA08 Conference, 2008. ↩︎

  25. ABC. ↩︎

  26. TIME interview. ↩︎

  27. Ibid. ↩︎

  28. ABC. ↩︎

  29. ABC YouTube. ↩︎

  30. Ibid. ↩︎

  31. Stephen Sacco, “Questions remain in Deerpark death,” for the Times Herald-Record, 6 May 2008. ↩︎

  32. Ibid. ↩︎

  33. TIME interview. ↩︎


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