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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Remorse from a Chinese prison

Wang Jindong holds up a picture showing his former self during a government- organized visit for journalists to the prison in central China on Thursday. 
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Wang Jindong holds up a picture showing his former self during a government- organized visit for journalists to the prison in central China on Thursday. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Audra Ang Associated Press

XINMI, China – Three years ago, he was a die-hard Falun Gong follower, serving a life sentence for trying to set himself afire in the name of the spiritual movement banished by China as “evil.”

Today, with his prison term drastically cut to 19 years for good behavior, Liu Yunfang is a convert of a different sort – and one Beijing is eager to showcase as a successful “rehabilitation.”

“I was wrong,” Liu told reporters who made a government-organized visit to his prison in central Henan province this week. “I should be punished by law.”

Liu is one of three men imprisoned for orchestrating a group self-immolation in Tiananmen Square in 2001. Liu doused himself with gasoline but was grabbed by police before he could ignite himself.

However, a mother and her 12-year-old daughter died, and images of their bodies engulfed in flames – and later charred and blackened – were aired on state television to underscore China’s position that the sect is a dangerous cult.

Liu was sentenced for producing pamphlets teaching that Falun Gong followers could reach spiritual fulfillment by burning themselves. Falun Gong members abroad have denied that the group’s teachings encourage suicide, saying instead its philosophy values life.

Since banning the group in 1999, Beijing regularly disseminates propaganda against it and justifies its ongoing crackdown by allowing reporters to interview converts in tightly controlled settings.

The persistence of that campaign illustrates the ruling Communist Party’s continued perception that Falun Gong is a threat.

Falun Gong drew millions of followers in the 1990s with its mix of calisthenics and doctrines drawn from Buddhism, Taoism and the ideas of its founder, Li Hongzhi, a former government grain clerk. Until the 2001 self-immolations, followers staged near-daily protests of the government ban in Tiananmen Square, the spiritual and political heart of the Chinese capital.

Liu and two other converts, Wang Jindong and Xue Hongjun, wore matching blue-and-white striped uniforms and caps when they met reporters individually this week. In contrite tones, they renounced their faith in Falun Gong and its founder and expressed their gratitude to the government for treating them well.

“These three criminals have deeply reflected upon themselves while in prison,” warden Yu Xiaoming said. “Finally, they are clear about the nature of the Falun Gong cult.”

Their sentences were reduced because they were “active in rehabilitation,” Yu said. Wang’s 15-year term was lessened by 2 1/2 years and Xue’s by two.

Practitioners claim they have been abused, tortured and killed by the hundreds in Chinese prisons and labor camps. Chinese authorities deny mistreatment but have not disclosed how they rehabilitate Falun Gong members.

When reporters visited the prisoners in a government-organized trip in 2002, Liu was steadfast about his beliefs and even demonstrated the slow-moving exercises that Falun Gong followers practice.

Now, the former factory worker seems changed.

Shuffling into a fluorescent-lit meeting room, Liu mumbled incoherently at times to reporters, his voice shaking and eyes welling with tears as he spoke of his former life. Prison officials say he is ill, suffering from high blood pressure and other maladies.

Liu said he stopped believing in Falun Gong on Sept. 27, 2003.

“I was more addicted than (the rest) so I caused more harm to the country and the government,” said Liu, 60, who sat hunched in his seat. “Last time when reporters came to me, I still wanted to uphold Falun Gong, but now I know I was wrong.”

He was supported by prison officials on either side when he left.

Wang, 54, is the only one in prison who set fire to himself. His face, devoid of eyebrows, is mottled with scar tissue. Some fingers have been amputated.

“It is the government that has given me a second life,” Wang said. “I have totally woken up and I think I should persuade people still addicted to Falun Gong to wake up, too.

“To Li Hongzhi, I have only one word in my heart – hate – because he killed so many of our beloved and our compatriots.”

Wang placed a half-dozen photos on a table: his wife and his daughter smiling, himself as a handsome young man.

“I feel ashamed about believing in Falun Gong,” Wang said. “It is Falun Gong and Li Hongzhi who have ruined me.”

In Kaifeng, a bustling city northeast of the prison, Wang’s wife and daughter – both former Falun Gong members – live with the daughter’s husband and baby in a single room tucked in a maze of alleys. The room is filled with a bed, piles of comforters, suitcases and cupboards. A map of the world hangs on the wall.

“We feel so cheated to have our deep beliefs shattered after all these years,” said Wang Juan, Wang’s 26-year-old daughter. “My father’s change is sincere. We are filled with hope for the future.”

Minutes away, Hao Huijun, 51, and her daughter Chen Guo, 23, the most physically destroyed of the Tiananmen group, live in an airy welfare home.

Flames burned off their noses, lips, ears and hair, leaving their faces and skulls shiny with scars and grafted skin. Hao – a former music teacher – has only a patch of skin over her eye sockets, with a tiny slit allowing blurry vision out of her right eye. Her hands are stubs and she is partially deaf in her right ear.

“I realized that I made a lot of trouble for the government and society,” Hao said, weeping as her daughter, ill with a fever, slept in the next room.

“We are thoroughly rehabilitated.”

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