July 1, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Jason Loftus and Eric Pedicelli
Culture Representation: The documentary “Ask No Questions” interviews a racially diverse (Asian and white) group of people about how China’s government-controlled media handled the 2001 story of five people who appeared to set themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
Culture Clash: Several people interviewed in the documentary say that the self-immolation incident was staged by the Chinese government in an effort to discredit the religious practice Falun Gong.
Culture Audience: “Ask No Questions” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in documentaries that explore conspiracy theories about governments.
On January 23, 2001 (Chinese New Year’s Eve), five people caught on fire in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, in an apparent suicide pact among seven people. This horrifying incident made worldwide news and then faded from public consciousness. However, the documentary “Ask No Questions” (directed by Jason Loftus and Eric Pedicelli) revisits this tragedy by coming to the conclusion that the Tiananmen Square self-immolation incident of 2001 was probably staged by the Chinese government, in order to make the religious practice Falun Gong look like a dangerous cult belief.
“Ask No Questions” co-director Loftus (who is the film’s narrator and on-camera investigator) admits up front that he is very biased, because he’s a longtime practitioner of Falun Gong (also known as Falun Dafa), which he describes as a spirituality-based belief system that encourages meditation-oriented exercises. Loftus believes that Falun Gong is a misunderstood religion that the Chinese government has unfairly banned in China. Therefore, this documentary isn’t really an objective investigation as much as it is the “Ask No Questions” filmmakers trying to prove a conspiracy theory.
The Chinese media reported that seven Falun Gong believers had traveled from the Henan province to Beijing and were involved in this self-immolation incident: Wang Jindong (adult male), Liu Chunling (adult female), Liu Siying (Liu Chunling’s then-12-year-old daughter), Hao Huijunl (adult female), Chen Guo (Hao Huijunl’s then-17-year-old daughter), Liu Yunfang (adult male) and Liu Baorong (adult female).
Liu Chunling died on the spot, while Liu Siying died a few months after being hospitalized. Liu Yunfang and Liu Boarong, who did not set themselves on fire, faced very difference consequences: Liu Yunfang was named as the mastermind of this self-immolation incident, and he was sentenced to life in prison, while Liu Boarong denounced Falun Gong and escaped punishment.
Three other people who were not at Tiananmen Square that day were charged with helping the group, and they were sentenced to prison: Wang Jindong got a 15-year sentence, Xue Hongjun received a 10-year sentence, and Liu Xiuqin got a seven-year sentence.
Loftus asks this question about himself in the beginning of the film: “How does a small-town Canadian kid get involved in a struggle between the Chinese government and an Eastern spiritual group that was largely unknown in the West?” He then explains his background: Loftus became interested in Eastern religions and philosophies when he was a teenager. He read numerous books on these subjects, and he discovered Falun Gong at the age of 16.
By 1998, Loftus was practicing Falun Gong. By 1999, the Chinese government had banned Falun Gong. And by the time Loftus reached college age in the early 2000s, he was in China protesting the Chinese government’s ban on Falun Gong. It’s important to know this background because Loftus didn’t just do this documentary on a whim, since he’s been a pro-Falun Gong activist for many years.
There are two people interviewed in this 79-minute documentary who have the most compelling things to say. The first is Chen Ruichang, who was a high-ranking programmer at Guangdong TV (one of the four government-controlled TV networks in China), from 1987 to 2013. Chen’s main job was to gather research to make government propaganda more convincing on television.
Chen is a Falun Gong believer, but he says when the government banned Falun Gong, he was arrested several times, put into detainment centers and work camps, and tortured as a way to get him to denounce his Falun Gong beliefs. He refused. Chen says that the Chinese government staged the 2001 Tiananmen Square self-immolation incident.
In the documentary: Chen says of the Chinese government’s actions to suppress Falun Gong: “Their purpose was to sustain the persecution. So they carefully planned the self-immolation to incite hatred in people’s hearts.” Later, Chen says of his role in creating government propaganda for Chinese television: “I fell guilty because I helped them deceive people.”
The second person who has the most interesting things to say in “Ask No Questions” is Lisa Weaver, who was a CNN reporter in Beijing from 1999 to 2003. She was at Tiananmen Square during the self-immolation incident in 2001, and she smuggled out video footage of the incident. (The video footage is included in the documentary. )
Weaver says in the documentary about getting this footage: “We were in the right time at the right place.” However, Weaver claims that the Chinese government-controlled media showed close-up footage of the Tiananmen Square self-immolation incident and falsely claimed that it was CNN footage.
The reason why Weaver says she’s certain of this is because she was there with the CNN camera crew, and they were too far away from the burning bodies to get the kind of close-up video footage that the Chinese media claimed was from CNN. Weaver also claims that China’s Xinhua news agency misquoted her account of what she saw that day in Tiananmen Square.
And according to Weaver’s eyewitness memories, she saw three people set on fire, but not at the same time, as reported by the Chinese media. She remembers that some of the burning people shouted Falun Gong slogans, but she got the impression that they weren’t true Falun Gong believers, since Falun Gong strongly disapproves of suicide. Did the Chinese government force the people who were set on fire to commit these acts and coach them in advance to chant Falun Gong slogans?
It’s a theory that “Ask No Questions” unabashedly claims is probably what really happed. The problem with this documentary is that it doesn’t really interview enough people from both sides of the issue to come to a well-rounded conclusion. The other people interviewed are mostly those who support in some way the documentary’s conspiracy theory.
The other interviewees include some of Chen’s relatives—his wife Liang Zihui, who says she was also detained and tortured by the Chinese government; his brother Richard Chen; and Richard’s wife Celia Ou. Other people interviewed include Falun Dafa Information Center director Levi Browde; Sarah Cooke, Freedom House senior research analyst for China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan; “The Less You Know, The Better You Sleep” author David Satter; and “Falun Gong’s Challenge to China” author Danny Schechter, who died in 2015, which gives you an idea of how long ago he was interviewed for this film.
“Ask No Questions” also interviews Hollywood stunt man Tom Comet (also known as DangerBoy) to demonstrate how someone can be set on fire and not get seriously injured. And there’s also an interview with Dr. Alan Rosers, a surgeon at Ross Tilley Burn Center, who examines the 2001 Chinese TV news footage of the Tiananmen Square burn victims being interviewed by government-sanctioned news reporter, with a nurse having an up-close conversation with the Liu Siying in the hospital bed. (Former CNN reporter Weaver says that no other media outlets, other the Chinese outlets controlled by the Chinese government, were allowed to interview the Tiananmen Square burn survivors.)
Rosers notices several oddities in the footage, including how all of the surviving victims were placed in the same hospital room, which he says is unusual hospital procedure because severe burn victims are supposed to be kept away from as many people as possible during recovery, in order prevent infections. Rosers also says that’s also why it was very unusual for the nurse and reporter to not wear any protective masks or gloves while speaking up close with Liu Siying while she was interviewed on camera.
The doctor also notices that Liu Siying’s appeared to have a severely burned hand with a lot of bandages wrapped at the wrist, but the victim’s exposed arm for that hand looks perfectly fine, which is not consistent with someone whose whole body was set on fire. Rosers says that although he can’t prove it, the burned hand looks like a hand from a corpse, and it appears to be a prop that was tied by bandages at the wrist. Rosers comes to the conclusion, based on watching some grainy TV footage, that most of the surviving burn victims had real burns, while some could have been faked.
Loftus believes that it’s no coincidence that the Tiananmen Square self-immolation incident of 2001 has eerie parallels to Wang Liviong’s 1991 novel “Yellow Peril,” which describes how the Chinese government staged a self-immolation incident in order to make propaganda. Loftus also takes a closer look at the seven people named as participants in the alleged suicide pact and found that none were known to be ardent followers of Falun Gong.
In addition, “Ask No Questions” also floats a long-held theory that Liu Chunling might have died to a blow to the head, instead of by burning, based on grainy footage of what looks like a man aiming a large object at her head while she was on fire. Other conspiracy theorists have noted how unusual it was for police at Tiananmen Square that day to be carrying around fire extinguishers, as if they were anticipating having to put out fires.
And how far does the Chinese government go to punish conspiracy theorists and their supporters? Loftus says that while he was making this documentary, his Chinese wife had to delete her Chinese social media accounts out of fear that her relatives in China would be targeted by the Chinese government. Loftus also mentions that his Toronto-based production company Lofty Sky Entertainment had a contract with a Chinese company to make video games, but that contract was cancelled with no real explanation. However, that’s not too surprising, because even in non-Communist capitalist countries, some companies just don’t want to do business with a company involved in controversial political activism.
Much of the investigation in “Ask Now Questions” recycles a lot of the investigative work that Washington Post reporter Philip Pan began in 2001. The filmmakers acknowledge that Pan did a lot of the groundbreaking investigations into this conspiracy theory. Loftus says in the film’s voiceover narration that he and the “Ask No Questions” filmmakers reached out to several journalists (Chinese and non-Chinese) who were working in Beijing in 2001, but they all declined to be interviewed for the documentary.
However, why not dig deeper? There’s no indication that the “Ask No Questions” filmmakers ever attempted to interview the politicians, attorneys or other officials who were responsible for helping Chen and his wife Liang gain asylum in the United States. The main reason why Chen was able to immigrate to the U.S. was because his imprisonment got a lot of media coverage, after his relatives went public with Chen’s story.
And what do ambassadors to China think about Chinese citizens who seek asylum in other countries by claiming they are being persecuted for their Falun Gong beliefs? The documentary leaves out the perspectives of government officials involved in international relations with China.
In the documentary, Chen gives a harrowing account of the type of torture that he endured, such as being forced to watch the 2001 self-immolation incident and other horrific things on a TV screen for eight hours a day, with the volume turned up to full blast. He says that the psychological torment, more than physical abuse, is what breaks torture victims: “And once a crack forms in your logical thinking, they will drill into it until they break your will.”
Unlike her husband, Liang did eventually denounce Luong Gong while she was detained and tortured in a “brainwashing center.” She says that the prolonged torture and forced separations that she and Chen went through almost caused them to get divorced. When they fled to the United States, the couple had to make the heartbreaking decision to leave their son behind in China. Although their son wanted to them to get asylum in the U.S. so that they could be safe, the documentary shows that the pain of being separated from him is still palpable.
“Ask No Questions” has some compelling interviews, but the documentary does not present anything new that hasn’t already been reported about this conspiracy theory. Loftus admits that without indisputable evidence (which he believes has been suppressed by the Chinese government), there’s no way to prove that the Chinese government staged the Tiananmen Square self-immolation incident of 2001.
It’s not a secret that the Chinese government has banned Falun Gong and punished Chinese citizens who profess to be Falun Gong believers. (And that topic could be an entirely different documentary.) Therefore, “Ask No Questions” is an echo chamber that sets out to prove a conspiracy theory and, by its own admission, falls short of getting widespread evidence. If the main purpose of the documentary is to make more people aware of the conspiracy theory, then “Ask No Questions” succeeds in that goal.
1091 released “Ask No Questions” on digital and VOD on June 30, 2020.