KAIFENG, China--There is a neighborhood on the eastern side of this once-glorious city called Apple Orchard, but there are no apple trees here, only drab concrete buildings and clusters of unemployed men loitering on mud streets. It was here, in a fourth-floor apartment in Building Six, that Liu Chunling and her 12-year-old daughter, Liu Siying, lived.
The mother was a quiet woman who kept to herself, the daughter a lively fifth-grader who never failed to smile and say hello. Neighbors recalled there was something both strange and sad about Liu Chunling, that she sometimes hit her child, that she drove her elderly mother away, that she worked in a nightclub and took money to keep men company.
But no one suspected that Liu, 36, might have joined the banned spiritual movement Falun Gong. And hardly anyone noticed when she and her daughter disappeared.
And then, there they were on national television, their bodies engulfed in orange flames in Tiananmen Square. Liu Siying was shown lying on a stretcher, her face and lips charred black, whimpering, "Mama, mama." Her mother, the newscast reported, was already dead.
What drove the Lius and three others from this city in central Henan province, about 350 miles south of Beijing, to pour gasoline on their bodies and set themselves afire on Jan. 23, the eve of the Chinese New Year?
An intense battle is underway to answer that question, with the five individuals cast in turn as victims of an evil cult, righteous protesters against a repressive government or desperately estranged people on the margins of a fast-changing society.
The ruling Communist Party has launched an all-out campaign to use the incident to prove its claim that Falun Gong is a dangerous cult, and to turn public opinion in China and abroad against the group it outlawed 18 months ago and has tried to crush, at times with brutal tactics.
Every morning and night, the state-controlled media carry fresh attacks against Falun Gong and its U.S.-based leader, Li Hongzhi. Schools have been ordered to "educate" pupils about the sect. Discussion meetings have been organized in factories, offices and universities. Religious leaders as far away as Tibet have delivered scripted denunciations. In Kaifeng, the post office issued an anti-Falun Gong postmark, and 10,000 people signed a public petition against the group.
Falun Gong leaders insist that the Lius and their companions could not have been members of their movement, which promotes a mix of Buddhism, Taoism and traditional Chinese breathing exercises. They have said Falun Gong clearly forbids both violence and suicide and have suggested the government may have staged the incident.
Falun Gong has attracted a cross section of Chinese -- party members, senior army officers, bureaucrats, teachers and millions living on the margins of society. In Kaifeng, where several factories have closed and the economy has slumped, many are searching for something to believe in.
The state media have said little about why the five who set themselves on fire might have joined Falun Gong. Beijing denied requests to interview Liu Siying and the three other survivors, who are all hospitalized with serious burns. A Kaifeng official said only China Central Television and the official New China News Agency were permitted to speak to their relatives or their colleagues. A man who answered the door at the Liu home referred questions to the government.
But Liu Chunling's Apple Orchard neighbors described her as a woman who led a troubled life and suffered from psychological problems. State media identified 78-year-old Hao Xiuzhen as her adoptive mother. Neighbors said they quarreled often before Liu drove the woman from their home last year.
"There was something wrong with her," said neighbor Liu Min, 51. "She hit her mother, and her mother was crying and yelling. She hit her daughter, too."
There were also questions about how Liu supported herself and about the whereabouts of her daughter's father. Neighbors said Liu was not a native of Kaifeng, and that a man in southern Guangdong province paid her rent. Others, including neighbor Wen Jian, 22, said Liu worked in a local nightclub and was paid to dine with and dance with customers.
None ever saw her practice Falun Gong.