Archive | January, 2010

Surprised by the politics in shows like Shen Yun?

26 Jan

At Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, Chinese performnace troupe Shen Yun featured drummers, dancers and propaganda that surprised some audiences. Some were OK with the message, but some were offended.

In the days since Shen Yun Performing Arts, the Chinese drum and dance troupe, left Atlanta to move onto the next stop on its perpetual tour, conversation continued to rumble about the shows they’d performed at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.

Some loved the performance, but commenters on Inside Access were upset by the Falun Gong politics of the show, “subtle as a taser shot to the noggin,” the AJC review said. It’s not that commenters necessarily disagree or deny that persecution has taken place in China. They were surprised to see it — especially a few violent scenes,  one involving a taser and another where a mother and child are beaten — in a show promoted as a music-and-acrobatic spectacular

Wrote Marilee Coughlin:

While the dancers are fabulous, and the costumes are gorgeous, I felt like I was at a revival or brain-washing session. … it was billed as a family show, but I question whether children should see a show where a mother and child are beaten by black-shirted men and the mother dragged off stage, apparently dead – then on the garish screen, she can be seen “ascending” accompanied by monks. Creepy sums up parts of the show quite well.

Local Falun Gong groups sponsored the show, but people I’ve heard from said it wasn’t adequate warning that politics might enter into a performance touted as family friendly. The show has taken a drubbing in international press, but AJCer Howard Pousner talked with several audience members who weren’t offended by the message, but they weren’t expecting it either. (You can read his entire story, “Many Atlantans OK with Chinese dance trouple’s politics.”) Several said they were fine with it: they wanted to know the other side of the story.

Here’s what another commenter, KJ, had to say:

My recommendation for the show’s creators.. [sic] If you want to focus on the message and political struggle, do it. The world would write rave reviews about a play or show that took an issue straight on. You probably couldn’t do the show in China or that would be the last show, but I believe the rest of the world prefers an “in your face” approach. State your message and stir it up.

I asked for a response from the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre’s PR agency, and received this statement from J. Barkley Russell on behalf of the local presenting organizations, not Cobb Energy Centre itself:

On behalf of the presenting organizations, we acknowledge the concerns expressed by some attendees at the Shen Yun performances regarding the sensitive content in certain sections of the show. As in years past, our brochures, window posters, website and press releases disclosed the show’s presenting organizations, New Times Cultural and Education Center, Inc. (NTCEC) and the Southeast US Falun Dafa Association—they have presented the show since it began appearing in Atlanta, four years ago.

In the future we will consider adding information to our materials that references the show’s content. We hope this has addressed your concerns.

I didn’t see this show, but in the commercials, billboards, and even the press materials, I didn’t see anything explicit about the show’s point of view, except for a passing reference about Chinese traditions before Communism.

On my own, I would have stayed to watch. Reporterly curiosity means I sit through a lot of things the surprise me, whether they delight or horrify. But it’s entirely different to see a show for work than to see a show with friends or family.

I wonder how common an experience this is. The closest situation I can recall is an early screening of “Million Dollar Baby.” The the mood in the theater changed as the movie became less about boxing and more about — surprise! — assisted suicide.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and experience on this. Have you been surprised or offended by an unexpected political message in art, whether on stage, in the movies or elsewhere? What responsibility do organizations and venues have to tell audiences beforehand? Should audiences be expected to do their own digging?

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Opinion: Shen Yun Performing Arts presents a cheesy spectacle of Falun Gong propaganda

26 Jan

I hate to break it to you, but if you’ve already bought tickets for the musical extravaganza that is Shen Yun Performing Arts, you’ve been sold a bill of goods.

Promising to “breathe new life into traditional Chinese culture,” the New York-based production currently on tour is little more than a crass propaganda vehicle for Falun Gong, a system of beliefs banned by the Communist regime in China. The show plays in Vancouver March 30-April 1.

Set against a garish digital backdrop that alternates between bucolic scenes of a pre-industrial China and cartoonish images of Buddhist deities swooping down from the heavens, the dancers perform precisely choreographed, athletic routines accompanied by a live orchestra. Breaking up the dance numbers, two sopranos and a tenor sing — in Chinese with English surtitles — not-too-subtle odes to Falun Gong, and its censure by the state, with lyrics such as, “The life-saving Way is spread / And the Red Fiend’s lies crumble / Truth dispels confusion / The saved escape catastrophe / Intent to cultivate Dafa.”

Outside China, adherents of Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, usually go about protesting the atrocities perpetrated against them by Chinese authorities by meditating in public places alongside graphic photos of alleged victims. Shen Yun is a much softer — but only slightly subtler — sell.

One particularly heavy-handed number begins with a happy family doing Falun Gong exercises in the park. Suddenly, club-wielding, black-clad thugs appear, and drag the mother and daughter away. The halcyon backdrop abruptly becomes a menacing, smoke-bellowing detention centre, where the mother is beaten to death before ascending to heaven, accompanied by the aforementioned deities.

There’s a creepy, evangelical aspect to it all — which wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the Disney-esque take on “traditional” Chinese song and dance. The men’s acrobatic dancing is impressive, and the women’s fan-waving and embroidering well-synchronized and graceful. But between the cheesy backdrops and tacky costumes (lots of polyester and sequins), don’t think for a second you’re in for a modern version of the Peking Opera: This feels more like a Sunday-school class putting on a low-budget Vegas show.

Adding insult to injury is the corny comedic banter between two bilingual presenters, particularly the cringe-inducing jokes told by the male half of the duo, who should consider hosting a game show if this Shen Yun gig doesn’t work out.

Human-rights abuses in China are a serious matter, but attempting to draw attention to them through tawdry, thinly veiled proselytizing is an insult to audiences — who can be forgiven for believing the heavy hype and promotion (minus mention of Falun Gong) that precede the shows.

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Falun Gong in the media: What can we believe?

21 Jan

Dr. Heather Kavan researches ‘cults’, extreme religion and altered states. She is a lecturer in the Department of Communication, Journalism and Marketing at Massey University, New Zealand, where her specialist area is speech writing.

This article was originally published in the refereed proceedings of the 2008 Australia New Zealand Communication Association Conference.


This paper explores the accuracy of Western and Chinese media reports about Falun Gong, a religious movement that has been locked in a propaganda war with the Chinese government since 1999. The study is based on a year’s ethnographic research with Falun Gong, analysis of Falun Gong leader Li Hongzhi’s speeches and writings, and a discussion of external sources.

I discuss the competing versions of the facts about who Li Hongzhi is, why Falun Gong was banned, and human rights violations. I conclude that, although the Western media is more accurate than the Chinese media on the critical issue of human rights violations, much of the material about Falun Gong in the Western news misleads the public.


Falun Gong, literally law wheel practice, is a new religious movement that is now illegal in China. Of all religious adherents, Falun Gong members are perhaps the most media savvy. They have despatched thousands of press releases, staged headline-generating events, maintained a strong Internet presence, and brought defamation suits against anyone who publishes unfavourable material. Consequently, Falun Gong adherents have been treated relatively kindly by the Western press, who have sometimes supported their religious and political agendas (Kavan, 2005).

While several studies have examined how Falun Gong, the Chinese media, and the Western media have framed and presented their material (for example Chen, 2005; Powers & Lee, 2001), from a practical perspective the issue of the material’s accuracy is more important. Western governments’ policies regarding human rights issues in China are often largely based on media reports (or on the reports of agencies, such as Amnesty International, who use the media as a source), so the information’s credibility is vital.

Accuracy is also a critical issue in the numerous law suits Falun Gong have brought. In this light, specialist in Chinese studies Patsy Rahn’s (2000) suggestion to go beyond the headlines and investigate what is really happening in Falun Gong is apposite.

My study is based on a year’s ethnographic research with Falun Gong. In this paper I will interweave findings from my fieldwork with the different media accounts. I cover the news items from 1999 – when Falun Gong first burst into the international news – to the present. However, most of my discussion focuses on the early period because this is when the key issues about Falun Gong were raised.

I will begin by outlining the background to Falun Gong and its relationship with the media. Next I describe my fieldwork, followed by a discussion of sources. Then I will discuss the main issues in the media. I conclude by observing that while the Western media is more accurate than the Chinese media on the critical issue of human rights violations, much of the material about Falun Gong in the Western news misleads the public.


Falun Gong origins

Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, emerged in China in 1992 as a spiritual movement that was an offshoot of Qi Gong (sometimes called Chinese yoga). The movement’s leader is Li Hongzhi. Qi Gong is mainly comprised of breathing exercises, but Li added teachings of a world full of demons, aliens and apocalyptic adventures. His books Zhuan Falun and Falun Gong read like an Asian version of the X Files and were instant best sellers. In 1998 Li reached celebrity status, and he shifted to the United States.

Falun Gong and the media

Conflict with the media has been central to Falun Gong almost since its inception, for it was not the Chinese government, but journalists, writers, scientists and ex-members who first criticised Falun Gong. Li’s unscientific claims and professions of divine status invited scepticism, and by mid 1996 Chinese journalists began to publish critical articles about Falun Gong’s supernatural beliefs and Li’s egoism. In response, Li directed members to defend the fa (his spiritual law) whenever it was attacked (Deng & Fang, 2000; Li, 1998a, 1998b). The protests were large and relentless.

Between 1996 and mid-1999, practitioners initiated over 300 protests against negative media reports, forcing dismissals of reporters and receiving public apologies (Zhao, 2003). In China the media are free only as far as they facilitate social stability (Chan, 2002), so when Falun Gong threatened civil unrest, media managers were quick to capitulate to their demands. For example, when 2,000 protestors surrounded Beijing Television after the station broadcast a segment about a doctoral candidate who became psychotic while practising Falun Gong, the station fired the reporter, aired an immediate sympathetic portrayal, and – to show extra goodwill – handed out 2,000 boxed lunches to the protestors.

Having learnt that such protests were fruitful, Falun Gong members were unstoppable. To prevent social unrest, Beijing authorities introduced a blackout against any negative media reports on the movement (Zhao, 2003). However, not everyone was aware of the blackout, and an obscure academic magazine in Tianjin published a critique of Falun Gong by renowned physicist He Zuoxin. The article might have gone unnoticed, except that six thousand Falun Gong protestors occupied the University over three days, demanding a retraction. The editors refused, responding that scientific publications do not print retractions. The protest developed into a riot – although this appears to have happened after the riot police arrived – and up to 45 people were arrested (the numbers vary in different accounts).

To appeal their alleged vilification and the arrests, Falun Gong made the tactical mistake for which they are most remembered. On 25 April 1999 over 10,000 members silently converged on the sidewalks of Zhongnanhai and surrounded Communist party headquarters for twelve hours. It is at this point that the story is taken up by Xinhua (China’s news agency) and the Western media. Before discussing these reports I will describe my fieldwork and sources.


Several years ago, Falun Gong practitioners sent hundreds of letters to academic institutions requesting that unbiased research be done on them, so, when a group advertised in New Zealand, I approached them. Practitioners expect researchers to experience their spiritual path before they make judgement on it; therefore I used a methodology drawn from Robert Bellah’s (1970) ideas about symbolic realism, of shifting into the person’s religious reality for fieldwork purposes.

For over a year I met with Falun Gong members in New Zealand, outdoors between 6 and 7.30 am every morning to do Falun Gong exercises. I also attended weekly demonstration meetings to which the public were invited. The participants – all Chinese – welcomed and encouraged me: they told me that they were used to outsiders because before the Government crackdown in China, undercover spies sometimes attended meetings – often for several years.

Initially I did not intend to focus my research on the media, but I soon discovered that this was highly important to members, as they expressed disappointment that the Western media had not been uniformly supportive of them. From their conversations and literature I got the impression that Falun Gong had high expectations of the Western media, anticipating that the press would take a stance and assume a moral role in restoring members’ religious rights in China. This view is highlighted by one of Li’s speeches in which he rails against the media for “keeping silent while crimes and sins are committed” (Li, 2005a, p. 2).

At the morning meetings nobody spoke, we took a place in a circle, closed our eyes, did the exercises, and usually left without saying goodbye to each other. There was slightly more interaction at other meetings, and I was careful not to direct the conversation as I wanted to see what issues were important to the participants. I did not ask set questions as I was aware that practitioners had standard answers to particular lines of enquiry (Frank, 2004), and I focused on ensuring that I understood their perspectives correctly. However, as I do not speak Chinese and could not claim any experience of being persecuted or tortured, I was never fully part of the group. Also, many of the members were biologically related to each other (most came to the movement through a family member). With the exception of two spokespeople, I do not know the names of the participants. Once, when I asked the name of a woman with whom I had met every day for over a year, I was told to call her “the woman”.

The cultural barrier also meant that I sometimes did not fully understand how participants interpreted events. For example, on one occasion a practitioner had been practising alone in her front yard when – according to her account – she saw me standing next to her doing the exercises, although I was, in fact, over two kilometres away at the time. Over the next week members looked in my direction, whispered in Chinese and giggled. I am not sure how they interpreted the event, although the incident did not impede our relationship.

Over the year, I immersed myself in Falun Gong material – Li’s speeches, videos, books, and Falun Gong publications. Li’s coercive and inflated style (which Dean Peerman describes as “gaseous-cosmic” [2004, p. 30]) contrasted with the polite and humble nature of the participants. More significantly, Li’s speeches repeatedly contradicted both what Falun Gong members were telling me and what they were telling the media. I had hoped that my research would help Falun Gong, but I became increasingly aware that this would be unlikely.

While my fieldwork was in New Zealand, this paper focuses more broadly on the international media. Although my location is a limitation (especially as there are only approximately 100 Falun Gong members in New Zealand), Falun Gong practices are the same throughout the world. There are no variations of the teachings because Li threatens that if anyone inadvertently alters the teachings when speaking to outsiders, they will be attacked by demons and die (Li, 1998b). Therefore my general experiences tally with overseas accounts of Falun Gong practice (for example, Burgdoff, 2003; Frank, 2004; Porter, 2003). However, my conclusions are less favourable to Falun Gong than previous researchers, who were writing at a time when some of Falun Gong’s more extreme political writings had not been published.


For both the Chinese and Western media, I retrieved articles from Factiva database by typing Falun Gong and its alternative name Falun Dafa into the search engine. For the Chinese press reports I read all accounts disseminated by Xinhua. Xinhua is China’s principal news agency, controlled by the state-run Department of Propaganda. Their material is difficult to verify as original sources are usually inaccessible to Westerners.

The Western media get most of their information about Falun Gong from press releases disseminated by the Rachlin media group. This group is essentially a Public Relations firm for Falun Gong, managed by Gail Rachlin, who is one of Li’s inner circle. Journalists also get their stories from interviewing participants. However, Li forbids practitioners from talking about what he calls “high level things” to ordinary people, and instructs them to lie to those uninterested in spiritual matters (“tell them that we’re just doing exercises” [Li, 2002, p. 21]). Therefore spokespeople tend to be evasive about their beliefs, and resort to formulaic principles and repetitions of their slogan ‘truthfulness, compassion, forbearance’. Moreover, Li sets the terms of the debate by directing members to get sympathy by telling listeners about the persecution, with the hidden intention of later turning them into converts (Li cited in Rahn, 2005; see also Li, 2002, 2003a). Members do not see this strategy as deceptive: a Falun Gong spokesperson told me that by focusing on the persecution and not pushing their religion or leader, members were being inoffensive.

Generally, practitioners do not know if the information in the media is accurate. They themselves get most of their information from reading press releases, and usually if I asked them if something was true they replied, “Yes – I read it in the newspaper”. Falun Gong also have their own media (Li, 2005b), and are heavily involved in the Epoch Times, a free newspaper that is most well known for its polemic Nine commentaries on the Chinese Communist Party, which Li promotes (Li, 2005c).

As practitioners do not teach Falun Gong beliefs, I found more information from Li’s books and speeches. Copies are available on the Internet, but they are not necessarily the same as the originals. For example, disciples removed a chapter of Li’s improbable autobiographical claims of supernatural exploits from Zhuan Falun, as well as from the Internet (see Penny, 2003 for a discussion on the content). They also removed English translations of Zhuan Falun 11, a book in which Li makes several scientific slip-ups (such as mistaking a light year for a measurement of time) and offends potential supporters by condemning homosexuality and Buddhism. Curiously, when I asked a research assistant to translate parts of Zhuan Falun 11 for me, his car was broken into after he left my office, and my instructions on what to translate were stolen. Although I am sure this event was a coincidence, it helped me to appreciate the wariness Falun Gong and the Chinese government have of each other.

Further, as Deng and Fang (2000) observe, English translations of Li’s speeches have a less strident tone, they sometimes differ from the original Chinese in critical parts, and the most anti-gay, racist and anti-human scriptures have never been translated into English. Also, Li has instructed followers to destroy any unauthorised versions of his speeches (1998b).

While these sources shed some light on Falun Gong beliefs, an equally critical issue in relation to Falun Gong is the torture and persecution of members. The press often quote Amnesty International, but Amnesty’s reports are not independently verified, and mainly come from Falun Gong sources (for example, Amnesty, 2000). The Hong Kong Centre for Human Rights is the only independent source of information, although the Centre is actually not an organisation, but one man – Lu Si Qing. However, statistics of arrests from both Amnesty and the Hong Kong Centre are often much higher than those reported by Western journalists who were present in China when the arrests were made (Rahn, 2000), which suggests that other information may be similarly exaggerated.

The media stories

The news items generally begin at the time of the Zhongnanhai protest. To resume the story, China’s Premier Zhu Rongji told the protestors that their grievances would be addressed within three days. One participant told me that he “was very nice” and the crowd went home delighted. However, on July 22 1999 the government did an aboutturn: Falun Gong was declared an ‘evil cult’, the religion was outlawed, and members were arrested. The Western and Chinese media give contradictory accounts.

Li Hongzhi

The first issue was Li’s role in the protest. The Western press quoted Li and his spokespeople who said that the protest was spontaneous, that Li was on his way to a conference in Australia at the time, and had no knowledge of it. This seems unlikely because all Falun Gong decisions have to be pre-approved by Li, no matter where he is (Li, 1995). In contrast, Xinhua claimed that Li was on Northwest Airline Flight 087 to China on April 22 and stayed for two days. Xinhua (1999c) also presented evidence that Li ordered disciples to protest. Over a month after his initial denials, Li changed his story, and admitted to journalist Paul Flatin (1999b) what Xinhua had been reporting from the outset: that he was in China on the eve of the protest. Xinhua’s reports therefore seem more plausible than the initial Western ones, although we may be question how the Chinese government gained their information (apparently Li’s co-conspirators ‘confessed’).

The descriptions of Li also vary between China and the West. The Western media, taking their initial stories from interviews with Li, describe him as a bright, baby-faced man who looks more like a businessman than a guru, and who “may be wacky, but he’s no counterrevolutionary” (Liu, 1999, para. 2). Flatin writes that “with his round, soft, Buddha-like features and smiling brown eyes, the cheerful Li hardly seemed like the illustrious spiritual leader of millions of Chinese” (1999a, para. 19). Numerous media quote Li’s story that he was spiritually cultivating at the age of four, and at twelve years of age was discovered by a Taoist immortal from the mountains. Reportedly, having founded Falun Gong, he now leads a simple life from his New York apartment, and is a “family-values nostalgist” (Rosin, 1999, para. 11). With some exceptions (especially Hitchens, 2000), Li is portrayed as a hero, a man who, like Gandhi, mobilised millions of disciples to non-violently resist an oppressive regime. In 1999 he was nominated by six countries for the Nobel peace prize, and in 2001 Asia Week named Li the most powerful communicator in Asia (Number 1, 2001).

Not surprisingly, the Chinese media have a different view of Li. According to Xinhua, far from being a child spiritual protégé, he only began practising Qi Gong a year before he started Falun Gong, and when he began Falun Gong he copied the physical exercises from Qi Gong and hand movements from Thai dances. Once in power, Li enticed, brainwashed and intimidated followers. He forbade members to take medicines and go to hospitals (while doing so himself), leaving practitioners to die in agony while he did nothing to help them, aside from boasting that he could heal by simply waving his hand. While “hooting” that only he could save the world (Xinhua, 2001a, para.1), he amassed a fortune for himself, living in his luxury home off the profits from his propaganda, and visiting brothels (Xinhua, 1999a, 1999d). He is now in the USA enjoying the good life.

In some respects, Western and Chinese accounts are not as polarised as one would expect. Like Xinhua, the Western press also publicised some of Li’s unusual beliefs. For example, in an interview with Van Biema (1999) of Time magazine, Li talked of his apocalyptic visions, and warned that ghostly-looking aliens are infiltrating human minds to corrupt and ultimately replace humans. However, later, when Hanna Rosin (1999) of the Washington Post questioned Li about these beliefs, he responded that he merely meant them as Buddhist metaphors. As Li no longer gives interviews, and more recent accounts come largely from the Rachlin media group, his unusual ideas are less reported today.

Regarding his spiritual status, Li was ambiguous when speaking to the Western media. While he said modestly to ABC news, “Don’t make me into a God” (implanting the idea that one could easily make this mistake when encountering him), to Time magazine, “You can think of me as a human being”, and to The Times “I’m not saying I’m higher than Jesus Christ,” he is more forthright with disciples (Dowell, 1999, answer 30; Greenberg, 1999, p. 2; Kirsta, 1999, para. 34). At conventions he claims not just to be a God, but the best God, superior to Buddha and Jesus whom he dismisses as merely teaching 16 carat gold paths compared with his 24 carat gold path (Li, 1998c, 2003a). He also encourages veneration, telling disciples that his spiritual body is so large that, if he appeared in it, disciples would be looking upward from under his big toe (Li, 1999).

Why Falun Gong was banned

When the story of Falun Gong broke in the West, commentators ridiculed Communist leaders for launching the equivalent of a counter-terrorist attack on a group of “exercising grannies” (Mosher, 1999, para. 1). Referring to the fact that Falun Gong mainly comprises breathing exercises, Time Asia opened its story by announcing that it had now become illegal to breathe in China (Spaeth, 1999). To explain Falun Gong’s illegal status, the Western media repeatedly quote members’ claim that the Chinese government outlawed Falun Gong because Li had more followers than the Communist party (100 million compared with 60-70 million). This assertion seems unlikely for two reasons. First, scholars agree that the number of Falun Gong adherents was between two to ten million, not 100 million (see Bruseker, 2000, p. 52; Major religions, n.d, p. 24 ). Second, there were equally popular Qi Gong groups in China which were not banned.

Countering the Western reports, Xinhua (1999b) claims that the Western media portray Falun Gong as a harmless meditation group to make China look ridiculous. The agency produced a stream of articles explaining that the Chinese government banned Falun Gong because Li had broken numerous laws, threatened public safety, was responsible for over 1,000 deaths (mainly from members committing suicide or not seeking medical treatment), and because members had infiltrated the Communist party to overthrow the government.

On the issue of Falun Gong’s responsibility for numerous deaths, practitioners told me that they did not know whether the incidents occurred, but they were sure that the deaths did not stem from Falun Gong beliefs. Members also said that Li does not discourage people from getting medical assistance. However, this claim does not tally with Li’s writings. He teaches that illnesses are caused by karma, and that by taking medicines or getting medical help one presses the karma back into the body. The sign of a true practitioner is to refuse medicine or medical care (Li, 1998b; 1998c; 1999; 2001a; 2003b).

The second issue – that Falun Gong infiltrated the Communist party – is not disputed. Falun Gong had permeated the state’s military, security, media and educational establishments. Also, in Falun Gong Li writes about his focus on gaining support from state government leaders, and these statements have suspiciously been omitted from the English and French translations (Deng & Fang, 2000). Even so, there is no evidence that in the early stages Li planned to topple the Communist party. To be sure, members today are political. They yearn for the demise of the party – parading down streets singing “no more Communist party, no more torture”, surrounding Chinese embassies silently chanting “all evil be destroyed”, and triumphantly share any news suggesting that the Communist party is collapsing. However, their opposition to the Party seems to be the result of being persecuted, rather than the cause of the ban.

Human rights abuses

Nowhere do Chinese and American accounts differ more than on the issue of human rights. After the ban, tens of thousands of practitioners were arrested and sent to labour camps without trial, and many claim to have been tortured. While the numbers may be exaggerated, the evidence is compelling. There are photographs of police brutality and mutilated torture victims, and – although it is unclear whether these photos were taken independently – they are not usually disputed. There are also eye witness testimonies, and first hand accounts (for example, Zeng, 2005). Additionally, Ian Johnson of the Wall Street Journal documented his investigative research on the repression in a poignant series of articles, for which he received a Pulitzer prize (Johnson, 2004). The Chinese media do more than issue blanket denials of human rights abuses; Xinhua paints an enchanted picture of Falun Gong members in air conditioned re-education centres, regaining their energy and vigour by eating ravishing meals and being showered by kindness from the guards. Members are depicted playing basketball, dancing, and attending to rabbits, deer, and birds (Xinhua, 2001c; 2001d). Even police stations are portrayed as veritable counselling services where police patiently educate Falun Gong members and try their best to save their lives (Xinhua, 2001b). Such stories would strain credibility even if they were referring to Western law enforcement.

Practitioners talk about the persecution a lot. They describe members being hung from shackles on the wrists for prolonged periods, shot with electric stun guns, pierced with sharp bamboo sticks, beaten, raped, confined to tiny spaces where they are unable to move their body, and prohibited from using a toilet for several days. They display banners with photographs of police brutality, and often re-enact torture scenes in public demonstrations. An undercurrent of sadness pervaded the meetings, as members were cut off from loved ones in China.

At the same time, practitioners did not perceive themselves as victims, and were adamant that they did not want to be portrayed this way. I understood this more fully when one day a practitioner looked at me with pity and exclaimed that she felt sorry for me because I worked so hard at doing the exercises but had never experienced the persecution. She then began quoting from one of Li’s speeches on ‘stepping forward’. Stepping forward means activism and refers to a series of tests members have to pass to gain entry into Li’s heaven. These tests have arisen because Li has only planned enlightenment for a limited number of Falun Gong members, but with increasing numbers and the imminent end of the world, he has to quickly weed people out (Li, 2000a; 2001c). By defending the fa and being imprisoned and tortured, practitioners’ karma is burnt off, thus assuring them a place in Li’s paradise. It follows that when enduring severe torture, practitioners must not recant their faith, even if their retraction is insincere. This is a serious disgrace (Li, 2001c), and those who recant are “malignant tumours” whom Li purposely orchestrated the torture to expose (Li, 2000b, sec. 18, para. 1).

Therefore, while practitioners abhor human rights abuses, they also find meaning in them. Persecution reinforces and reinvigorates their world view, as well as providing their religion with a selling point to the West.

Is Falun Gong a cult?

Another issue – and one that is most important to Falun Gong members that I met – is the use of the word ‘cult’. Xinhua consistently describe Falun Gong as a cult (xijiao). In China any word related to religion has implications of feudal superstition, but xijiao is especially pejorative because it has pathological connotations that suggest evil agents of disease (Chen, 2003b).

The Western media do not usually describe Falun Gong as a cult, because of pressure from Falun Gong, and members tell the media they are just an exercise group. However, as Wong and Liu (1999) observe, Falun Gong seems unusually proselytising for an exercise group. Also, on newcomers’ second or third visits they are given scriptures showing Li’s rejection of those who just do the exercises every day (usually Zhuan Falun, but see also Li, 1997; 1998b). I noticed that newcomers never returned after they were given the reading material, except for one man who reappeared only to put the books on the table and rush out the door. When – six months into the fieldwork – a member told me that Falun Gong was not about doing the exercises at all, I was not surprised. She had already given me this information via Li’s writings. If the ambiguous – some might say deceptive – recruitment tactics make Falun Gong sound like a cult, we should look further at what exactly a cult is. Characteristics associated with cults include: an idolised charismatic leader who exploits people by letting them believe he – and it usually is a ‘he’ – is God’s mouthpiece; mind control techniques; an apocalyptic world view used to manipulate members; exclusivity (‘only our religion can save people’); alienation from society; and a view of members as superior to the rest of humanity. If we employ these criteria, Falun Gong could be described as a cult. By his own account Li is the exclusive saviour of the world. He teaches that members are superior to ordinary people, and they must relinquish “affection for kinsfolk, love between a man and a woman, an affection for parents, feelings, [and] friendship” (Li, 2003b, lecture 4, para. 3). Also, Falun Gong activities take up large amounts of practitioners’ time each day. To be sure, practitioners are free to exit Falun Gong whenever they want, but this freedom is a physical reality, not a psychological one. As the Chinese members I met had no exposure to other spiritual paths, they believed the peace they experienced in meditation is only available through Falun Gong. Moreover, if they are left behind in the apocalypse they will suffer horribly (Li, 2000a). (The date of this event is uncertain because Li can use his mystical powers to delay it, but participants were expecting it within the next 25 years.)

Even so, as Chang remarks, ‘It takes a cult to know a cult,’ and the word cult can also be applied to Maoist China (Chang, 2004, p. 130). The parallel has not been lost on Falun Gong members who, after I had finished the research, put articles in my letterbox denouncing the Communist party as an ‘evil cult’ (these articles were from the Nine commentaries on the Communist Party [2005]). The comparison invites the question of whether Chinese abhorrence of Falun Gong may be because Li uses the same vocabulary and symbols that Mao Ze Dong did. Like Mao, Li has activated millions of people with his rhetoric. His ideology is similarly characterised by moral superiority, defining others as absolute evil, dehumanising enemies by labelling them snake spirits and possessed by ghosts, extolling the virtues of selflessness and sacrifice, emphasising the necessity of enduring physical hardship, harassing critics, and denigrating science in favour of his purportedly infallible truths.

Addicts and Atrocities

Having classified Falun Gong as a ‘cult’, it was only a small step for Xinhua to label practitioners ‘addicts’. This characterisation could perhaps be applied to some members before the crackdown. When Falun Gong was under the auspices of Qi Gong, there was an outbreak of Qi Gong psychosis in China, as members’ excessive spiritual activities brought on psychotic states (Chen, 2003a; Engardio, 2000).

However, I doubt that many Falun Gong members today have experienced this phenomenon. The practitioners I encountered did not report vivid spiritual experiences, and spoke of Falun Gong activities more as a chore to be endured (“I don’t do the exercises because I enjoy them; I do them because they are good for me,” one participant commented). In fact, in my quest for understanding, I may have been keener than the practitioners, and I sometimes suspected that they were only at the practice site because I – the outsider – was enthusiastically there each morning. This suspicion was confirmed when I discovered that daily 6am meetings ceased after I finished my fieldwork. Even so, experiences and beliefs that are considered normal in a religious subculture can well seem psychotic and delusional to outsiders. The previously mentioned example of a practitioner hallucinating that I was standing next to her is a good example. Similarly, one practitioner appeared paranoid when, after the group had blocked public access, she claimed that pedestrians who expressed irritation had been secretly “got at” by the Chinese embassy.

Additionally, in my experience it was difficult to keep up with the harsh physical demands of Falun Gong without dissociating (especially at 6am). We stood with our hands in the air for interminable periods of time, and regularly sat in the lotus position for over an hour – throughout the Manawatu floods and sometimes in temperatures below zero. Following Li’s orders to disciples, (Li, 2001a, p. 72; Li, 2003b, pp. 139-40), we stayed in position no matter how severe the pain. When on one occasion I was in the early stages of hypothermia, I was told that if I had been meditating properly I would not have felt the cold. None of us were particularly functional afterwards, we often struggled to walk, and our dazed appearance could well have appeared mentally unhealthy. To further support the label ‘addicts’, the Chinese government flooded the media with atrocity stories about Falun Gong members. Newspapers, magazines and broadcasting stations published lurid accounts of members dying from suicide, and cutting open their stomach to find their inner falun. There is no way of verifying these stories. Mysteriously the alleged atrocities have only occurred in China and not in the West, which suggests that the information may have been fabricated.

The most controversial of these incidents is the self-immolations of alleged Falun Gong members. In January 2001, three weeks after Li issued a statement to disciples saying that evil could “no longer be tolerated” and they could set aside the principle of forbearance and “use various measures at different levels” to “eradicate it” (Li, 2001b, para. 1), a man and two mother-daughter pairs burnt themselves alive in Tiananmen Square. The police rushed to the scene with fire extinguishers, but one of the women died at the scene. For the Chinese media this was the atrocity story par excellence. Television stations broadcast footage of the women and girls staggering with their hands above their head (the Falun Gong pose) as flames leapt over their bodies. Xinhua produced a torrent of stories, focusing especially on one of the victims – the pretty 12 year old daughter, who died later. Falun Gong spokespeople deny that the immolators were Falun Gong members, and claim that the Chinese government staged the whole event to smear the group – a view shared by journalist Danny Schetcher (2001) in his sympathetic investigation of Falun Gong. Members gave me a VCD that demonstrates discrepancies in the footage: the man is not sitting in the Lotus position correctly, and fire extinguishers are mysteriously available within minutes (The world, n.d). Even so, the survivors and organisers have subsequently told American and Chinese journalists that they were Falun Gong members and were inspired by Li (for example, Page, 2002, Xinhua, 2005). Also, there have been other Falun Gong self immolations, and several thwarted attempts.

Final thoughts

As Xinhua has a reputation for being untrustworthy, the agency is often not believed even when it is telling the truth (Chang, 2004). However, my research suggests that on the issues of Li and his role in the Zhongnanhai protest, why Falun Gong was banned, and its cult-like nature, Xinhua’s accounts are (if we ignore the florid tone) generally more accurate than Western ones. Nevertheless, there is more diversity in the Western reports, and on the critical issue of human rights abuses, the Western reports are more reliable. The Falun Gong members I met appeared to be humble and courageous people. Their focus is on spiritual issues and their fellow practitioners in China. They dismiss wholesale all Xinhua’s reports, and have relentlessly campaigned for the West to do the same, influencing the media and obtaining USA censures against China. In doing this they have sometimes exceeded the facts, but for them there is so much at stake – their reputation, their ability to see loved ones in China, and, more importantly, their eternal future with Li. Writing about Chinese history, Dun Li (1978) comments that a commitment to a single ideology is a type of imprisonment, and that the stronger the commitment an individual, a group, or a nation has, the more imprisoned and dogmatic they become. At the heart of the battle between the Chinese government and Falun Gong are two warring ideologies with highly committed protagonists. Both use the media as pawns. Both use the same rhetorical strategies: issuing blanket denials when accused, devising conspiracy stories, and redirecting allegations by accusing the other of the same thing. What is being played out is a conflict of intransigent beliefs. The Western media’s uncritical acceptance of Falun Gong’s version suggests that Li, by appealing to ideals of amelioration of suffering and freedom of religion, has produced a story that the West wants to believe.


When the research was finished, I was quoted in a press release on new religious movements, in which I said that the FBI’s definition of a potentially violent religion was so broad that several groups in New Zealand would fall into it, and cited Falun Gong as one of several examples. Falun Gong members monitor the media daily, and discovered the press release even before I did. They were offended that they were classified with other religions that they perceived to be “totally evil”, and I received a phone call warning me that I would be deluged by a hundred callers from a Falun Gong email list. Several emotionally–charged phone calls followed, in which the callers demanded the press release be removed from the Internet. A member contacted me at home and relayed accusations that I was being paid large amounts of money by the Chinese government, and repeatedly said that the situation was “extremely dangerous”. Each time I asked exactly what the danger was, she did not explain.

The response was understandable, in the sense that during the time I shared with Falun Gong I never disagreed with them, yet now I was speaking in an academic voice. This experience nevertheless highlighted for me the similarity between Falun Gong’s view of what constitutes fair media treatment and the Communist party’s model, which suppresses dissenting voices.

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The Epoch Times Japan reporter died and Falun Gong blocks the news

21 Jan

According to the online news, Mitsugu Sato, the editor-in-chief of The Epoch Times Japan and the leader of Japanese website, died on July 20 and I verified the news through online searching.

Birth, old age, illness, and death, these are the realities of life and inevitable for everyone. But this case is somehow special.

Firstly, Mitsugu Sato was a devout practitioner and one of the leaders of Falun Gong organization in Japan. Searching the Falun Gong websites, you’ll find his name and the title of The Epoch Times reporter. Most of his articles are published during 2006 through early 2009. On April 23, 2006, he appeared at the gathering held in Japan supporting those quitting the CCP and its affiliated organizations and spreading the lies made by The Epoch Times about so-called “Sujiatun Concentration Camp”. Mitsugu Sato had been busy traveling around in Japan, reporting anti-China demonstrations organized by Falun Gong, bragging about the magic power of Devine Performance. He had worked very hard. But he has written no article for The Epoch Times and hasn’t attended public gatherings since February 15, 2009, for he fell ill. On July 20, a special day for all Falun Gong practitioners, Mitsugu Sato died. The Law Bodies of Master Li Hongzhi failed in protecting him and the magic power of Devine Performance didn’t work on him.

Editor-in-Chief Mitsugu Sato of The Epoch Times Japan

 Secondly, Xiao Xinli, the wife of Mitsugu Sato, is also a practitioner. She graduated from Foreign Language Department of Nanjing University in 1989 and then went to Japan for further education program, getting MA degree on advanced sociology from Ochanomizu University. She was arrested on the charges of disturbing social orders by publicizing Falun Gong at Tian’anmen Square in late 1999 and, after being repatriated to Japan, became an activist of both democratic and Falun Gong organizations. She used to be the spokesperson of the Global Committee on Saving Persecuted Falun Gong Practitioners and actively engages in anti-China activities. According to Li Hongzhi, the founder of Falun Gong, “a practitioner will benefit the entire family”. Even if Mitsugu Sato was a beginner in the field, Xiao Xinli has been a disciple of higher level; but still, she hasn’t benefited her husband. According to the source, Xiao Xinli refused to send her husband to hospital although he was critically ill. To make things worse, she even attended a Falun Gong demonstration on the day Mitsugu Sato was dead. Together with her fellow practitioners, she actually wanted to bring her husband back to life seven days after death by “sending forth righteous thoughts”.

Xiao Xinli, one of the leaders of Falun Gong organization in Japan

Thirdly, Falun Gong organization blocked the news concerning the death of Mitsugu Sato. Mitsugu Sato died on the way of publicizing the Fa; but after his death, Japan Falun Dafa Association held no funeral for him, the president of the association and The Epoch Times sent no representative to mourn for him at his house, and no Falun Gong website in the world has ever published the news about his death.

What makes the story sadder is that, from July 17 to 20, Japan Falun Dafa Association had a tight schedule holding press conference, demonstrating in front of the Embassy of People’s Republic of China in Japan, celebrating the 10th anniversary of so-called “fighting against persecution” with candle-light gathering and demonstration. They have forgotten him completely.

Persecution is a word that Falun Gong cites all the time; no one knows who has persecuted Mitsugu Sato the disciple of Dafa in real life. This is probably a question that only Mitsugu himself can answer.

The movement is more aggressive and politically charged than it appears

21 Jan

Little light has been cast on why so many people feel Falun Gong, founded seven years ago and now claiming millions of adherents, is worth dying for. Nor is it widely understood in the West that aspects of the movement, or cult, suggest that its followers are misled and its leader deluded, or even a fraud. In fact, a closer examination of Falun Gong’s beliefs and practices challenges some of the easy assumptions about Beijing’s behavior.

Falun Gong’s founder, Li Hongzhi, was one of many professed masters of traditional Chinese breathing exercises, known as qigong, to emerge during a resurgence of the discipline in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. The exercises are meant to focus the body’s vital energy, which traditional Chinese medicine calls qi. This energy has its mundane uses, like improving one’s health and sense of well-being. But there has always been a supernatural undercurrent to its cultivation, which has included the belief that qigong (pronounced chee-goong) can also be used to develop the ability to fly, to move objects by telekinesis and to heal diseases.

Mr. Li differentiated himself from other qigong masters by wrapping his regimen in a cosmology that promises salvation through the refinement of one’s character until the body literally evolves into another form of matter. At that point, the saved person is capable of flying to paradise, which may exist out in the cosmos, or in another dimension.

He said interracial children are the spawn of the “Dharma Ending Period,” a Buddhist phrase that refers to an era of moral degeneration. In an interview last year, he said each race has its own paradise, and he later told followers in Australia that, “The yellow people, the white people, and the black people have corresponding races in heaven.” As a result, he said, interracial children have no place in heaven without his intervention.

He also included many of China’s folk superstitions, making references to fox and weasel spirits, which make Falun Gong attractive to the masses. It offered a homegrown religion, not the staid, state-sanctioned Buddhism and Taoism, or the foreign feel of Christianity.

MR. LI preaches a number of other peculiar doctrines, among them that the Earth is gradually being infiltrated by aliens. “Some people you see walking on the streets are, in fact, not humans,” he told followers last year. He reports seeing green, blue and multicolored beings in other dimensions, and says the magician David Copperfield can fly. Mr. Li claims that he, too, can fly, though he says it is against his enlightened nature to do so in public.

None of this is metaphorical. In an interview last year, Mr. Li said all of the things he talks about are real, though he is constrained in describing them by the limitations of human language. What makes such pronouncements more than harmless eccentricity is that Mr. Li also exhorts his followers to “defend the Fa,” or law, as described by his teachings, praising those who confront China’s often brutish state police.

Jimmy Zhou, a Falun Gong member insists, based on Mr. Li’s teachings, that the French had discovered a two-billion-year-old nuclear reactor in Africa, evidence of a prehistoric civilization that practiced Falun Gong. Mr. Li’s teachings also instruct Mr. Zhou that mankind has been “left in complete destruction” 81 times and that another round of destruction may be in the offing.

Mr. Zhou spoke ominously of this coming upheaval. “Something is going to happen,” he said. “That doesn’t mean a catastrophe, but there will be some sudden change that will be good for good people, but bad for bad people.”

It is just this sort of theologizing that disturbs Chinese leaders.

Nonetheless, Beijing’s crackdown on the group was neither swift nor unconsidered. On April 25 last year, more than 10,000 Falun Gong followers surrounded Beijing’s leadership compound. This amounted to a direct challenge to the party, and as such, Falun Gong’s act was inherently political and certain to provoke a harsh response. Beijing claimed that the demonstration was orchestrated by Mr. Li, who first denied, then admitted, being in China the day before.

Millions of followers congregated in public parks and plazas across the country each morning for group exercises. The Chinese press grew increasingly critical of the group in 1998 and early 1999.

In May 1998, after Beijing Television broadcast a program critical of the group, Falun Gong followers besieged the station.

In the following months, the group staged dozens of such actions across the country, culminating in the massive demonstration on April 25.

Falun Gong is no more tolerant of the Western press. When I wrote in The Wall Street Journal last year about a $600,000 New Jersey home bought by Mr. Li’s wife (Mr. Li said the house was actually a gift from a follower that was later returned), Mr. Li’s spokesman, Zhang Erping, told me on the telephone, “How does it feel to know that millions of Falun Gong practitioners in China know your name?” Afterward, I received dozens of e-mail messages and faxes from angry Falun Gong followers, including one from Lili Feng, an assistant professor at Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, who warned, “You will get paid back for what you said and did by gods.”

Falun Gong a no-no at the Centro

6 Jan

LOCAL Falun Gong group members say they have been discriminated against by Box Hill Centro, which banned them from the shopping centre.

Organisers of a Falun Gong art exhibition, being staged at Box Hill Community Arts Centre, tried to lease a stall at Box Hill Centro to promote it but centre management rejected their request, stating it was against company policy.

The exhibition displays paintings that show the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners.

Centro spokesman Andrew Scannell said the centre enforced policies and procedures that ensured the company would not be affiliated with any political party or religious group.

“(This) includes political groups not being permitted to trade at any Centro shopping centres and religious groups not being permitted to promote any type of religion or religious services,” he said.

Keeping away from Falun Gong

6 Jan

Saturday, it should be nice weekend. But I am really annoyed at a call from my friend last night. I was told, my name was found in some notebook of Falun Gong organization and address as well. What’s happening? I don’t like Falun Gong organization at all. Finally, it must be something with those guys in BOXHILL on that day.

It was DRAGON RACING festival, the Chinese traditional festival. I went to BOXHILL for some rice pudding. There were some people standing outside the entrance of shopping center, giving free newspaper, DJY, to people passing by. But few people stopped lacking interest. As I know people those took their newspaper only for some advertisement. As for those articles, I think few people want a read.

I was stopped by an old lady and asked to sign on a notebook, on which they listed some detailed information of people to support them. Of course I refused. Because I believe in religion and I want be kind, honest and generosity. But they tell people to learn Falun Gong can cure cancer, which looks so stupid for me. People should go to see doctor instead of turning to any Gong.

Just when I wanted to leave, another guy stopped me and asked me something about gardening. That was what I was interested with for I was just settled! After a chat with him, I was asked a business card by him and I did.

It must be that guy. He must be one of that group of people. He lied to me. He put my information in their notebook. I was abused. So angry am I.

KEEPING AWAY FROM THEM. They ask people to be honest. But what they did really? Cheat!