Falun Gong is a spiritual exercise group and quasi-religious movement that incorporates traditional Chinese, Daoist and Buddhist practices and beliefs. It is based on a form of qigong (deep-breathing exercises) that purports to elevate members to high planes and harness the body's energy to bring about better health through breathing, exercise and mediation. Before it was crushed by the Chinese government Falun Gong was regarded as China's fastest-growing religion. It members included factory workers, businessmen, housewives and a surprising number of Communist Party members.
Falun Gong (literally "the power of the law wheel," also called Falun Dafa) claims to have no structure and no hierarchy although it clearly did. Before the crackdown members gathered at people's homes, 39 general offices, 1900 teaching facilities and 28,000 exercise points throughout China. The inner workings of Falun Gong are shrouded in secrecy and communication is through propaganda. For its practitioners, Falun Gong is a principle. They define it as the “practice of traditional Chinese meditation, in which practitioners use five classic exercises to achieve a trinity of “truthfulness,” “compassion” and “forbearance.” The exercises are intended to dissolve blockages in the body and cleanse the spirit.
Though connected with different forms of spirituality, Falun Gongis considered to be more of a lifestyle than a religion, since there are no clergy and no places of worship. The group was banned as a dangerous cult by the Chinese government in 1999. Reports indicate that thousands of Falun Gong practitioners have been arrested and imprisoned since 1999. Joseph Kahn wrote in the New York Times: Falun Gong was established in 1992 and claimed 70 million to 100 million practitioners in China in the late 1990s. Because of its perceived antigovernment activities, Falun Gong was outlawed in China in April 1999, and reportedly tens of thousands of its practitioners were arrested and sentenced to “reeducation through labor” or incarcerated in mental hospitals. The constitution grants citizens of the People’s Republic of China the freedom of religious belief and maintains that the state “protects normal religious activities,” but that no one “may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state.” [Source: Joseph Kahn, New York Times, August 22, 2008; Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations, Thomson Gale, 2007]
Good Websites and Sources: Traditional Religion in China: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religion Facts religionfacts.com; Video: “Ancestor Worship, Confucian Teaching, featuring Myron L. Cohen Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu; Feng shui Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Feng Shui Society fengshuisociety.org ;Skeptic’s Dictionary on Feng Shui skepdic.com ; Qi Gong Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Classical text sources neigong.net ; Qi Gong Institute qigonginstitute.org ; Qi Gong association of America /www.qi.org ; Skeptic’s Dictionary on Qi Gong skepdic.com
Is Falun Gong a Cult?
Falun Gong members When Falun gong was thriving in China many members met at parks and plazas at dawn for study and exercise sessions led by "tutors." The tutors were grouped into stations. They met regularly to discuss the direction of the movement and plan large events. Station "chiefs" kept in contact with the Falun Gong Data Research Society in Beijing, which responded to orders from the group’s founder and leader.
On Falun Gong being labeled a cult Falun Gong member J. Zhang wrote me in an e-mail: "This is not a mainstream view, or even an accurate one. Most scholars have rejected this as a label that was made up by the CCP. In fact, the CCP labelled Falun Gong (xie jiao), which is something like "heretical teaching" or even "evil religion", four months after the persecution began. They already started persecuting and had some other excuses, in July, but then In October, they brought out the xie jiao label. Very clever. Then they were even more clever: they translated it into "evil cult" in English--doesn't that sound so much nastier? I don't think you should buy into this language in that way. It makes the article altogether seem biased. The key is that there are no leaders or structure or organisation in Falun Gong, it is a website with the teachings,and then people do as they please. Anyway, my point is just that the 'cult' label is propaganda, plain and simple, it is meant to slander and discredit, and the CCP has been doing it to "righters," "capitalist roaders," "splittists", etc. etc. for a long time. Imagine starting an article on Lin Biao that he was "a KMT spy who was thoroughly exposed..." -- can you imagine? This is similar. So that is one thing.
On Falun Gong being put in the section "Superstition, Cults and Sects" rather than the section on religions, J. Zhang wrote: “Those terms are negative. By putting Falun Gong in there, you are making an implicit negative assessment, that doesn't seem fair to readers, whose opinions on the matter will already be colored by this choice. Further, if Falun Gong was not persecuted, I am sure it would be regarded as "legitimate" as any other peaceful belief system. So in a sense that is also an unfortunate political statement, and one on the side of the oppressor. Sorry to put it bluntly like that, but that's my view.
Li Hongzhi and the Founding of Falun Gong
The leader of Falun Gong is the baby-faced Grand Master Li Hongzhi. The son of a surgeon and a gynecologist, he was born in Gongzhi Ling, an industrial town in northeastern Jilin province in 1951. According to Beijing sources, he changed his birthday to match that of Buddha (Li contends that the mix up was the result of a bureaucratic error during te Cultural Revolution).
In 1991, Li quit his job as a watchman in grain company and became an officially recognized qigong master. According to Beijing sources before his watchman job he worked at an army stud farm and once played trumpet for a theatrical troupe. In his free time he studied Buddhism and Taoism.
Described as more individual than charismatic, Li founded Falun Gong in 1992 as a qi gong group. His first nine-day lecture series earned him a small fortune.
Li established Falun Gong in Changchun, a dirty industrial city about 500 miles northeast of Beijing. His four deputy directors were all members of the Communist Party. Li traveled throughout China and later the United States and elsewhere, giving lectures and spreading the message of Falun Gong. The message was also spread through audio and video cassettes. The lectures and cassettes also earned Falun Gong lots of money. One Chinese man who attended a Falun Gong lecture led by Li told the New York Times, Li “is like qigong masters everywhere but claims to be one level above them. He treats it like a religion. He has a complete philosophy of life and death."
The Chinese government revoked Li's master of qigong status for spreading superstition. Li moved to the United States in 1995 claiming he was persecuted in China. He lived in Queens, New York for a while and had s a Green Card. Now he lives in a compound about 100 kilometers from New York City. See Below
Falun Gong Members
Estimates of Falun Gong numbers range from between 2 million (the Chinese state estimate) and 100 million (Falun Gong estimate with 70 million in China and 30 million outside China). At its height it probably had between 10 million and 20 million members, with several million of them members of the Communist Party.
Falun Gong was embraced in rural areas, with villagers doing exercise in the village square. Many villagers found comfort and fulfillment in the exercises and group’s beliefs.
Many members were middle-aged women or retirees in their 50s and 60s who had grown up with Communist ideology and had become disillusioned with it. Several retired generals, including one of the last living Field Marshals, and several members of the standing committee of the of the Politburo had ties with the Falun Gong.
Many members claimed that Falun Gong helped them fill a spiritual void and overcome physical and emotional problems. One follower told the Los Angeles Times, "It gave me something I was looking for. It elevated me to a higher level." Another member told the Washington Post, "I joined because they offered me some hope. They told me that I didn't need to take medicine anymore if I would only believe. Well, my factory's hospital had gone out of business so I thought I'd try it."
The message of Falun Gong had been spread by word-of-mouth, through lectures and videos, and through the official Falun Gong website (www.falundafa.org). Anyone could join and the cost for the lectures, video cassettes and books was relatively low. Some accused the group of using brainwashing techniques. Families of Falun Gong members said the members became withdrawn and moody after joining the cult. Some gave up promising jobs
Falun Gong has been very sensitive about being criticized. In some cases, people who said bad things about the group received the Falun Gong equivalent of a curse---an energy wheel that goes backwards---and were pressured into recanting negative statements made about the group. After a Beijing television station did a negative piece about the group hundreds of Falun Gong members protested outside the television station. The reporters who did the piece were fired and a more flattering piece was run.
Falun Gong Beliefs and Practices
The main Falun Gong text is Zhuan Falun ("Rotating the Law Wheel"). It describes the "wheel of law", a mystical orb of energy that spins in the lower abdomen and produces good health and has supernatural powers. Falun Gong also incorporates Buddhism and Taoism and some wacky beliefs. Followers are encouraged to practice "truthfulness, benevolence and tolerance." In some of his texts, Li blames the world's problems on invasions by aliens.
The Zhuan falun offers moral guidance and metaphysical speculations as well as exercise routines. People who follow the routine religiously are said obtains a “third eye” that allows them to see other dimensions and escape the world of atoms and molecules.
Falun Gong powers have been credited with curing cancer, making the blind see and turning white hair into black hair. Li himself is believed to have miraculous healing powers. It is said he can control people from a distance and he possesses the ability to became invisible and fly. Some Falun Gong members claim that pictures of Li kept in their house occasionally emit light.
Falun Gong members gather in parks and do slow tai-chi-like exercises to the sound of slow, mellow Chinese music. They also mediate in a variety of positions. Favorite positions include standing and reaching for the sky, standing up and making an "O" sign with the arms and sitting down in lotus position and holding an invisible box on the top and bottom with parallel arms. Describing a Falun Gong gathering in Beijing, Ray Fang wrote in U.S. News & World Report, "Every Sunday, thousands of people line up in neat rows on a plaza in a western corner of the city. At precisely 7 a.m., the tape-recorded voice of Grand Master Li Hongzhi echoes through loudspeakers, and the assembled masses raise their arms together. With their eyes closed, yet in perfect unison, their hands sweep slowly in a circle and come to rest in a prayer position.”
Falun Gong members also take part in revival-meeting-like "exchanges" in which they stand up before a group, describe a past sin or illness, give thanks to the healing power of Master Li and then claim to be cured or reformed. Ray Fang wrote in U.S. News & World Report, "Some in the audience weep as Li Jining, 40, recalls the he was a successful composer until he came down with a cancer-like illness that left him in a body cast, contemplating death. Then he picked up Master Li's book...and felt instantly “like someone had put a plastic shield around me.” Within months, he says, he was cured." A drug addict said he picked up a copy Li's book, which belonged to his aunt, read the book over and over again for four days straight and overcame his addiction.
Describing a Falun Gong meeting at a private home, Tyler Marshall wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "Most of the 2½ hour session at Mrs. Chan's was consumed by a rapid-fire group recitation of texts dealing with personal self-improvement written by the Falun Gong founder."
Li Hongzhi’s Teachings
Aliens and ethnic separation are part of Falun Gong’s teachings.. James Pasley wrote in Business Insider: Li Hongzhi, Falun Gong’s “Li teaches that practicing Falun Dafa will transform bodies into high energy matter, and even lets some people to fly to heaven. Li also believes in aliens. In a Time interview in 1999, he said, "If aliens are not to replace human beings, society will destroy itself on its own."In 1999, he told the Washington Post he was not some sinister mastermind, but more of "an accidental prophet." [Source: James Pasley, Business Insider, September 10, 2019]
One of his teachings was that people should never get involved in politics. "We have never interfered in government and never done anything wrong. We are all law-abiding citizens," he said. In the Time interview, Li also said he was concerned about industry polluting the atmosphere and water. "The drinking water is polluted. No matter how we try to purify it, it cannot return to its original purity," he said.
Kevin Roose wrote in the New York Times: “Falun Gongrevolves around a series of five meditation exercises and a process of moral self-improvement that is meant to lead to spiritual enlightenment. Today, the group is known for the demonstrations it holds around the world to “clarify the truth” about the Chinese Communist Party, which it accuses of torturing Falun Gong practitioners and harvesting the organs of those executed. More recently, Falun Gong has come under scrutiny for what some former practitioners have characterized as an extreme belief system that forbids interracial marriage, condemns homosexuality and discourages the use of modern medicine, all allegations the group denies. [Source: Kevin Roose, New York Times, October 24, 2020]
Falun Gong 1999 Protests
On April 24, 1999, about 10,000 members of Falun Gong peacefully protested outside Zhongnanhai---the Kremlin-like fortress where most of the Communist leaders live---demanding that Falun Gong be a recognized and sanctioned by the state as an official religion. The protest was a response to criticism of the group in the press and on television. Falun Gong member Jiang Chaohui said, "What we want is not much---we just want a peaceful place to practice."
The demonstration was largest show of civil disobedience since Tiananmen Square. Falun Gong members stayed for 13 hours with the aim of showing "their tolerance and forbearance.” Standing up to eight abreast, they formed a 1.2-mile line around the northern and western boundaries of the compound. Most of them just stood there quietly or mediated. There were no banners, chants or scuffles with police. But the group did demand a meeting with prime minister Zhu Rongji. This meeting took place in the evening. Zhu assured the Falun Gong members that the group would not be outlawed. After that the crowds quietly dispersed, leaving not one scrap of litter behind.
Joseph Kahn wrote in the New York Times, “On an April day in 1999, some 10,000 practitioners of the quasi-religious Chinese exercise society Falun Gong gathered outside Zhongnanhai, the tightly guarded compound in Beijing where China’s leaders live and work. The demonstrators staged a silent protest against negative media coverage and dispersed without a fuss. But it was the largest and most disciplined civil action in the Chinese capital since the student-led democracy movement a decade earlier. Seemingly overnight, the group and its enigmatic founder, a onetime trumpet player and grain purchase agent named Li Hongzhi, had emerged from obscurity to challenge the ruling Communist Party. At least that is how China’s authoritarian leaders saw it. Within a few months, the police had imprisoned tens of thousands of Falun Gong followers. The group claims that some 3,000 of its members were tortured to death in custody. [Source: Joseph Kahn, New York Times, August 22, 2008]
Banning of Falun Gong in China After Beijing Protest
Anti-Falun Gong poster
Three months after the protest in July 1999, Falun Gong was banned. The government accused the group of being an "evil cult" with "superstitious, evil thinking" intentions that ‘sabotages social stability." Authorities also claimed Falun Gong brainwashed members, bilked them of their money and gave them false hopes. Some Chinese leaders reportedly considered Falun Gong to be the No. 1 most serious threat to Chinese security---more of a threat than people calling for independence in Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang. A front page commentary in the People’s Daily read: “We must be fully prepared with powerful countermeasures for the bitterness and complexity of struggle against this evil force.”
Joseph Kahn wrote in the New York Times, “The rise and fall of Falun Gong, and its subsequent transformation in exile into a well-financed and ubiquitous nemesis of the Communist Party, is probably the most mysterious chapter in the history of China over the last 30 years, its age of reform. Diplomats, journalists and China specialists have had difficulty explaining the mass appeal of Li, who even before the 1999 protest was more invisible than charismatic. Like the Communist Party, Falun Gong shrouds its inner workings in secrecy and communicates through propaganda. Equally perplexing, the ruling party’s reaction to Falun Gong seemed wildly disproportionate to any threat that the group, made up largely of retired men and women who practiced exercises in public parks, could pose to the Chinese state. [Source: Joseph Kahn, New York Times, August 22, 2008]
Falun Gong reacted to the ban by gathering in large numbers in Tiananmen Square in quiet acts of civil disobedience. A large protest was held in October 1999 after leaders of the group were arrested. More members were arrested. In many cases, police approached the members who were protesting and asked them if they were cult members. If they said yes they were arrested and taken away.
Describing the scene at Tiananmen Square protest in October 2000, Reuters reported, "'Falun Gong is good,' shouted one elderly man before seven plainclothes officer wrestled him to the ground, punched and kicked him, and carried him to a police minivan...Seconds later, a group of three elderly women tried to unfurl a red banner, but police ripped it from them and bundled them in a van, pulling one by the hair and punching another...Chinese tourists milling around the square...rushed from one incident to the next in large crowds to watch the action."
In what was the biggest crackdown since Tiananmen Square in 1989, police detained tens of thousands of people with connection to Falun Gong. Most were detained only briefly in stadiums and released. An estimated 5,000 members were sent to labor camps and mental hospitals. Some members received prison sentences of up to 15 years. Thousands are said to have been severely beaten. One woman died under mysterious circumstances in a police car only an hour after she was arrested.At least 100 Falun Gong members are believed to have died while in detention at labor camps. At least ten members of Falun Gong died in a reeducation camp near Harbin in northern China in 2001.The government reported that many of them died in a mass suicide. Falun Gong said they were tortured to death.
Decline of Falun Gong in China
The ban on Falun Gong in China is in place. In China, people can be arrested for simply possessing Falun Gong materials. It is hard to understand why the government cracked down so hard in Falun Gong as it was made up largely of retired men and women who just wanted to perform their exercises in peace. In the 1980s populist exercise groups were allowed to merge under the umbrella of qi gong.
The government crackdown on Falun Gong seems to have been successful in achieving its goals. Since the ban there have been no more large exercise gatherings in parks and ithe majority of members, it seems, have left the movement. Many Falun Gong members were not committed enough to the group to risk imprisonment and persecution. As a result Falun Gong has declined in popularity and influence.
Falun Gong members that have remained are hardcore members, some of whom have been willing to put themselves at risk and stand up for their rights and the rights of Falun Gong. Many of those who have refused to renounce Falun Gong have been fired from their jobs, are monitored by neighborhood "work units," and harassed by police. Many would be homeless were it not for handouts from other Falun Gong members.
Falun Gong in China now largely exists in the form of loose underground cells with interchangeable volunteers. Members meet secretly at bars and restaurants. They don’t use cell phones or e-mail because they can easily be monitored by authorities. They prefer public phones and pagers. Meeting between members last just a few minutes and calls are equally short and filled with coded messages. When confronted by police the often give themselves up because Falun Gong “frowns upon lying." Some Falun Gong leaders are still in jail.
On Falun Gong being described as a "loose underground cells with interchangeable volunteers" J. Zhang wrote: --whoever describes a group of peaceful meditators that way!” We just read a book and practice exercises, for goodness sake. It's unfair to call us "cells" and "interchangeable volunteers", there is no one to "change" us, there is only "us"), but I do not want to get into that.
The struggle continues mostly outside China. Large demonstrations supporting Falun Gong have been held in Hong Kong and Washington D.C. (See Hong Kong). In May, 2002, a loan protester raised a Falun Gong banner in Tiananmen Square to mark the anniversary of the cult. In July 2004, China’s state television broadcasts were interrupted for nearly 15 minutes by an unauthorized broadcast in support of Falun Gong. The interference occurred on signals for APSTAR 6 satellites and affected 25 channels, including the 12 operated by state-run CCTV. In 2006, a Falun Gong reporter disrupted a White House visit by the Chinese president by shouting, “Evil people will die early.”
Falun Gong Compound in New York
In New York, about 100 kilometers from New York City, about 100 Falun Gong practitioners live a secretive, high-security compound called Dragon Springs, set among 400 acres of forest near the the Shawangunk Mountains.James Pasley wrote in Business Insider: “It's been expanding since 2001... Inside, internet access is restricted, relationships are arranged, and conventional medicines are frowned upon. Falun Gong's founder Li Hongzhi lives there, although he has not been seen for years.[Source: James Pasley, Business Insider, September 10, 2019]
“Surrounded by forests and guarded by armed security, Dragon Springs is a refuge for persecuted Falun Gong practitioners. Few outsiders are permitted inside. For years, nearby towns like Deer Park have been trying to rein in the compound. But Falun Gong leaders want to expand it even more. It wants to build a 920-seat music hall, a new parking garage, a wastewater treatment plant, and turn a meditation hall into a residence hall. The compound wants to build a 72,800-square-foot music hall, a new parking garage with almost 1,100 car spaces and 42 bus spaces, and modify a meditation hall to a residence hall. The changes would mean that 500 people could live in the compound.
“If you take the train from Otisville to Port Jervis, you can see the buildings through the trees. According to Dragon Springs president Jonathon Lee, the lakes and mountains provide good Feng shui. Fences run along the borders of the property and a security team monitors the gate. Two lion statues also stand guard. In a letter in the Epoch Times regarding its secrecy, Falun Gong says the compound's gate is no different to what you'd find at the entrance to New York's YMCA camp.
“The 400-acre chunk of land was purchased in 2000. Since Falun Gong is classified as a religion, it's a tax-exempt site. Since 2001, the compound has slowly added more buildings. On the right, there's a temple in the style of the Tang Dynasty, with a 75-foot pagoda. On the Dragon Springs website, it describes the temple as a blend of man and nature: "There's barely a screw, nail, or metal joint to be found in the buildings' all-timber structures." There are also more modern buildings within the compound.
People and Security at Falun Gong Compound in New York
James Pasley wrote in Business Insider:“According to the Dragon Springs website, many of those living in the compound escaped from China. Some were tortured and imprisoned, others were orphaned by the authorities. Because of this, the intense security is highly necessary, Falun Gong says. Not all of the Falun Gong practitioners live on the compound. Some also live near in towns like Deer Park. In nice weather, practitioners can be seen in the area practicing the movements.“Two schools are inside the compound — Fei Tian Academy of the Arts and Fei Tian College. The academy of arts acts as a "feeder school" to Shen Yun, Falun Gong’s theatrical dance performance. [Source: James Pasley, Business Insider, September 10, 2019]
“Some locals think the group is intimidating. In April 2019, a concrete layer told the local planning board that he was terrified when he met security at the compound's gate in 2012 — because they were armed with AK 47 machine guns. And there's also the fact the compound refused to disclose information around the death of a construction worker in 2008. While working on one of their buildings, a 54-year-old Canadian man fell to his death. No more information was released. A man inside the compound told the local newspaper, "We are a religious community. We do not give information to the public." An autopsy was never performed.
“The compound has also requested permission to build walls 8 feet high, rather than between four and six feet. One of the residents, a teacher named Thun Lin, said it was necessary because Chinese persecutors had broken into the compound and tapped their phones. The compound says the need for safety is high due to China's continuing persecution of the Falun Gong, and until the Falun Gong is accepted and safe, the gates won't open.
Li Hongzhi at the New York Compound
James Pasley wrote in Business Insider: Li Hongzhi, the founder of Falun Gong, lives on the compound. But he doesn't publicize the fact. In 2016, when a process server went looking for him he was turned away at the gate, and told Li did not live there. However, in 2019, NBC was told by four former residents that he does. And he's in firm control of what goes on. [Source: James Pasley, Business Insider, September 10, 2019]
According to NBC News, Li maintains tight control of what goes on within the compound and is involved in his adherents' personal lives. Since Falun Gong is a persecuted group within China, a relationship between an adherent in the United States and one still living in China could help secure visas with practitioners abroad. One Falun Gong member told NBC News that Dragon Springs officials told her that her visa expired when they learned she was dating someone outside the group. Only later did she learn that her visa was, in fact, still secure.
Shen Yun Performing Arts is a touring dance troupe founded in New York by Falun Gong,described the New Yorker's Jia Tolentino, as "essentially religious-political propaganda." Shen Yun is a non-profit organization. In 2016 it had about $75 million worth of assets and earned $22 million in revenue.
Shen Yun posters and advertisements can be seen in a lot of places. James Pasley wrote in Business Insider: Shen Yun rehearses at the compound when it isn't touring cities including London, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington. Chinese politics experts view Shen Yun as part of Falun Gong's elaborate and well-put together public relations plan. The act has anti-communist messages and China's ruling party sees it as a propaganda tool meant to subvert their authority. [Source: James Pasley, Business Insider, September 10, 2019]
The Los Angeles Times described a Shen Yun rehearsal in in 2016. “The cavernous Long Beach Terrace Theater echoes with classical Chinese music as more than a dozen dancers expertly manipulate colorful fans that sweep like wind and snap like fire. In precise formation they coalesce into a river of dance inspired by Chinese history, legend, myth and literature. The performers are serious and determined. The only direction they receive comes from a calm woman dressed in black, standing near the theater's center. She speaks in Mandarin — her words few, her manner direct. .[Source: Los Angeles Times, April 9, 2016]
Falun Gong members own the Epoch Times, a multi-lingual newspaper Li has referred to as "our media." It recent years it has become known for embracing Donald Trump and Facebook and becoming a right-wing powerhouse of global-scale misinformation responsible for repeatedly pushed fringe narratives into the mainstream. The Epoch Times says it is independent and nonpartisan, and it rejects the suggestion that it is officially affiliated with Falun Gong.
Kevin Roose wrote in the New York Times: “Like Falun Gong itself, the newspaper — which publishes in dozens of countries — is decentralized and operates as a cluster of regional chapters, each organized as a separate nonprofit. It is also extraordinarily secretive. Editors at The Epoch Times turned down multiple requests for interviews, and a reporter’s unannounced visit to the outlet’s Manhattan headquarters this year was met with a threat from a lawyer. [Source: Kevin Roose, New York Times, October 24, 2020]
“When The Epoch Times got its start in 2000, the goal was to counter Chinese propaganda and cover Falun Gong’s persecution by the Chinese government. It began as a Chinese-language newspaper run out of the Georgia basement of John Tang, a graduate student and Falun Gong practitioner. By 2004, The Epoch Times had expanded into English. One of the paper’s early hires was Genevieve Belmaker, then a 27-year-old Falun Gong practitioner with little journalism experience. Ms. Belmaker, now 43, described the early Epoch Times as a cross between a scrappy media start-up and a zealous church bulletin, with a staff composed mostly of unpaid volunteers drawn from the local Falun Gong chapters. “The mission-driven part of it was, let’s have a media outlet that not only tells the truth about Falun Gong but about everything,” Ms. Belmaker said.
“Mr. Li, Falun Gong’s founder, also saw it that way. In speeches, he referred to The Epoch Times and other Falun Gong-linked outlets — including the New Tang Dynasty TV station, or NTD — as “our media,” and said they could help publicize Falun Gong’s story and values around the world. “Two former employees recalled that the paper’s top editors had traveled to Dragon Springs to meet with Mr. Li. One employee who attended a meeting said Mr. Li had weighed in on editorial and strategic decisions, acting as a kind of shadow publisher. The Epoch Times denied these accounts, saying in a statement, “There has been no such meeting.”
“The line between The Epoch Times and Falun Gong is blurry at times. Two former Epoch Times reporters said they had been asked to write flattering profiles of foreign performers being recruited into Shen Yun, the heavily advertised dance performance series that Falun Gong backs, because it would strengthen those performers’ visa applications. Another former Epoch Times reporter recalled being assigned to write critical articles about politicians including John Liu, a Taiwanese-American former New York City councilman whom the group viewed as soft on China and hostile to Falun Gong.
Subscriptions were growing, the paper’s reporting was winning journalism awards, and its finances were stabilizing. “There was all this optimism that things were going to level up,” Ms. Belmaker said. But at a staff meeting in 2015, leadership announced that the publication was in trouble again, Ms. Belmaker recalled. Facebook had changed its algorithm for determining which articles appeared in users’ newsfeeds, and The Epoch Times’s traffic and ad revenue were suffering. In response, the publication assigned reporters to churn out as many as five posts a day in a search for viral hits, often lowbrow fare with titles like “Grizzly Bear Does Belly Flop Into a Swimming Pool.” “It was a competition for traffic,” Ms. Belmaker said.
Epoch Times Create an Anti-China, Pro-Trump, Misinformation Media Empire
Kevin Roose wrote in the New York Times: “For years, The Epoch Times was a small, low-budget newspaper with an anti-China slant that was handed out free on New York street corners. But in 2016 and 2017, the paper made two changes that transformed it into one of the country’s most powerful digital publishers. The changes also paved the way for the publication to become a leading purveyor of right-wing misinformation. First, it embraced President Trump, treating him as an ally in Falun Gong’s scorched-earth fight against China’s ruling Communist Party, which banned the group two decades ago and has persecuted its members ever since. Its relatively staid coverage of U.S. politics became more partisan, with more articles explicitly supporting Mr. Trump and criticizing his opponents. [Source: Kevin Roose, New York Times, October 24, 2020]
“Around the same time, The Epoch Times bet big on another powerful American institution: Facebook. The publication and its affiliates employed a novel strategy that involved creating dozens of Facebook pages, filling them with feel-good videos and viral clickbait, and using them to sell subscriptions and drive traffic back to its partisan news coverage. In an April 2017 email to the staff obtained by The New York Times, the paper’s leadership envisioned that the Facebook strategy could help turn The Epoch Times into “the world’s largest and most authoritative media.” It could also introduce millions of people to the teachings of Falun Gong, fulfilling the group’s mission of “saving sentient beings.”
“Today, The Epoch Times and its affiliates are a force in right-wing media, with tens of millions of social media followers spread across dozens of pages and an online audience that rivals those of The Daily Caller and Breitbart News, and with a similar willingness to feed the online fever swamps of the far right.
“The publication has been one of the most prominent promoters of “Spygate,” a baseless conspiracy theory involving claims that Obama administration officials illegally spied on Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign. Publications and shows linked to The Epoch Times have promoted the QAnon conspiracy theory and spread distorted claims about voter fraud and the Black Lives Matter movement. More recently, they have promoted the unfounded theory that the coronavirus — which the publication calls the “CCP Virus,” in an attempt to link it to the Chinese Communist Party — was created as a bioweapon in a Chinese military lab.
Epoch Times and Donald Trump
Kevin Roose wrote in the New York Times: The Epoch Times: also has growing influence in Mr. Trump’s inner circle. The president and his family have shared articles from the paper on social media, and Trump administration officials have sat for interviews with its reporters. In August, a reporter from The Epoch Times asked a question at a White House press briefing. [Source: Kevin Roose, New York Times, October 24, 2020]
“Stephen K. Bannon, Mr. Trump’s former chief strategist and a former chairman of Breitbart, said in an interview in July that The Epoch Times’s fast growth had impressed him. “They’ll be the top conservative news site in two years,” said Mr. Bannon, who was arrested on fraud charges in August. “They punch way above their weight, they have the readers, and they’re going to be a force to be reckoned with.”
“Steve Klett, who covered the 2016 campaign for the paper, said his editors had encouraged favorable coverage about Mr. Trump after he won the Republican nomination. “They seemed to have this almost messianic way of viewing Trump as the anti-Communist leader who would bring about the end of the Chinese Communist Party,” Mr. Klett said.
“After Mr. Trump’s victory, The Epoch Times hired Brendan Steinhauser, a well-connected Tea Party strategist, to help make inroads with conservatives. Mr. Steinhauser said the organization’s goal, beyond raising its profile in Washington, had been to make Falun Gong’s persecution a Trump administration priority. “They wanted more people in Washington to be aware of how the Chinese Communist Party operates, and what it has done to spiritual and ethnic minorities,” Mr. Steinhauser said.
“Behind the scenes, The Epoch Times was also developing a secret weapon: a Facebook growth strategy that would ultimately help take its message to millions. According to emails reviewed by The Times, the Facebook plan was developed by Trung Vu, the former head of The Epoch Times’s Vietnamese edition, known as Dai Ky Nguyen, or DKN.
“In Vietnam, Mr. Trung’s strategy involved filling a network of Facebook pages with viral videos and pro-Trump propaganda, some of it lifted word for word from other sites, and using automated software, or bots, to generate fake likes and shares, a former DKN employee said. Employees used fake accounts to run the pages, a practice that violated Facebook’s rules but that Mr. Trung said was necessary to protect employees from Chinese surveillance, the former employee said.
“According to the 2017 email sent to Epoch Times workers in America, the Vietnamese experiment was a “remarkable success” that made DKN one of the largest publishers in Vietnam. The outlet, the email claimed, was “having a profound impact on saving sentient beings in that country.”
“The Vietnamese team was asked to help Epoch Media Group — the umbrella organization for Falun Gong’s biggest U.S. media properties — set up its own Facebook empire, according to that email. That year, dozens of new Facebook pages appeared, all linked to The Epoch Times and its affiliates. Some were explicitly partisan, others positioned themselves as sources of real and unbiased news, and a few, like a humor page called “Funniest Family Moments,” were disconnected from news entirely.
James Pasley wrote in Business Insider: In 2019, the Epoch Times “spent about $1.5 million in six months on favorable advertising for President Donald Trump. In September 2018, Epoch Times photojournalist Samira Bouaou entered a restricted area of the White house and handed President Trump a folder. Trump opened the folder and then quickly closed it. Bouaou would not say what was in the folder, or why she gave it to the president. But according to a former Epoch Times reporter, Falun Gong practitioners believe Trump was sent by heaven to destroy China's Communist Party.
Epoch Times, Conspiracy Theories and Facebook Click Farms
Kevin Roose wrote in New York Times: “Perhaps the most audacious experiment was a new right-wing politics site called America Daily. Today, the site, which has more than a million Facebook followers, peddles far-right misinformation. It has posted anti-vaccine screeds, an article falsely claiming that Bill Gates and other elites are “directing” the Covid-19 pandemic and allegations about a “Jewish mob” that controls the world. Emails obtained by The Times show that John Nania, a longtime Epoch Times editor, was involved in starting America Daily, along with executives from Sound of Hope, a Falun Gong-affiliated radio network. Records on Facebook show that the page is operated by the Sound of Hope Network, and a pinned post on its Facebook page contains a promotional video for Falun Gong. “In a statement, The Epoch Times said it had “no business relationship” with America Daily.[Source: Kevin Roose, New York Times, October 24, 2020]
“Many of the Facebook pages operated by The Epoch Times and its affiliates followed a similar trajectory. They began by posting viral videos and uplifting news articles aggregated from other sites. They grew quickly, sometimes adding hundreds of thousands of followers a week. Then, they were used to steer people to buy Epoch Times subscriptions and promote more partisan content.
“Several of the pages gained significant followings “seemingly overnight,” said Renee DiResta, a disinformation researcher with the Stanford Internet Observatory. Many posts were shared thousands of times but received almost no comments — a ratio, Ms. DiResta said, that is typical of pages that have been boosted by “click farms,” firms that generate fake traffic by paying people to click on certain links over and over again.
“The Epoch Times denies using click farms or other illicit tactics to expand its pages. “The Epoch Times’s social media strategies were different from DKN, and used Facebook’s own promotional tools to gain an increased organic following,” the outlet said, adding that The Epoch Times cut ties with Mr. Trung in 2018. But last year, The Epoch Times was barred from advertising on Facebook — where it had spent more than $1.5 million over seven months — after the social network announced that the outlet’s pages had evaded its transparency requirements by disguising its ad purchases.
“This year, Facebook took down more than 500 pages and accounts linked to Truth Media, a network of anti-China pages that had been using fake accounts to amplify their messages. The Epoch Times denied any involvement, but Facebook’s investigators said Truth Media “showed some links to on-platform activity by Epoch Media Group and NTD.” “We’ve taken enforcement actions against Epoch Media and related groups several times,” said a Facebook spokeswoman, who added that the social network would punish the outlet if it violated more rules in the future.Since being barred from advertising on Facebook, The Epoch Times has moved much of its operation to YouTube, where it has spent more than $1.8 million on ads since May 2018, according to Google’s public database of political advertising.
“Where the paper’s money comes from is something of a mystery. Former employees said they had been told that The Epoch Times was financed by a combination of subscriptions, ads and donations from wealthy Falun Gong practitioners. In 2018, the most recent year for which the organization’s tax returns are publicly available, The Epoch Times Association received several sizable donations, but none big enough to pay for a multimillion-dollar ad blitz.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons; BBC; Landsberger Posters http://www.iisg.nl/~landsberger/
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated September 2021