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Characterizing Falun Gong – and the Human Costs of Getting It Wrong

Over the years, the Falun Dafa Information Center has noticed a consistent and disturbing trend in international media coverage of Falun Gong. While reports on the nature of the rights abuses suffered by practitioners have become increasingly precise and based on informed sources, labels used to refer to the practice itself remain grossly inaccurate, often involving derogatory terms such as “sect” or “cult” that originate in Chinese Communist Party propaganda.

Journalists play a critically important role in modern society, informing readers of the world around them and serving as watchdogs over those in positions of power. Yet, when carried out carelessly, journalism can also result in grave consequences. This effect is multiplied under circumstances of severe rights abuses, particularly given the role that propaganda often plays in dehumanizing victims of violent persecution. In such instances, the need to use appropriate terminology goes beyond issues of accuracy in media or political correctness. It involves a real impact on people’s lives—or deaths.

We therefore urge you to take a few moments to read the following pages of analysis related to the nature of Falun Gong, as well as the terminology used to characterize it. We hope this assists in making your future reporting on this issue more accurate, responsible, and informed. We thank you in advance for your attention and consideration.

Why Does It Matter? The Effect of Media Characterizations on Events Inside China

On a daily basis, individuals across China who come into contact with Falun Gong practitioners are forced to make decisions that can have life or death consequences - will they report their neighbor or colleague to the police, often the first step to a practitioner winding up in a detention center or labor camp? Will they dare to voice criticism of the abusive policy? If they work in law enforcement, will they torture a practitioner?

How these individuals perceive Falun Gong practitioners undoubtedly contributes to the decisions they reach. This is why the Chinese Communist Party—following a common pattern in cases of large scale state-led persecution—has used a propaganda campaign to vilify those who practice Falun Gong. The aim is to rally public support, dehumanize victims of abuse, and justify the inhumane measures taken against them.

In 2007, Amnesty International brought this concern to light, stating: “Amnesty International has raised concerns that the official campaign of public vilification of Falun Gong in the official Chinese press has created a climate of hatred against Falun Gong practitioners in China which may be encouraging acts of violence against them.”

International reinforcement of propaganda depicting practitioners as somehow dangerous or abnormal can also tilt the answers to the above questions in the wrong direction. By uncritically repeating inaccurate and vilifying labels such as “sect” or “cult”, international media essentially assist in propagating—and appearing to authenticate—a false portrayal of Falun Gong, with all the grave costs that entails to people inside China.

This is all the more so in the Internet age. As Western media reports referring to Falun Gong circulate easily on Chinese websites, they can add credence to party propaganda. Many Chinese hold Western media outlets in higher regard than domestic sources because of their reputation for professionalism and independence. The result of a mistaken reference to Falun Gong is that Chinese readers may then be more likely to believe the party’s characterization of practitioners and potentially collaborate in the persecution against them. For a Western audience, such portrayals severely impede efforts to gain support for victims of abuse. This then removes one of the few forms of protection available to them, as numerous instances have shown that international condemnation of human rights violations can help mitigate repressive state behavior.

Provided below is an explanation of why such terms are inaccurate, together with an analysis of the history of their emergence and use as political tools.

What Falun Gong Actually Is and Is Not

Falun Gong is a meditation and spiritual self-improvement discipline. It is a traditional Chinese practice that is Buddhist in nature, though not part of the modern day religion of Buddhism. In practice, it consists of several key elements:

  • Performance of meditation and four gentle exercises that resemble tai-chi and are known in Chinese culture as “qigong.” The exercise regimen is based on an understanding of the human body similar to that of acupuncture or other forms of Chinese medicine, including the ways in which energy can be channeled to enhance one’s well-being.  
  • Study of written spiritual teachings, primarily the core text Zhuan Falun. At the center of such teachings are the values of truth, compassion, and forbearance and the understanding that closely following these principles in one’s thoughts and behavior assists one in gaining peace of mind, better physical health, and spiritual wisdom.
  • Application of such values on a daily basis with the aim of improving one’s moral character as one confronts the day-to-day tribulations of modern life at work, home, school, etc. Under the extreme conditions of brutal persecution, practitioners have continued to apply these principles, hence their strict adherence to non-violence. Indeed, many victimized practitioners have appealed, Ghandi-like, to torturers to stop their abuse not only for the victims’ sake, but out of compassion for the perpetrator and a belief that such bad deeds will yield bad consequences for that person.
  • The practice of ‘looking inward’—the deliberate examination of the motivations behind one’s actions—in order to identify and rid oneself of selfish attachments, unhealthy or excessive desires, and frustrations, thereby advancing towards a calmer, more selfless state of mind.

Contrary to some Western media reporting, belief in aliens has nothing to do with the fundamental tenets of Falun Gong belief or practice; such assertions are drawn from isolated, occasional statements made by Mr. Li Hongzhi and taken wholly out of context. We understand putting emphasis on such topics can make for catchy coverage, but it greatly distorts the character of the practice, or the teachings of Mr. Li.

Though it was only introduced to the public in 1992 within a broader “qigong boom” in China, Falun Gong was previously passed down in private from more experienced practitioners to new disciples for thousands of years. In this way, Falun Gong is part of the Asian tradition of spiritual practices known as “self-cultivation,” also found in various Daoist, Buddhist, and Confucian practices.

Falun Gong practitioners inside and outside China are normal, friendly, caring, and in many cases, very well educated individuals. Indeed, one of the indirect tragedies of the persecution campaign is a resulting “brain drain” for Chinese society as millions of talented, honest, and hard-working people—including previously high-ranking officials in the government or military—have been incarcerated or forced into unemployment, destitution, or exile because of their religious beliefs.

Then why does the Chinese government call Falun Gong an “evil cult”?

Many news outlets frequently write that Falun Gong was “banned by the Chinese government as an evil cult” on July 22, 1999. Such a statement is inaccurate. News reports published at that time cite the CCP’s claim that Falun Gong was banned because of “disturbing social order.” The “evil cult” label did not appear until three months into the persecution, in October 1999.

The party’s initial justification for the ban centered mainly around accusations that Falun Gong was anti-government or that its teachings were incompatible with Communism. As one editorial published by Xinhua put it just one week into the ban, “In fact, the so-called ‘truth, kindness, and forbearance’ principle preached by [Mr. Li Hongzhi] has nothing in common with the socialist ethical and cultural progress we are striving to achieve.”  

When the “cult” label was applied, it was not the outcome of measured analysis, investigative findings, or theological debate. Neither was it the result of an independent assessment by scholars of religion, sociologists, or psychologists, though this is how many Party officials now seek to present it.

Rather, it was a political move engineered by Jiang Zemin, then head of China’s communist party who, according to a November 9, 1999 report by the Washington Post, “ordered that Falun Gong be branded a ‘cult,’ and then demanded that a law be passed banning cults.” The label appeared at a time when the Chinese public was becoming increasingly sympathetic to the Falun Gong’s plight, and international criticism of the party’s actions against Falun Gong was growing. Domestically, the application of the “cult” label was meant to undercut public sympathy for Falun Gong. Second, it was an attempt to shift the spotlight away from the unlawful acts of the Party-state and to the victims instead. Third, it was an attempt to dehumanize the Falun Gong, paving the way for more drastic violations of rights.

But the term also had an even larger goal outside of China—to appeal to the anti-cult attitudes of the West in a way that might exonerate the party’s crimes against Falun Gong practitioners.  As reported in a February 14, 2001 article in the Asian edition of The Wall Street Journal, China’s communist party has “enthusiastically adopted the language and arguments of the Western anti-cult movement in its propaganda against Falun Dafa … [attaching] itself to the anti-cult movement to justify its crackdown.”

Indeed, the English term itself, “cult” or “evil cult,” is a manipulated translation from Chinese. As Amnesty International notes, the Chinese term “xiejiao” is perhaps more accurately translated as “heretical organization” or heretical religion. According to at least one source, the English translation into “evil cult” was arrived at with the help of a Western PR company. It was crafted to play off fears of cults in the West, where Falun Gong and its qigong kin were largely unfamiliar and could be portrayed as nefarious.

Finally, it should be noted that Western scholars of religion who have studied Falun Gong in depth, such as David Ownby, have noted that Falun Gong does not share the characteristics of cults. It does not involve leader worship, or charges fees; nor does it isolate practitioners from society, intervene in their personal lives, or encourage any behavior that could be construed as unlawful or dangerous. Such scholars have instead recognized it as a new religious movement. Similarly, a wide range of international actors—including United Nations Special Rapporteurs, prominent human rights groups, and democratic governments—have repeatedly referred to the campaign against Falun Gong as one of unjustified religious persecution rather than as a legitimate government policy to rid society of a supposedly negative influence. [For a more detailed compilation of expert explanations on why the Party launched the campaign to eradicate Falun Gong, see: Origins of Persecution

Given the above analysis, a balanced and responsible journalistic approach to reporting would not unquestioningly cite Chinese official claims that Falun Gong is a “cult.” If one does mention it, fairness would also require reference to the credible third parties who have made it clear that Falun Gong does not fit the usual definition of a cult and that the government’s use of the label vilifies the group and justifies the Party-led campaign to crush it.

What about the Term ‘Sect’?

The term “sect” is similarly inaccurate and problematic when applied to Falun Gong. Nevertheless, its short spelling has made it a convenient choice for headlines and therefore, one of the most frequently cited, though mistaken, labels for the group. In particular, the term distorts the practice’s origins. As noted by Ian Johnson of the Wall Street Journal, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on Falun Gong in China: “a sect is usually considered a splinter group of an existing religion. But Falun Gong is not that.”  

Furthermore, the connotations of the word ‘sect’ serve to put psychological distance between the reader and a group so designated. Applying the term to Falun Gong marginalizes or trivializes the group. Falun Gong is currently practiced by millions in more than 80 countries. According to Western media reports, a Chinese government survey estimated that more than 70 million people practiced Falun Gong in early 1999, a number larger than the Communist Party membership and far above many world religions, including the Jewish and Baha’i faiths. Falun Gong was not a fringe movement in China then, nor is it a fringe movement‚ i.e., sect‚ now in the international arena.

To conclude, Falun Gong is a discipline based on spiritual understandings but not part of any specific mainstream religion. It is a “spiritual practice,” “mind-body meditation practice” and it deserves to be reported as such.

Thank you again for your kind attention and consideration.