Surveillance, Slander, and Censorship
In this report published in May 2023, the Falun Dafa Information Center examines the presence of Falun Gong practitioners and clubs on dozens of university campuses across the United States, and the various ways in which the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) persecution of Falun Gong impacts campus events, student experiences, and textbooks used in Chinese-language courses.
The report offers recommendations to university administrators, faculty, and government policymakers on how to enhance protections for freedom of speech and belief.
- At least 45 university campuses across the United States have students or faculty who practice Falun Gong. One-fifth of respondents to a 2023 survey reported feeling uncomfortable self-identifying as a Falun Gong practitioner due to Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda or other influences.
- Physical and digital surveillance of both Falun Gong practitioners and Chinese international students—and resulting Chinese government reprisals—are a major area of concern.
- Chinese Student and Scholars Associations (CSSA) are known to have ties to local Chinese consulates. The associations or their members have engaged in multiple attempts since 2017 to censor or penalize Falun Gong-related activities on university campuses, with long-term repercussions even when demands were not met.
- CCP propaganda demonizing Falun Gong causes apprehension among practitioners and university representatives. University representatives have appeared unprepared for false claims made about Falun Gong and have not always provided equal opportunity for Falun Gong Club representatives to respond.
- Chinese-language textbooks being used at some US universities contain inaccurate and damaging depictions of Falun Gong.
- University faculty, administrators, and relevant US government agencies must take further action to pre-empt, monitor, deter, and counter CCP activities that undermine freedom of expression, freedom of belief, and non-discrimination for Falun Gong practitioners and for others on campus.
Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, is a spiritual practice in the Buddhist tradition that combines meditation and gentle exercises with a moral philosophy centered on the core tenets of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance.1 Descending from an ancient lineage and introduced publicly in China in 1992, Falun Gong is now practiced in more than 100 countries, although the largest contingent of believers—numbering in the tens of millions—remains in China.
Since July 1999, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has engaged in a systematic and illegal effort to eradicate Falun Gong, deploying arbitrary detention, torture, and extrajudicial killings.2 This policy remains one of the most widespread campaigns of persecution in China today.3 Since the inception of this campaign, the CCP’s attempts to intimidate, harass, and suppress Falun Gong practitioners have not remained within the borders of Mainland China. For over 20 years, Falun Gong practitioners outside China—be they Chinese nationals, members of the diaspora, or non-Chinese believers—have been a primary target of transnational repression and other forms of harassment around the world.
Such suppression has also reached Falun Gong practitioners on university campuses, including universities in the United States. Since the earliest days of the CCP’s anti-Falun Gong campaign, believers on US universities have experienced surveillance, disruptions to their activities of raising awareness about rights abuses (especially by members of the Chinese Student and Scholars Association), self-censorship pressures on university event organizers to exclude Falun Gong, and direct intimidation from Chinese officials or diplomats on students and faculty who practice Falun Gong or their families in China.
Both on and off university campuses, the physical dimensions of the CCP’s campaign to wipe out Falun Gong have been accompanied by a massive, systematic propaganda effort to defame and slander Falun Gong, to spread falsehoods, and to incite unfounded fears that the group is dangerous or violent. Such efforts have especially targeted Chinese speakers in China and among the diaspora, but some false CCP narratives have also been occasionally echoed by Western media.
Although the CCP’s transnational persecution against Falun Gong dates back to 1999, the focus of this report is on the period since 2017 in an attempt to provide an up-to-date picture of the CCP’s interference efforts today. To gain a better understanding of the recent conditions and challenges encountered by Falun Gong practitioners in the United States at university campuses—especially due to CCP influence or interference—the Falun Dafa Information Center conducted a survey of college students and faculty who practice Falun Gong in the United States between December 2022 and February 2023.
As of February 10, 2023, 25 students and five faculty members had responded to the survey, all of whom have studied or worked at a US college or university since 2017. Among the student respondents, 68 percent were ethnic Chinese (the majority Chinese Americans, but also four international students from Mainland China and one from Taiwan). The remaining eight respondents were non-ethnic Chinese students from Hungary, Canada, Mexico, Vietnam, and the United States. An additional five faculty members, all ethnic Chinese from China or Taiwan, responded to the survey.
Over 90 percent of the respondents reported studying or teaching in hard sciences or STEM departments. Nearly all respondents cited majors such as engineering, mathematics, or computer science, with some pursuing studies in biology, physics, chemistry, psychology, or nursing. One respondent was pursuing an MBA program, while one was an international relations major.
Widespread Falun Gong Presence and Activities on US Campuses
When Falun Gong spread in the United States in the early 1990s, many of the first practitioners were well-educated students or faculty at institutions of higher education. Today, many young practitioners attend universities and pursue college degrees, while past graduates serve as faculty. The survey disseminated by the Falun Dafa Information Center received responses from students and faculty at 23 universities across 14 states, ranging from New York to California, North Carolina to Texas, and Hawaii to Connecticut.
Besides practicing their faith on campus as individuals, many Falun Gong practitioners have established Falun Gong Clubs at their universities to provide a forum for meditation classes or for organizing events about rights violations occurring in China. The Students for Falun Gong website, an international non-profit organization that offers materials and informational resources for Falun Gong practitioners from high school through graduate school, includes at least 45 publicly listed Falun Gong Clubs in the United States on their website. Among the survey respondents, 18 students or faculty members reported having a Falun Gong Club at their school. Today, at least 45 university campuses across the United States have students or faculty who practice Falun Gong.
Reflecting on both the support that Falun Gong practitioners have received on campuses and on the dedication of individual practitioners who share their faith and speak out about the persecution in China, many survey respondents (especially those not from Mainland China) reported feeling relatively safe at their university or college. Among the 30 student and faculty respondents, a majority of 63 percent (19 individuals) reported feeling comfortable or somewhat comfortable self-identifying as a Falun Gong practitioner or speaking about the practice in class. Another four reported feeling neutral. Even on campuses where incidents of attempted interference occurred, in several cases, the situation was resolved by the university in a manner that upheld Falun Gong practitioners’ rights to freedom of expression and belief.
Respondents also reported that Falun Dafa Clubs at their university were able to engage in a wide range of activities on campus, such as hosting meditation classes, spiritual-text study groups, or events for raising awareness about the CCP’s persecution in China or its global influence. These activities included film screenings, guest speaker panels, information booths, drives to collect petition signatures, student newsletters, and cultural activities like fine art exhibits or promotion of Shen Yun Performing Arts.
Six of the respondents cited sympathetic articles in the school newspaper that had been published. The Daily at the University of Washington published three articles announcing a Falun Gong meditation session or documentary screenings on campus.4 The Lantern from Ohio State University published 13 articles on Falun Gong, the most recent in 2019 titled, “International Exhibition Celebrates Strength in Face of Oppression,” featuring the artwork of oil painters who practice Falun Gong, some who were formerly imprisoned for their faith under CCP rule.5
Ohio State University
Campus newspaper covers a Zhen-Shan-Ren Art Exhibit event hosted by a Falun Gong Club at Ohio State University in 2019.
University of Washington
Campus newspaper coverage of a documentary screening of “Human Harvest” at the University of Washington in 2017.
The above findings from both the survey and Students for Falun Gong website demonstrate the widespread presence of Falun Gong believers and clubs on university campuses throughout the United States. Given the way the CCP and its proxies have targeted this community inside China and abroad, university administrators, faculty members, and student affairs’ departments should understand the risks Falun Gong practitioners potentially face and be prepared for how to respond appropriately to the CCP’s interference efforts.
The Impact of CCP Persecution and Propaganda
Given the CCP’s vociferous campaign against Falun Gong in China and globally, the presence and activities by Falun Gong practitioners on university campuses renders these locations a prime venue for the regime and its proxies to attempt to undermine the rights and freedoms of Falun Gong practitioners, their supporters, and those wishing to learn about the practice or rights abuses in China. Indeed, direct or indirect CCP-linked surveillance, persecution, and propaganda is evident at many US universities. The survey results and other research by the Falun Dafa Information Center identified the following key forms that this has taken since 2017:
1. Physical and digital surveillance—and resulting Chinese government reprisals—are a major area of concern
The Chinese government has been known to monitor Chinese students, diaspora activists, and their supporters in the United States and on campuses. Falun Gong is generally a key target for CCP surveillance, but obtaining evidence in specific incidents can be difficult. Nevertheless, among the 30 survey respondents, seven reported at least one incident of suspected physical or digital surveillance.
In some cases, involvement of Chinese government actors in surveillance and reprisals was evident. One graduate student from Illinois who was from Mainland China had joined the Chinese Student and Scholars Association (CSSA) to access resources it offers to international students from China. He reported that Chinese diplomats in the United States threatened his membership in the group. According to the student:
I was told by the then-CSSA President that the Chinese embassy in Chicago asked him to remove me from the CSSA due to my involvement in Falun Gong activities. I had a personal website that published content about Falun Gong. I was later told that somehow the Chinese Consulate of Chicago has noticed my connection with Falun Gong and asked the then-CSSA administration to remove me from the CSSA.
An associate professor from Hawaii noted being aware of Chinese government monitoring:
As someone on the CCP’s blacklist, I am certain I was watched. A few years ago, I introduced Shen Yun to a Chinese businessperson, and he later told me he was warned about speaking with me—he did not say who warned him but said “they” knew who I was speaking with. Once the Shen Yun poster I put up outside my office was removed.
Respondents also reported incidents of security forces in China learning about an individuals’ activities in the United States and then contacting family in China. Three respondents (two students and one faculty member) stated that their family members inside China have been harassed, detained, or otherwise persecuted by Chinese security forces in an apparent attempt to discourage their activities in the United States or encourage them to return to China, where they could be subject to persecution. One student from California relayed, for example, that “family members in China were called regarding my whereabouts—my phone number and where I was studying or working.” Another student from North Carolina reported that his father in China was harassed and often called his mother in America to urge her to stop practicing Falun Gong and attending public events. Until 2021, this student hid his faith from his father for fear of damaging their relationship. After he informed his father, his calls were blocked for at least three months following the disclosure. Meanwhile, a professor in North Carolina noted that phone conversations with his parents were tapped and recalled that in 2013 or 2014: “Local police called my parents and invited them to a meeting, told them it is safe for me to visit them in China. But I never visited them.”
In several other cases, respondents reported suspicious encounters with Chinese students, where another individual engaged in behavior that appeared to involve monitoring, but the full situation was not clearly linked to a Chinese party-state affiliated entity. A PhD candidate, non-ethnic Chinese, studying in Minnesota reported, for example:
Whenever I and my club held a booth for our Falun Dafa student club, there was always a suspicious Chinese student wandering about and pretend[ing]to be on their phones and constantly checking on us. They never engaged with us but were just there to monitor us.
The same student remarked that the presence of these individuals seemed to deter Chinese students from engaging in Falun Gong club activities on campus.
There were rumors about Chinese students always having a few students assigned with the task of monitoring their fellow [students]. This is to spread the control of the Party abroad to prevent Party propaganda from being disproven.
Respondents from Arizona, California, and New York also reported nonconsensual filming and photography by ethnic Chinese individuals, entering remarks like: “There are always Chinese-looking people taking photos of me while I’m tabling on campus” or “Many Chinese students secretly took photos of me and the Falun Gong information booth.”
Besides such recordings being potentially relayed to a Chinese state entity, it is also possible that photos were taken out of curiosity and surprise at seeing a Falun Gong booth in the United States, given the sharp contrast with the situation in China. Nevertheless, some respondents referenced interactions like these as contributing to self-censorship and hesitation to approach Chinese students or speak with them about Falun Gong
Some Falun Gong clubs have taken precautions to protect participants’ anonymity or enhance physical security at events. A student from a Falun Gong club at a university in Minnesota explained that it had decided to keep the identity of ethnic Chinese members anonymous, stating:
I’m not from China so there’s not much pressure on me. … My fellow Chinese practitioners have more barriers. A lot of them do not dare to show up with the club, fearing that their relatives in China may be endangered if they were to do so. Therefore, for a while, we had to keep Chinese practitioners’ registrations for our club confidential from the public. Only my contact is visible to the public.
A graduate student from a Falun Dafa club at a university in New York described protocols enacted to address security concerns:
We always had a meeting to approve our events with security due to concerns of violence. Security was stationed nearby during large truth clarification events.
2. Chinese Student and Scholars Associations (CSSA) members have engaged in efforts to censor or penalize Falun Gong related activities on university campuses
Survey respondents at nine universities reported encountering or hearing of an attempt to restrict a Falun Gong-related event on campus, during their time at the university. Some of these incidents occurred prior to 2017. In six of the cases, respondents noted that the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) played a role in attempted interference or an incident of censorship.
CSSAs ostensibly exist to facilitate acclimation of international students and cultural exchange, but in reality, work closely with the Chinese embassy or local consulate. Members have been known to spy on classmates, lobby foreign governments, and disrupt campus activities about rights abuses in China.6 Former CSSA presidents have reported that these student groups basically serve as overseas front organizations for the CCP.7
While two respondents reported joining the CSSA as international Chinese students, to access necessary resources (one of whom was later removed under Chinese consular pressure, as noted above), other respondents specifically cited the CSSA’s close ties to the CCP as a reason for not joining this association. One respondent from New York commented that “The association at our university was very much in the pocket of the Chinese government.” Another respondent from Texas reported not joining the CSSA because the student’s parents had cautioned against the security risks related to the CSSA and that they have vulnerable family members still living in China. A graduate student from Columbia University reported not joining the CSSA because, “I heard from my friend who was the CSSA president in my undergrad school that she goes to the Chinese consulate every week, so they’re very closely tied to [the] CCP.”
Censorship attempts: One student reported an incident where the CSSA attempted to prevent “The Art of Zhen, Shan, Ren International Art Exhibition” from being hosted at Ohio State University (OSU) in 2017. The exhibit is a display of oil paintings and other fine art by acclaimed artists, depicting Falun Gong practitioners meditating, the persecution in China, and practitioners’ courage in their responses to the persecution. CSSA members sent emails and petitions to the university administration boycotting the event, but their attempts failed and it was not canceled. Previously, international Chinese students at OSU also participated in similar boycott campaigns for other events related to Falun Gong. For example, in 2005, more than 160 Chinese students protested and wrote a Letter to the Editor in the school paper in protest of the Falun Dafa painting exhibition.8
An MBA student from Texas also reported a similar CSSA-orchestrated campaign against the Shen Yun Performing Arts company coming to perform on campus.
There were attempts to restrict Shen Yun from coming to [redacted city] every time we tried to hold one. People [Chinese students and faculty] reached out to the theatre, emailed the president and other high position people, emailed members of the club, etc., but it was not canceled and continued to go as planned. But there were attempts even on the day of the show to sabotage the show, like trying to destroy the buses or surpass security backstage.
Case study: Reprisal campaign for
screening a film about Confucius Institutes
A graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) reported a month-long, coordinated campaign in March and April 2021 aiming to slander and delegitimize the Falun Dafa Club for co-hosting an online screening and panel discussion on the documentary film, In the Name of Confucius with the Athenai Institute and Students for a Free Tibet, which the official student government body, the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly (GAPSA) had also helped advertise on their newsletter and social media. The film depicts the ties of Confucius Institutes to the Chinese party-state, as well as incidents of discrimination and censorship that have emerged at such entities, including one involving a teacher who practiced Falun Gong. The film screening was relevant to campus discussions regarding Confucius Institutes, gifts to the university from China, and the presence of a CSSA club on campus.9
In the week following the event, at least 79 students and former graduates associated with the CSSA sent multiple emails to GAPSA, with complaints that the event promoted by GAPSA was too political. In the emails, the CSSA members claimed that the Falun Dafa Club, Students for Free Tibet, and Athenai Institute were “anti-China” organizations with the mission to slander China and Chinese people. They petitioned the association to respond to the claims that the Falun Gong club had violated university policies, and that the GAPSA promotion of this event was an act of marginalization against the Chinese community at UPenn.10 The individuals claimed that the event promoted anti-Asian hate, even though both the Falun Gong club president and the director of the film are themselves of Chinese ethnicity. The email complaints were so numerous that the UPenn graduate school administration told CSSA students to forward any future emails to faculty members, not to GAPSA representatives.
An investigation revealed, though, that many Facebook posts about the event from Chinese international students revolved around slandering Falun Gong and opposing the Falun Gong club’s right and eligibility to host events.11 Faculty members involved with GAPSA held a roundtable on March 30, 2021 to address the petition and the “controversy,” inviting groups including GAPSA representatives and CSSA members to attend; however, the Falun Gong Club president was not provided a similar presentation opportunity. During a second meeting, one CSSA member presented a slideshow that included CCP propaganda against Falun Gong, falsely misrepresenting the faith as a “cult.” Again, no representative of the Falun Gong Club was invited to speak and offer a response.
After a week of deliberation, the faculty members acknowledged that the Falun Gong Club and its president had not violated any university policies, but the incident nevertheless had a long-term impact. It is unclear if the CSSA members were acting of their own accord or under pressure from Chinese officials, but the attempt fits a pattern reported at other university campuses of Chinese students lodging complaints about events critical of the CCP, claiming they promote anti-Asian hatred.12 After this stressful and upsetting experience, the Falun Gong Club president went on to hold one last documentary screening of Letter from Masanjia about forced labor in China before her graduation that June, but reported experiencing ongoing trauma and anxiety from the harassment. The campaign against In the Name of Confucius also affected GAPSA, which did not promote this second documentary screening or future events held by the UPenn Falun Gong Club on their social media or in public event notices.
Other incidents of censorship were also reported, involving removal of materials promoting events on campus. For example, respondents from three universities in California, New York, and Texas, relayed incidents where they had put up informational materials or posters advertising a movie screening on campus or upcoming cultural performances, but those were repeatedly taken down. For example, one student described,
When promoting Shen Yun or movie screenings on campus, we often noticed our posters being ripped down from bulletin boards. We’d put them up every week, and every week, they would be ripped down.
A student from a school in California similarly reported, “Posters that we used to promote our film screening event would be taken down soon after we put them up.”
Although the source of this censorship is difficult to trace, the tactic serves to hinder student efforts to organize and draw audiences to Falun Gong related events, to silence the voice of a campus Falun Gong Club, and to blunt efforts to raise awareness about the persecution and traditional Chinese culture.
3. CCP falsehoods and propaganda cause apprehension among Falun Gong practitioners and university representatives
Six respondents (20 percent) reported being somewhat uncomfortable, or very uncomfortable self-identifying as a Falun Gong practitioner or speaking about it in class.
In particular, many respondents felt “afraid of stigma” and “negative reactions” from mainland Chinese students or faculty in their major or department. Some also relayed negative experiences with second generation Chinese students or even non-Chinese who questioned if Falun Gong was a “cult,” a malign and inaccurate label that has been a centerpiece of CCP propaganda towards the West.13
One ethnic Chinese American citizen who is a student in North Carolina relayed:
I felt neutral when it came to sharing or talking about Falun Gong to people I met on campus who were not Chinese. If they were either American-born Chinese or international students from China, I felt uncomfortable because I have previously interacted with people who were very critical or had biases towards Falun Gong practitioners.
One of the respondents, who wished to remain anonymous, is an ethnic Chinese international student from mainland China. This person reported being “very uncomfortable” self-identifying as a Falun Gong practitioner on campus or speaking about it in class and, objectively, faces a higher risk of reprisal from the Chinese government than Chinese American counterparts. This mechanical engineering graduate student in Illinois noted:
Since I came from China and knew about the persecution and defamation of Falun Gong in China, I know it is a very sensitive or even dangerous topic for students from mainland China. So, I feel very uncomfortable talking to my fellow Chinese students about this topic.
Students from universities in New York, Texas, and Minnesota relayed similar sentiments, stating that the backlash or reactions from Chinese students became an impetus for their discomfort in sharing the fact that they practice Falun Gong. They also acknowledged the fear that Chinese students have of even talking about Falun Gong, given the awareness of its sensitivity and CCP-linked surveillance on campuses. A PhD candidate in Minnesota stated:
I’m not from China so there’s not much pressure on me. I only feel pressure when trying to engage with Chinese students and immigrants. I tried to clarify the truth to a couple of Chinese friends but they have this fear for their safety even though things are supposed to be confidential between us. Even abroad, Chinese students’ minds are still caged by the Party’s control. Even if they know that what they’re fed is propaganda of the Party, they reluctantly accept those lies for their personal safety. None of the Chinese students I engaged with want to return to China.
Online harassment: In addition to in-person interactions, several respondents relayed incidents of receiving harassing or disrespectful comments and responses to online posts on platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. Online social media posts were also used as a tactic to deter people from engaging with Falun Gong practitioners and their events on campus. Although it is unclear whether these posts were products of CCP-affiliated attacks, the negative content affixed labels like “controversial,” “cult,” and “dangerous” to Falun Gong. A Chemistry graduate student in California reported:
There were reddit posts calling students to stay away from Falun Gong booths during one of our tabling events. In the post, the anonymous person made up false accusations and apparently earned a lot of support.
Falun Gong Club approval hurdles
The influence of CCP propaganda and misleading reporting about Falun Gong even in some Western news outlets recently contributed to hesitation among faculty and the student council at an Ivy League university to approve a Falun Dafa Club. After additional clarification by the student applicant, however, the club was approved.
On February 23, 2023, a PhD candidate at an Ivy League school, who practices Falun Gong, experienced the effects of pro-CCP propaganda and discrimination against his faith during the application and screening process for establishing a Falun Gong club on campus. International Chinese and Chinese American students on the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) Student Council, under the oversight of four deans, changed the routine screening interview agenda and solely focused on misleading claims that the faith promotes racism and “LGBTQ hate,” which have been echoed in CCP propaganda and some problematic reporting by Western news outlets.
After a 30-minute discussion, the PhD candidate was dismissed and told that the committee of deans and GSAS Council members would delay the voting to March 23, 2023 rather than follow the set procedure to decide immediately. In a follow-up email, the executive director of the GSAS Student Center asked the student applicant to acknowledge that others are concerned about Falun Gong teachings and the national network of Falun Dafa clubs, although these concerns appeared to be due to incidents where aggressive actions against Falun Gong related awareness raising events created security concerns rather than any actions taken by practitioners themselves. The student resubmitted an application for the club and tried to directly address the concerns raised.
After five meetings, on March 23, the GSAS student council approved the application for the Falun Gong club. However, the entire process caused psychological pressure on the student applicant and scrutinized Falun Gong beliefs and identity in ways that would be deemed unacceptable in the case of a Christian, Buddhist, or Jewish club. In a reflection of the broader environment, one faculty representative from the GSAS Student Center also told the practitioner, “Get used to this pushback. It will keep happening in the future.” Despite the prolonged approval process, students expressed interest in the club, with fifteen signing up to attend future club activities during the month-long application period.
4. Chinese-language textbooks being used at US universities contain inaccurate and damaging depictions of Falun Gong
The spread of false CCP propaganda that demonizes Falun Gong on university campuses has also occurred via the curriculum materials selected by some instructors. In 2022, a college student and Falun Gong practitioner at Amherst College took a Chinese language course and was shocked to find descriptions demonizing Falun Gong in required text and homework assignments. The Discussing Everything Chinese textbook includes a section on Falun Gong that attempts to legitimize the CCP’s religious persecution against Falun Gong by misrepresenting the practice and framing its adherents as possessing psychological problems.14 Assignments include statements and questions such as “Falun Gong can lead people to madness” and “Is Falun Gong a superstitious cult or not?”
Further investigation found that this textbook has been used in at least ten universities, including Yale University, Brown University, the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan, and Wellesley College. This textbook is also available on Amazon.15 A reverse Google search of the textbook, found it listed publicly on a San Francisco State University syllabus.
CHAPTER FOUR, SECTION ONE
In the chapter on new religion and social phenomenon in China, multiple sections in the textbook repeats CCP propaganda and asks students to associate Falun Gong with heretics.
The textbook does not only include misrepresentation of Falun Gong, but also exercise sections that promote the One-Child Policy as a legitimate means of controlling population growth, distorted and misogynistic depictions of women, and strong anti-American sentiment. One chapter includes references to a prominent Chinese AIDS activist but selectively leaves out her house arrest and eventual fleeing to America to escape government reprisals for her activism. There also seems to be other content that parents would deem inappropriate. The following are excerpts with translation from this select pages of the textbook.16
Translation and writing practice
Inside China, such rhetoric labeling Falun Gong practitioners as foreign “anti-China” forces and American spies, alongside other demonizing propaganda, has motivated some nationalistic Chinese citizens to report practitioners to authorities, after which they may face torture in detention or death.
VOCABULARY READING SECTION
The textbook falsely states that Falun Gong practitioners promote extreme ideas such as starvation, forced sleep deprivation, and rejection of any medical treatment.
Even when textbooks do not include such content, professors or instructors from Mainland China, who themselves may have been deceived by CCP propaganda, have reportedly avoided the topic when raised in class or suppressed discussion. One undergraduate student in Texas reported:
My Chinese 2 professor had actually changed the subject and seemed uncomfortable when I tried to bring up human rights in class when it was appropriate and when I asked her to mention that a screening of a Falun Gong documentary was going to be playing on campus soon.
The above findings paint a complex picture of both the challenges and support that Falun Gong practitioners and clubs encounter on university campuses in the United States. Aggressive harassment campaigns and misleading depictions of the practice in textbooks, media reports, and presentations by Chinese students—often affiliated with CSSAs—can contribute to discrimination, intimidation, and trauma for students who practice Falun Gong. Chinese government surveillance and harassment of family in China add to these pressures. But the discrimination and stigma are experienced by non-Chinese students as well and in ways that would be widely viewed as unacceptable in the case of other faiths.
Despite these challenges, many students who practice Falun Gong have also encountered interest in the faith, a desire to learn the meditation exercises, and support in the face of persecution, from fellow students and faculty. Most survey respondents found US campuses to be safe and welcoming spaces. There have been cases of censorship attempts being resolved peacefully and in favor of free expression and freedom of belief. Some respondents have even reported Chinese students changing their views on Falun Gong and dismantling their previous misconceptions after learning more about the practice and the CCP’s persecution.
Many students who practice Falun Gong have also encountered interest in the faith, a desire to learn the meditation exercises, and support in the face of persecution, from fellow students and faculty.
To reinforce these positive dynamics and rights-protecting trends, while deterring and hindering the surveillance, censorship, and slander spread by the CCP, it is essential that university administrators, faculty advisers, student councils, and other authorities on campus become familiar with the facts about Falun Gong, the emerging patterns of harassment from CSSAs. They should pre-emptively consider how their university can best respond in a fair, informed, and non-discriminatory fashion to potential future incidents and provide opportunities for Chinese international students and scholars to associate with each other outside of the framework of the CSSA. Relevant US agencies should also improve investigation of ties and pressures from Chinese consular officials and intelligence agencies upon Chinese students at US universities and CSSAs, taking diplomatic, regulatory, or legal action accordingly.
As the issue of CCP influence, censorship, and intimidation on university campuses has gained attention in recent years, several organizations, experts, and reports have offered recommendations to both universities and policymakers on how to address the challenge in an effective and rights-respecting manner.17 The following recommendations draw on their suggestions—including a 12-point code of conduct for universities proposed by Human Rights Watch in 2019—while offering actions specific to the case of Falun Gong and the finding of this study.18
It is worth noting the crucial role that preventative actions play in pre-empting CCP interference and creating a safe, open space for all those on campus, including international students from China. As such, the recommendations to universities are divided into actions and policies that could be adopted at any time—and should be implemented immediately—versus responsive measures to take once an incident of attempted censorship, intimidation, or interference is underway or has occurred.
Universities in the United States and elsewhere around the world should immediately take the following preventative actions:
- Increase awareness about Falun Gong: University administrators, faculty members, and student affairs staff should read and share this report, meet with a representative of the Falun Dafa Club on campus (if one exists), or request a private briefing from the Falun Dafa Information Center to gain an informed and accurate understanding of the practice, the persecution of believers in China, and the potential challenges practitioners may face on campus.
- Support the presence and activities of Falun Dafa Clubs on campus: Having a Falun Dafa Club at a university is a unique opportunity for students and faculty to learn a meditation and spiritual practice that has benefited tens of millions of people around the world, and to have a voice on campus raising awareness about human rights violations in China and beyond.
- Increase awareness about CCP influence tactics: University administrators, faculty members, and student affairs staff should actively educate themselves about the CCP’s foreign influence tactics, including at universities, and past examples of attempted influence or interference—such as those cited in this report—related to Falun Gong and other sensitive topics. Universities should be especially aware of and prepared for incidents of CSSA members or other Chinese students on campus manipulating legitimate sensitivity to racism in order to silence criticism of the CCP, including by other Chinese and Asian students.
- Prepare contingency plans before an incident occurs: Relevant university employees should consider in advance how to respond to incidents such as those described in this report by students or others, including reports of monitoring or surveillance, demands from Chinese officials to cancel an event, or an inundation of emails from CSSA members questioning a campus event critical of the CCP or sympathetic to Falun Gong. The university should determine in advance how to respond in a way that protects academic freedom, free speech, and privacy on campus.
- Learn best practices from other universities: In preparing such contingency plans, university administrators should engage with counterparts at other institutions and explore frameworks like Human Rights Watch’s Code of Conduct to become familiar with and able to implement best practices.
- Create a reporting mechanism or complaint procedure for students or faculty encountering harassment or intimidation: Universities should create a hotline, ombudsperson’s office, or other mechanism that allows students and faculty to report suspected incidents of CCP surveillance or harassment, including anonymously, to facilitate tracking, support victims, and enable further investigation.
- Implement orientation on appropriate campus behavior, including for international students from China: As part of new student or faculty orientation or at the beginning of each academic year, universities should incorporate sessions, written materials, and other programming that informs newcomers of appropriate campus behavior, US laws regarding surveillance or relaying information about fellow students or faculty to foreign government or intelligence officials, and available resources (such as the above-mentioned hotline) for students who are approached by foreign officials to try to cancel an event or monitor fellow students. This orientation could apply to all students but information in Chinese should be made available to facilitate understanding by international students from China. Many may not be aware that certain requests they may receive from a Chinese diplomat are unacceptable or even illegal in the United States.
- Ensure that Chinese Student and Scholar Associations and Confucius Institutes are complying with campus rules and US laws: Universities should ensure that CSSA presidents in particular are familiar with appropriate campus rules, that charters do not contain provisions such as granting authority over the club to the local Chinese consulate or embassy, and that Confucius Institutes do not engage in censorship or discrimination. Universities should offer support for the creation of independent Chinese student associations, such as one recently established at George Washington University.
- Discontinue the use of the Discussing Everything Chinese textbook: Chinese language instructors should immediately discontinue the use of the above-mentioned textbook, given its distortions and demonization of Falun Gong and other topics related to Chinese society. More broadly, faculty incorporating Falun Gong-related topics into classroom discussion should review curriculum materials for demonizing and false claims related to Falun Gong. The Falun Dafa Information Center’s Library and TV website sections are replete with both first-hand accounts and third-party or peer-reviewed materials about the practice and persecution in China.19
The best way to reduce problematic CCP influence and interference on campus is to take the above-mentioned actions. That being said, should an incident of attempted censorship, harassment, physical attack, or surveillance occur related to Falun Gong, university administrators, staff, and faculty should take the following remedial actions:
- Refuse all forms of censorship: No university should be censoring or cancelling campus discussions, expert panels, art exhibitions, or meditation classes related to a peaceful spiritual practice like Falun Gong or the persecution of its believers in China, regardless of the pressures being applied.
- Defend academic freedom, freedom of speech, and the right to privacy for Falun Gong practitioners and their supporters: University representatives should vocally and actively speak out against any attempts on campus to monitor or silence Falun Gong practitioners or other discussions related to human rights in China, making clear that infringements upon these rights violates university policies and the culture of openness and tolerance that institutions of higher education strive for.
- Actively track incidents, report to law enforcement when applicable: University representatives should gather all available information about a particular incident, especially if it involves any intervention by a Chinese diplomat, and relay it to relevant law enforcement and federal agencies— such as the Department of Education and Department of State.
- Do not discriminate: University representatives must conscientiously ensure that Falun Gong Club representatives receive equal speaking time and response opportunities in a forum provided to Chinese students or critics, when responding to complaints. Omission of this opportunity provides an open forum for false accusations to be made about Falun Gong and discriminates against the community.
- Support targets of transnational repression: After an incident occurs, even if attempted censorship was forestalled, student affairs staff should make sure that Falun Gong practitioners or others targeted are receiving support from the university so that they do not feel isolated, victimized, or required to self-censor going forward.
In a democratic setting, there are reasonable limits as to what government officials can or should do on university campuses to prevent or respond to foreign influence. Nevertheless, there are steps that US officials at the federal and state level can undertake to encourage, incentivize, and support universities in moving forward on the above-mentioned actions. These include:
- Share information: Share this report with relevant state and local officials, university administrators, or others grappling with CCP influence and interference on US campuses. Encourage them to implement the above recommendations and share information about what other universities have done or best practices that might be replicated.
- Create a reporting mechanism: Create a clear avenue for universities and individuals encountering transnational repression or Chinese party-state demands to monitor others on campus to report these incidents to federal or state law enforcement and other relevant agencies. Make sure that the details of these reporting mechanisms are clearly and regularly communicated to universities.
- Censure Chinese diplomats: Chinese consular or embassy officials who engage in harassment, intimidation, intelligence collection, or censorship on US university campuses, including regarding Falun Gong, should be censured or declared persona non grata.
- Include Falun Gong in hearings on transnational repression: Congressional representatives organizing hearings on transnational repression in the United States or academic freedom on university campuses should include a Falun Gong witness.
6 https://www.upholdjustice.org/node/176; https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/03/07/chinas-long-arm-reaches-into-american-campuses-chinese-students-scholars-association-university-communist-party/.
9 https://web.archive.org/web/20111120050149/http://thedp.com/index.php/article/2011/11/confucius_institutes_to_be_reconsidered_by_penn; https://www.inquirer.com/business/university-pennsylvania-foreign-donations-china-saudi-arabia-20200224.html.
10 “GAPSA Petition,” https://cloud.falundafainfocenter.org/index.php/s/odRyy4racE4Jjft.
12 At Purdue University, for example, graduate student Zhihao Kong publicly posted support for victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, and quickly received threats from other Chinese students at Purdue and even the Ministry of State Security warned his parents to prevent Kong’s participation in future events: https://www.propublica.org/article/even-on-us-campuses-china-cracks-down-on-students-who-speak-out.
13 A 2017 report from Freedom House, among other sources, describes the origins of the “cult” label in CCP propaganda efforts and its inaccurate and manipulated application to Falun Gong: https://freedomhouse.org/report/2017/battle-china-spirit-falun-gong-religious-freedom.
16 Although the textbook has this problematic content, video references available on the publisher’s official website include an interview of Falun Gong practitioners at Yale University, which provides a fair and balanced perspective on the spiritual practice. It is unclear why such an inconsistency exists between this material and the misconceptions and propaganda laid out in the textbook, which is the core product.
17 Diamond, Larry, and Orville Schell. “Chinese Influence and American Interests: Promoting Constructive Vigilance.” Hoover Institution, October 2020. https://www.hoover.org/sites/default/files/research/docs/diamond-schell_chineseinfluence_oct2020rev.pdf.; Australian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment. “Foreign Interference in the Australian Education and Research Sector.” https://docs.education.gov.au/node/53172.; United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission. “Written Testimony of Dr. Glenn Tiffert.” March 23, 2023. https://www.uscc.gov/sites/default/files/2023-03/Glenn_Tiffert_Testimony.pdf; Wilson Center. “Chinese Communist Party Political Influence Operations: Full Report.” https://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/media/documents/publication/prc_political_influence_full_report.pdf.
18 “’They Don’t Understand the Fear We Have’: How China’s Long Reach of Repression Undermines Academic Freedom at Australia’s Universities.” Human Rights Watch. June 30, 2021. https://www.hrw.org/report/2021/06/30/they-dont-understand-fear-we-have/how-chinas-long-reach-repression-undermines.
19 Faluninfo Library. https://library.faluninfo.net/; Faluninfo TV. https://tv.faluninfo.net/.