Why does the CCP falsely label Shen Yun a Cult?
When people ask this question about Shen Yun, they are really calling into question Falun Gong — the Buddhist-based spiritual practice from China that is persecuted by the Chinese regime.
After all, Falun Gong practitioners started Shen Yun to showcase authentic Chinese culture “before communism” and they remain the driving force behind the ubiquitous performing arts company.
So, the real question is this: is Falun Gong a ‘cult?’
While this term originates in the talking points of communist Chinese officials, it seems to have caught on in the West to some extent, spurring discussion and debate in the U.S. and beyond. What’s the real story? How do we distinguish the facts from the rhetoric?
What is Falun Gong and where did the cult label come from?
Falun Gong (a.k.a. Falun Dafa) is a spiritual practice in the Buddhist tradition. It was first introduced to the public by Mr. Li Hongzhi in China in 1992. Falun Gong combines meditation, qigong exercises, and moral teachings centered on the principles of truth, compassion, and tolerance. The practice quickly gained popularity in China, and by 1999, an estimated 70-100 million people were practicing it.
The Chinese government initially praised Falun Gong for its health benefits and moral teachings, even inviting Mr. Li to give lectures in government buildings.
According to the Freedom House, “In an event that would be unimaginable today, Li [Hongzhi] gave a lecture [on Falun Gong] at the Chinese embassy in Paris in 1995, at the government’s invitation.”
However, when the number of Falun Gong practitioners surpassed the CCP membership and became the largest independent civil society group in China at the time, then CCP chief Jiang Zemin viewed Falun Gong as a threat to his power and launched a violent campaign to eradicate the group in July 1999.
Jiang’s decision was controversial even among the CCP leadership. According to the Washington Post, “the standing committee of the Politburo did not unanimously endorse the crackdown and that President Jiang Zemin alone decided that Falun Gong must be eliminated.”
Falun Gong wasn’t banned by the Chinese regime as a cult, as some journalists carelessly write. In fact, a 2017 report by Freedom House notes:
The [cult] label only appeared in party discourse in October 1999, months after the crackdown was launched, as the propaganda apparatus seized on a manipulated English translation of the Chinese term xiejiao. This suggests that the term was applied retroactively to justify a violent campaign that was provoking international and domestic criticism.
According to a November 1999 report by the Washington Post, “It was Jiang who ordered that Falun Gong be labeled a ‘cult,’ and then demanded that a law be passed banning cults.”
Scholarly consensus is that Falun Gong is not a cult
There is a clear scholarly consensus that Falun Gong is not a cult. Ian Johnson, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, also a former journalist for the NY Times and WSJ who won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on Falun Gong, wrote in his book “Wild Grass”:
The group [Falun Gong] didn’t meet many common definitions of a cult: its members marry outside the group, have outside friends, hold normal jobs, do not live isolated from society, do not believe that the world’s end is imminent and do not give significant amounts of money to the organization. Most importantly, suicide is not accepted, nor is physical violence….[Falun Gong] is at heart an apolitical, inward-oriented discipline, one aimed at cleansing oneself spiritually and improving one’s health.
Moreover, practicing Falun Gong doesn’t involve worship; learning Falun Gong is completely free, as all books and videos are free downloadable on the Internet; and soliciting donations is prohibited within the Falun Gong community. With no binding membership, everyone feels free to come and go. Today, Falun Gong is practiced by tens of millions of people in roughly 100 countries around the world.
Prof. David Ownby, a scholar on Chinese religions, notes in the preface of his book “Falun Gong and the Future of China”:
“The entire issue of the supposed cultic nature of Falun Gong was a red herring from the beginning, cleverly exploited by the Chinese state to blunt the appeal of Falun Gong and the effectiveness of the group’s activities outside China.”
The U.S. Congress has passed five bi-partisan resolutions in support of Falun Gong. One of them, H.Res.605, reads: “Chinese authorities have devoted extensive time and resources over the past decade worldwide to distributing false propaganda claiming that Falun Gong is a suicidal and militant ‘evil cult’ rather than a spiritual movement which draws upon traditional Chinese concepts of meditation and exercise.”
Despite experiencing brutal persecution in China for over two decades, Falun Gong practitioners have never retaliated and have always remained peaceful in their resistance. This fact alone speaks volume about the character of the Falun Gong group. Mr. Hu Ping, a leading Chinese intellectual and author, has commented that “Falun Gong is going to play a major role in the revival of moral values in China.”
A deadly label
An in-depth 2001 Washington Post report explained the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) three-prong strategy to crush Falun Gong. One critical tactic is a high-pressure propaganda campaign against the group. The Post article reads: “As Chinese society turned against Falun Gong, pressure on practitioners to abandon their beliefs increased, and it became easier for the government to use violence against those who did not.” The article continues, quoting a Chinese gov official: “Pure violence doesn’t work. Just studying doesn’t work either. And none of it would be working if the propaganda hadn’t started to change the way the general public thinks. You need all three. That’s what they’ve figured out.”
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.”
Indeed, it’s been well documented by human rights organizations, United Nations, and U.S. State Department that Falun Gong has been brutally persecuted in China on a large scale. Millions of Falun Gong practitioners have been detained, imprisoned, or tortured over the past two decades. A 30-year-old Falun Gong practitioner and a radio host, Pang Xun, was tortured to death in prison in Dec 2022, which brings the number of documented Falun Gong deaths due to persecution to 4,921. Another untold number of Falun Gong practitioners, likely hundreds of thousands, have been killed through forced organ harvesting, according to the China Tribunal’s testimony to the United Nations.
To be clear, the “cult” label was coined by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) specifically and retroactively to vilify Falun Gong and drive forward the violent persecution of millions. Using this term to refer to Falun Gong is comparable to using racial slurs against Black or Jewish people. These terms are employed with the sole purpose of dehumanizing a group of people, and in so doing, facilitating horrific atrocities.
The same false cult label used on Shen Yun
Shen Yun Performing Arts is the world’s premier classical Chinese dance and music company. A non-profit based in New York, Shen Yun was founded in 2006 by a group of exiled Chinese artists who practice Falun Gong. Its mission is to revive the divinely inspired traditional Chinese culture, arts and values, which have been largely destroyed under the communist rule.
Each Shen Yun show features hundreds of elaborate costumes, digitally animated backdrop, a large cast of world-class dancers, and a live orchestra combining Eastern and Western instruments. Today, Shen Yun has grown from one to eight equal size companies that tour over 180 cities in 5 continents each year. It has graced many top venues—Lincoln Center in New York City, the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., the Royal Festival Hall in London—and has become a global cultural phenomenon.
According to Shen Yun’s website, “Shen Yun uses performing arts to present stories that bring to life the inner essence of China’s divinely inspired culture. This includes ancient legends, characters and tales from history, and representative events from the modern world, including Falun Gong cultivation stories.”
The dance piece that depicts the persecution of Falun Gong may not be surprising, as tales of the human spirit overcoming adversity have long been a favorite topic in art, film, and drama in the West. In one prominent example, the musical The Sound of Music features the von Trapp family’s escape to freedom from Nazi persecution.
However, the CCP fears its human rights record will become more widely known. What it may fear even more is that Shen Yun helps audiences to see what China was like before communism—a virtuous, spiritual, and peaceful China—a sharp contrast from the CCP’s suppression and aggression.
Shen Yun performances touch people’s innermost cultural roots and help the Chinese diaspora rediscover their heritage and traditional values, such as compassion, selflessness, veneration for the divine. The show also helps people better understand how communist rule has destroyed these values. Even a top art official in China had to begrudgingly acknowledge the high caliber of Shen Yun’s performances, and accused the Chinese government of ruining Chinese culture.
The international success of Shen Yun makes it hard for the CCP to claim it is the guardian of Chinese civilization, fundamentally challenging its legitimacy of representing China and Chinese culture.
So what is the CCP’s response? Slander, attack.
Over the years, Shen Yun has been the victim of life-threatening abuse by the Chinese Communist Party. In 2021, a tour bus carrying performers in California was shot at. In several other cases, the company’s buses had their tires slashed, which would have caused them to explode on the road if the sabotage had not been detected. Chinese embassies and consulates in many countries have pressured local theaters to cancel contracts with Shen Yun, and have succeeded in several countries that are vulnerable to the CCP’s influence.
The CCP even organized people to pose as Falun Gong practitioners to send letters to theaters with delirious, nonsensical content in order to give the venues a negative impression of Shen Yun and Falun Gong. In January 2017, CCP’s mouthpiece China Daily paid inserts in several major newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Telegraph in U.K., and Fairfax Media in Australia, all carried an article viciously attacking Shen Yun.
The CCP’s slandering propaganda uses the same playbook of labeling Falun Gong a cult to brand Shen Yun as a cult. Both are demonstrably false.
Why did some Western reporters parrot CCP’s “cult” label?
For the past two decades, the Western mainstream media has mostly referred to Falun Gong as a spiritual group or a spiritual movement. However, some irresponsible reporters, especially in recent years, have labeled or suggested that Falun Gong is a cult.
Why? Two factors may be at play here.
A leaked 2017 CCP internal document outlines its strategy of mobilizing foreign journalists and international media to report on Falun Gong in a manner that more closely matches Beijing’s own demonization of the practice: “By … cultivating non-governmental forces, we can fight heterodox religions such as ‘Falun Gong,’ thereby mobilizing influential and friendly people such as experts, scholars, journalists, and overseas Chinese community leaders to speak up. We should strive to have foreign media take a tone more favorable to us [on Falun Gong].”
In recent years, the CCP’s strategy has been successful in various instances. For example, the Chinese regime paid an alleged “cult expert,” Rick Ross, to visit China multiple times and help the regime legitimize its defamation and persecution campaign against Falun Gong. China’s state run media referred to him as an “international friend” because of that.
However, a 2018 report by Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF) (page 14) found that Rick Ross “only has a high school diploma and does not have any education or credentials in religion… He was prosecuted in three distinct cases: an attempted burglary, embezzlement of $100,000 worth of jewelry, and kidnapping.” Ross pleaded guilty in both the burglary and embezzlement cases. The kidnapping incident led to a “multimillion-dollar judgment against Ross.” The HRWF report states: “A study of Rick Ross’ background shows that he is neither a scholar in religious studies nor a cult expert.”
Many Western media corporations or their parent companies have significant business ties with China, making them vulnerable to the influence of the CCP, which spends $10 billion annually on its external propaganda aimed at audiences around the world.
Another possible reason could be that certain Western media outlets aimed to discredit their rival media, the Epoch Times, due to ideological differences. In order to achieve this, they need to use Falun Gong as a pawn by portraying the faith group in a negative light.
A 2021 Arc Digital article explored why some media outlets that had largely ignored Falun Gong’s plight for two decades suddenly took a renewed interest in the group recently, but only to scrutinize it.
These reporters had no interest in engaging with or understanding the Falun Gong community and the main body of Falun Gong teachings. Instead, they chose to interview a few disaffected former practitioners (a common occurrence in any religion), picked a few esoteric passages from Falun Gong books (out of over 1 million words in about 50 books) out of context, and misinterpreted them through a secular, progressive lens to paint a distorted picture of what Falun Gong is.
Such a framing of a story, though still being biased and stereotyping, probably wouldn’t do too much harm to a well-known religion, as the audience usually has enough knowledge and cultural background to put the story into perspective. But for a less known spiritual practice in the Buddhist tradition, whose teachings and underlining cultural and historical contexts are largely unknown in the West, such a framing significantly distorts the teachings of Falun Gong.
Whether or not it was their intention, the reports by these journalists have added fuel to the CCP’s violent suppression of Falun Gong in China. In fact, the CCP has even translated some of these reports into Chinese and propagated them to the public to legitimize its vilification and persecution against Falun Gong.
As far as the Epoch Times, though founded by some Chinese Americans who practice Falun Gong, it doesn’t represent or speak for Falun Gong. Many of Epoch Times’ writers and editors are not Falun Gong practitioners. Falun Dafa Associations have no financial ties with the Epoch Times either.
The persecution of Falun Gong is one of the largest and most horrific human rights atrocities in the 21st century. The CCP’s propaganda of demonizing and dehumanizing the group is a crucial element of the persecution campaign. The free world shouldn’t subscribe to this propaganda and, by doing so, further victimize a victim group.
Read the 2023 Spokane Favs article addressing misconceptions on Falun Gong and Shen Yun. For more on the subject of propaganda and CCP influence, also visit our Misconceptions page below.