Why Haven’t I Heard about This?
If 100 million people were targeted in a violent campaign consisting of illegal abductions, imprisonment, torture, and killing, we’d know about it right? Especially in the modern, interconnected world of endless cell phone-captured videos and instant messaging, surely, evidence of such a campaign would make headlines around the world.
Tragically, the answer is, in this case, no, and the story of the silence that has ensued features a hard-core tyranny that has coerced and manipulated a broad range of people and institutions across Asia and the West into appeasement.
But it wasn’t always the case…
Early Quality Reporting
When the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) first launched the campaign to eliminate Falun Gong, it did make headline news around the world. In 1999 alone, Falun Gong was featured on the cover of the New York Times on six separate occasions, including a top story about a secret press conference held by Falun Gong practitioners on the outskirts of Beijing. This early coverage was not in-depth, perhaps due to the fact that the spiritual practice was unfamiliar to most Western journalists, but it was covered frequently.
During the following year, however, high-quality reporting emerged from a few Western outlets.
Throughout 2000, the Wall Street Journal ran a series of investigative articles that exposed how Falun Gong practitioners were routinely imprisoned and tortured, sometimes to death, around China. These articles won the Journal a Pulitzer for investigative journalism.
In 2001, the Washington Post became the first major media outlet to disclose that Chinese officials had received explicit orders to torture and brainwash Falun Gong practitioners who did not abandon their beliefs.
Earlier that year, the Post‘s Phillip Pan authored a pivotal exposé of two of the participants in the “self-immolation incident,” a false “protest” the communist regime staged in Tiananmen Square in January 2001. The incident was scripted by the CCP for the purpose of vilifying Falun Gong practitioners in the eyes of the Chinese public. Pan was the first to uncover evidence that the immolators were not Falun Gong practitioners.
Also in 2001, then-senior analyst for CNN, Willy Lam, published an investigative piece that accurately identified then-CCP leader Jiang Zemin as the driving force behind the persecution campaign, and how he had used the campaign to build up his own power base. In other words, he disclosed how the entire campaign was a political power grab by Jiang.
Beginning in 2002, however, the coverage fell off a cliff, but it was not for lack of evidence.
For more than 20 years, the fact that millions of Falun Gong practitioners have been harassed, detained, imprisoned, tortured or killed by Chinese authorities has been regularly documented in annual reports by human rights groups and governments around the world.
Washington DC-based Freedom House, a global leader in human rights reporting and advocacy, has documented and spoken out about the persecution of Falun Gong for 22 years. Not only are abuses against Falun Gong documented in its annual Freedom in the World reports, but Freedom House has also published several special reports featuring details of Falun Gong persecution in China, including 2017’s Falun Gong: Religious Freedom in China and 2021’s China: Transnational Repression Case Study.
In July, 2021, Freedom House’s Director of Advocacy spoke at a Falun Gong rally in Washington DC, saying “Freedom House stands in solidarity today with Falun Gong practitioners and all those persecuted by the CCP. We thank you for your bravery, and we look forward to the day when all in time are able to freely exercise their fundamental rights, including the right to freedom of religion and belief.”
For more than 20 years, the annual reports of Amnesty International have documented brutal and on-going treatment of Falun Gong across China. Throughout this period, Amnesty has also issued press releases and urgent actions to advocate for individual Falun Gong practitioners, including a 2019 Urgent Action to call for the release of a High School teacher who practices Falun Gong, was wrongfully detained, and at risk of torture.
The U.S. Department of State has listed human rights abuses against Falun Gong in its annual human rights reports to Congress as has the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
The U.S. Congress itself has issued five resolutions characterizing the persecution of Falun Gong as a campaign “carried out by government officials and police at all levels, and has permeated every segment of society.”
Similar documentation and statements have been done by the United Nations, the European Union, the Canadian government, and many other governments around the world.
And yet, despite this consistent documentation, beginning in 2002, accurate and meaningful reporting on Falun Gong in China largely disappeared.
Killing the Story
In 2001, New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger traveled to China to meet with then-CCP leader Jiang Zemin, who single-handedly started the persecution of Falun Gong. Within days, nytimes.com was unblocked in China (and remained so for some time), and a team was established to build a Chinese-language edition of the New York Times. And for the next two decades, the Times was suspiciously quiet on Falun Gong, even as rival media continued to cover the story for at least another year or two.
As recently as 2019, insiders at the New York Times have reported Falun Gong stories being suppressed.
Former New York Times Beijing correspondent Didi Kirsten Tatlow’s testimony to the China Tribunal discussed how forced organ harvesting from Falun Gong practitioners did take place in China, and that it was an open secret among transplant surgeons. And yet, she testifies that her editors at the New York Times actively discouraged her from reporting on this fact, and in the end, and blocked her from pursuing any further investigations.
The New York Times was not alone.
In 2001, TIME magazine was pulled from every shelf in China after it published an article about Falun Gong’s presence in Hong Kong.
In 2007, Canada’s national public broadcaster, the CBC, canceled a scheduled documentary about Falun Gong after coming under pressure from the Chinese embassy (CBC held the broadcasting rights to the 2008 Beijing Olympics).
In 2010, writer Peter Manseau was working on a Falun Gong article for the Washington Post‘s Sunday magazine. His editors initially loved the idea, and suggested it might run on the cover. Ten days after requesting a comment from the Chinese Embassy, the Post editors killed the story. Manseau was paid the full fee for his article, and not the 30% that is typical for a story that is never run. During this same time period, the Post was lobbying the Chinese government to secure a visa for one of its reporters whom Chinese officials were reluctant to let into China due to previous work he had done years earlier.
In 2014, a fictional story in the Australian edition of Reader’s Digest featured a Falun Gong refugee as a secondary character. The Chinese printing firm refused to print the magazine until it censored the story, which it did.
In 2018, Australian ABC cancelled an interview with former Miss World, Anastasia Lin due to her “affiliations.” Ms. Lin is an prominent campaigner for human rights in China, and has been very outspoken against the persecution of Falun Gong. When pressed, a producer told Lin that the decision came from “higher ups.”
Clearly, a pattern of CCP pressure resulting in silence in Western media exists, but what makes this possible? How could a foreign regime exert this much influence?
Follow the Money
As the examples of the Washington Post and the CBC above illustrate, having media access to China, especially around important events such as the Olympics or the visitation of a foreign head of state is vital for Western media. Given the scope and scale of censorship the CCP has been able to achieve in the West on the Falun Gong topic, however, the levers of influence likely go far beyond access to China.
Sadly, it’s the financial ties that constitute a greater conflict of interest in many cases. After China entered the WTO in December 2001, Western companies flocked to China. Over the decade that followed, China saw unprecedented capital inflows and economic growth, which gave the CCP more leverage to influence Western institutions.
Six corporations control 90% of U.S. media outlets in America, mostly network TV and cable, and these corporations have massive business interests in China. For example, Disney, which owns ABC and several movie studios, has opened theme parks in China. According to J.P. Morgan, the annual revenue of just the Shanghai park alone (before COVID-19) tops $1 billion. According to an account in the New York Times, Disney’s Chairman, Bob Iger, met with China’s top propaganda minister in 2010 and promised to use Disney’s global platform to spread CCP propaganda, essentially becoming an agent of CCP soft power around the world.
CNN’s parent company has a $50 million dollar partnership with a Chinese company overseen by the CCP. Slanted coverage from CNN abounds. For example, there are multiple instances of CNN singing the praises of China’s handling of the coronavirus.
The parent company of MSNBC and NBC, NBC Universal, has inked a deal with China’s state-run Xinhua “news agency” and China’s leading tech giant, Baidu. NBC Universal also has a stake in a Chinese media venture worth $3.8 billion.
The pillars of our print media are equally compromised. The Boston Globe, New York Times, L.A. Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and others have billionaire majority owners with enormous business interests controlled by the CCP. For example, Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim is the largest shareholder of the New York Times. Slim’s ventures with Chinese companies span automotive and high-tech industries, and constitute a significant portion of his wealth.
The CCP spends $10 billion each year on its external propaganda to audiences around the world. Major newspapers in America and other Western countries took in millions of dollars of advertising cost from the CCP for its China Daily insert in these papers.
There are dozens of cases where the CCP has hosted Western journalists, editors, and publishers on elaborate trips to China, all paid for by the CCP. A 2020 report by the International Federation of Journalists cited several examples of reporters from foreign news outlets subsequently “producing stories that faithfully echo Beijing’s position” on various sensitive issues after such trips.
In 2018, the Associated Press and CCP’s mouthpiece Xinhua News Agency signed a MOU to expand cooperation in areas including new media, application of artificial intelligence (AI) and economic information. That raised alarms in Congress, where members of both parties are newly attuned to Chinese foreign-influence operations inside the United States.
In short, significant if not a majority of revenue generated by some U.S. media outlets originates in China, and therefore, subject to the authoritarian rule there. At the very least, this constitutes a significant conflict of interest for these media companies.
A Diplomatic Onslaught
Marginalizing and silencing Falun Gong around the world through diplomatic missions has been a top priority of the CCP for more than 20 years.
This pressure is exerted at the very highest levels.
At an hour-long summit with then-U.S. President Bill Clinton during APEC’s 1999 meeting, Jiang Zemin made clear his concern that the U.S. show the “correct” attitude on the Falun Gong issue. Among the range of important issues discussed, only the Falun Gong issue was both raised directly by Jiang Zemin as well as documented in a book that Jiang gave to President Clinton himself. The Associated Press reported: “As China and the United States sought to mend recently damaged ties, President Jiang Zemin gave President Clinton an unusual gift: a book defending China’s ban on a popular meditation sect [Falun Gong]… the book’s 150 pages in English is a relentless
barrage of propaganda from China’s entirely state-run media.”
Days after Condoleezza Rice took over as National Security Advisor in 2001, a meeting with her Chinese counterparts went off the rails fast. Expecting to cover important security topics, Rice and her team were instead bombarded with a 30-minute prepared speech vilifying Falun Gong. Frustrated, Rice’s team finally asked the officials to leave their office.
Throughout the democratic world, elected officials, entrepreneurs, professors, and journalists can be found who have been complicit in maintaining silence over what some legal experts have termed the “genocide of Falun Gong.” At the same time, many individuals have been infuriated by the pressure tactics and become even more outspoken in support of Falun Gong as a result.
The CCP has carried out these pressure tactics primarily through diplomatic channels, the Chinese diaspora, sister city relationships, as well as Western China scholars and businessmen who have vested interested in access to the mainland.
Western politicians who express any form of support for Falun Gong are the main targets of Communist Party maneuvers.
Members of U.S. Congress as well as Canadian and European Members of Parliament have similarly been on the receiving end of a barrage of propaganda. Congressmen regularly report receiving phone calls, letters, magazines, and DVDs from embassy officials making rounds in Washington; these are sometimes accompanied by invitations for luxury official visits to Beijing.
Along with the standard phone calls, letters, and personal visits aimed at vilifying Falun Gong, documented pressure tactics include threats of action on trade, cultural or academic exchange programs, or a break off of sister-city relations if CCP demands are not met. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Claudia Rosett gives a sense of how many arms have been twisted over Falun Gong (article)
Even small towns officials have not been spared. Mayor Randy Voepel of Southern California’s Santee received a letter from the Party’s Los Angeles consul general vilifying Falun Gong. Voepel wrote back:
“‘Your letter personally chilled me to my bones. I was shocked that a Communist Nation would go to this amount of trouble to suppress what is routinely accepted in this country. . . I have the greatest respect for the Chinese people in your country and everywhere else in the world, but must be honest in my concern for the suppression of human rights by your government as evidenced by your request.’ Mr. Voepel then issued a mayoral proclamation commending the Falun Gong.”— U.S. Mayor Randy Voepel
The focus on Falun Gong is evident in cyber-space as well.
Of the ten most frequently blocked websites in China, four extensively report about the persecution of Falun Gong. Others include Voice of America and Radio Free Asia.
According to a study conducted by Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, searches on keywords with Falun Gong are also among the most tightly blocked on Chinese filters (see Berkman Center report).
Why the Falun Gong Exception?
Recent reports by the New York Times, the Washington Post, and many others have exposed terrible human rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims and Hong Kong residents, among many others. In these areas, many U.S. media outlets do not appear to censor their coverage even though it exposes terrible abuses of power by the CCP.
Why is the Falun Gong story different?
“The CCP silences and marginalizes Falun Gong more than any other group precisely because Falun Gong exposes the crimes of the CCP more than any other group. It’s that simple.”
Unlike Uyghurs or Hong Kong or Tibet, Falun Gong is not limited to a regional or ethnic boundary. Before the persecution started in China, Falun Gong practitioners were everywhere. You could find them in virtually every park in cities, towns, and even small villages across the country. They came from all walks of life, from senior military leaders to home makers; from university professors to rural farmers. The old, the young… it was impossible to separate the Chinese people from Falun Gong.
Meanwhile, as a spiritual practice rooted in ancient Chinese culture, Falun Gong practitioners’ efforts to revive traditional values and culture also exposes the CCP for what it is – a foreign communist ideology that has destroyed traditional Chinese culture and persecutes Chinese people to maintain power. That put the CCP’s legitimacy of representing China’s culture and people into question.
Furthermore, as the violent campaign against Falun Gong wore on, practitioners mobilized grassroots efforts across China to expose the CCP’s lies and horrible crimes. Along the way, they found many who believed so much CCP propaganda, that they wouldn’t listen to anything other than the official narratives. Therefore, Falun Gong embarked on a broader mission to systematically expose the CCP’s origin, history, and document many of its egregious lies and atrocities, both present and past, to finally let their fellow countrymen understand the full scope of the propaganda and tyranny they had been subjected to for over 70 years.
For the past two decades, millions of Falun Gong practitioners across China setup small print operations in their homes, creating and delivering pamphlets to every corner of China. This underground news dissemination effort countered the state-run media, and opened the Chinese people’s eyes to the full deception and tyranny of the ruling regime.
A similar effort has unfolded outside China, where Falun Gong practitioners have been instrumental in creating software to bypass the firewall in China, have established Chinese language media outlets that broadcast into China via satellite and shortwave radio, and established human rights projects tapped into the largest network of information across China.
In short, Falun Gong has become the largest whistleblower about the CCP’s crimes, and that has made it the #1 target of the CCP’s repression across China, and around the world.
This is why, for almost 20 years, the true story about Falun Gong and what is really happening inside China have remained largely out of the media, even as human rights abuses against other groups are covered in the news.
Breaking the Silence, Twisting the Story
In recent years, the silence has been replaced by a steady stream of misinformation and propaganda… in the West.
Starting in 2019, Falun Gong was featured in several major media reports. In many cases, however, these reports grossly distort the teachings and beliefs of Falun Gong. Additionally, these reports mimic with shocking similarity the hate-filled propaganda prominent in communist China, which fuels terrible persecution of people who practice Falun Gong there.
And the persecution of 100 million people over the past 22 years? These Western reports largely ignore it.
The reasons for this more recent trend of mischaracterizing Falun Gong mostly stem from the same CCP influence that caused the silence of the past two decades. Included in the mix, however, is the toxic state of U.S. politics, and how many in the media have used Falun Gong as a pawn to discredit reporting done by the Epoch Times.