Reprinted with permission from the Online Journalism Review.

In 1999, the Chinese government launched a campaign against superstitions and unauthorized spiritual groups. One group targeted was Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, which practices a form of Qi Gong, a slow-motion meditative exercise related to martial arts such as Tai Chi.

Members of the group reacted to the government offensive with a daring demonstration, staged in Beijing's Tiananmen Square--the site of the 1989 crackdown on the pro-democracy movement. The demonstration was peaceful, but involved 10,000 of the group's followers, making it the largest demonstration in recent Chinese history. In return, the Chinese government launched an all-out offensive specifically targeted against the group, branding it an "evil cult" and arresting and imprisoning its leaders and members.

Is this just another example of religious repression? Why should we care about the Chinese government's beef with a bunch of people who appear to be devoted to the practice of an ancient meditative exercise regime?

Before we dismiss what appears to be a marginal religious cult, we should remember that estimates of this group's size range from two million to 100 million. We might also recall the last time an unorthodox religious movement swept across China (as Jonathan Spence tells the story in "God's Chinese Son"), the result was a war, the Taiping Rebellion, that killed twenty million people. Imagine if Hong Xiuquan, the messianic leader of that nineteenth-century cultic crusade, had had access to twenty-first century technology-and you'll have a clue as to why the Chinese regime is so scared of this group.

A little Web surfing reveals that there's more to this story than meets the eye. Falun Gong's Internet savvy was a crucial factor in its ability to organize the unauthorized demonstration under the noses of Chinese intelligence. The group's secretive leader, Li Hongzhi, lives in New York and directs his movement from abroad with Internet, fax, and telephone. The group is thoroughly wired, with Falun Gong Web sites all over the world, including Asia, the USA, UK, Canada, Israel, and Australia.

In response, the Chinese government has set up an anti-Falun Gong Web site to discredit the group, and, according to an ABC News report, has also hacked into Falun Gong Web sites worldwide, spamming and causing their servers to crash.

Others have also joined in the fray of the Internet propaganda war between the Chinese government and the Falun Gong, with Web sites such as CESNUR and AsiaSource following the developments of Chinese persecution of the group closely, and offering overviews, commentaries, and site links.

The Falun Gong story appears to be as much about technology as it is about religion; it offers a fascinating glimpse of an ancient religious tradition that is mutating rapidly as it makes the leap into cyberspace.

The Propaganda War
Let's start with the attacking side in the propaganda war. Why is the Chinese government so upset over this group, and what allegations have they made about it?

A July 23, 1999, article in China Daily provides some of the government's justifications of its campaign to arrest and jail Falun Gong followers. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue is quoted as claiming that "Falun Gong organizations have advocated superstitious beliefs and incited the masses to create disturbances and jeopardize social stability under the banner of practicing Falun Gong."

The official Web site of the China Internet Information Center, the center of the government's Internet campaign to discredit the group, contains numerous articles detailing the "cult's" alleged crimes.

In one article, "True Face of Li Hongzhi Exposed," Falun Gong is characterized as a "highly organized, fully functional, and unregistered illegal organization," whose leader is alleged to have bilked his followers of massive quantities of money and even their sanity.

Another article, with the unambiguous title "Analysis of Falun Gong Leader's Malicious Fallacies," accuses the group of being a doomsday cult that has supposedly "deceived" and "harmed" many: "Falun Gong has a set of ridiculous ideas, a basic one of which claims that doomsday is coming, that human beings will be extinct soon, that modern science can do nothing to prevent the catastrophe, that only Falun Gong can save mankind, and that Li Hongzhi is the sole 'savior.'" Li Hongzhi is alleged to have warned "that the Earth would explode, that only he could postpone the explosion, and that only 'Falun Dafa' was the 'transcendental law' which could save the entire human race."

This is all very interesting to apocalyptic prophecy buffs. And, it's not very often that claims about the impending apocalypse attract the attention of the government of the world's most populous nation. That same government was so afraid of Falun Gong that it continued its crackdown at a sensitive moment, when China's entry into the WTO and the debate over Most Favored Nation status in the US placed it under intense critical scrutiny from anti-China activists eager to publicize evidence of religious repression.

What is perhaps most interesting about the Falun Gong Web pages--on both sides of this battle--is that they are quite extensively available in both English and Chinese. This suggests two things: first, that persuading external, Western audiences to either condemn or tolerate this group is an important objective for both sides; second, that some substantial portion of the followers themselves are English-speaking, non-Asian Westerners.

At least one believer's Web testimony indicates that it has an appeal for non-Asians; and the many other personal stories posted at Minghui Net, the main site for "Falun Dafa in North America," bear this out. Falun Gong appears to be aggressively attempting to expand its membership beyond China by targeting mystically inclined Westerners.

Most interesting of all to those who follow news about fringe religions around the world is the fact that the Chinese government's campaign against this organization has drawn its justifications directly from the findings of anti-cult authors in the West.

The extensive article "Why We Judge 'Falun Gong' to Be a Cultist Organization" is hauntingly familiar to those who remember the press accounts of cult violence from Jonestown to Waco to Heaven's Gate and Aum Shinrikyo. The article pulls out all the stops in its comparison of Li Hongzhi to Jim Jones and other planners of religious violence, and in its demonization of alternative religious groups as "cultist organizations corroding human society like malignant tumors." It lists a number of symptoms of destructive cultism, as distinguished from legitimate religion: "cult founder worship" and claims of supernatural powers, "hawking the theory of doomsday," "amassing illegal funds by manipulating followers," and "brainwashing."

As the article puts it, "The followers of a cult are re-educated, have their brains washed and start with a clean slate -- 'Brain washing' means that the founder of a cult, or his organization, instills his ideas into the followers' minds and demands that they accept them."

The Brainwash Debate
The scholarly debate over the brainwashing thesis is conflicted. Academics are divided over whether many standard religious practices of indoctrination are distinguishable from this kind of acute psychological coercion.

The fact that the charge of brainwashing is being raised by the Chinese government is particularly ironic, for the term was introduced to our lexicon as a way to describe the coercive pressure applied to American prisoners of war by the Chinese during the Korean War. (The image of evil Chinese Communists brainwashing American soldiers was memorably fixed in public consciousness by the film "Manchurian Candidate.")

Any scholarly validity that attaches to the brainwashing theory today is largely due to Robert Jay Lifton's pioneering study, "Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of Brainwashing in China," which certainly does not reflect well on the Chinese government's own persuasive practices. But the irony seems invisible to Falun Gong's official enemies, who are content to paint a picture of Li Hongzhi and his group that depicts them with the standard charges in the anti-cult arsenal.

If Li is the archetypal doomsday cult leader, and his followers are deluded, superstitious victims of sophisticated psychological coercion, then any measures taken by the government would seem to be justifiable. Like many cult leaders, he is supposed to have said that "those who oppose Falun Gong are 'demons.'" He is also accused of encouraging his followers to commit suicide (on closer examination, this charge dwindles to indirectly causing deaths by discouraging members from seeking medical treatment). Finally, Li is portrayed as a corrupt swindler, taking money from his followers and amassing "a large fortune on which he has not paid taxes."

These allusions to the Western ideas of a doomsday cult figure are clearly an attempt by the Chinese government to seek sympathy and empathy from Western countries, particularly from America, where Li now resides.

As Western countries may not be familiar with the traditional Chinese religions in which Falun Gong is rooted, the Web page also relies on using the voice of state-approved Chinese religious leaders to further discredit Falun Gong and strengthen the "cult" image. For example, the head of the Buddhist Association of China is quoted as saying that "Falun Gong deceives its followers by misusing Buddhist terminology" and "runs counter to Buddhism and the Communist Party of China's policy of freedom of religious belief."

To American Christians who may be concerned about the implications of the government's campaign for followers of their own religion, the Chinese can also point to statements of support from Christians leaders who support the ban on Falun Gong.

The propagandistic tone of the attacks on Li Hongzhi and Falun Gong seems over the top, recalling the worst excesses of the ideological campaigns of the Cultural Revolution. Li's political ambitions are described as "wicked" and "viperous" while his ideas are "malicious fallacies'; his followers are said to be "an evil group that is fighting against science, the human kind, [and] society."

The official Chinese anti-Falun Gong site on which these attacks appear is entirely self-referential, with not a single link to outside resources that might provide other viewpoints or correct distortions. So, perhaps it's time to turn to the group's own Web sites, to see if there is any evidence to support the official condemnations that are so strangely aligned with the rhetoric of the American anti-cult movement.

Falun Gong, USA
Visitors to the official USA Falun Gong Web site, Falun Dafa, will find a distinctly different portrayal of their version of Qi Gong practice and the group's purposes. The "Introduction of Falun Dafa" claims an authoritative ancient lineage, stating that "Much of the teachings are highly classified knowledge that are hitherto imparted exclusively from master to trusted disciples since antiquity in China." A membership of "100 million practitioners in nearly 30 countries around the world" is claimed, and the site's authors proudly note that "Li Hongzhi has worked tirelessly to convey Falun Dafa from China to the rest of the world. Along the way, he has touched the lives of countless people in many countries, earning an acclaimed international reputation."

The Web site also includes a section "Clarifying Some Misconceptions," which explicitly states that Falun Gong is not a cult, and proceeds to give several examples to refute the Chinese Government's attempts to depict it as a cult. The group rejects the authoritarian characterization of outsiders, claiming the title of "cultivators, not followers or adherents"; they are said to have "complete individual freedom," make their own decisions and lead "normal lives with families." The site explicitly renounces violence, teaching that killing or suicide violates the supreme principle of 'Truthfulness-Benevolence-Forbearance'" and teaching that Falun Gong does not "approve any form of punishment or persecution." Instead of being isolated, "secretive and exclusive," the group is "open to anyone who wants to learn, free of charge." A banner on the home page reinforces the point: "All Falun Dafa Activities Are Free of Charge."

The Internet is also the major source of free teaching materials, for instructions in the form of books, audio and videotapes can be downloaded without charge. Indeed, the Web site itself provides links to full texts of books, lectures and multimedia on Falun Gong. This contradicts the conventional image of cults taking money and possessions from its followers, which is further emphasized with the assertion that Falun Dafa is not a religion and there is "no religious ritual or worship." In addition, "Master Li does not allow donations, fundraising activities, or money to be accumulated in the name of Falun Dafa."

Yet, although the attempt to depict Falun Gong as a non-political, non-religious group appears rather convincing, the fact remains that it is a massive group that is organized, though perhaps not in a clear, structured fashion. The list of Falun Dafa Web sites that is provided in one of the links is staggering. Lists of volunteers all over the world provide the email addresses and contact numbers of individual members representing groups who practice together. The number of groups in China is claimed to be so large that a disclaimer, almost a boast, is given: "Too many to be listed. Falun Dafa practitioners can be found in public parks in all the cities every morning."

The Internet is clearly being used as a means to keep contact and mobilize members. One comes away from the various Falun Gong Web site groups with a distinct impression of an effective global network that is indeed organized and connected by virtue of the Internet. Is this organization as altruistic and benevolent as it claims to be? Or can any of the charges against Falun Gong and Master Li be substantiated?

It may be that, like some religious groups in the past that have appeared harmless but ultimately turned toward violence, Master Li's deeper designs will be unveiled and found to be malevolent. On one count, however, it seems that the Chinese government has misrepresented his teachings. Oddly, neither the official Falun Dafa Web sites nor any of the other Falun Gong Web sites show any reference to doomsday predictions or the end of the world.

The online text of the book "China Falun Gong" states that Falun Dafa is for "cultivation" and enlightenment." It "offers self-salvation: it makes the person stronger and healthier, more intelligent and wise." There is no mention made in the works available via the Net of impending disasters, the destruction of the world, or the exclusive salvation that Master Li is supposed to offer. These charges seems to come solely from the Chinese government (which, however, may be in possession of lecture tapes or untranslated works that it has yet to share with the world).

If we speculate as to why their attacks focused on doomsday beliefs, it may help to recall that at the time the story broke in the United States, law enforcement agencies and media pundits were embroiled in fearful premillennial speculations about the potential for religious terrorism associated with the apocalyptic year 2000. The Chinese government thus seems to have tried to justify its own repression with the same type of analysis that the FBI was promoting in its now-forgotten "Project Megiddo" report.

A recent survey of the opinions of overseas Chinese regarding Falun Gong and the government's repression yields some rather interesting and equivocal data: while many respondents have unfavorable opinions of Li Hongzhi, many more agreed that both Western and Chinese media have handled the whole case poorly. Those seeking to rectify media bias may find a non-partisan perspective at the online archives of CESNUR, the Italian-based Center for Studies on New Religions, where news items on Falun Gong are regularly collected and updated and some balanced articles may be found.

Similarly, the AsiaSource Web page attempts to give a balanced and objective viewpoint of Falun Gong and its practitioners, providing links to interviews with Li, along with other opinions and commentary.

In conclusion, the Falun Gong has used modern technology to its advantage, exploiting the Internet as a tool for teaching, organizing, and mobilizing its global membership, as well as for counteracting the propaganda with which the Chinese government has inundated the world. The examination of Web sites on the Internet indicates that the Chinese government is clearly on the losing side of this war. Although some articles on the Web depict the Falun Gong as a crackpot group with strange spiritual beliefs, most do not swallow their depiction as a nefarious doomsday cult.

Criticism from human rights activists and the US government over the religious persecution of Falun Gong members has clearly forced the Chinese government to proceed with caution. Thus, the power of the Internet can be used to challenge communist leadership and give religious and spiritual groups a significant voice.

We can be sure that this power will be met with resistance: the November arrest of the Chinese student who was charged with spreading Falun Gong emails is an indication that the war is being fought offline as well as on the Net. One lesson that the Chinese might do well to learn is that persecuting a religion is the surest way to stimulate its growth. Watch for more news as Master Li's students around the world continue their resistance to the Chinese government's oppression.

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