“Isn’t the group a little… well, weird? I mean, I know it’s awful what’s happening to them in China and all, but…” quipped Paula.
She had just seen a sidewalk re-enactment of torture that Falun Gong are subjected to in China, and I was curious as to what she had learned. “So what gives you the impression it’s weird or something?” I followed up, curious.
She couldn’t say. After a few faltering attempts at a reply, Paula finally managed a full sentence. “I don’t know, it must have been something I heard.”
That brief exchange was unsettling for me. Having studied Falun Gong and its suppression, I saw in Paula’s suspicion toward the practice the culmination of a nasty political campaign born in Beijing. Her suspicion was engineered, you might even say. It wasn’t an unmediated, raw response to her encounter with Falun Gong only hours before. In fact, it had nothing to do with anything the group had done or said; she hadn’t spoken with any of them or taken their literature.
Then how was it that Paula came to have that suspicion? And why was her notion so different than that of people in Taiwan, for instance? And how could something “odd” or even “fringe,” as Paula imagined it, have been taken up by as many as 100 million persons—the equivalent of one in three Americans—as it was in 1990s China? Among them, after all, were some of China’s leading scientists, educators, and even political and military officials. Several points help make sense of this.
When Falun Gong was first branded an “evil cult” by China’s communist regime, it was not exactly a neutral declaration. It was not a detached conclusion, born of observation and study.
The move came in October of 1999, to be precise. The Party was then three months into what had become a violent, bumbling campaign meant to “crush” the popular Falun Gong. Not only was the group standing up to the regime, but the violent means being used against it—such as torture and public shows of police brutality—were turning into a PR nightmare. International criticism was mounting by the day, as was sympathy for the pacifistic meditators. Something had to be done if the campaign was not to prove an embarrassing failure. Jiang Zemin, then China’s ruler, was determined to undermine support for Falun Gong.
According to a November 9, 1999, Washington Post report, “It was Mr. Jiang who ordered that Falun Gong be branded a ‘cult,’ and then demanded that a law be passed banning cults.”
The move, like the campaign itself, was self-serving. According to the Post, “The crackdown was undertaken to demonstrate and solidify the power of the Chinese leadership … Communist Party sources said that 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.” Citing a Party official, the same story noted that, “This obviously is very personal for Jiang.”
In China, the “cult” label served three purposes:
But the label was meant to reach beyond China—the regime’s rhetoric has, in fact, been tailored with an eye toward the West. According to a February 14, 2001 piece in the Asian Wall Street Journal, the Party “enthusiastically adopted the language and arguments of the Western anti-cult movement in its propaganda… [it] has attached itself to the anti-cult movement to justify its crackdown.”
Soon the term was finding its way into most English-language media reports. Ostensibly, mentioning the label was meant for balance—Falun Gong claims ABC, China’s Communist Party XYZ. The assumption being that readers will sort it all out somehow.
If studies in psychology are any indicator, however, terms like “cult” have staying power. They stick. Studies have shown that for every one negative tidbit heard about someone or something, it takes hearing many times more positive things to overturn the negative impression.
A second facet is a less-than-noble tendency in today’s reportage to single out the seemingly strange. There has been a certain exoticizing of Falun Gong and its beliefs in the interests of a more dramatic story. This, in turn, feeds off and fuels the whole “cult” allegation.
David Ownby, a professor of history who specializes in Chinese religions, has noted that, “In my reading of what other people have said about Li Hongzhi [Falun Gong’s teacher] they are very quick to single out strange remarks that he has made and to make fun of him ... too often I feel that the journalists who have done this, or the scholars who have done this, have done this at the expense of careful analysis.”
“Modern journalists,” according to Ownby, “find all the discussion [in Falun Gong] about being good to be irrelevant
because it’s boring. So they focus on something else.” Ownby says. “But when you read Li Hongzhi’s writings, when you talk to Falun Gong practitioners, over and over and over again they come back to the notion of being good ... there is a great pleasure in being able to devote oneself to being good.”
Thus, as popular depictions have it, Falun Gong’s beliefs often amount to “aliens” and other exotica. Seldom do its most basic
tenets—such as the aspiration to live a life of truth, compassion, and tolerance—garner so much as mention.
If the “cult” idea has been passively perpetuated in the West, China’s communist authorities have also worked hard to actively promulgate it. Congressional offices report routine mailings from Chinese officials denouncing Falun Gong in charged terms, as do city mayors, editorial boards, community leaders, and business owners. Consular officials have even written scathing op-eds.
Such is the extent that two congressional resolutions have demanded Chinese officials to (in polite terms) knock it off. One resolution even called upon the U.S. government to “take appropriate action, including but not limited to enforcement of the immigration laws, against any such representatives or agents who engage in such illegal activities.”
One final reason the smear campaign has had some degree of success is the innocence of its recipients. “Most Americans know very little about China’s dictatorship,” says Levi Browde, of the New York-based Falun Dafa Information Center. “And so they naturally assume it must operate in ways similar to governments we’re familiar with in the West.”