The Chinese government is focused on the “Five Poisons” that they believe are a threat to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP): Taiwanese independence, Tibetan independence, Xinjiang separatists, the Chinese democracy movement, and the Falun Gong. While many Americans have at least heard of the first four, most aren’t aware of Falun Gong or how it has become influential in the West through The Epoch Times and the Shen Yun dance troupe.
Here’s what you should know about the Falun Gong spiritual movement, its oppression by the Chinese government, and how the group spreads its message in the United States.
1. Falun Gong was part of the deep-breathing spiritual movement in China.
Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, is a spiritual movement that emerged in China during the early 1990s. It combines elements of Buddhism, Taoism, and qigong, a traditional Chinese practice of cultivating energy through movement and breathing exercises.
Qigong is purported to elevate members to high planes and harness the body’s energy to bring about better health through breathing, exercise, and meditation. The movement’s founder, Li Hongzhi, promotes Falun Gong as a path to spiritual enlightenment and physical health. It emerged toward the end of China’s “qigong boom,” a period when millions of Chinese began to take up the varied practices.
2. Falun Gong combines meditation and qigong exercises with a moral philosophy.
The practices of Falun Gong emphasize morality and the cultivation of virtue. It’s identified as a practice of the Buddhist school, though its teachings also incorporate elements drawn from Taoist traditions. Falun Gong differentiates itself from Buddhist monastic traditions in placing great importance on participation in the secular world. Practitioners are required to maintain regular jobs and family lives and observe the laws of their governments, and they’re instructed not to distance themselves from society.
The three stated tenets of the belief are truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance. However, critics of the movement claim these principles are cited by Falun Gong members to outsiders as a tactic for evading deeper inquiry and that followers have been instructed by its founder to lie about the practice.
3. Falun Gong’s leader believes he’s a messianic and divine figure.
Founder and leader Li Hongzhi sees himself as a messianic figure, unique in all human history, and able to teach people how to “ascend to Heaven.” He considers himself something of a divine figure but says, “You can think of me as a human being.” Li believes the problems of the modern world are mainly because “people no longer believe in orthodox religion” and because “aliens have begun to invade the human mind and its ideology and culture.”
Li believes orthodox faiths teach that virtue may be transformed into gong, or “cultivation energy,” which is said to be an everlasting, fundamental energy a human spirit possesses, and what ultimately dictates where the spirit goes after death. “As long as you do well on the human side, Jesus, Gods, or Buddhas will help you evolve gong,” says Li. “That’s how they help the beings they are saving. Due to cultural, linguistic, and other limitations of the time, Jesus only taught the principles on the surface and not their essence.”
4. Falun Gong teaches that aliens from outer space and other dimensions are trying to replace humanity.
Li contends that aliens from other planets and dimensions created modern technology, including computers and airplanes, and have corrupted humans by teaching them modern science. The aliens’ “ultimate purpose is to replace humans” through cloning. “If people reproduce a human person, the gods in heaven will not give its body a human soul,” adds Li. “The aliens will take that opportunity to replace the human soul and by doing so they will enter earth and become earthlings.”
5. Falun Gong teaches that racial groups were created by various divine beings—and that mixed races are ‘pitiable.’
Li holds the view that “different divine beings created their own different peoples,” and in history, those divine beings have all along been taking care of the people they created. “White people are white people, black people are black people, and people of the yellow race are people of the yellow race,” says Li. “Any ethnicity in the world is a race that corresponds with the Heavens.”
Li considers children of mixed race to be pitiable since “after mixing blood people no longer have their correspondence to the divine beings in the Heavens.” People of mixed race, according to Li, will lead pitiable lives: “The divine beings above won’t recognize a region where there is a concentration of mixed races, so normally the people in such a region are destitute and have a hard life.”
6. Falun Gong practitioners have continuously been persecuted by the Chinese government.
Initially, Falun Gong enjoyed a period of rapid growth and government tolerance within China. But relations between Falun Gong and the CCP soured by the late 1990s. The CCP viewed the group’s popularity and independent organizational structure as a potential threat. In 1999, the CCP launched a crackdown against Falun Gong, leading to widespread human rights abuses, including arrests, torture, and reports of forced organ harvesting. Falun Gong was labeled a “heretical organization.”
Following the crackdown, Falun Gong practitioners fled China and built a global network. They began extensive advocacy campaigns to raise awareness about their persecution in China, often hosting events, parades, and meditation sessions in cities around the world.
7. Falun Gong uses The Epoch Times to spread its message.
The Epoch Times was established in 2000 by Falun Gong practitioners to be a Chinese-language newspaper. Its primary goal was to provide uncensored news to Chinese readers, both in and outside the country. Over time, it expanded its languages and coverage, becoming a global media outlet.
For the first 16 years of its existence, The Epoch Times was an obscure alternative news operation within the United States. But that changed when the publication began to throw its support behind Donald Trump’s candidacy for president. Although it presents itself as a news outlet, The Epoch Times spent more money on pro-Trump Facebook advertisements than any group other than the Trump campaign.
Their support for Trump and their anticommunist credentials have helped the publication attract billions of views and become a dominant online media source, enabling Falun Gong to better spread its spiritual message—along with disinformation and conspiracy theories—to unsuspecting and gullible audiences.
As Li told staffers at a meeting of The Epoch Times in 2009,
The Epoch Times really has had a major impact in Fa-rectification [spreading the message of Falun Gong]. You have all seen it. The thinking that human beings have is in fact rather simple. Many people believe whatever the media says, and in the majority of cases it is the media that normally serves as a person’s source of information. As such, this informational mechanism is very useful to you in your efforts to save the people of this world and validate the Fa.
8. Falun Gong’s media outlet has been described as a ‘global-scale misinformation machine.’
Most people in the U.S. who have heard of The Epoch Times think of it as an online publication. While it does have a significant online presence—it’s published in 21 languages and 33 countries—it also has print editions in eight languages: Chinese, English, Spanish, Hebrew, Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean, and Indonesian. The first Chinese-only print edition was published in New York in April 2000, and the online edition followed in August 2000. In 2003, an online edition in English was launched, which began printing as a newspaper in New York in 2004.
Although Falun Gong’s leader doesn’t have direct control over the publication, Li has called The Epoch Times “our media,” along with the NTD digital production (a media company) and the Shen Yun dance troupe. The New York Times has accurately described the publication as a “global-scale misinformation machine that has repeatedly pushed fringe narratives into the mainstream.”
9. Falun Gong also spreads its message of ‘salvation’ through dance.
In 2006, members of Falun Gong came together in New York to “revive the traditional, divinely inspired culture of China” that they call Shen Yun. Shen Yun Performing Arts (literally “divine rhythm arts troupe”) is a nonprofit performing arts and entertainment company that tours internationally, producing dance performances and symphony concerts. Shen Yun operates out of Falun Gong’s headquarters in the 427-acre Dragon Springs compound in Deerpark, New York. A 2008 review by The Telegraph said,
This show is advertised as a Chinese spectacular—a kind of Eastern version of Cirque du Soleil. It is nothing of the kind. Acrobatics, singing and dancing skills are used in the service of a propaganda exercise on the part of Falun Gong.
And Li Hongzhi has told his followers that “selling a ticket [to a Shen Yun performance] equates to saving a person.”