To cite this article: Kavan, Heather. Print Media Coverage of Falun Gong in Australia and New Zealand [online]. In: Horsfield, Peter (Editor). Papers from the Trans-Tasman Research Symposium, ‘Emerging Research in Media, Religion and Culture’. Melbourne: RMIT Publishing, 2005: 74-85. Availability: <http://search.informit.com.au/documentSummary;dn=038886418229029;res=IELHSS> EISBN: 192116669X.
Paper presented at the symposium on
Emerging Research in Media, Religion and Culture.
Melbourne 12 July 2005
Department of Communication and Journalism
Since 1999 Falun Gong and the Chinese government have been locked in a propaganda war. The Chinese press characterise the spiritual movement as an evil cult, while Falun Gong – via the Western press – portrays itself as a harmless group who just want to practise their breathing exercises. With few objective sources, journalists cannot be sure how accurately they are depicting Falun Gong.
This paper assesses the accuracy of articles on Falun Gong published in Australian and New Zealand newspapers, using primary sources and first hand knowledge from ethnographic research conducted in New Zealand. I found that the information given to Western reporters is misleading. I argue that, in contrast to the press’s tendency to discredit new religious movements, reporters have been sympathetic to Falun Gong – often to the extent of tacitly supporting a religious and political agenda.
Falun Gong was virtually unheard of in the West until 1999 when 10,000 members made international headlines by protesting in Zhongnanhai. The religion has since featured prominently in the news with stories of protests, torture of members, and alleged self immolations. Analysing the relationship between Falun Gong and the media, specialist in Chinese studies Patsy Rahn (2000) writes of the need to go behind the publicity and investigate what is really happening. In this paper I take up Rahn’s theme, and focus on New Zealand and Australian newspaper stories.
In Australia and New Zealand, Falun Gong appears to have received more media attention than any other new religious movement, with over 500 articles in the newspapers alone. Most recently the religion became front page news when Chinese defector Chen Yonglin claimed that more than a thousand secret agents were monitoring and persecuting Australian Falun Gong members. Although studies of the Australian media found that the press tend to discredit new religious movements and magnify their deviance (Richardson, 1996; Selway, 1992), reporters seem to be receptive to Falun Gong, minimising the religion’s unusual beliefs and presenting the movement as compatible with mainstream activities.
This paper begins with an introduction to Falun Gong and its relationship with the media. Then I explain the background to my research, the methodology, and the problems of independently verifying material. Next I analyse the newspaper reports, focusing on the extent to which they are supportive, and critically discuss the main themes. I conclude by noting the need for replacing misinformation with a deeper, more accurate coverage.
Background to Falun Gong and the media
Former trumpet player and clerk, Li Hongzhi, founded Falun Gong in 1992 as an offshoot of Qi Gong. Qi Gong is mainly comprised of breathing exercises that are believed to activate one’s qi (life force), but Li added teachings of a world filled with demons, aliens and apocalyptic adventures. His first two books, Zhuan Falun (Revolving the Law Wheel) and Falun Gong, were published by the Chinese Communist party. These books read like an Asian equivalent of the X Files, and were instant best sellers. At the height of Falun Gong’s popularity, Li shifted to New York.
At first Falun Gong received little media attention. However, Li’s opposition to official ideology and to science, and his claim that only he could save China (and humanity) inevitably brought controversy, and by mid 1996 Chinese journalists began to publish critical articles about his practices. In response, Li preached that members must defend the fa (way or principle as outlined in his teachings) whenever it was attacked. Practitioners relentlessly protested any negative media reports, initiating over 300 protests between April 1998 and mid 1999, forcing dismissals of reporters and receiving public apologies (Deng and Fang, 2000; Zhao, 2003). Such were the protests that Beijing authorities introduced a black out against any negative media reports on Falun Gong (Zhao, 2003).
Despite the blackout, physicist He Zuoxin published a critique of Falun Gong in an obscure academic magazine, describing Li’s teachings as superstitious and a health hazard. The article might have been forgotten, except that six thousand Falun Gong protestors occupied the University for three days, demanding a retraction. The editors refused, responding that academic publications do not print retractions. Police broke up the protest, arresting 45 people.
To appeal their alleged defamation and the arrests, in 1999 over 10,000 members assembled on the sidewalks of Zhongnanhai, adjacent to Tiananmen Square. Their version of the event is that they went to explain that they were harmless, and that during the appeal they were orderly, did not make a sound, and even picked up their own litter. The government’s interpretation is that they besieged the compound and surrounded the Communist headquarters with a menacing silence.
Falun Gong was outlawed as a threat to public safety. Tens of thousands of members were arrested and sent to labour camps without trial, and many were tortured. The Department of Propaganda launched an immediate media assault on Falun Gong. In the first month after the ban The People’s Daily ran over ten articles a day denouncing Falun Gong, and several TV stations ran marathons of special features 24 hours a day for days on end (Kutulowski, 2004; Yu, 2004). Newspapers, magazines and broadcasting stations published lurid stories of members dying from suicide, and cutting open their stomach to find their inner falun. The blood and guts footage was especially compelling because criminal acts and suicides are usually underreported in China.
Falun Gong members took to the Western media for support, accusing the government of torturing and killing practitioners. Members have repeatedly hijacked Chinese satellite signals, sabotaged cable TV transmission lines, and broken into television broadcasts to broadcast footage of their leader. Since then Falun Gong and the Chinese government have been locked in a propaganda war, with Falun Gong dissemination its message to the Western press.
Background to the research
Several years ago, Falun Gong practitioners sent hundreds of letters to academic institutions requesting that unbiased research be done on them.
I was keen to find out what lay behind the headlines, so, when a group advertised in New Zealand, I approached them. When I discovered that their meetings were outdoors at 6am every morning, and involved holding one’s hands above one’s head for what seemed like interminable periods of time, I understood why few, if any, academics had acted on the research request. Nevertheless, I spent 12 months practising with them each morning. They told me that they were used to outsiders because before the Government crackdown in China, undercover spies sometimes attended meetings – often for several years.
From the outset I had the idea that this was interesting research. In fact, I was only at my second meeting when a police officer arrived. He just watched and said nothing, and I mention this incident because I experienced first hand the puzzle that readers of recent newspaper reports must be experiencing: Why was there all this surveillance for a group of middle-aged women doing breathing exercises? The story just did not make sense.
At most meetings nobody spoke, and when they did it was often in Chinese. Usually, there were no greetings on arrival. We took a place in a circle, closed our eyes, did the exercises, and left without saying goodbye to each other. It would be an exaggeration to call this participant observation as I was not watching the others (except for occasional peeping to make sure I was in sequence). Instead, I used a methodology drawn from Bellah’s (1970) ideas about symbolic realism, of shifting into the person’s religious reality to understand (and show respect for) their spiritual path. My approach is consistent with Falun Gong members’ expectations that researchers experience their practice before they make judgement on it.
A limitation to this research is that, in my quest for understanding, I was perhaps more keen than the participants. At the beginning of 2004 there were eight participants, but as we usually practised outdoors, often in temperatures below zero, numbers rapidly declined, (especially during the Manawatu flooding). Increasingly I began to suspect that the remaining people were only there because I – the outsider- was enthusiastically at the practice sight with my hands in the air every morning. So, as well as my observations being limited to a small number of people, at times the mere fact that they were participating may have been because I was. While this could suggest that the findings cannot be generalised, Falun Gong practice is relatively standardised around the world.
A second limitation of the research is that I have never had any contact with the Chinese government or its embassies. Therefore while I had sufficient time, and access to information, to see negative aspects of Falun Gong, I have no first-hand knowledge of Chinese government practices, and no experience of what it is like to be repressed for one’s religious beliefs.
When I began this research I felt a strong empathy for the group and hoped that my research would help them. They generously gave me reading material, tapes and videos. However, the more I investigated the sources, the more I found myself questioning the information that Falun Gong spokespeople were telling the media. I began wondering why journalists were not probing deeper, and assumed that this was due to tight deadlines and lack of interest (one reporter dismissed the religion to me as “not sexy”). Later I discovered how Falun Gong’s ability to mobilise large numbers of members quickly, and their propensity for law suits and protests, make it difficult to publish unfavourable material.
I gathered the central themes of newspaper reports by reading all stories published in Australian and New Zealand newspapers since Falun Gong was first mentioned in May 1999 to the end of June 2005. A colleague, Beth Houston, retrieved them from the Factiva database by typing Falun Gong, and the religion’s alternative name, Falun Dafa, into the search engine. The database contains articles from all major newspapers, including tabloids. I also obtained articles that were missing from Factiva by searching Newztext Plus and the Internet. I excluded all items that did not show evidence of the way Australian and New Zealand journalists report on Falun Gong. Excluded items included irrelevant stories that mentioned Falun Gong in passing, letters to the editor (almost all by Falun Gong adherents), and stories from newswires, such as Reuters, that did not appear to have been picked up by the Press. This left 501 articles: 361 Australian and 140 New Zealand.
After reading all the articles, I decided on the main themes: popularity, exercise and meditation, human rights abuses, and spy stories. I also classified the articles into eight groups: (1) extremely positive – appeared to be verbatim from Falun Gong sources; (2) totally positive – contained only positive material, but without an exaggerated tone; (3) mostly positive – gave alternatives perspectives but concluded in favour of Falun Gong; (4) evenly balanced – gave alternative perspectives, but left no impression of which perspective was the most favourable; (5) neutral – reported facts that no party would be likely to dispute; (6) mostly negative – gave alternative perspectives, and left an overall negative impression of Falun Gong; (7) totally negative – reported members’ activities or non Falun Gong perspectives that gave a bad impression, and (8) extremely negative – appearing to be from anti-Falun Gong or anti-cult propaganda.
My chief challenge was assessing the accuracy of the information. Information from the Chinese media was clearly unusable because this material comes from the state-run Department of Propaganda, and it is difficult for an outsider to verify. Equally slanted, but from an opposing viewpoint, is the Epoch Times, a free newspaper with a pro-United States flavour, which prints only unfavourable news about China. Although Falun Gong members say that the paper is not a Falun Gong publication, as Rahn (2005) observes, Falun Gong adherents are involved in its founding, and the paper is staffed by volunteers who are often disciples and whose main jobs are unrelated to journalism. Also, in his most recent speech Li speaks approvingly of media outlets that disciples have set up as part of society’s media which can support the pro-democracy movement (Li, 2005b).
The Western media get most of their international information about Falun Gong from press releases from the Rachlin media group. What we are not told is that this group is essentially a public relations firm for Falun Gong, managed by Gail Rachlin – one of Li’s most avid disciples who is also spokesperson of Falun Dafa Information Centre. At the start of my research I sent two emails to the Centre asking how they perceived the media coverage, and whether there was any aspect of this coverage that they might be keen for me to research. I received a polite reply to one of these emails saying that they were too busy to respond.
On local matters, journalists get their stories from interviewing participants. The first limitation of this is that practitioners themselves get most of their information from reading the media (often if I asked them if something was true they replied “yes – I read it in the newspaper”), and therefore the same misinformation is often repeated.
A second limitation is that, when speaking to reporters, practitioners tend to be evasive about their beliefs, and resort to superficial principles and repetitions of their slogan “truthfulness, compassion, forbearance”. This may be because Li forbids disciples from talking about what he calls “high level things” to ordinary people. Instead, he instructs members to get sympathy by telling listeners about the persecution, with the hidden intention of later turning them into converts (Li cited in Rahn 2005, see also Li, 2003b). While to Westerners this recruitment tactic may seem deceptive, a Falun Gong spokesperson told me that by focusing on the persecution and not pushing their religion or leader, members were being inoffensive. Nevertheless, Li’s (2001a p. 67) threats that if practitioners inadvertently alter the teachings when speaking to outsiders, they will be attacked by demons and die, appear to be taken seriously by practitioners. This therefore colours the information they give to the press.
I gathered more information from reading Li’s books and speeches. Copies are available on the Internet, but they’re not necessarily the same as the originals. For example, in response to Chinese exposés, Li and his followers appear to have removed a section of his dubious autobiographical claims from Zhuan Falun, as well as from the Internet (for a fuller discussion see Penny, 2003). Other vital material has been removed, Chinese translations often differ from English ones in critical parts, and the most anti-gay, racist and anti-human scriptures have never been translated into English (Deng & Fang, 2000). Also, in 2001, Li instructed followers to destroy any unauthorised versions of his speeches (2001a, pp. 76-7).
In contrast to a body of academic literature observing the press’s prejudicial treatment of new religious movements (for example Beckford, 1999; Richardson & van Driel, 1997; van Driel & Richardson, 1988; Wright, 1997), I found that journalists have been supportive of Falun Gong. 61% of reports were favourable, 33% were neutral, and only 6% were negative. The Australian articles were slightly more favourable than the New Zealand ones.
19.5% of the articles were extremely positive to Falun Gong. These articles were so impassioned that they often appeared to be verbatim from practitioners’ sources, and many contained strong anti-Chinese sentiments. They included: (1) alchemy stories of practitioners (all female) being healed of serious illnesses, testimonies of psychological benefits and even a reversal of the aging process; (2) heart-rending atrocity stories of members (mostly female) being tortured or kidnapped by the Chinese government, and (3) articles that had a propagandist tone.
31.1% of the stories were totally positive to Falun Gong, but not to the point of appearing to have been authored by participants, or being highly exaggerated. These included numerous stories of protests against human rights abuses, as well as success stories in which the interviewees (all male) linked their success to practising Falun Gong.
10.4% of the stories gave alternative perspectives, (for example Chinese embassy’s views, and reasons why Air New Zealand banned a Falun Gong airport advertisement), but gave a positive impression of Falun Gong. In this category I also included positive articles in which the author made qualifying remarks, such as “Leaving aside the rationality or otherwise of the Falun Gong religious movement . . .” (Fitzgerald, 2005).
13.2% of the articles gave alternative perspectives, but left no impression of which side the author favoured. Examples include reported debates about a Falun Gong float being banned from a Christmas parade, and comments about Falun Gong members being prohibited from using loud hailers outside the Chinese embassy.
19.8% were neutral reports of facts, which no party would be likely to dispute, such as protests. Most of these articles were brief summaries of international news.
2.6% of articles gave alternative perspectives, but Falun Gong came out looking negative. Most of these were reports of negative activities, where the authors added that Falun Gong members denied responsibility. Examples include reports of practitioners allegedly self-immolating in Tiananmen Square, and hacking into Hong Kong newspaper websites to redirect people to a site containing Falun Gong messages.
3.4% of articles were negative towards Falun Gong. These either reported negative activities, such as alleged Falun Gong members slashing their wrists at Sydney’s Villawood detention centre, or only quoted sources critical of Falun Gong, such as the Chinese embassy or Rupert Murdoch. No articles were extremely negative, in the sense of appearing to have been authored by anti-Falun Gong or anti-cult sources.
In this section I critically discuss the main themes in the articles.
Theme 1: Falun Gong’s popularity
In 1999 when the first articles on Falun Gong appeared there were varying reports of membership numbers, but since 2000 almost all articles put the number of adherents at 100 million worldwide. Usually journalists add the phrase “70 million in China”. The first primary reference to this statistic that I can find is Li’s (1999a) “A brief statement of mine” when he speaks of having helped 100 million people achieve health. Falun Gong members say that Li is quoting the original Chinese public security bureau statistics, but I have been unable to trace this report.
In any case, it seems unlikely that today one in every 58 people in the world is a Falun Gong adherent, or that one in 10 people in China practise Falun Gong. (see Major religions, n.d, p. 24 ). Bruseker has completed a thorough analysis and places the membership figure at between two to ten million (2000, p. 52). Deng and Fang (2000, p. 4) note that hard core members in China now amount to 40 thousand, not 60 million. I would estimate that the numbers of members in Australia and New Zealand are 3,500 and 100 respectively.
Theme 2: Just an exercise group
Several newspapers, quoting participants, say that Falun Gong is not a religion, just an exercise group like Tai Chi and yoga. However, as sociologists Wong and Liu point out, Falun Gong seems unusually proselytising for an exercise group (1999, p. 67). Also, most exercise teachers do not demand that participants practise in public places, on busy streets at rush hours. Additionally, Li himself said at an Australian press conference that Falun Gong and yoga are “totally different” (Master Li, 1999), but this statement does not appear to have been published in the media.
Nor do most exercise classes ask you to believe that the moon is hollow (Li, 1998b, p. 10), and that Li Hongzhi is not just a god, but the best god (Li, 2003a, 2003b), and that evil aliens are plotting to take over humanity (Li, 1998a, 1998b, Interview, 1999). On the few occasions reporters asked participants about these unusual beliefs, practitioners replied that they were not aware of them.
Similarly misleading are the descriptions of the exercises as easy – just a few gentle arm movements and a seated exercise. However, holding one’s arms over one’s head for long of periods of time requires stamina (especially at 6am). The gentle “seated exercise” is actually in the Lotus position, and in my experience usually goes on for over an hour. Li acknowledges that this can cause intense burning pain in the legs, but teaches that the pain is karma being burnt off – and therefore one should remain in position (Li, 2001b, p. 72; Li 2003b, pp. 139-40).
Many reporters describe Falun Gong as a meditation technique. The Townsville Sun, for example, offers an appealing invitation: “With spring here, why not try the ancient and powerful meditation-exercise system of Falun Dafa to revitalise body, mind and spirit?” (Meditate the Falun Dafa way, 2002). Readers who follow the newspaper’s advice and visit Falun Gong may get a few surprises. Newcomers are given scriptures in which Li warns that they will be attacked by demons while doing the exercises (Li 2003c, pp. 211-219), and that when they start practising Falun Gong they will suddenly experience numerous tribulations in their life, for example they are likely to be hit by a car after a meeting (Li, 1997, p. 12; Li 2003c, pp. 141-4; Li 2001b, Li, 2001a, p. 60; p. 72, 154). Later they will discover that Falun Gong isn’t about doing the exercises at all, in fact Li is contemptuous of those who just do the exercises everyday (Li, 2001a, p.62; Li, 2003c, p. 25). The real purpose of Falun Gong, as set out in Li’s teachings, is to save people from the imminent apocalypse.
Falun Gong’s concealment of their apocalyptic doctrine from the public is illustrated by Falun Gong members’ responses to the media in 1999 when Li visited Sydney and spoke at a convention. Journalists asked the conference organisers to release an English translation of the speech to the press. The organisers declined, but one told the Australian Associated Press: “Essentially it (Master Li’s address) could not be summarised,” but that the movement’s “teachings were based on the principles of truthfulness, compassion and forbearance and involved cultivation of body, mind and soul in a way which most people would describe as a form of meditation” (Stavrinos, 1999).
However, the transcript of this speech (now available online), shows little instruction on meditation, and instead much apocalyptic rhetoric that the end of the world is upon us. Li tells disciples that they are in the last days (the time of the “great havoc”), and thousands of demons are entering the world. This, he says, is evidenced by numerous evils including interracial marriages, homosexuality, and ugly toys for children. Only he can save humanity. His teachings, he says, surpass those of Jesus and Buddha, and his spiritual body is so large that disciples would be looking upward from under his big toe (Li, 1999b).
Even more significantly, in this speech Li preaches that true followers do not seek medical help – a teaching that participants deny when questioned by outsiders. For example, when a reporter questioned a New Zealand practitioner about followers not seeking medical treatment, the woman responded by laughing, and exclaimed “That’s ridiculous” (Disturbing the peace, 2001).
The inevitable outcome of keeping Li’s teachings secret and passing the apocalyptic religion off as a healthy exercise plan, is that practitioners are left unable to explain why Falun Gong is illegal in China. Unable to say that Falun Gong was banned because Li’s divine claims and other unusual teachings were considered to be a threat to public safety, and his ability to mobilise large numbers of protesters was a political threat, they tell reporters, that they are “mystified” by the ban. “It was not possible to make truthfulness, compassion and tolerance illegal,” one practitioner exclaims disingenuously (Vic, 2001). Members imply that they are arrested because of their wholesome life style: “As a practitioner of Falun Gong her (the practitioner’s) lifestyle of meditation and exercise led to her arrest . . . and . . . two year sentence in a Chinese labour camp” (APAP, 2003). Reporters seem to agree: “It seems hard to believe that shutting your eyes and gently waving your arms around could threaten a nation’s safety, but insecurity works in funny ways” (Greeks, 2001).
Theme 3: Human rights abuses
In a recent speech, Li criticises the media of “each country in the world” for not reporting on the persecution and “keeping silent while crimes and sins are committed” (2005a, p. 2). Yet the newspaper reports about Falun Gong frequently mentioned human rights issues, and 11% of articles gave specific, personal examples of disciples being tortured, beaten or kidnapped. There can be little doubt that these events happened – that adherents have been detained and sent to labour camps, and many have been tortured. Several Falun Gong families in Australia and New Zealand have been affected by this. Practitioners describe – to name a few methods – members being shot with electric stun guns, hanging from shackles on the wrist for prolonged periods, and piercing with sharp bamboo sticks. Protestors often re-enact scenes in public demonstrations. Banners with photographs of victims highlight the harrowing nature of the experiences.
There is no way of verifying the numbers of human rights abuses. The press often quote Amnesty International, but Amnesty’s reports are not independently verified, and mainly come from Falun Gong sources (for example, Amnesty, 2000). A slightly more reliable source is the Hong Kong Centre for Human Rights, which is actually not an organisation, but one man – Lu si qing. However, statistics of arrests from both Amnesty and the Hong Kong Centre are often much higher than those reported by Western journalists who were at the scene in China (Rahn, 2000), which suggests that other information may be similarly exaggerated.
Nevertheless, one aspect of the persecution that is well-reflected in the media is the predominance of women as victims. Sixty eight percent of the articles involving torture or kidnapping of Falun Gong members were stories about women. This proportion seems to match the composition of Falun Gong, in which women comprise over 70% of adherents. Chang (2004, p. 129), however, suggests that women may have been singled out for abuse.
One of the most powerful stories, which The Canterbury Express quotes, is that of Wang Lixuan, a 27 year old woman who was arrested in China with her eight-month-old baby. Police allegedly hung the baby upside down to force the mother to recant. Wang Lixuan refused to renounce her faith, and both she and her baby died of torture (Peaceful art, 2001). For Falun Gong members, Wang Lixuan is a heroic martyr. She went eight times to Beijing to protest, including three times while pregnant and twice while carrying her child (Clearwisdom, 2001).
Readers may be left wondering what is it about Falun Gong that inspires such intense devotion that a woman risks her baby’s life. Participants I spoke to were unanimous that the appeal of Falun Gong was the sensation of peace they feel. After a compelling meditation outside Wellington Parliament building, one practitioner asked me rhetorically, “Can you see why people are willing to be shot for this?” Having little or no exposure to other spiritual paths, members believe this peace is only available through Falun Gong.
However, meditation benefits are rarely the only impetus for martyrdom, and there is another angle to this story. Li teaches that he has only planned enlightenment for a limited number of Falun Gong members. So, with allegedly swelling numbers and the imminent end of the world, he is fast weeding people out. Members therefore have to pass a test called “stepping forward” (Li, 2000a, Li, 2001c). Stepping forward means activism and the resulting martyrdom forces the victim’s karma to be burnt off, thus gaining them a place in Li’s paradise. There are strict criteria for stepping forward. When enduring severe torture, practitioners must not recant their faith, even if their retraction is insincere. This is a serious “disgrace” (Li, 2001c), and those who recant are “malignant tumours” whom Li purposely orchestrated the torture to expose (Li, 2000b).
Theme 4: Spy stories
Falun Gong members have long complained that they are harassed by Chinese spies, and accusations reached a peak in June 2005 when Communist party defectors told the media that a thousand Chinese spies in Australia monitor Falun Gong. Within a week the number jumped to 2,000 and then to 3,500. As this works out at one spy to every one to four members, the majority of these spies are obviously informants. Nevertheless, the stories became increasingly dramatic, with allegations of people being abducted by the Chinese government. The claims continued, although the Sunday Age interviewed security experts who described the idea of 1,000 spies as “ridiculous” and “absurd” (Spy scandal, 2005).
During the year I spent with Falun Gong I was not aware of any evidence of spies; however I was not looking for them. Undoubtedly, Chinese embassies identify Falun Gong members so they can stop them from entering China. However, this would not require a sophisticated network of spies because members meet outdoors publicly, often in front of Chinese embassies, and meeting times and places are easily accessible.
My main reservation about the spy stories is that members attribute events to spies when there were more obvious explanations. Claims that practitioners are photographed while doing the exercises may well be explained by the fact that they are inclined to practise in parks outside tourist spots such a parliament buildings, libraries, railway stations – places in which people, especially Chinese tourists, typically take photos. Also, any religious group that proselytises outdoors and blocks pedestrian access is likely to receive complaints, but some members attribute these criticisms to interference from the Chinese government.
When the research was finished, I was quoted in a press release on new religious movements, in which I said that the FBI’s definition of a potentially violent religion was so broad that several groups in New Zealand would fall into it, and cited Falun Gong as one of several examples. Falun Gong members monitor the media daily, and discovered the press release even before I did. They were offended that they were classified with other religions that they perceived to be “totally evil”, and I received several emotionally–charged phone calls requesting the press release be removed from the Internet. A member relayed accusations that I was being paid large amounts of money by the Chinese government, and repeatedly said that the situation was “extremely dangerous”. Another warned me that I would be deluged by a hundred callers from a Falun Gong email list.
The response was understandable, in the sense that during the time I shared with Falun Gong I never disagreed with them and seemed to be enjoying their practices, yet now I was speaking in an academic voice. This experience nevertheless highlighted for me the similarity between Falun Gong’s view of what constitutes fair media treatment and the Communist party’s model, which suppresses any dissenting voices. Public opinion is very important to members, and they are willing to protest and bring defamation suits against those who write less than favourable material.
In the case of Falun Gong, the negative treatment that the media often give to new religious movements seems to be redirected into anti-Chinese sentiments. Much of the information is misleading. While I do not in any way support the Chinese government’s ruthless treatment of Falun Gong members, I share Rahn’s (2000) concern that unsubstantiated media reports influence government policy. For example, in 2003 the United States Senate House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution demanding, amongst other things, that the Chinese government cease using diplomatic missions to spread falsehoods about the nature of Falun Gong (United States Senate. 2003). This statement, and other parts of the resolution, seems to be influenced, at least in part, by media reports.
Journalists have tight deadlines. Nevertheless, there are more objective sources that they could consider, and other angles to the Falun Gong story. I would like to see more challenging questions in the newspapers (especially of suspicious claims), more expert or academic opinion, less canned propaganda spouting from both sides, a deeper look at Falun Gong beliefs, and less publishing of Falun Gong marketing material without attribution. It would also be helpful if trusted organisations, such as Amnesty International, acknowledged their sources when speaking to the media about Falun Gong, and were careful to add that their statistics could not be confirmed.
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