The unlikely media empire inspired by Falun Gong

William Huang
May 4, 2020
Reproduced with Permission
Politics and Policy

With the Covid-19 pandemic creating a Pearl Harbor moment in the West, a furious debate has popped up about how to deal with China.

Liberal media continue to imply that it is racist to criticize the Chinese Communist Party, especially if one uses the terms "Wuhan" or "Chinese" to describe the pandemic. Some journalists have defended China's draconian Mao-era social control measures because "they worked"; they have even defended the World Health Organization, contending that withdrawing funding from the WHO was a crime against humanity.

This is hilarious, given the fact that they barely criticised President Xi Jinping despite his regime hiding the epidemic from his own people for more than a month.

One egregious example comes from a report of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on April 29. Canadians were "upset" after a "racist and inflammatory" publication was delivered to their doorstep which described the pandemic as a "CCP Virus" and suggested it might have come out of a Wuhan laboratory. (Experts worldwide have deemed this as "misinformation", just for the record, but everyone from US senators to Trump himself continue to be suspicious.)

The CBC interviewed a grand total of one upset Canadian and featured a surreal interview with a single Canadian Post employee who almost decided to censor and not deliver the publication, only to be overruled at the last minute by more sensible superiors.

Besides the ridiculous fact that the CCP is not a race, but a political organization, and the publication itself, the Epoch Times , is owned and written by ethnic Chinese in North America, one has to ask, when will Western liberals wake up to reality and stop their political correctness lunacy?

This is not the first time North American media outlets have targeted the Epoch Times . In 2019, NBC host Rachel Maddow attacked it as one of Trump's most ardent supporters which had spent big on Facebook to support his campaign.

What is the Epoch Times and who is funding it?

Falun Gong

Enter the Falun Gong, an unorthodox and eccentric new religious movement. It was founded by a Northeastern Chinese man named Li Hongzhi, who rode on the popularity wave of qigong (气功),an ancient Chinese spiritual exercise practice, which emerged in the 1990s following a renewed interest in traditional culture. Li combined tenets of Chinese Buddhism, Taoism and folk beliefs and created an entirely new belief system. Initially he had the backing of China's officials because they thought it was politically harmless. But things quickly soured after they realized Li had created a massive following, almost a personality cult, and had an amazing ability to mobilise crowds.

The last straw came in 1999 when Falun Gong practitioners petitioned en masse outside Communist China's nerve center, Zhongnanhai in Beijing, after state media had attacked their movement. Mass arrests and a crackdown followed, with persecution continuing to this day.

As a child growing up in China, I myself remember primary school campaigns and CCTV (China's state broadcaster) news clips denouncing the Falun Gong as an evil cult. This worked, as Chinese public opinion decisively turned against the movement by 2002, and Li moved his operations completely to North America.

But it is what happened afterwards that makes their story so fascinating.

Overseas success

In just 20 years, the Falun Gong has built up a vast media empire, spanning from the Epoch Times (which publishes in multiple languages besides Chinese and English), New Tang Dynasty Television (NTDTV, broadcasts in Mandarin, Cantonese, English), Sound of Hope radio and New Realm studios, a Canadian-based movie and TV studio which makes HD Chinese language drama for NTDTV.

Persecution failed to put an end to the Falun Gong. Instead it managed to get more followers amongst overseas Chinese people and even smuggled out some of its members to resettle in the West. Today, the Falun Gong runs, nurseries, schools and even a college for its believers. A complete parallel society has emerged.

The symbol of Falun Gong's strength is Dragon Springs , a massive 427-acre compound in upstate New York. This is a sprawling campus housing hundreds of Li Hongzhi's closest followers (many of whom fled China) and Li himself, complete with an impressive Tang Dynasty style Buddhist pagoda and Fei Tian College. Some of its students graduate to the Shen Yun Art Troupe, specifically created to promote the Falun Gong.

Compare this to the headquarters of the Chinese Democratic Party, a political exile organization founded by students who fled China after the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989. The CDP is based in a run-down building in Flushing, America's largest Chinatown. It has no media outlet of its own and minimal influence even in Flushing.

Every year, American cities are awash with Shen Yun posters and giant billboards which claim that Shen Yun represents the "5000 years of traditional Chinese culture" which has been ruined by Communism. Curious Westerners are impressed by the performance and surprised by a red tsunami carrying an image of Marx which lays waste the shores of China. Shen Yun apparently generates tens of millions of dollars in revenue and huge publicity.

Even more amazing is how successful Falun Gong has been online. Its NTDTV division is not a drab overseas Chinese TV channel that no one watches. Quite the contrary. Ben Hedges , a British Falun Gong practitioner who speaks impeccable Chinese, has his own YouTube channel. It is very popular in Taiwan and Hong Kong, with many subscribers (681,000 at last count) completely unaware of his background, despite the big NTDTV logo on his videos.

China Uncensored , another YouTube channel which posts daily exposés of China's authoritarian regime, is hosted by Chris Chappell, an American with dark sense of humour. It has 1.26 million subscribers and is also produced by NTDTV. NTDTV even hooked up with Steve Bannon and members of the Trump family, getting interviews with them. It produced a damning documentary in 2019 about Huawei's secrets and the threat it poses to America. Bannon was a producer.

But the most surprising aspect of Falun Gong's media reach is in the Sinosphere. In the past few decades, overseas Chinese media has increasingly come under the influence of Beijing, with little or no coverage of negative news being reported. Media outlets are quietly bought up by the CCP and its network of overseas supporters. Many people disgruntled with the situation increasingly only have Falun Gong media to turn to, because it has often become the only staunchly anti-Communist section of the overseas Chinese media jigsaw.

In December 2019, The Economist did a piece titled " Party Poopers " which described the curious world of Chinese-language anti-CCP YouTube channels. Wenzhao probably has the most followers, with 500,000 subscribers and 200 million views on YouTube. He operates independently from the official media empire, but he is a member of the Falun Gong as well, although that went unremarked by The Economist .

Other influential anti-CCP video bloggers on YouTube have Falun Gong backgrounds too, and reach vast number of people eager to circumvent censorship and hear the other side of the narrative.

Persistent critic

All these arms of the Falun Gong empire have been active in reporting whenever the CCP is in crisis. They have been on the frontlines livestreaming the Hong Kong anti-extradition protests. They have also broadcast video footage produced by independent journalists inside Wuhan when it was locked down. They added some pro-Falun Gong propaganda, but their contribution was still valuable.

The Falun Gong has accomplished far more in 20 years than secular pro-democracy dissidents in exile. More importantly, it offers the only alternative in the overseas Chinese language media against the CCP, apart from a shrinking number of Hong Kong and Taiwan media outlets. And unlike them, Falun Gong media cannot be bought out by CCP money.

Naturally, the Falun Gong has problems. Its operations are not transparent. Li Hongzhi doesn't seem to have a succession plan and no one knows what will happen when he dies. Critics cite "cult-like" behaviour and rumours of weird beliefs. But after 20 years it seems clear that Falun Gong is not Aum Shinrikyo and Dragon Springs is not Jonestown.

The Falun Gong has alienated liberals in the West due to its conservative teachings regarding homosexuality and its support for Trump. This "throwing all the eggs in one basket" move might be a brilliant bet since the hyper-partisan Epoch Times English edition has increased its profile tremendously since its pro-Trump shift. But it could backfire if Biden is elected.

Elsewhere in the West, the Falun Gong is also backing the Right. The German edition is batting for the AfD Party and the French edition for Marine le Pen.

The Falun Gong is both fascinating and problematic. But in a world of PC madness and CCP money sloshing around, its media offer a much needed alternative viewpoint. In fact, its existence is the best antidote to anti-Chinese racism in the West – clearly not every Chinese is a pro-Communist robot who toes the party line. Love them or hate them, these folks aren't going anywhere.