Unpacking Gan Jing World

A ‘wholesome’ video platform linked to a Chinese spiritual movement and right-wing newspapers looks a lot like YouTube

Columbia Journalism Review/March 19, 2024

By Sarah Grevy Gotfredsen

One day in the early spring of last year, a sculptor from South Carolina typed his name into Google: “Clint Button,” he wrote. He pressed enter. He wasn’t surprised to see his YouTube channel among the first results, but farther down the page, something did surprise him. Someone had uploaded his YouTube videos to a platform he had never heard of called Gan Jing World.

“I pulled it up, and it had my homepage, my YouTube channel, and my YouTube channel homepage,” Button said. “I was pissed.”

Button’s experience is not unique. He is one of many YouTube creators who have stumbled across their own videos on Gan Jing World. According to the “about us” page, Gan Jing World is a “wholesome digital town square” founded by followers of Falun Gong, a spiritual movement outlawed by the Chinese government in the late 1990s. It is one of many sites linked to the right-wing news organization the Epoch Times.

Gan Jing World  (which translates to “Clean World” in Chinese) consists of feel-good videos, often lifted from YouTube without the original content creator’s consent. The videos supposedly follow the site’s four guiding principles of “no violence, no pornography, no crime, and no drugs.” Button’s YouTube channel, which features stone-carving tutorials, likely secured a spot on Gan Jing World because it met these criteria.  

Sandwiched between videos republished from YouTube are ads and channels for Falun Gong–aligned organizations and local businesses. These include the ubiquitous dance troupe Shen Yun as well as the anti-CCP media groups the Epoch Times and New Tang Dynasty Television (NTD)—both of which are owned by the Epoch Times Media Group. Together, these sites make up a tight-knit network echoing the teachings of Falun Gong’s leader and founder, Li Hongzhi (or “Master Li”).

The Epoch Times has a tangled history going back to the early 2000s. Initially launched as a free propaganda newsletter to oppose the Chinese Communist Party, it transitioned into a far-right media powerhouse during the 2016 election. Today, the newspaper is published in more than thirty countries and has a dedicated following of anti-vaxxers and hard-right-wingers, according to a report by OpenDemocracy. Now media owned by Epoch Times Media Group and other Falun Gong–affiliated organizations have secured a front-page and promotional presence on Gan Jing World.

Gan Jing World’s landing page, featuring an ad for NTD—a Falun Gong–aligned television station owned by the Epoch Times Media Group.

Falun Gong in the US  

Falun Gong, sometimes called Falun Dafa, consists of a mix of slow-motion meditation exercises, mental disciplines, and texts that preach the virtues of truth, benevolence, and forbearance. Practitioners are told they can gain enlightenment by reading the scriptures of Li, who claims to be able to walk through walls and to levitate. His teachings include frequent pronouncements against homosexuality, interracial relationships, sex out of wedlock, and female liberation (many of these views are rejected by Falun Gong’s official website).

Falun Gong flourished between 1992 and 1999 in China, claiming around seventy to a hundred million adherents (scholars estimate the number was lower, closer to ten million). The movement’s pulling power intimidated the CCP, which sought undivided loyalty from its people. China’s then-president, Jiang Zemin, vowed to eradicate the movement. The government declared it an “evil cult” and suppressed it, resulting in the incarceration of thousands of practitioners in “reeducation through labor” camps. Li’s teachings state that practitioners must now dedicate themselves to clarifying the “truth” to the public that Falun Gong is not an evil cult and is being systematically persecuted by the CCP. After Li and the Falun Gong organizations were exiled to the US twenty-five years ago, they set up a range of media outlets to convey this message.

NTD and the Epoch Times, which Li has referred to as “our media,” have become a success story for Falun Gong. The Epoch Times claims to be the US’s fourth-largest newspaper by subscriber count, and NTD has a staggering thirty million followers on Facebook. The Epoch Times, however, rejects the notion that it’s officially affiliated with the spiritual movement. The chairman of the newspaper’s board has said it is “not a Falun Gong newspaper,” adding that “Falun Gong is a question of an individual’s belief.”

Still, the newspaper keeps ties with Falun Gong–aligned companies like Gan Jing World, as evident in its business transactions. In the summer of 2021, the Epoch Times bought a three-story building in Orange County, New York, for $1.45 million. According to public property records, the Epoch Times then sold it to Gan Jing World for the same price about a year later. Now the building operates as Gan Jing World’s headquarters. It’s located in a sleepy city called Middletown, conveniently located a twenty-minute drive from Dragon Springs, the remote compound where Li resides and Falun Gong runs its schools and dance company, Shen Yun.

When Gan Jing World’s headquarters officially opened, in July 2022, it was celebrated with a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Influential Middletowners showed up, including the mayor, Joseph Destefano. “The arrival of this high-tech firm brings with it a myriad of opportunities for economic advancement and job creation in our city,” Destefano told the Epoch Times (Destefano did not return Tow’s request for comment). Indeed, according to the Albany Times Union, Middletown has become a “hot commodity” for entities related to Shen Yun and Falun Gong. In December 2023, the paper reported that the mayor attended another ribbon-cutting ceremony, this time for the opening of a Shen Yun–backed department store. The store sells outerwear, activewear, books with Falun Dafa’s teachings, and “exclusive selections” from Shen Yun’s dance performances (including men’s leather bracelets with Falun Gong’s teachings engraved).

In the fall of last year, I took a two-hour bus ride from Penn Station, Manhattan, to visit Middletown. A few shops, a library, and a police station fill the ten-minute walk from the train station to Gan Jing World’s headquarters. The three-story brick block is easy to spot among the sparse and low surrounding buildings. A water fountain in a brutalist style greeted employees walking in and out of the entrance doors. One Middletown local said the building used to be a decaying Social Services office. When Gan Jing World bought and reconstructed it, the equipment was delivered wrapped in plastic with the logo of Dragon Springs. “The UPS guy got in there once,” he said, pointing to the headquarters. “He asked them what they did, and they told him they were a newspaper company.”  This corresponds with property records, indicating that the Gan Jing World building used to be owned by the Epoch Times.

According to tax documents reviewed by Brandy Zadrozny at NBC, the Epoch Times has increased its revenue by a staggering 685 percent in the past two years. A large part of its success comes from its aggressive advertisement for Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign, where it pushed conservative views through sensational and even fabricated information. This strategy garnered criticism from fact-checkers and led to Facebook eventually banning its ads over a lack of transparency around political advertisements. Subsequently, according to the New York Times, Epoch Media sought to protect itself from crackdowns by mainstream platforms by expanding its online reach. The Times investigation identified connections with over a dozen sites, such as Sagebook (a Twitter-like network) and YouMaker – another video platform that hosts content on the Epoch Times website.

Nick Janicki, Gan Jing World’s director of media relations, denies that there is any corporate affiliation between Gan Jing World and the Epoch Times.

“There’s no direct relationship there other than the founders are just, you know, good friends, essentially,” Janicki said.

Gan Jing World’s employees are remarkably hard to find online. The CEO, supposedly a former Apple executive named James Qiu, leaves little digital trace outside of Gan Jing World’s website. Even Janicki does not mention the company on his LinkedIn page. Other employees I found on LinkedIn have posted vague job descriptions, like “tech company,” coupled with previous work experience at the Epoch Times or NTD.

This career switching is not uncommon among Falun Gong practitioners. According to Simon van Zuylen–Wood in The Atlantic: “Once inside either the Epoch Times or NTD, they have tended to shuffle from one to the other and from job to job.”

Falun Gong’s Use of the Internet

Falun Gong has been incredibly successful at utilizing the internet to spread Li’s teachings. As Heather Kavan, a researcher and senior lecturer at Massey University in New Zealand, phrased it in her paper about Falun Gong and the media: “Of all religious adherents, Falun Gong members are perhaps the most media-savvy.“ Indeed, Web-based text has grown increasingly important in connecting Falun Gong practitioners as they scatter across the globe, according to Australian academic Benjamin Penny in his book The Religion of Falun Gong. Given Falun Gong’s robust digital presence, Gan Jing World automatically benefits from a strong referral pipeline.

By interlinking, these sites create a network that channels traffic reciprocally. According to SimilarWeb, in January 2024, 13 percent of Gan Jing World’s referral traffic from other websites originated from SafeChat, a platform promoted by Falun Gong social media influencers as an alternative to mainstream social networks. Approximately 15 percent came from Shen Yun Creations, a video platform dedicated exclusively to Shen Yun dance videos. The Epoch Times ranked second as the highest-referring publisher, trailing only YouTube.

Falun Gong’s digital presence dates back to June 2000, when Li designed one of Falun Gong’s official websites, Minghui.org. Posts from the site indicate that Li actively promoted the creation of Gan Jing World among his practitioners. One practitioner claimed that it’s “a platform that Master has for people in the future.” Another post emphasized that Gan Jing World is “extremely important for saving people.”

On a video call, I asked Janicki about the Gan Jing World employees who had previously worked at the Epoch Times or NTV. He compared the relationship between Gan Jing World and other Falun Gong media to that between OpenAI and Microsoft: “There’s people now from OpenAI that work for Microsoft,” he said. “It tends to be people in similar industries or similar values that tribalize.”

Whether a tribe or something more, the Epoch Times has been a consistent commercial machine for the video platform. In the past two years, the newspaper has published over twenty promotional articles about Gan Jing World dressed up as news with sparkling headlines such as “Tech Startup Gan Jing World Poised to Shape the Future, One Community at a Time” and “Gan Jing World: Tech Platform Offers Clean Content Free of Communism.” In an article written by the Epoch Times, the newspaper’s own editor in chief was quoted saying Gan Jing World’s focus on character and morals “is something that we have loved” (the Epoch Times did not return Tow’s request for comment). NTD, the Falun Gong–rooted television station, reposts the Epoch Times coverage and features the video platform in news segments.

None of the Epoch Times articles mentions that Gan Jing World hosts republished videos from YouTube, including copyrighted ones. This includes everything from the work of small individual creators to large media organizations like MSNBC, CNN, Fox, and Forbes. Tow examined the top 130 videos posted on Gan Jing World’s landing page on February 22 and found that all but nine could be traced back to YouTube. I also talked with over a dozen YouTubers with content on Gan Jing World who said they have not uploaded any of it or given Gan Jing World permission to republish it. Most of them had never even heard of the platform.

“I had no idea and have never been contacted by Gan Jing World, which is very frustrating,” said Molly Doubleday, a sustainable-living content creator on YouTube.

Sam Denby, an American YouTuber with over seven million combined subscribers, was also surprised to find his channel on Gan Jing World, which he described as a “Falun Gong–affiliated YouTube knockoff.”

“They didn’t bother removing our logo or description in their plagiarizing process,” Denby said in a YouTube video on the channel Half as Interesting.   

For the copyright holders, it raises the question: Who is selecting and republishing their videos to Gan Jing World?

“If it is the company’s employees, then the company is the one engaging in copyright infringement,” Daniel Castro, an expert in internet policy and vice president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, told me in an email. “If the company encourages third parties to upload copyright-protected content, they might be guilty of inducing infringement.”

Gan Jing World claims all its material is either open-source or that the original creators have uploaded it. In an email, Janicki told me that “Gan Jing World strictly follows copyright law even though it has no affirmative obligations to monitor its service to search for infringement.”

Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, video platforms are not required to stay on top of the copyrighted material uploaded by their users. Due to the massive amount of content being uploaded every day, it would be practically impossible to do so. But platforms can’t have actual knowledge that the works are infringing nor induce their users to infringe, according to Matthew Sag, a law professor at Emory University. Platforms are also required to remove copyright-infringing content to avoid liability if they receive a video-removal request from the owner.

Gan Jing World has a video-removal form but appears to respond to requests selectively. Button eventually got his content removed, but several creators in contact with Tow were unsuccessful despite submitting removal requests or emailing Gan Jing World directly.

“We are such a small business that even if we were losing money, chasing to get it back with no guarantee of success—it’s cyberspace!—would cost us even more,” said Chris Pye, one of the YouTubers unable to remove his videos from Gan Jing World.

Republished YouTube videos on Gan Jing World rarely have high engagement. Most have just a handful of views and sparse, overly positive, bot-like comments. The only channels receiving significant engagement appear to be those from the Falun Gong universe. For instance, some recordings of Shen Yun’s dance performances claim to have up to six hundred thousand views. Notably, though, the hits returned by Gan Jing World actually link to the external site for Shen Yun Creations, where users must pay $29.99 a month for full access to the dance videos. In a New Yorker article, Jia Tolentino pointedly described Shen Yun as “essentially, religious-political propaganda—or, more generously, an extremely elaborate commercial for Falun Dafa’s spiritual teachings and its plight vis-à-vis the Chinese Communist regime.”

Falun Gong Practitioners on Gan Jing World

Gan Jing World is supported by Falun Gong practitioners to spur its growth. According to Minghui.org, the official Falun Gong website, practitioners are encouraged to increase traffic on Gan Jing World by creating a profile, subscribing to channels, liking videos, and writing positive comments. As one practitioner based in China wrote:

 “They even requested practitioners to watch a certain number of videos every day, claiming that it was Master’s requirement, and that browsing Gan Jing World was the same as reading the Minghui website.”

A former employee of the German Epoch Times suggested that practitioners were even encouraged to pull videos from YouTube and republish them on Gan Jing World. “It did seem like they were promoting this kind of behavior while retaining plausible deniability and being able to say, ‘Well, we didn’t upload this, some user did,’” said the source, who goes by the pseudonym Emmanuel Goldstein (if that name sounds familiar, it’s from Orwell’s 1984). “Now they changed their approach, and they want to officially get creators on there,” Goldstein said.

Amid the sea of republished YouTube videos, Gan Jing World has a pool of original creators. Mikey Chen, a Chinese-born American with over four million subscribers on YouTube, is one of them. While at NTD, Chen cocreated Off the Great Wall, a YouTube channel discussing Chinese culture. At Gan Jing World’s ribbon-cutting ceremony, he said Gan Jing World could compete with platforms like Facebook and TikTok. Likewise, California Insider, a show hosted by Siyamak Khorrami with the Epoch Times Southern California, announced on Twitter that it would move to Gan Jing World after experiencing “censorship” on Twitter.

Gan Jing World is becoming a key player through which Falun Gong promotes its own organizations while using content from other platforms to confer an air of legitimacy. Just as the Epoch Times grew from a scrappy newsletter to one of the most prominent conservative papers in the US, it’s not unimaginable that Gan Jing World could experience similar growth. Regardless of its future, Gan Jing World’s claim to being a “wholesome” platform while employing questionable ethical practices should not be ignored. According to Janicki, the director of media relations, Gan Jing World is here to stay. And soon, he said, YouTube content creators may feel differently about discovering their content on the platform: “There may be a day where they’re less surprised and more relieved.”

Sarah Grevy Gotfredsen is a computational investigative fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. She works on a range of computational projects on the digital media landscape, including influence operations conducted through news media and the information ecosystem. She graduated from Columbia University in 2022 with an MS in data journalism.

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