As with other special interest groups, and perhaps more than others, the Falun Gong (FLG) movement has developed ways of using the internet and the media to advocate its cause. FLG goals, influenced by their teachings, inform and influence their presentation of information and news.
After it was banned by the Chinese government in 1999, the FLG used press releases to counteract the official campaign against it. Over the years, the FLG evolved into a protest movement and increased its use of internet and media as protest tools. One protest technique is to hijack Chinese television broadcasts. Followers have, on a number of occasions beginning in 2002, cut into Chinese television cable or satellite signals and replaced programming with FLG videos promoting their views. According to Chinese reports, this included an interruption of the 2002 satellite broadcast of the soccer World Cup game and celebrations of Hong Kong's return to China. In October 2003 another FLG interruption broke into coverage of China's first manned space mission. The content of these videos are meant to counteract government accusations and promote FLG views.
In the West, where the group is free to organize and freedom of the press is far greater, the FLG do much advocacy work through the press. In 2004 questions began to arise over whether certain Western-based organizations, such as newspaper group The Epoch Times and New Tang Dynasty Television (NTDTV), are actually FLG organizations. The Chinese government claims they are propaganda tools for the FLG intended to damage the reputation of the Chinese government. The FLG claim they are independent news organizations.
There does appear to be, at the very least, an intimate association between these groups and the FLG. In early 2004, Li Hongzhi, the founder and spiritual leader of the group, gave his one and only interview since the group was banned to the NTDTV. According to a report in the Far Eastern Economic Review, prominent FLG spokespeople serve as a director for NTDTV and on the board of The Epoch Times; both organizations give the FLG prominent coverage. In addition, both organizations are staffed by volunteers, often FLG followers, whose main jobs are unrelated to journalism.
One reason why the group might deny its association with these news organizations is that Li Hongzhi teaches his followers that they must not be political. This was a good survival tactic while the group was still legal in China. However, it now seems at odds with reality while the group functions as a protest movement outside China. Nonetheless, the group continues to maintain this position. This may partly explain why they deny association with these media organizations notable for their distinctive focus critical of the Chinese government.
Regardless of how one views the control/ownership controversy, it is clear that the FLG organization and its members are producing news and information for public consumption. In the past few years, Mr. Li has encouraged his practitioners to establish their own news organizations in order to get their message out. This might have something to do with the group's gradually increasing dissatisfaction with FLG coverage in mainstream press. Initially, the coverage of the group was mostly sympathetic, frequent and reflected the group's views. Over time, however, followers felt the coverage grew inadequate and failed to reflect their concerns about the magnitude and immediacy of their cause. The solution was to create their own coverage.
What are the goals of the FLG and how might those goals influence the information they present? The one with which we are most familiar is to expose the suppression and alleged mistreatment of Falun Gong practitioners in China and force the Chinese government to rescind its ban. A second goal, in the words of Li Hongzhi, is to "clarify the truth" in order to "save sentient beings." The movement holds that a near-future moment of "rectification" of the universe by the Fa (meaning the great cosmic law) will renew and recreate the cosmos, paving the way for Falun Gong to receive its rightful place as the truth and supreme teaching. With this rectification, those who believe in Falun Gong will be saved and those who do not will perish. This fact requires all practitioners to save others by converting them to Falun Gong or at least convincing them to believe that Falun Gong is good. This task is, as Mr. Li described it, "the responsibility and mission history has bestowed upon you in fa-rectification&you are now their only hope of entering the future." Following the beliefs of FLG is no less a task than saving the world's people while also saving yourself.
In general, American acceptance and support of the group is largely based on its recognition as a human rights movement rather than on Mr. Li's spiritual teachings. As such, the group receives greater acceptance for its political message than for its salvational one -- a disparity that gives rise to some frustration. Talking to his disciples, Mr. Li declared:
When clarifying the truth, have you discovered a problem? They can accept everything when you talk about people being persecuted. Talk about freedom of belief getting trampled, the violation of human rights and so on, and they can accept it all, but as soon as you talk about the truths of the Fa they're blocked.
For the Falun Gong, human rights issues, aside from being vital in their own right, are nevertheless the ones that catch the attention of those needing to be saved. According to Li:
When you're clarifying the facts, if you go above the human principles by just one little bit, people won't be able to accept it. So when you're clarifying facts, you must not talk about high-level things. What you know are things that Gods should know. Those things are what I taught to you, not worldly people. So you shouldn't tell those things to ordinary people. You can only talk about our being persecuted, about our real situation, about our being good people and being wrongly persecuted, about our freedom of belief being violated, about our human rights being violated. They can accept all these things and then will immediately support and express to you their sympathy&Of course, what's going on is, your intention to turn him into a Dafa disciple& [however] Our number one task at this time is to help him learn the truth.
The FLG is also frustrated by what it sees as the "façade of China's economy." They feel that a fascination with China's rapid development and the opportunities it seems to promise are proving so attractive to governments and individuals that China's human rights violations are being ignored. In Li's words: "Why is it that in the international community so many media outlets and governments are all so quiet on this [persecution of FLG], and why are they able to look the other way in the face of this catastrophe? They have a lot of vested interests and a lot to gain wrapped up in this." Falun Gong followers therefore see a growing Chinese economy and the country's rise in international importance as a hindrance to their campaign to gain the support from foreign private individuals, businesses and governments.
The group's use of media therefore, now combines both political and a spiritual goals. The more people who support its cause, the more hope of forcing an end to the ban in China. At the same time, the more who become followers or supporters, the more the group has succeeded in saving the world from the impending final judgment.
Given their goals, what kind of coverage might we expect to see in FLG media? Most importantly, FLG wants to be in the news -- whatever keeps the group highly visible is successful. Reports on the movement's human rights issues seem to accomplish this. FLG also needs to circulate information about the benefits of the group's beliefs and anything that promotes their image as good people in order to attract followers and supporters. A third type of coverage is not so much about the FLG as it is about the Chinese Communist Party -- anything that might convince academics or politicians that the Chinese Communist Party is not worth supporting, even for financial gain, will ultimately help FLG. Finally, they might hope to convince the public that there really is no profit in doing business with China and that the promise of the expanding Chinese economy is but a chimera.
These objectives are all clearly discernible in FLG materials. The recent "Nine Commentaries," published by The Epoch Times Editorial Board, says "The CCP (Chinese Communist Party) rule is the darkest and the most ridiculous page in Chinese history." The reason? The writers say, "Among its unending list of crimes, the vilest must be its persecution of Falun Gong." And the commentaries conclude, "Only without the Chinese Communist Party, does China have hope."
Of course, being a special interest group and trying to get your message across does not necessarily mean the information and news you disseminate is flawed. But, as in any news source, it is helpful to understand the needs and goals of the special interest group producing news and information for public consumption.
Patsy Rahn is the author of "The Falun Gong: Beyond the Headlines" and "The Chemistry of a Conflict: The Chinese Government and the Falun Gong." She will present at the upcoming 19th World Congress of the International Association for the History of Religion. Her current research interest is the Confucian factor in contemporary China, and she is completing a Master's degree at Indiana University in East Asian Studies.
The views expressed above are those of the author and are not necessarily those of AsiaMedia or the UCLA Asia Institute.