Times for a change

International paper puts an emphasis on universal freedoms

Boston Globe/May 31, 2005
By Mark Jurkowitz

While the websites of some news outlets count the number of online visitors or subscriptions sold, the tally on The Epoch Times site tells a different story. It declares that more than 1.9 million people have quit the Chinese Communist Party since The Epoch Times published ''Nine Commentaries," a series of editorials exposing the ''lies," ''tyranny," and ''terror" of the Communist system late last year.

''What is happening now is a defining moment in Chinese history," says Epoch Times communications director Cindy Gu. ''To be able to be the catalyst for that change is really a defining point for the paper. . . . There is a lot of misinformation out there about China, and it's important to understand what it really is."

Having debuted only five years ago with a Chinese-language version, The Epoch Times is a rapidly expanding enterprise now available in 30 countries and eight languages. Since last summer it has rolled out English-language weeklies in eight major US cities. In December it began showing up in the Boston area. According to its Boston editor, Martin Fox, about 15,000 free copies are distributed locally each week in places such as Allston, Cambridge, and Brookline, with papers available in newspaper boxes, hawked along public transportation routes, placed in grocery stores and coffee shops, and in some cases delivered to homes.

The 16-page broadsheet runs stories about Iraq and stem cells, film and theater reviews, and features about life in New England. But The Epoch Times, a paper that some observers connect with the somewhat mysterious Falun Gong movement, is also a publication with a lofty-sounding mission: ''We uphold universal human values, rights, freedoms."

The paper's name, according to Gu, means ''a time of importance and change."

''We try to carry news that isn't carried elsewhere" says John Nania, editor in chief of the US editions. ''We try to be a general interest newspaper, but we do have concern for universal values."

''The people that are involved with the paper see this as a certain time in history when things are changing," Fox adds. ''Fundamental things are going on."

Not all of the people who work for The Epoch Times have traditional journalism resumes. Nania worked for a computer consulting company, and Fox's day job is public relations for a mapping company. Opinion editor Stephen Gregory is an administrator at the University of Chicago. Gregory says he is not getting paid at this time for his Epoch Times work, and Fox declined to discuss salary.

''We certainly plan to be able to pay everyone," Gu says.

All three men practice Falun Gong, a Chinese exercise and meditation movement that became a major political issue when the Chinese government banned it after a 1999 Beijing protest in which thousands of Falun Gong members demonstrated and sought recognition.

Some China experts say they believe The Epoch Times is a Falun Gong publication.

''My first thought when I think of it is Falun Gong," says Sophie Beach, the editor of China Digital Times, a news website that covers China. ''A lot of their content is very pro-Falun Gong, and I know Falun Gong has done a lot to create their own media."

The paper's officials say there is no formal connection to Falun Gong, although they are vague when speaking about the ownership of The Epoch Times. Nania says it is a privately held company of investors who ''support the values of the paper -- human rights and universal freedoms." A federal tax form filed last year by The Epoch Times Association Inc. indicates that it is a tax-exempt, nonprofit organization based in New Jersey.

News about and from China frequently makes the front page, including stories about the ''erosion of allegiance" to the Communist Party, efforts by the satellite television network New Tang Dynasty TV to continue broadcasting into China, and the Chinese authorities' arrest of Roman Catholic priests. Editorials and columns recount the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and discuss the impact of the resignations from the Communist Party on China's domestic politics.

''We do cover China more than most newspapers do," Nania says.

Epoch Times executives assert that the paper functions as a vital antidote to China's tight control over the media and the flow of information into and out of the country. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a US group that monitors the treatment of reporters worldwide, several Chinese journalists who contributed to The Epoch Times have recently been imprisoned by Chinese authorities. In its recently released annual report on the state of global press freedom, Reporters Without Borders, another press advocacy group, described China as ''the world's biggest prison for journalists."

The introduction to The Epoch Times's ''Nine Commentaries" states: ''Among [the Chinese Communist Party's] unending list of crimes, the vilest must be its persecution of Falun Gong."

''To call it a Falun Gong paper is not accurate," Nania says, but ''the positive values that come from practicing Falun Gong make their way into the paper. . . . There are a lot of misperceptions, and people don't understand what Falun Gong is. . . . You can consider it a form of belief. Other people call it a religion, and we don't necessarily find that objectionable."

Says Fox: ''We certainly will report on Falun Gong. It's not getting the coverage the topic deserves in this country."

Falun Gong began in China in the early 1990s during ''a kind of intellectual, ideological vacuum" in the post-Mao Tse-tung era, says Merle Goldman, professor emerita of Chinese history at Boston University. ''Frankly, its greatest attraction is it promises to protect your health," she says. ''It attracts largely workers in the city who had lost their healthcare [coverage], and it really spread." Goldman says Falun Gong followers' ability to organize stunned the Chinese government, but she says the banned movement doesn't espouse a political ideology.

''For many people, Falun Gong is a regimen of exercises," says Alan Wachman, an associate professor at Tufts University's Fletcher School. ''There are other members of the broad community of practitioners who take it one step further. It can be life-extending. It could be mystical." In China, Wachman says, Falun Gong practitioners have been victimized by a government crackdown, because ''any organization that has the capacity to organize people outside of the state is viewed as a threat. . . . They just really want to be left to do their own thing."

Whatever the financial, political, or sociological impetus was for creating The Epoch Times, the English-language version looks more like a fledgling operation than a polished, commercial product. It relies heavily on wire services and features a lot of gray, open pages that run counter to newspaper design trends toward shorter stories and punchier graphics. Other than expressing optimism about the future and stressing how quickly the franchise has expanded, Epoch Times officials don't delve into specifics about the business model. But it certainly appears to be a labor of love.

''It's a start-up business, and most of us are working under the starting-business mode of hard work now and anticipated future payoff," Nania says. ''We do consider it a start-up business that will become a profitable business soon."

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