Falun Gong or Falun Dafa (literally means “Dharma Wheel Practice” or “Law Wheel Practice”) is a spiritual discipline first introduced in China in 1992 through public lectures by its founder, Li Hongzhi. It combines the practice of meditation and slow-moving qigong exercises with a moral philosophy. Falun Gong emphasizes morality and the cultivation of virtue in its central tenets of Truthfulness, Compassion, and Forbearance and identifies as a qigong practice of the Buddhist school, though its teachings also incorporate elements drawn from Taoist traditions. Through moral rectitude and the practice of meditation, practitioners of Falun Gong aspire to better health and, ultimately, spiritual enlightenment. Falun Gong emerged at the end of China’s “qigong boom”—a period which saw the proliferation of similar practices of meditation, slow-moving exercises and regulated breathing. It differs from other qigong schools in its absence of fees or formal membership, lack of daily rituals of worship, its greater emphasis on morality, and the theological nature of its teachings.
Western academics have described Falun Gong as a qigong discipline, a “spiritual movement” based on the teachings of its founder, a “cultivation system” in the tradition of Chinese antiquity, and sometimes a religion or new religious movement. Although the practice initially enjoyed considerable support from Chinese officialdom, by the mid- to late-1990s, the Communist Party and public security organs increasingly viewed Falun Gong as a potential threat due to its size, independence from the state, and spiritual teachings. By 1999, some estimates placed the number of Falun Gong adherents in the tens of millions. Tensions culminated in April 1999, when over 10,000 Falun Gong practitioners gathered peacefully near the central government compound in Beijing to request legal recognition and freedom from state interference. This demonstration is widely seen as catalyzing the suppression that followed.
On 20 July 1999, the Communist Party leadership initiated a nationwide crackdown and multifaceted propaganda campaign intended to eradicate the practice. In October 1999 it declared Falun Gong a “heretical organization” that threatened social stability, and blocked Internet access to websites that mention Falun Gong. Human rights groups report that Falun Gong practitioners in China are subject to a wide range of human rights abuses; hundreds of thousands are believed to have been imprisoned extrajudicially, and practitioners in detention are subject to forced labor, psychiatric abuse, torture, and other coercive methods of thought reform at the hands of Chinese authorities. In the years since the suppression campaign began, Falun Gong adherents have emerged as a prominent voice in the Chinese dissident community, advocating for greater human rights and an end to Communist Party rule.
Falun Gong founder Li Hongzhi has lived in the United States since 1996, and Falun Gong has a sizable global constituency; inside China, some sources estimate that millions may continue to practice Falun Gong in spite of suppression. Hundreds of thousands are believed to practice Falun Gong outside China across some 70 countries worldwide. Falun Gong is most frequently identified with the qigong movement in China. Qigong is a modern term that refers to a variety of practices involving slow movement, meditation, and regulated breathing. Qigong-like exercises have historically been practiced by Buddhist monks, Daoist martial artists, and Confucian scholars as a means of spiritual, moral, and physical refinement.
The modern qigong movement emerged in the early 1950s, when Communist cadres embraced the techniques as a way to improve health. The new term was constructed to avoid association with religious practices, which were prone to being labeled as “feudal superstition” and persecuted during the Maoist era. Early adopters of qigong eschewed its religious overtones, and regarded qigong principally as a branch of Chinese medicine. In the late 1970s, Chinese scientists were purported to have discovered the material existence of the qi energy which qigong seeks to harness. In the spiritual vacuum of the post-Mao era, tens of millions of mostly urban and elderly Chinese citizens took up the practice of qigong, and a variety of charismatic qigong masters established practices. At one time, over 2,000 disciplines of qigong were being taught.
The state-run China Qigong Science Research Society (CQRS) was established in 1985 to oversee and administer the movement. On May 1992, Li Hongzhi gave his first public seminar on Falun Gong (alternatively called Falun Dafa) in the northeastern city of Changchun. In his hagiographic spiritual biography, Li Hongzhi is said to have been taught ways of “cultivation practice” by several masters of the Buddhist and Daoist traditions, including Quan Jue, the 10th Heir to the Great Law of the Buddha School; a Taoist master from age eight to twelve; and a master of the Great Way School with the Taoist alias of True Taoist from the Changbai Mountains.
Falun Dafa is said to be the result of his reorganizing and writing down the teachings that were passed to him. Li presented Falun Gong as part of a “centuries-old tradition of cultivation”, and in effect sought to revive the religious and spiritual elements of qigong practice that had been discarded in the earlier Communist era. David Palmer writes that Li “redefined his method as having entirely different objectives from qigong: the purpose of practice should neither be physical health nor the development of extraordinary powers, but to purify one’s heart and attain spiritual salvation.”
Falun Gong is distinct from other qigong schools in that its teachings cover a wide range of spiritual and metaphysical topics, placing emphasis on morality and virtue, and elaborating a complete cosmology. The practice identifies with the Buddhist School (Fojia), but also draws on concepts and language found in Taoism and Confucianism. This has led some scholars to label the practice as a syncretic faith. Falun Gong aspires to enable the practitioner to ascend spiritually through moral rectitude and the practice of a set of exercises and meditation. The three central tenets of the belief are ‘Truthfulness’ (眞, Zhēn), ‘Compassion’ (善, Shàn), and ‘Forbearance’ (忍, Rěn). Together these principles are regarded as the fundamental nature of the cosmos, the criterion for differentiating right from wrong, and are held to be the highest manifestation of the Tao, or Buddhist Dharma.
Adherence to and cultivation of these virtues is regarded as a fundamental part of Falun Gong practice. In Zhuan Falun (轉法輪), the foundational text published in 1995, Li Hongzhi writes “It doesn’t matter how mankind’s moral standard changes. The nature of the cosmos doesn’t change, and it is the only standard for determining who’s good and who’s bad. So to be a cultivator you have to take the nature of the cosmos as your guide for improving yourself.” Practice of Falun Gong consists of two features: performance of the exercises, and the refinement of one’s xinxing (moral character, or temperament).
In Falun Gong’s central text, Li states that xinxing “includes virtue (which is a type of matter), it includes forbearance, it includes awakening to things, it includes giving up things—giving up all the desires and all the attachments that are found in an ordinary person—and you also have to endure hardship, to name just a few things.” The elevation of one’s moral character, is achieved, on the one hand, by aligning one’s life with truth, compassion, and tolerance; and on the other, by abandoning desires and “negative thoughts and behaviors, such as greed, profit, lust, desire, killing, fighting, theft, robbery, deception, jealousy, etc.” Among the central concepts found in the teachings of Falun Gong is the existence of ‘Virtue’ (‘德, Dé) and ‘Karma’ (Ye). The former is generated through doing good deeds and suffering, while the latter is accumulated through doing wrong deeds. A person’s ratio of karma to virtue is said to determine his or her fortunes in this life or the next. While virtue engenders good fortune and enables spiritual transformation, an accumulation of karma results in suffering, illness, and alienation from the nature of the universe.
Spiritual elevation is achieved through the elimination of negative karma and the accumulation of virtue. Falun Gong’s teachings posit that human beings are originally and innately good—even divine—but that they descended into a realm of delusion and suffering after developing selfishness and accruing karma. In order to re-ascend and return to the “original, true self”, practitioners of Falun Gong are supposed to assimilate themselves to the qualities of truthfulness, compassion and tolerance, let go of “attachments and desires” and suffer to repay karma. The ultimate goal of the practice is enlightenment or spiritual perfection (yuanman), and release from the cycle of reincarnation, known in Buddhist tradition as samsara. Traditional Chinese cultural thought and modernity are two focuses of Li Hongzhi’s teachings. Falun Gong echoes traditional Chinese beliefs that humans are connected to the universe through mind and body, and Li seeks to challenge “conventional mentalities”, concerning the nature and genesis of the universe, time-space, and the human body.
The practice draws on East Asian mysticism and traditional Chinese medicine, criticizes the purportedly self-imposed limits of modern science, and views traditional Chinese science as an entirely different, yet equally valid ontological system. In addition to its moral philosophy, Falun Gong consists of four standing exercises and one sitting meditation. The exercises are regarded as secondary to moral elevation, though is still an essential component of Falun Gong cultivation practice. The first exercises, called “Buddha Stretching a Thousand Arms”, are intended to facilitate the free flow of energy through the body and open up the meridians.
The second exercise, “Falun Standing Stance”, involves holding four static poses—each of which resembles holding a wheel—for an extended period. The objective of this exercise is to “enhances wisdom, increases strength, raises a person’s level, and strengthens divine powers”. The third, “Coursing between the Two Poles”, involves three sets of movements which aim to enable the expulsion of bad energy and the absorption of good energy into the body. Through practice of this exercise, the practitioner aspires to cleanse and purify the body. The fourth exercise, “Falun Cosmic Orbit”, seeks to circulate energy freely throughout the body. Unlike the first through fourth exercises, the fifth exercise is performed in the seated lotus position. Called “Reinforcing Supernatural Powers”, it is a meditation intended to be maintained as long as possible. Some of its postures correspond to the traditional meditative gestures of Buddhism, and is described by Li as more advanced than the previous four. Falun Gong exercises can be practiced individually or in group settings, and can be performed for varying lengths of time in accordance with the needs and abilities of the individual practitioner. Porter writes that practitioners of Falun Gong are encouraged to read Falun Gong books and practice its exercises on a regular basis, preferably daily. Falun Gong exercises are practiced in group settings in parks, university campuses, and other public spaces in 70 countries worldwide, and are taught for free by volunteers. In addition to five exercises, in 2001 another meditation activity was introduced called “sending righteous thoughts,” which is intended to reduce persecution on the spiritual plane.
Falun Gong differentiates itself from Buddhist monastic traditions in that it places great importance on participation in the secular world. Falun Gong adherents are required to maintain regular jobs and family lives, to observe the laws of their respective governments, and are instructed not to distance themselves from society. An exception is made for Buddhist monks and nuns, who are permitted to continue a monastic lifestyle while practicing Falun Gong. As part of its emphasis on ethical behavior, Falun Gong’s teachings prescribe a strict personal morality for practitioners. They are expected to act truthfully, do good deeds, and conduct themselves with patience and forbearance when encountering difficulties. For instance, Li stipulates that a practitioner of Falun Gong must “not hit back when attacked, not talk back when insulted.” In addition, they must “abandon negative thoughts and behaviors,” such as greed, deception, jealousy, etc. The teachings contain injunctions against smoking and the consumption of alcohol, as these are considered addictions that are detrimental to health and mental clarity. Practitioners of Falun Gong are forbidden to kill living things—including animals for the purpose of obtaining food—though they are not required to adopt a vegetarian diet.
In addition to these things, practitioners of Falun Gong must abandon a variety of worldly attachments and desires. In the course of cultivation practice, the student of Falun Gong aims to relinquish the pursuit of fame, monetary gain, sentimentality, and other entanglements. Li’s teachings repeatedly emphasize the emptiness of material pursuits; although practitioners of Falun Gong are not encouraged to leave their jobs or eschew money, they are expected to give up the psychological attachments to these things. Similarly, sexual desire and lust are treated as attachments to be discarded, but Falun Gong students are still generally expected to marry and have families. All sexual relations outside the confines of monogamous, heterosexual marriage are regarded as immoral. Although gays and lesbians may practice Falun Gong, homosexual conduct is said to generate karma, and is therefore viewed as incompatible with the goals of the practice.
Falun Gong’s cosmology includes the belief that different ethnicities each have a correspondence to their own heavens, and that individuals of mixed race lose some aspect of this connection. Nonetheless, Li maintains that being of mixed race does not affect a person’s soul, nor hinder their ability to practice Falun Dafa. The practice does not have any formal stance against interracial marriage, and many Falun Gong practitioners have interracial children. Falun Gong doctrine counsels against participation in political or social issues. Excessive interest in politics is viewed as an attachment to worldly power and influence, and Falun Gong aims for transcendence of such pursuits. According to Hu Ping, “Falun Gong deals only with purifying the individual through exercise, and does not touch on social or national concerns. It has not suggested or even intimated a model for social change. Many religions pursue social reform to some extent but there is no such tendency evident in Falun Gong.” The first book of Falun Gong teachings was published in April 1993. Called China Falun Gong, or simply Falun Gong, is an introductory text that discusses qigong, Falun Gong’s relationship to Buddhism, the principles of cultivation practice and the improvement of moral character (xinxing). The book also provides illustrations and explanations of the exercises and meditation. The main body of teachings is articulated in the core book Zhuan Falun, published in Chinese in January 1995.
The book is divided into nine “lectures”, and was based on edited transcriptions of the talks Li gave throughout China in the preceding three years. Falun Gong texts have since been translated into an additional 38 languages. In addition to these central texts, Li has published several books, lectures, articles, books of poetry, which are made available on Falun Gong websites. The Falun Gong teachings use numerous untranslated Chinese religious and philosophical terms, and make frequent allusion to characters and incidents in Chinese folk literature and concepts drawn from Chinese popular religion. This, coupled with the literal translation style of the texts, which imitate the colloquial style of Li’s speeches, can make Falun Gong scriptures difficult to approach for Westerners. The main symbol of the practice is the Falun (Dharma wheel, or Dharmacakra in Sanskrit). In Buddhism, the Dharmacakra represents the completeness of the doctrine. To “turn the wheel of dharma” (Zhuan Falun) means to preach the Buddhist doctrine, and is the title of Falun Gong’s main text.
Despite the invocation of Buddhist language and symbols, the law wheel as understood in Falun Gong has distinct connotations, and is held to represent the universe. It is conceptualized by an emblem consisting of one large and four small Swastika symbols, representing the Buddha, and four small Taiji (yin-yang) symbols of the Daoist tradition. Falun Gong is a multifaceted discipline that means different things to different people, ranging from a set of physical exercises for the attainment of better health and a praxis of self-transformation, to a moral philosophy and a new knowledge system. Scholars and journalists have adopted a variety of terms and classifications in describing Falun Gong, some of them more precise than others. In the cultural context of China, Falun Gong is generally described either as a system of qigong, or a type of “cultivation practice” (xiulian). Cultivation is a Chinese term that describes the process by which an individual seeks spiritual perfection, often through both physical and moral conditioning. Varieties of cultivation practice are found throughout Chinese history, spanning Buddhist, Daoist and Confucian traditions. Benjamin Penny, a professor of Chinese history at the Australian National University, writes “the best way to describe Falun Gong is as a cultivation system. Cultivation systems have been a feature of Chinese life for at least 2,500 years.” Qigong practices can also be understood as a part of a broader tradition of “cultivation practice”. In the West, Falun Gong is frequently classified as a religion on the basis of its theological and moral teachings, its concerns with spiritual cultivation and transformation, and its extensive body of scripture. Human rights groups report on the suppression of Falun Gong as a violation of religious freedom, and in 2001, Falun Gong was given an International Religious Freedom Award from Freedom House.
Falun Gong practitioners themselves have sometimes disavowed this classification, however. This rejection reflects the relatively narrow definition of “religion” (zongjiao) in contemporary China. According to David Ownby, religion in China has been defined since 1912 to refer to “world-historical faiths” that have “well-developed institutions, clergy, and textual traditions”—namely, Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Protestantism and Catholicism. Falun Gong lacks these features, having no temples, rituals of worship, clergy or formal hierarchy. Moreover, if Falun Gong had described itself as a religion in China, it likely would have invited immediate suppression. These historical and cultural circumstances notwithstanding, the practice has often been described as a form of Chinese religion. Although it is often referred to as such in journalistic literature, Falun Gong does not satisfy the definition of a “sect.”A sect is generally defined as a branch or denomination of an established belief system or mainstream church. Although Falun Gong draws on both Buddhist and Daoist ideas and terminology, it claims no direct relationship or lineage connection to these religions. Sociologists regard sects as exclusive groups that exist within clearly defined boundaries, with rigorous standards for admission and strict allegiances. However, as noted by Noah Porter, Falun Gong does not share these qualities: it does not have clearly defined boundaries, and anyone may practice it.
Cheris Shun-ching considers cults to be new religious movements that focus on the individual experience of the encounter with the sacred rather than collective worship, and to that end describes Falun Gong as a new religious movement “with cult-like characteristics.” However, Chan defines a “cult” differently than as the term is usually understood; she calls it a group that does not have a “prior theological tie with an established religious body,” that holds “beliefs and practice that are very often mystically and individualistically oriented,” and which is “loosely structured with a ﬂuctuating membership and tolerant of other organizations and faiths.” Some scholars avoid the term “cult” altogether because “of the confusion between the historic meaning of the term and current pejorative use.” These scholars prefer terms like “spiritual movement”, “new religious syncretism”, or “new religious movement” to avoid the negative connotations of “cult” or to avoid improperly categorizing those which do not fit mainstream definitions. As a matter of doctrinal significance, Falun Gong is intended to be “formless,” having little to no material or formal organization. Practitioners of Falun Gong cannot collect money or charge fees, conduct healings, or teach or interpret doctrine for others.
There are no administrators or officials within the practice, no system of membership, and no churches or physical places of worship. In the absence of membership or initiation rituals, Falun Gong practitioners can be anyone who chooses to identify themselves as such. Students are free to participate in the practice and follow its teachings as much or as little as they like, and practitioners do not instruct others on what to believe or how to behave. Falun Gong is centralized in that spiritual authority is vested in the corpus of teachings of the founder, Li Hongzhi, but organizationally it is decentralized with local branches and assistants afforded no special privileges, authority, or titles. Volunteer “assistants” or “contact persons” do not hold authority over other practitioners, regardless of how long they have practiced Falun Gong. As such, spiritual and ideological authority in the practice is completely centralized with Li Hongzhi.
Li’s spiritual authority within the practice is absolute, yet the organization of Falun Gong works against totalistic control, and Li does not intervene in the personal lives of adherents. Practitioners of Falun Gong have little to no contact with Li, except through the study of his teachings. There is no hierarchy in Falun Gong to enforce orthodoxy, and little or no emphasis is given on dogmatic discipline; the only thing emphasized is the need for strict moral behavior, according to Craig Burgdoff, a professor of religious studies. To the extent that organization is achieved in Falun Gong, it is accomplished through a global, networked, and largely virtual online community. In particular, electronic communications, email lists and a collection of websites are the primary means of coordinating activities and disseminating Li Hongzhi’s teachings. The extent of Falun Gong’s reliance on the internet as a means of organizing has led to the group’s characterization as “a virtual religious community.” Outside Mainland China, a network of volunteer ‘contact persons’, regional Falun Dafa Associations and university clubs exist in approximately 70 countries.
Li Hongzhi’s teachings are principally spread through the Internet. In most mid- to large-sized cities, Falun Gong practitioners organize regular group meditation or study sessions in which they practice Falun Gong exercises and read Li Hongzhi’s writings. The exercise and meditation sessions are described as informal groups of practitioners who gather in public parks—usually in the morning—for one to two hours. Group study sessions typically take place in the evenings in private residences or university or high school classrooms, and are described by David Ownby as “the closest thing to a regular ‘congregational experience'” that Falun Gong offers. Individuals who are too busy, isolated, or who simply prefer solitude may elect to practice privately. When there are expenses to be covered (such as for the rental of facilities for large-scale conferences), costs are borne by self-nominated and relatively affluent individual members of the community.
In 1993, the Beijing-based Falun Dafa Research Society was accepted as a branch of the state-run China Qigong Research Society (CQRS), which oversaw the administration of the country’s various qigong schools, and sponsored activities and seminars. As per the requirements of the CQRS, Falun Gong was organized into a nationwide network of assistance centers, “main stations”, “branches”, “guidance stations”, and local practice sites, mirroring the structure of the qigong society or even of the Communist Party itself. Falun Gong assistants were self-selecting volunteers who taught the exercises, organized events, and disseminated new writings from Li Hongzhi. The Falun Dafa Research Society provided advice to students on meditation techniques, translation services, and coordination for the practice nationwide. Following its departure from the CQRS in 1996, Falun Gong came under increased scrutiny from authorities and responded by adopting a more decentralized and loose organizational structure.
In 1997, the Falun Dafa Research Society was formally dissolved, along with the regional “main stations.” Yet practitioners continued to organize themselves at local levels, being connected through electronic communications, interpersonal networks and group exercise sites. Both Falun Gong sources and Chinese government sources claimed that there were some 1,900 “guidance stations” and 28,263 local Falun Gong exercise sites nationwide by 1999, though they disagree over the extent of vertical coordination among these organizational units. In response to the suppression that began in 1999, Falun Gong was driven underground, the organizational structure grew yet more informal within China, and the internet took precedence as a means of connecting practitioners.
Following the suppression of Falun Gong in 1999, Chinese authorities sought to portray Falun Gong as a hierarchical and well-funded organization. James Tong writes that it was in the government’s interest to portray Falun Gong as highly organized in order to justify its repression of the group: “The more organized the Falun Gong could be shown to be, then the more justified the regime’s repression in the name of social order was.” He concluded that Party’s claims lacked “both internal and external substantiating evidence”, and that despite the arrests and scrutiny, the authorities never “credibly countered Falun Gong rebuttals”. A Falun Gong practitioner performs the fifth exercise, a meditation, in Bangkok, Thailand. Prior to July 1999, official estimates placed the number of Falun Gong practitioners as high as 60 to 70 million nationwide, rivaling membership in the Communist Party. By the time of the suppression on July 1999, most Chinese government numbers said the population of Falun Gong was between 2 and 3 million, though some publications maintained an estimate of 40 million.
Most Falun Gong estimates in the same period placed the total number of practitioners in China at 70 to 80 million. Other sources have estimated the Falun Gong population in China to have peaked between 10 and 60 million practitioners. The number of Falun Gong adherents still practicing in China today is difficult to confirm, though some sources estimate that millions may continue to practice privately. Demographic surveys conducted in China in 1998 found a population that was mostly female and elderly. Of 34,351 Falun Gong practitioners surveyed, 27% were male and 73% female. Only 38% were under 50 years old. Falun Gong attracted a range of other individuals, from young college students to bureaucrats, intellectuals and Party officials.
Surveys in China from the 1990s found that between 23% – 40% of practitioners held university degrees at the college or graduate level—several times higher than the general population. Falun Gong is practiced by tens, and possibly hundreds of thousands outside China, with the largest communities found in Taiwan and North American cities with large Chinese populations, such as New York and Toronto. Demographic surveys by Palmer and Ownby in these communities found that 90% of practitioners are ethnic Chinese. The average age was approximately 40. Among survey respondents, 56% were female and 44% male; 80% were married. The surveys found the respondents to be highly educated: 9% held PhDs, 34% had Masters degrees, and 24% had a Bachelors degree. The most commonly reported reasons for being attracted to Falun Gong were intellectual content, cultivation exercises, and health benefits. Non-Chinese adherents of Falun Gong tend to fit the profile of “spiritual seekers”—people who had tried a variety of qigong, yoga, or religious practices before finding Falun Gong.
According to Richard Madsen, Chinese scientists with doctorates from prestigious American universities who practice Falun Gong claim that modern physics (for example, superstring theory) and biology (specifically the pineal gland’s function) provide a scientific basis for their beliefs. From their point of view, “Falun Dafa is knowledge rather than religion, a new form of science rather than faith.” On 20 July 1999, security forces abducted and detained thousands of Falun Gong adherents that they identified as leaders. Two days later on 22 July, the PRC Ministry of Civil Affairs outlawed the Falun Dafa Research Society as an illegal organization “engaged in illegal activities, advocating superstition and spreading fallacies, hoodwinking people, inciting and creating disturbances, and jeopardizing social stability”, and the Ministry of Public Security issued a circular forbidding citizens from practicing Falun Gong in groups, possessing Falun Gong’s teachings, displaying Falun Gong banners or symbols, or protesting the ban.
The ensuing campaign aimed to “eradicate” the group through a combination of propaganda, imprisonment, and coercive thought reform of adherents, sometimes resulting in deaths. In October 1999, four months after the ban, legislation was created to outlaw “heterodox religions,” and applied to sentence Falun Gong devotees to prison terms. Hundreds of thousands are believed to have been imprisoned extrajudicially, and practitioners in detention are reportedly subjected to forced labor, psychiatric abuse, torture, and other coercive methods of thought reform at the hands of Chinese authorities. The U.S. Department of State and Congressional-Executive Commission on China cite estimates that as much as half of China’s reeducation-through-labor camp population is made up of Falun Gong adherents. Researcher Ethan Gutmann estimates that Falun Gong represents an average of 15 to 20 percent of the total “laogai” population.
Former detainees of the labor camp system have reported that Falun Gong practitioners are one of the largest groups of prisoners; in some labor camp and prison facilities, they comprise the majority of detainees, and are often said to receive the longest sentences and the worst treatment. According to Johnson, the campaign against Falun Gong extends to many aspects of society, including the media apparatus, police force, military, education system, and workplaces. An extra-constitutional body, the “610 Office” was created to “oversee” the effort. Human Rights Watch noted that families and workplaces were urged to cooperate with the government. Since 1999, numerous Western governments and human rights organizations have expressed condemnation for the Chinese government’s suppression of Falun Gong. Since 1999, members of the United States Congress have made public pronouncements and introduced several resolutions in support of Falun Gong.
In 2010, U.S. House of Representatives Resolution 605 called for “an immediate end to the campaign to persecute, intimidate, imprison, and torture Falun Gong practitioners,” condemned the Chinese authorities’ efforts to distribute “false propaganda” about the practice worldwide, and expressed sympathy to persecuted Falun Gong practitioners and their families. From 1999–2001, Western media reports on Falun Gong—and in particular, the mistreatment of practitioners—were frequent, if mixed. By the latter half of 2001, however, the volume of media reports declined precipitously, and by 2002, major news organizations like the New York Times and Washington Post had almost completely ceased their coverage of Falun Gong from China. In a study of media discourse on Falun Gong, researcher Leeshai Lemish found that Western news organizations also became less balanced, and more likely to uncritically present the narratives of the Communist Party, rather than those of Falun Gong or human rights groups. Adam Frank writes that in reporting on the Falun Gong, the Western tradition of casting the Chinese as “exotic” took dominance, and that while the facts were generally correct in Western media coverage, “the normalcy that millions of Chinese practitioners associated with the practice had all but disappeared.” David Ownby noted that alongside these tactics, the “cult” label applied to Falun Gong by the Chinese authorities never entirely went away in the minds of some Westerners, and the stigma still plays a role in wary public perceptions of Falun Gong.
To counter the support of Falun Gong in the West, the Chinese government expanded their efforts against the group internationally. This included visits to newspaper officers by diplomats to “extol the virtues of Communist China and the evils of Falun Gong”, linking support for Falun Gong with “jeopardizing trade relations,” and sending letters to local politicians telling them to withdraw support for the practice. According to Perry Link, pressure on Western institutions also takes more subtle forms, including academic self-censorship, whereby research on Falun Gong could result in a denial of visa for fieldwork in China; or exclusion and discrimination from business and community groups who have connections with China and fear angering the Communist Party.
Ethan Gutmann, a journalist reporting on China since the early 1990s, has attempted to explain the apparent dearth of public sympathy for Falun Gong as stemming, in part, from the group’s shortcomings in public relations. Unlike the democracy activists or Tibetans, who have found a comfortable place in Western perceptions, “Falun Gong marched to a distinctly Chinese drum”, Gutmann writes. Moreover, practitioners’ attempts at getting their message across carried some of the uncouthness of Communist party culture, including a perception that practitioners tended to exaggerate, create “torture tableaux straight out of a Cultural Revolution opera”, or “spout slogans rather than facts”. This is coupled with a general doubtfulness in the West of persecuted refugees. Gutmann also notes that media organizations and human rights groups also self-censor on the topic, given the PRC governments vehement attitude toward the practice, and the potential repercussions that may follow for making overt representations on Falun Gong’s behalf.