“The Power of Falun Gong” (Foreign Correspondent, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 21 July 2020)
Purporting to be an expose of Falun Gong’s activities as a secretive religious organisation with very disturbing cult-like tendencies, and its promotion of current US President Donald Trump during the 2020 US Presidential election year, this episode of Foreign Correspondent ends up flogging the organisation with a light feather. A very brief sketchy survey of how the cult arose in China in the early 1990s starts the program, with very little information about how the cult’s founder Li Hongzhi began the organisation or about his background prior to becoming a government clerk. The program claims that Li’s ability to rally thousands of Chinese to his cult, using a mix of Buddhist and Daoist ideas that include taijiquan exercises and meditation practice along with Scientology-style beliefs about aliens coming to Earth and conservative politics, was what led the Chinese government to outlaw Falun Gong and persuade Li Hongzhi to flee to the United States. (Another source I read says the Chinese government shut down Falun Gong for persuading its followers to abstain from medical therapies and rely entirely on meditation and conforming to Li’s teachings to recover from illness. This is backed up at this blog here.)
Skipping from interviewing a young defector from the Falun Gong cult, whose mother raised her in its beliefs, to a family who lost their grandmother to the cult whose teachings on shunning medicine led to the grandmother’s death, the program presents some very heart-rending stories in a superficial way. We do not learn how the defector managed to make her own way in the world after leaving the cult and her mother. Reporter Eric Campbell meets two activists living in upstate New York, where the cult has built a huge compound that continues to grow and devour local properties, who are campaigning against Falun Gong’s greed to acquire more land and build more structures that violate local environmental laws and building safety codes; but even the activists’ story is dealt with in a vague way. We never learn if they and their followers have ever won a lawsuit against Falun Gong or managed to have much influence on their own communities and others beyond their area.
The last and most interesting part of the documentary concerns Falun Gong’s media empire, known as The Epoch Media Group, centred around flagship newspaper The Epoch Times and its increasing forays into social media platforms and advertising on Facebook. The report looks at how Falun Gong companies and websites create false social media identities and accounts on Facebook, often for the purpose of astroturfing (running fake grassroots campaigns with support from fake accounts). Unfortunately the program fails to ask where the money comes from to finance The Epoch Media Group and other media and entertainment-related groups such as the Shen Yun Dance Company, and other activities. At least the source I referred to earlier comes to my rescue with the revelation that Falun Gong’s media empire and other operations, including its compound in New York state, are funded by the US government and its agencies (possibly including the CIA and the National Endowment for Democracy) which use the cult as a de facto attack-dog propaganda outlet.
Foreign Correspondent significantly fails to connect Falun Gong’s support for Donald Trump with its worldview which believes the End Times are close by and that Trump is a divinely inspired warrior committed to ending Communism in China. How the program could have missed this damning aspect of a cult says much about its mealy-mouthed and timid approach in covering the organisation, such that Falun Gong comes over as an eccentric cult with a reclusive leader, instead of the dangerous and deranged fascist front for the US government it actually is. At the end of the day, the producers of Foreign Correspondent and the reporters who work for the program must ask whether flaying a dangerous cult like Falun Gong, which happens to be anti-Communist, lightly with a feather is more moral than lambasting China for having a style of government and a particular political ideology that its people want but which the West fears and resents.