Would you support a cult that preached imminent extraterrestrial alien invasions, rejection of all modern science and medicine, heavens separated by race and boasted a leader who claimed to have exclusive knowledge of how to save us all? I would guess that most people would probably not, but that’s what much of the Western world — and America in particular — has been doing for some years now. And no, I’m not talking about Scientology.
The cult in question is the Falun Gong, which over the past several years has become a focus of public attention whenever the subject of China’s grisly human rights record is brought up. The Falun Gong’s PR department has done an amazing job over the past several years toward publicizing themselves internationally, even giving the Tibetans a run for the title of China’s Most Oppressed People.
The Western press, for the most part, laps this all up and is happy to give the Falun Gong the attention it wants, and in doing so they are taking attention away from — I’d argue — greater concerns regarding China, such as its huge rich-poor gap or the whole wretched Taiwan controversy.
Having said that, I should also make clear that I’m not supporting China’s draconian treatment of the Falun Gong, nor am I saying the Falun Gong doesn’t have a right to voice itself. But I do think the media attention given in the West to the Falun Gong is overblown in comparison to other issues concerning China covered (or not covered) by the Western press, and that the popular perception of the group is candied and misinformed. Of all the movements in China that could someday hypothetically supplant the current regime, I hope it won’t be a loopy cult like the Falun Gong.
What has made the Falun Gong stand out in the first place to the Western press is, of course, that it’s been among the most visible organized movements in China to oppose the Chinese government since Tiananmen Square. Owing to some subconscious “my-rival’s rival is my friend” logic, many Westerners assume that there must be something cool about the Falun Gong since it had the balls to stand up to China’s bigwigs. With its quasi-Daoist, traditionalist aesthetics and philosophies, the Falun Gong perhaps also draws foreign appeal because it represents to the general Western public some neo-Orientalist vision of a benign, religious China.
Beneath that surface, the Falun Gong is really more like the Chinese counterpart to Scientology, and it has all the classic makings of a cult. The Scientology parallel comes out most strikingly when you look up the quotes and writings of the Falun Gong’s leader, Li Hongzhi.
For starters, Master Li persistently claims that the Earth is under attack from extraterrestrial aliens who are getting ready to clone and supplant the human race even as we speak. All of modern culture and technology, according to Li, is the product of alien mind control, and it’s only a matter of time before the aliens possess us all because they envy humans for having the most perfect bodies in the universe.
You don’t even need to look to the Chinese government’s anti-Falun Gong propaganda to find these snippets of Li’s cockamamie insights. It’s all there in his writings and in his interviews with the international press. The information above on Li’s alien-invasion theories comes right from an interview he had with a correspondent from Time-Asia in 1999. The article is still on Time-Asia’s Web site, and — if this interests you at all — I encourage you to look it up; I’m really only giving small glimpses here of the wacky stuff that comes out of Li Hongzhi’s mouth.
Master Li also assumes the archetypal cult leader role of the great omniscient messiah, claiming the sole power to foresee and avert the many unseen disasters that threaten to have the world teetering on the brink of Armageddon. A sampling from the Falun Dafa’s (Falun Dafa is the name of Li Hongzhi’s core belief system) online copy of the Zhuan Falun — arguably the Falun Gong’s key scripture — reads like a doomsday pamphlet you might get from a cracked street prophet on Forbes Avenue: “Master [Li] has spread Dafa for ten years. Even in the human world, predestinations have changed. The comet catastrophe predestined in history is no more, the third world war has been averted, and the peril in 1999 from the cycle of formation-stasis-degeneration-destruction of Heaven and Earth will never recur … How wonderful. Wonderful. Truly Wonderful!”
After such glances at its leadership’s own ramblings, the Falun Gong comes off more as a dingbat cult rather than a simple system of Tai-Chi-esque breathing exercises. Given the propaganda going both ways that surrounds this cult, it gets very difficult to get a realistic picture of them without a critical look at the Falun Gong’s own dogma beyond what their PR usually presents in the mainstream press. In scenarios like this, having “both sides of the story” isn’t always enough — instead, what neither side cares to make into a story can be what counts.
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