Background on False Labels
Falun Gong was not “banned by the Chinese government as an evil cult” on July 22, 1999, as many newspapers rather carelessly write. In fact, this term was not even used by the Chinese regime until many months after the violent campaign began.
When the term was applied, it was not the outcome of measured analysis, investigative findings, or theological debate. It was not arrived at by scholars of religion, nor sociologists, or psychologists. Nor was it the consensus of the government.
Rather, it was a political move, one engineered by an identifiable individual. That person was Jiang Zemin, then head of China’s communist party. According to a November 9, 1999, report by the Washington Post, “It was Mr. Jiang who ordered that Falun Gong be branded a ‘cult,’ and then demanded that a law be passed banning cults.”
“The group [Falun Gong] didn’t meet many common definitions of a cult: its members marry outside the group, have outside friends, hold normal jobs, do not live isolated from society, do not believe that the world’s end is imminent and do not give significant amounts of money to the organization. Most importantly, suicide is not accepted, nor is physical violence….[Falun Gong] is at heart an apolitical, inward-oriented discipline, one aimed at cleansing oneself spiritually and improving one’s health.”
— Ian Johnson, formerly with the Wall Street Journal, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on Falun Gong.
The label appeared at a time when the Party’s nascent anti-Falun Gong crusade had grown into a bumbling public relations mess. Not only was the Falun Gong standing up to the regime, but the violent means being used against it—such as torture and public shows of police brutality—were turning the tide of public opinion in Falun Gong’s favor. The Chinese public was growing increasingly sympathetic to the group’s plight, even as Party propaganda was repeatedly ratcheted up. Something had to be done if the campaign was not to prove an embarrassing and costly failure. The legitimacy of his rule was being called into question—rightly—by many. Jiang desperately needed to curb the tide of support for the pacifist meditators.
The move to label Falun Gong an “evil cult” was thus for Jiang, like the persecution itself, self-serving.
According to the Post, “The crackdown was undertaken to demonstrate and solidify the power of the Chinese leadership … Communist Party sources said that the standing committee of the Politburo did not unanimously endorse the crackdown and that President Jiang Zemin alone decided that Falun Gong must be eliminated.” Citing a Party official, the same story noted that, “This obviously is very personal for Jiang.”
In recent years, as political winds have shifted in the West, the CCP has co-opted other hot-button labels to attack Falun Gong. For example, English language versions of Chinese embassy and consulate websites in the West now prioritize calling Falun Gong ‘racist’ alleging its teachings prohibits the ‘mixing of races.” This, despite the fact that mixed race families are common in Falun Gong communities, and no such prohibition exists in any Falun Gong teaching. As with the cult label, reality plays no part; the only consideration is whether the label is potent enough to engender disdain, or at least apathy, toward Falun Gong in the international community.