Falun Gong's Challenge to China

Falun Gong's Challenge to China (2001)

Thirteen/WNET New York's series DUE EAST presents Falun Gong's Challenge to China, a hard-hitting investigation of China’s policy towards a spiritual movement that claims 100 million followers worldwide. In October 2000, China's president Jiang Zemin declared that Falun Gong was bent on “overthrowing the Chinese government, and undermining socialism.” The Falun Gong movement’s response was to mobilize ongoing non-violent protests in the center of Beijing. Directed and reported by Emmy award-winning investigative journalist Danny Schechter, this film features exclusive footage, a rare interview with Falun Gong founder Li Hongzhi, and first-person testimonies secretly videotaped in China by practitioners who have been tortured in Chinese jails.

The Asia Society spoke with Danny Schechter about his experience producing the documentary, and his views on media portrayals of Falun Gong.

Can you tell me how you became interested in doing investigative documentaries? Was this your first one on Asia?

I was an investigative reporter for eight years at 20/20, and a print journalist before that so I've always had an investigative orientation. At Global Vision, we produced a program that aired on PBS called China Now about the anniversary of Tiananmen Square. We also covered China in our human rights series "Rights and Wrongs." So I became interested in China after I had gone there and followed what was happening. I, like many people, became interested in what happened at Tiananmen Square and in the process got to know a lot of the student activists.

Falun Gong's Challenge to China is based on a book. I did a lot of reading and interviewing for the book. But the book also includes testimonies from Falun Gong members as well as critics from the Chinese government.

Was it difficult to get access to Falun Gong members in China for your documentary? How were you able to get testimonies from the practitioners who had been tortured in Chinese jails?

It is virtually impossible to get access unless you are really persistent and sincere in terms of getting the story. Ian Johnson of the Wall Street Journal, unlike everyone else in Beijing, was able to do thoughtful reporting on individuals. I think the Falun Gong members trusted and respected him on the basis of his willingness to do serious work. Other journalists didn't respect them and did tabloid investigative attacks.

We requested the testimonies of practitioners from people in China who organized and shot this footage for us. We would have liked to interview them ourselves but my hunch was that I would not be able to get into China to do this kind of film. The people that I have worked with in Beijing would be put at risk to do something like this, and it would make them very nervous. So I didn't feel like it was a story that I could personally get access to in the way that I wanted. Another example is when our company worked 156 weeks on a series in South Africa, most of which time we were banned from going there. Nevertheless, we were able to get fresh material every week. We tend to differ from most journalists who have an outside-in approach. We have an inside-out approach by working with people who are there and try to organize material from there.

What has been the role of media in the Falun Gong situation?

I published several essays and articles specifically on the media coverage because I felt the media was not doing a very good job of covering this story. Western media tended to use the same frames of reference that China was using, cult, sect, etc. As a consequence, it was pejorative. It was presenting Falun Gong as something that no right-minded person would be interested in. They compared it to what happened in Waco, Texas. This made me suspicious. This isn't fair and it is a very superficial labeling of these people.

On top of that, I have a human rights orientation because I produced four years of a human rights series. I feel that this is clearly a human rights situation. People are being banned, attacked, jailed, and detained. I didn't feel the viciousness of it was coming through in the media. It's like writing about Asians but never talking to Asians, or covering the Civil Rights Movement but never talking to black people. So the people who are the actors in the historical drama are not covered. Experts or spokespeople are occasionally quoted, but it doesn't humanize the situation. Falun Gong members told me they had submitted op-ed pieces and were rejected, but for instance a professor from Yale, who is a so-called "expert," was accepted. But these experts didn't really know very much because this is a new phenomenon. This all started in 1992 through 1999 and there was very little in-depth reporting.

The irony is that people who like China want to do business with China and want to promote more understanding. These people should attempt to encourage the Chinese to understand how this attitude toward Falun Gong is perceived in the West. They should communicate how religious freedom is an important part of the whole formation of our own country, and how the actions the Chinese are taking reinforce the very image of China that the modernizers of China, including Jiang Zemin, want people not to see; a state that is repressive, ruthless, and authoritarian. To my knowledge, the corporate world that deals with China has said nothing about it. No one wants to speak out about it. If you have a friend who is doing something against their interests, you should try to encourage them not to do it.

You indicate in the film that in the early days of Li Hongzhi's leadership of Falun Gong, the popularity of his free classes sparked some business competition from other practitioners in China. Can you explain futher how this could have affected the government's turn against the group?

In investigating this and going more in-depth, I began to see that there was much more to this than most people realized. There was another dynamic to all of this. What is happening in China during this period? First thing I discovered is that these people [Falun Gong members] were not against the government and not against the Communist Party. They were apolitical, they didn't see any incompatibility with being in the Party and practicing Falun Gong or any other Qi Gong [Qi Gong is the generic name of a complex of techniques for physical and spiritual well-being, with a tradition in China predating the Christian era]. The second thing I discovered was that there was a lot of tensions within the Chinese government about business regulation. Originally, Falun Gong was part of the Qi Gong Federation which was run by the state, and that federation basically began to interfere with all the different masters.

Of these masters, Li Hongzhi felt he didn't need this aggravation. Basically, if he made a dollar he would have to give 60 cents to the Federation. I don't know the exact details of the financial arrangements. But as Falun Gong grew bigger and bigger, Li Hongzhi made it clear that his mission was to bring the practice to everybody because it is beneficial, and that he was not in it for the money. After this investigation, I found the group to be very anti-materialist in its orientation--spiritualist not materialist. But China is moving in a more materialist direction toward a market economy. So Li Hongzhi decided to offer classes for free and leave the Federation. This upset all the other masters because he undercut their prices. You can see this as a very clever business move or not, but the affect was to spur the growth of Falun Gong dramatically.

Earlier on, the Chinese government believed Falun Gong was very good because it motivated people. China's healthcare system is falling apart and it gave people something healthy to so with themselves. Then the government turned around. The context needs to get pieced together. The Chinese embassy is bombed and the campaign against the U.S. is organized. Before this happened, Jiang Zemin was presented as a part of a collective leadership. Now suddenly with this conflict, Jiang Zemin gets propelled into the pantheon of leadership along with Mao and Deng. He basically appeals to nationalism in order to mobilize people. It worked really well for him. Suddenly, I think the government thought that this fight against Falun Gong would be very similar. They find an internal enemy, mobilize people around it, and project the power of the supreme leader. Except for one thing, people in China didn't buy it. Chinese people's reaction to this has been negative, and plus, there has been resistance. This makes it a very interesting phenomenon and it is more complex than people think. It is not reducible to a lot of the ways the Western media views it or even some Chinese experts. Some experts are looking to historical parallels instead of looking at what these people actually say. Everyone wants to talk about them and not to them.

You interview many Americans who practice Falun Gong. How have they reacted to the anti-Falun Gong sentiment from the Chinese government?

A lot of practitioners are Chinese Americans and are very knowledgeable about China and they go back and forth. Whenever you attack a group of people, two things happen. Some of the people give up and disappear and a harder core of people emerge who fight back and resist. This is the lesson of history. Repression ultimately does not prevail.

There have been many representations of Li Hongzhi as the leader of Falun Gong. In both Western and Asian media, these images range from a gentle leader of a spiritual group to a cult leader who talks of aliens and the supernatural. After talking with him in person, what were your impressions of him?

We did a film on Reverend Moon and the Reunification Church for PBS's Frontline. My initial impression was that the Falun Gong leader was like Reverend Moon. But I was wrong. He is not a self-aggrandizing, self-promoting leader in that sense. He is a unifying symbol in a cultural tradition. He seems more to be an anti-leader leader because he is not politically astute in the traditional sense. He also is not buying up newspapers to influence American culture the way Reverend Moon did with the Washington Times. And to my knowledge, he's not living in a palace and driving around in limos.

What has been the response of international organizations?

I think at first they were very nervous about this. No one wants to be connected to something that seems mystical or weird. So there is tendency to shy away from it. Falun Gong members are very zealous, in the sense that they believe in something and want to fight for it, so it makes people nervous, including human rights organizations. They are much more comfortable in the realm of political rights, such as freedom of expression and democratization movements. Falun Gong members didn't really care about this as much because what is important to them is to become a better person and improve oneself. So frankly, I think there was a little cultural disconnect.

But both sides began to evolve. Falun Gong members realized that the actions of the Chinese government were awful and had to be challenged. The human rights community realized that the abuses were dramatic and that Falun Gong was, by default, the leading oppositional force. Human rights groups have done reports, and continue to do updates, and stand up for this issue.

In your film you say that 70-100 million people practice Falun Gong in China alone, and many others throughout the world. After doing this documentary, do you have any insights into why this is so popular?

I think it spreads for three reasons. First of all, there are problems that the policies of the Chinese Communist Party can't really resolve. There are economic problems such as cut backs in health and public services. Falun Gong is a popular way that people can take responsibility for their health. This is similar to the way that in America people take vitamins even though some doctors say it doesn't do anything. This could be a big placebo on some level. But people believe in it. You see these trends all over the world. There is a practical aspect. People are searching for ways to deal with health issues. People are living longer in China, and retiring earlier, and services are poor.

Secondly, if you grew up in China under a communist culture where China was a revolutionary society with universal values, and suddenly the country moves toward capitalism, it is very confusing. Who are you and what is your ideology? This has led to a certain quest for spirituality. The whole sense of community has fractured and people see a tremendous amount of greed, corruption, and unemployment. So Falun Gong and other spiritual movements offer something to believe in as well as a community.

Thirdly, there is a fad aspect to it. People do it, and then more and more people do it. But it spreads because it is something of their own. The government doesn't have to approve it and it doesn't come out of that whole tradition seen in the Cultural Revolution. It is more a personal responsibility to better your life. This is a liberating alternative to many people.

Asia Society interview conducted by Cindy Yoon. Photos and video clip courtesy of Global Vision.