- Falun Gong
Falun Gong The Falun Dafa emblem Traditional Chinese 法輪功 Simplified Chinese 法轮功 Literal meaning Practice of the Wheel of Law Transcriptions Mandarin - Hanyu Pinyin Fǎlún Gōng - Wade–Giles Falun-Kung - IPA [fɑ̀lwə̂n kʊ́ŋ] Cantonese (Yue) - Jyutping fat2 lun4 gung1 - IPA [fɐ̌tlʊ̭n.gʊ́ŋ] Falun Dafa Traditional Chinese 法輪大法 Simplified Chinese 法轮大法 Literal meaning Great Law of the Wheel of Law Transcriptions Mandarin - Hanyu Pinyin Fǎlún Dàfǎ - Wade–Giles Falun Tafa Cantonese (Yue) - Jyutping fat2 lun4 daai6 fat2
Falun Gong (literally means "Dharma Wheel Practice", alternatively Falun Dafa) is a spiritual discipline first introduced in China in 1992 by its founder, Li Hongzhi, through public lectures. It combines the practice of meditation and slow-moving qigong exercises with the moral philosophy. Falun Gong places a heavy emphasis on morality and the cultivation of virtue in its central tenets of Truthfulness, Compassion, and Forbearance (Chinese: 真、善、忍), 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 new religious movement (NRM).
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 at over 70 million, exceeding the total membership of the Chinese Communist Party.
In July 1999, Communist Party of China (CPC) leadership initiated a ban on Falun Gong and began a nationwide crackdown and multifaceted propaganda campaign intended to eradicate the practice. In October 1999 it declared Falun Gong a "heretical organization" and began banning 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 extra-judicially, and practitioners in detention are subject to forced labor, psychiatric abuse, severe 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.
The practice now has a sizable global constituency; inside China, some sources estimate that tens of 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.
- 1 Origins
- 2 Beliefs and practices
- 3 History inside China
- 4 Suppression
- 5 Falun Gong outside China
- 6 International reception
- 7 See also
- 8 References
- 9 Further reading
- 10 External links
Falun Gong is most frequently identified with the qigong movement in China. Qigong is a modern term describing a variety practices of slow movements, meditation, or regulated breathing. Qigong-like exercises have historically been practiced by some 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, that were prone to being labeled as "feudal superstitious” 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 purported to have “discovered” the material existence of the qi energy which qigong seeks to harness, thus lending a level of scientific credibility to the movement. 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 created to oversee and administer the movement.
On 13 May 1992, Li Hongzhi gave his first public seminar on Falun Gong (alternately 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 says 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.
Beliefs and practices
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. In Zhuan Falun (轉法輪), the foundational text published in 1995, Li Hongzhi says that "As a practitioner, if you assimilate yourself to this characteristic, you are one that has attained the Tao."
Among the central concepts found in the teachings of Falun Gong is existence of virtue (de) 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 or 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 Tao.
Falun Gong's teachings posit that human beings are originally and innately good, but that they descended into a realm of delusion and suffering after developing selfishness and accruing karma. Practitioners of Falun Gong are therefore supposed to assimilate themselves to the qualities of truthfulness, compassion and tolerance by letting go of "attachments and desires," being kind, and suffering to repay karma, thus "returning to the original, true self." The ultimate goal of the practice is enlightenment, 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, slow-moving qigong exercises and one sitting meditation. These exercises are intended to open the body's energy channels and circulation systems and increase energy, and are a supplementary part of the practice. Falun Gong espouses the belief that through moral rectitude and cultivation, supplemented with the practice of exercises and meditation, a person’s body can be purified and, in effect, healed of illnesses. According to the texts, Falun Gong (or Falun Dafa) is a "complete system of mind-body cultivation practice" (修煉, xiūliàn).
Falun Gong exercises can be practiced individualy 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.
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 exemption 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, which includes abstention from smoking, drugs, gambling, premarital or extramarital sex, and homosexuality. These behaviors are said to generate negative karma, and are therefore viewed as counterproductive to the goals of the practice.
Practitioners of Falun Gong are forbidden to kill living things—including animals for the purpose of obtaining food—though it does not require the adoption of a vegetarian diet. The practice teaches against the consumption of alcohol on the basis that it is a potentially addictive attachment that can interfere with the cultivation of the body and lead to “irrationality.”
Falun Gong doctrine also 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 book Falun Gong is an introductory text that discusses qigong and 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 1995. 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, including such concepts as spirit possession.  This, coupled with the literal translation style of the texts, which imitate the tone and cadences of Li's colloquial Chinese speech, can make Falun Gong scriptures difficult to approach for Westerners.
The main symbol of the practice is the Falun (law wheel, or Dharmacakra in Sanskrit), which also takes on important symbolic significance in the Buddhist religion. In Falun Gong, the Falun is conceptualized by an emblem consisting of one large and four small Swastika symbols, representing the Buddha, and four small Taiji 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, according to Zhao Yuezhi, a communications professor.
In the cultural context of China, Falun Gong is described either as a system of qigong, or a type of spiritual cultivation practice, a category that includes a number of traditional Buddhist and Daoist disciplines. Benjamin Penny writes: "There are aspects of Falun Gong doctrine that could have been understood by a cultivator in China 1000 years ago, and there are parts of the doctrine that could not have appeared in China before the late 1980s."
Falun Gong does not adopt religious forms, having no temples, no rituals of worship, or religious hierarchy. Some Western scholars nonetheless classify Falun Gong as a religious movement on the basis of its theological and moral teachings.
While Li discusses millennial themes, Falun Gong's organizational structure works against totalistic control, with no hierarchy in place to enforce orthodoxy and little or no emphasis on dogmatic discipline. There is no membership; the only thing emphasized is the need for strict moral behavior, according to Craig Burgdoff, a professor of religious studies. He expresses concerns over Li Hongzhi's totalizing discourse, but says this is tempered by having found "practitioners to be engaged seriously in a highly disciplined spiritual and ethical practice."
Though it is sometimes referred to as such, particularly in journalistic literature, Falun Gong does not satisfy the definition of a “sect.” According to Ian Johnson, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on Falun Gong, “a sect is usually considered a splinter group of an existing religion. But Falun Gong is not that.” The practice identifies with Buddhist tradition broadly, but does not bear any connection to the religious Buddhism founded by Shakyamuni, and is not a denomination or branch of Buddhism.
Cheris Shun-ching Chan writes that Falun Gong is neither a cult nor a sect, but a new religious movement. Chan consider 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 having cult-like characteristics. 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 mis-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 are forbidden to solicit donations or charge fees for the practice, and are similarly forbidden teach or interpret the teachings 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 can be said to be highly centralized in the sense that neither spiritual nor practical authority is dispersed; local branches and assistants are afforded no special rights or titles; they cannot collect money, conduct healings, or teach or interpret doctrine for others; “assistants” or volunteer “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.
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' reliance on the internet as a means of organizing has led to the group's characterization as "a virtual religious community." 
Outside of Mainland China, a network of volunteer 'contact persons,' regional Falun Dafa Associations and university clubs exists 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 (or re-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.
Organization within China
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 served to provide advice 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 ban 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."
Prior to 1999, widely cited government estimates put the number of Falun Gong practitioners in China at over 70 million adherents. After the government imposed a ban on the group, it adjusted its estimates to approximately 2 million. Western observers have put the probable number between 10 and 70 million. The number of Falun Gong adherents still practicing in China today is difficult to confirm, though some sources estimate that tens of 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 42. 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."
History inside China
1992 – 1996
Shortly after his first public teaching, in September 1992 Falun Gong was recognized as a branch of qigong under the administration of the state-run China Qigong Scientific Research Society (CQRS). Li was recognized as a qigong master, and was authorized to teach his practice nationwide. Like many qigong masters at the time, Li toured major cities in China from 1992 to 1994 to teach the practice. He was granted a number of awards by PRC governmental organizations.
According to David Ownby, Professor of History and Director of the Center for East Asian Studies at the Université de Montréal, Li became an "instant star of the qigong movement," and Falun Gong was embraced by the government as an effective means of lowering health care costs, promoting Chinese culture, and improving public morality. In 1993, a publication of the Ministry of Public Security praised Li for "promoting the traditional crime-fighting virtues of the Chinese people, in safeguarding social order and security, and in promoting rectitude in society.".
Falun Gong had differentiated itself from other qigong groups in its emphasis on morality, low cost, and health benefits. It rapidly spread via word-of-mouth, attracting a wide range of adherents from all walks of life, including numerous members of the Chinese Communist Party.
Li charged less than competing qigong systems for lectures, tapes, and books, and in 1994 had altogether stopped collecting fees for his lectures. With the publication of the books Falun Gong and Zhuan Falun, Li made his teachings more widely accessible. Zhuan Falun, published in January 1995 at an unveiling ceremony held in the auditorium of the Ministry of Public Security, became a best-seller in China.
In 1995, Chinese authorities began looking to Falun Gong to solidify its organizational structure and ties to the party-state. Li was approached by the Chinese National Sports Committee, Ministry of Public Health, and China Qigong Science Research Association (CQRS) to jointly establish a Falun Gong association. Li declined the offer. The same year, the CQRS issued a new regulation mandating that all qigong denominations establish a Communist Party branch. Li again refused.
Tensions continued to mount between Li and the CQRS in 1996. In the face of Falun Gong's rise in popularity, a large part of which was attributed to its low cost, competing qigong masters accused Li of undercutting them. According to Schechter, the qigong society under which Li and other qigong masters belonged asked Li to hike his tuition, but again Li refused, and emphasised the need for the teachings to be free of charge.
In March, 1996, in response to mounting disagreements, Falun Gong withdrew from the Qigong Association, after which time it operated outside the official sanction of the state. Falun Gong representatives attempted to register with other government entities, but were rebuffed. Li and Falun Gong were then outside the circuit of personal relations and financial exchanges through which masters and their qigong organizations could find a place within the state system, and also the protections this afforded.
1996 – 1999
The rapid rise and influence of Falun Gong received little journalistic attention until mid-1996. Chinese media were not supposed to report on qigong at all, but in 1994 and 1995, after some groups had grown very large, the tone began to shift in order to curb the growth of the qigong practices, some of which had attracted tens of millions of practitioners.
Falun Gong was initially shielded from the mounting criticism of qigong, but following its withdrawal from the CQRS in March 1996, it lost its protection. On 17 June 1996, the Guangming Daily, an influential state-run newspaper, published a polemic against Falun Gong. The author wrote that the history of humanity is a "struggle between science and superstition," and called on Chinese publishers not to print "pseudo-scientific books of the swindlers." The article cited Zhuan Falun as an example of the rising number of publications riddled with "feudal superstition" (fengjian mixin) and "pseudoscience" (wei kexue).:215 Until this juncture, Falun Gong had successfully negotiated the space between science and native tradition in the public representation of its teachings, avoiding any suggestion of superstition. The article set off a wave of criticism in the official press, with twenty major newspapers also issuing criticisms of Falun Gong. Soon after, on 24 July, the Central Propaganda Department banned all publication of Falun Gong books (though the ban was not consistently enforced). The state-administered Buddhist Association of China also begans issuing criticisms of Falun Gong, urging lay Buddhists not to take up the practice.
The events were an important challenge to Falun Gong, which practitioners did not take lightly. Thousands of Falun Gong followers wrote to Guangming Daily and to the CQRS to complain against the measures, claiming that they violated Hu Yaobang's 1982 'Triple No' directive. In other instances, Falun Gong adherents staged peaceful demonstrations outside media or local government offices to request retractions of perceived unfair coverage. Li made statements that practitioners' response to criticism showed their hearts and "would separate the false disciples from the true ones", also indicating that publicly defending the practice was a righteous act and an important aspect of Falun Gong cultivation.
Falun Gong was not the only target of the domestic media criticism, nor the only group to protest, but theirs was the most mobilised and steadfast response. Many of Falun Gong's protests against negative media portrayals were successful, resulting in the retraction of several newspaper stories critical of Falun Gong. This contributed to practitioners' belief that the media claims against them were false or exaggerated, and that their stance was justified.
In June 1998, Tianjin professor He Zuoxiu, brother-in-law of security tsar Luo Gan and an outspoken critic of qigong, appeared on a talk show on Beijing Television and openly disparaged qigong groups, making particular mention of Falun Gong. Falun Gong practitioners responded with peaceful protests, which was considered audacious under the circumstances, and lobbying of the station. The reporter responsible for the program was reportedly fired, and a program favorable to Falun Gong was aired several days later.:215 Falun Gong practitioners also mounted demonstrations at 14 other media outlets.
In 1997, The Ministry of Public Security launched an investigation into whether Falun Gong should be deemed xie jiao (邪教, “evil religion”). The report concluded that “no evidence has appeared thus far.” The following year, however, on July 21, 1998, the Ministry of Public Security issued Document No. 555, "Notice of the Investigation of Falun Gong." The document asserted that Falun Gong is an “evil religion,” and mandated that another investigation be launched to seek evidence in support of the conclusion. Falun Gong practitioners report having phone lines tapped, homes ransacked and raided, and Falun Gong exercise sites disrupted. In this time period, even as criticism of qigong and Falun Gong mounted in some circles, Falun Gong maintained a number of high-profile supporters. In 1998, Qiao Shi, the recently retired Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, initiated his own investigation into Falun Gong in response to Document No. 555. After months of investigations, his group concluded that “Falun Gong has hundreds of benefits for the Chinese people and nation, and does not a bit of harm.” In May of the same year, China’s National Sports Commission launches its own investigation into Falun Gong. Based on interviews with over 12,000 Falun Gong adherents in Guangdong province, they concluded “We’re convinced the exercises and effects of Falun Gong are excellent. It has done an extraordinary amount to improve society’s stability and ethics.”
By 1999, estimates provided by the State Sports Commission suggest there are upwards of 70 millions Falun Gong practitioners in China. Wu Shaozu, an official from China’s National Sports Commission, was at this time quoted in an interview with U.S. News & World Report that as many as 100 million may have taken up Falun Gong and other forms of qigong. Wu noted that the popularity of Falun Gong dramatically reduces health care costs, and that “Premier Zhu Rongji is very happy about that.”
Tianjin and Zhongnanhai protests
By the late 1990s, the Communist Party's relationship to the growing Falun Gong movement had become increasingly tense. Reports of discrimination and surveillance by the Public Security Bureau were escalating, and Falun Gong adherents were routinely organizing sit-in demonstrations responding to media articles they deemed to be unfair. The conflicting investigations launched by the Ministry of the Public Security on one side and the State Sports Commission and Qiao Shi on the other spoke of the disagreements among China’s elites on how to regard the growing practice.
In April 1999, physicist He Zuoxiu published an article critical of Falun Gong in Tianjin Normal University's Youth Reader magazine. The article cast qigong, and Falun Gong in particular, as superstitious and potentially dangerous. Falun Gong practitioners responded by picketing the offices of the newspaper requesting a retraction of the article.
Unlike past instances in which Falun Gong protests were successful, on April 22 the Tianjin demonstration was broken up by the arrival of three hundred riot police. Some of the practitioners were beaten, and forty-five arrested. Other Falun Gong practitioners were told that if they wished to appeal further, they needed to take the issue up with the Ministry of Public Security and go to Beijing to appeal
The Falun Gong community quickly mobilized a response, and on the morning of April 25, upwards of 10,000 practitioners gathered near the central appeals office to demand an end to the escalating harassment against the spiritual practice, and request the release of the Tianjin practitioners. It was Falun Gong practitioners' attempt to seek redress from the leadership of the country by going to them and, "albeit very quietly and politely, making it clear that they would not be treated so shabbily." Security officers had been expecting them, and corralled the practitioners onto Fuyou Street in front of the Zhongnanhai government compound. They sat or read quietly on the sidewalks surrounding the Zhongnanhai.
As the Falun Gong crowd grew outside Zhongnanhai, President Jiang Zemin received a phone call from Luo Gan informing him of Falun Gong's presence outside the compound. Jiang was reportedly angered by the audacity of the demonstration—the largest since the Tiananmen Square protests ten years earlier.
Five Falun Gong representatives met with Premier Zhu Rongji and other senior officials to negotiate a resolution. The Falun Gong representatives were assured that the regime supported physical exercises for health improvements and did not consider the Falun Gong to be anti-government. Upon reaching this resolution, the crowd of Falun Gong protesters dispersed.
President Jiang Zemin reportedly criticized Premier Zhu for being "too soft" in his handling of the situation. That evening, Jiang composed a letter indicating his desire to see Falun Gong "defeated." In the letter, Jiang expressed concerns over the size and popularity of Falun Gong, and in particular about the large number of senior Communist Party members found among Falun Gong adherents. He also intimated that Falun Gong’s moral philosophy was at odds with the atheist values of Marxist-Leninism, and therefore constituted a form of ideological competition.
Jiang is held by Falun Gong to be personally responsible for this decision to suppress Falun Gong: Peerman cited reasons such as suspected personal jealousy of Li Hongzhi; Saich points to Jiang's anger at Falun Gong's widespread appeal, and ideological struggle as causes for the crackdown that followed. Willy Wo-Lap Lam suggests Jiang's decision to suppress Falun Gong was related to a desire to consolidate his power within the Politburo. According to Human Rights Watch, Communist Party leaders and ruling elite were far from unified in their support for the crackdown;.
Porter writes that He Zuoxiu's article in Tianjin may have been designed to provoke Falun Gong. Porter, along with Gutmann and Zhao, highlight an alleged familial relationship between He and Luo Gan to suggest that the two may have been colluding to bait Falun Gong into protesting at Tianjin, and then at Zhongnanhai, in order to concoct a pretext for suppression: "Things could not have worked out better for the two if they had planned it — which, it appears, they just might have." Luo Gan had been a long-time opponent of Falun Gong, and a World Journal report suggested that certain high-level Party officials wanted to crack down on the practice for years, but lacked sufficient pretext until the protest at Zhongnanhai. After the Zhongnanhai demonstration, Luo Gan was appointed to lead the effort to suppress Falun Gong.
On July 20, 1999, security forces abducted and detained thousands of Falun Gong leaders. Two days later on July 22, 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 declared it a crime to practice Falun Gong in groups, to possess Falun Gong's teachings, to display Falun Gong banners or symbols, or to protest 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 Falun Gong retroactively.
The U.S. State Department cites estimates that up to half of China's reeducation-through-labor camp population is made up of Falun Gong adherents. In some labor camp and prison facilities, the majority of detainees are Falun Gong prisoners of conscience, and Falun Gong inmates 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 "6-10 Office" was created to "oversee the terror campaign." Human Rights Watch (2002) noted that families and workplaces were urged to cooperate with the government.
In February 2001, in an attempt to show unity, the Communist Party held a Central Work Conference and discussed Falun Gong. Under Jiang's leadership, the crackdown on Falun Gong became part of the Chinese political ethos of "upholding stability" – much the same rhetoric employed by the party during Tiananmen in 1989. Jiang's message was echoed at the 2001 National People's Congress, where Premier Zhu Rongji made special mention of Falun Gong in his outline of the PRC Tenth Five-Year Plan, saying "we must continue our campaign against the Falun Gong cult," effectively tying Falun Gong's eradication to China's economic progress. Though less prominent on the national agenda, the suppression against Falun Gong has carried on during the tenure of Hu Jintao; successive, high-level “strike hard” campaigns against Falun Gong have been initiated in both 2008 and 2009. In 2010, a three-year campaign was launched to renew effects at the coercive “transformation” of Falun Gong adherents.
Speculation on rationale
Foreign observers have attempted to explain the Party’s rationale for banning Falun Gong as stemming from a variety of factors. These include Falun Gong’s popularity, China’s history of quasi-religious movements which turned into violent insurrections, its independence from the state and refusal to toe the Party line, internal power politics within the Communist Party, and Falun Gong’s moral and spiritual content, which put it at odds with the officially atheist ideology.
Xinhua News Agency, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, declared that Falun Gong is "opposed to the Communist Party of China and the central government, preaches idealism, theism and feudal superstition." Xinhua also asserted that "the so-called 'truth, kindness and forbearance' principle preached by Li has nothing in common with the socialist ethical and cultural progress we are striving to achieve," and argued that it was necessary to crush Falun Gong in order to preserve the "vanguard role and purity" of the Communist Party. Other articles appearing in the state-run media in the first days and weeks of the ban posited that Falun Gong must be defeated because its “theistic” philosophy was at odds with the Marxist-Leninism paradigm and with the secular values of materialism.
Willy Wo-Lap Lam writes that president Jiang Zemin’s campaign against Falun Gong may have been used to promote allegiance to himself; Lam quotes one party veteran as saying “by unleashing a Mao-style movement [against Falun Gong], Jiang is forcing senior cadres to pledge allegiance to his line.” The Washington Post reported that sources indicated not all of the standing committee of the Politburo shared Jiang's view that Falun Gong should be eradicated, but James Tong suggests there was not substantial resistance from the Politburo.
Human Rights Watch notes that the crackdown on Falun Gong reflects historical efforts by the Chinese Communist Party to eradicate religion, which the government believes is inherently subversive. The Chinese government protects five “patriotic,” Communist Party-sanctioned religious groups. Unregistered religions that fall outside the state-sanctioned organizations are thus vulnerable to suppression. The Globe and Mail wrote : "...any group that does not come under the control of the Party is a threat" Craig Smith of the Wall Street Journal suggests that the government which has by definition no view of spirituality, lacks moral credibility with which to fight an expressly spiritual foe; the party feels increasingly threatened by any belief system that challenges its ideology and has an ability to organize itself. That Falun Gong, whose belief system represented a revival of traditional Chinese religion, was being practiced by a large number of Communist Party members and members of the military was seen as particularly disturbing to Jiang Zemin. "Jiang accepts the threat of Falun Gong as an ideological one: spiritual beliefs against militant atheism and historical materialism. He [wished] to purge the government and the military of such beliefs".
Yuezhi Zhao argues that a number of factors contributed to the souring of relations between Falun Gong and the Chinese state and media. These included infighting between China's qigong establishment and Falun Gong, speculation over blackmailing and lobbying by qigong opponents and "scientists-cum-ideologues with political motives and affiliations with competing central Party leaders," which caused the shift in the state's position, and the struggles from mid-1996 to mid-1999 between Falun Gong and the Chinese power elite over the status and treatment of the movement. According to Zhao, Falun Gong practitioners have established a "resistance identity"—one that stands against prevailing pursuits of wealth, power, scientific rationality, and "the entire value system associated with China’s project of modernization." In China the practice represented an indigenous spiritual and moral tradition, a cultural revitalization movement, and drew a sharp contrast to "Marxism with Chinese characteristics."
Vivienne Shue similarly writes that Falun Gong presented a comprehensive challenge to the Communist Party’s legitimacy. Shue argues that Chinese rulers historically have derived their legitimacy from a claim to possess an exclusive connection to the “Truth.” In imperial China, truth was based on a Confucian and Daoist cosmology, where in the case of the Communist Party, the truth is represented by Marxist-Leninism and historical materialism. Falun Gong challenged the Marxist-Leninism paradigm, reviving an understanding based on more traditionally Buddhist or Daoist conceptions. David Ownby contends that Falun Gong also challenged the Communist Party’s hegemony over Chinese nationalist discourse: “[Falun Gong’s] evocation of a different vision of Chinese tradition and its contemporary value is now so threatening to the state and party because it denies them the sole right to define the meaning of Chinese nationalism, and perhaps of Chineseness."
Maria Chang noted that since the overthrow of the Qin Dynasty, "millenarian movements had exerted a profound impact on the course of Chinese history", cumulating in the Chinese Revolutions of 1949 which brought the Chinese Communists to power. Patsy Rahn (2002) describes a paradigm of conflict between Chinese sectarian groups and the rulers they often challenge. According to Rahn, the history of this paradigm goes back to the collapse of the Han dynasty: "The pattern of ruling power keeping a watchful eye on sectarian groups, at times threatened by them, at times raising campaigns against them, began as early as the second century and continued throughout the dynastic period, through the Mao era and into the present."
According to James Tong, the regime aimed at both coercive dissolution of the Falun Gong denomination and "transformation" of the practitioners. By 2000 the Party upped its campaign by sentencing "recidivist" practitioners to "re-education through labor", in an effort to have them renounce their beliefs and "transform" their thoughts. Terms were also arbitrarily extended by police, while some practitioners had ambiguous charges levied against them, such as "disrupting social order," "endangering national security," or "subverting the socialist system." According to Bejesky, the majority of long-term Falun Gong detainees are processed administratively through this system instead of the criminal justice system. Upon completion of their re-education sentences, those practitioners who refused to recant were then incarcerated in "legal education centers" set up by provincial authorities to "transform minds".
Much of the conversion program relied on Mao-style techniques of indoctrination and thought reform, where Falun Gong practitioners were organized to view anti-Falun Gong television programs and enroll in Marxism and materialism study sessions. Traditional Marxism and materialism were the core content of the sessions.
The government-sponsored image of the conversion process emphasises psychological persuasion and a variety of "soft-sell" techniques; this is the "ideal norm" in regime reports, according to Tong. Falun Gong reports, on the other hand, depict "disturbing and sinister" forms of coercion against practitioners who fail to renounce their beliefs. 14,474 cases are classified by different methods of torture, according to Tong (Falun Gong agencies document over 63,000 individual cases of torture). Among them are cases of severe beatings; psychological torment, corporal punishment and forced intense, heavy-burden hard labor and stress positions; solitary confinement in squalid conditions; "heat treatment" including burning and freezing; electric shocks delivered to sensitive parts of the body that may result in nausea, convulsions, or fainting; "devastative" forced feeding; sticking bamboo strips into fingernails; deprivation of food, sleep, and use of toilet; rape and gang rape; asphyxiation; and threat, extortion, and termination of employment and student status.
The cases appear verifiable, and the great majority identify (1) the individual practitioner, often with age, occupation, and residence; (2) the time and location that the alleged abuse took place, down to the level of the district, township, village, and often the specific jail institution; and (3) the names and ranks of the alleged perpetrators. Many such reports include lists of the names of witnesses and descriptions of injuries, Tong says. The publication of "persistent abusive, often brutal behavior by named individuals with their official title, place, and time of torture" suggests that there is no official will to cease and desist such activities.
Due to the difficulty in corroborating reports of torture deaths in China, estimates on the number of Falun Gong adherents killed under persecution vary widely. In 2009, the New York Times estimated that “at least 2,000” had died as a result of torture and abuse in custody. Falun Gong sources have reported approximately 3,400 deaths. According to Ethan Gutmann of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a likely death toll based on refugee testimony is approximately 65,000.
Leung remarked that the effort was driven by large-scale propaganda through television, newspapers, radio and internet. Within the first month of the crackdown, 300–400 articles attacking Falun Gong appeared in each of the main state-run papers, while primetime television replayed alleged exposés on the group, with no divergent views aired in the media. The "massive propaganda campaign" focused on allegations that Falun Gong jeopardized social stability, was deceiving and dangerous, was "anti-science" and threatened progress, and argued that Falun Gong's moral philosophy was incompatible with a Marxist social ethic.
State propaganda initially used the appeal of scientific rationalism to argue that Falun Gong's worldview was in "complete opposition to science" and communism. The People's Daily asserted on 27 July 1999, that it "was a struggle between theism and atheism, superstition and science, idealism and materialism." A polarized depiction was created where the scientific worldview represented by Marxist-Leninism was legitimized as "moral and truthful," while the Falun Gong discourse was "evil and deceptive."
The initial charges levelled against Falun Gong failed to elicit widespread support for the suppression of the group. In the months following July 1999, the rhetoric in the state-run press escalated to include charges that Falun Gong was colluding with foreign, ‘anti-China’ forces. In October 1999, three months after the suppression began, the Supreme People’s Court issued a judicial interpretation classifying Falun Gong as a xiejiao, (heretical religion, sometimes rendered as 'evil cult') under article 300 of the criminal code. Anti-Falun Gong propaganda activities dominated the Chinese media during that time as the government justified its actions, arguing that Falun Gong practice was dangerous, and damages people's physical and mental health.
According to China scholars Daniel Wright and Joseph Fewsmith, for several months after Falun Gong was outlawed, China Central Television's evening news contained little but anti-Falun Gong rhetoric charging that it cheats its followers, separates families, damages health, and hurts social stability. The government operation was "a study in all-out demonization," they write. Falun Gong was compared to "a rat crossing the street that everyone shouts out to squash" by Beijing Daily; other officials said it would be a "long-term, complex and serious" struggle to "eradicate" Falun Gong.
David Ownby and Ian Johnson have argued that the Chinese state gave the cultic appellation to Falun Gong by borrowing arguments from Margaret Singer and the West's anti-cult movement to blunt the appeal of Falun Gong. According to John Powers and Meg Y. M. Lee, because the Falun Gong was categorized in the popular perception as an "apolitical, qigong exercise club," it was not seen as a threat to the government. The most critical strategy in the Falun Gong suppression campaign, therefore, was to convince people to reclassify the Falun Gong into a number of "negatively charged religious labels," like "evil cult," "sect," or "superstition." The group's non-violent and relatively silent protests were reclassified as creating "social disturbances." In this process of reclassification and relabelling, the government was attempting to tap into a "deep reservoir of negative feelings related to the historical role of quasi-religious cults as a destabilising force in Chinese political history."
On the eve of Chinese New Year on 23 January 2001, five people attempted to set themselves ablaze on Tiananmen Square. The official Chinese press agency, Xinhua News Agency, and other state media asserted that the self-immolators were practitioners while the Falun Dafa Information Center disputed this, on the grounds that the movement's teachings explicitly forbid suicide and killing, and further alleged that the event was a cruel but clever piece of stunt-work. The incident received international news coverage, and video footage of the burnings were broadcast later inside China by China Central Television (CCTV). Images of a 12 year old girl, Liu Siying, burning and interviews with the other participants in which they stated their belief that self-immolation would lead them to paradise were shown. Falun Gong-related commentators pointed out that the main participants' account of the incident and other aspects of the participants' behavior were inconsistent with the teachings of Falun Dafa. Washington Post journalist Phillip Pan wrote that the two self-immolators who died were not actually Falun Gong practitioners. Time reported that prior to the self-immolation incident, many Chinese had felt that Falun Gong posed no real threat, and that the state's crackdown had gone too far. After the event, however, the mainland Chinese media campaign against Falun Gong gained significant traction. As public sympathy for Falun Gong declined, the government began sanctioning "systematic use of violence" against the group. According to Falun Gong websites, the number of Falun Gong adherents tortured to death rose from 245 in 2000 to 419 in 2001.
Falun Gong’s response to suppression
Falun Gong's response to the suppression in China began in July 1999 with appeals to local, provincial and central petitioning offices in Beijing. It soon progressed to larger demonstrations on Tiananmen Square, in which hundreds of Falun Gong adherents traveling daily to the Square to practice Falun Gong exercises or raise banners in defense of the practice. These demonstrations were invariably broken up by security forces, and the practitioners involved were arrested, sometimes violently, and detained. By 25 April 2000, within one year after the demonstration at Zhongnanhai, a total of more than 30,000 practitioners were arrested there, and seven hundred Falun Gong followers were arrested during a demonstration in the Square on 1 January 2001. Public protests continued well into 2001. Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Ian Johnson noted that "Falun Gong faithful have mustered what is arguably the most sustained challenge to authority in 50 years of Communist rule."
By late 2001, demonstrations in Tiananmen Square had become less frequent, and the practice was driven deeper underground. As public protest fell out of favor, practitioners established underground "material sites" which would produce literature and DVDs to counter the portrayal of Falun Gong in the official media. Practitioners then distribute these materials, often door-to-door. Falun Gong sources estimated in 2009 that over 200,000 such sites exists across China today. The production, possession, or distribution of these materials is frequently grounds for security agents to incarcerate or sentence Falun Gong adherents.
In 2002, Falun Gong activists in China tapped into television broadcasts, replacing regular state-run programming with their own content. Among the more notable instances occurred in March 2002, when Falun Gong practitioners in Changchun intercepted eight cable television networks in Jilin Province, and for nearly an hour, televised a program titled "Self-Immolation or a Staged Act?". All six of the Falun Gong practitioners involved were captured and tortured to death.
Outside China, Falun Gong practitioners have set up international media organizations to gain wider exposure for their cause and challenge narratives of the Chinese state-run media. These include The Epoch Times newspaper, New Tang Dynasty Television, and Sound of Hope radio station.  and Epoch Press Inc. According to Zhao, through The Epoch Times it can be discerned how Falun Gong is building a "de facto media alliance" with China's democracy movements in exile, as demonstrated by its frequent printing of articles by prominent overseas Chinese critics of the PRC government. In 2007, Falun Gong adherents in the United States formed Shen Yun Performing Arts, a dance and music company that tours internationally. Falun Gong software developers in the United States are also responsible for the creation of several popular censorship-circumvention tools employed by internet users in China.
Falun Gong Practitioners outside China have filed dozens of largely symbolic lawsuits against Jiang Zemin, Luo Gan, and other Chinese officials alleging genocide and crimes against humanity. According to International Advocates for Justice, Falun Gong has filed the largest number of human rights lawsuits in the 21st century and the charges are among the most severe international crimes defined by international criminal laws. Ownby stated that 54 civil and criminal lawsuits were under way in 33 countries in 2006. In many instances, courts have refused to adjudicate the cases on the grounds of sovereign immunity. In late 2009, separate courts in Spain and Argentina indicted Jiang Zemin and other officials on the charge of "crimes of humanity" and genocide, and asked for their arrest, although the ruling is acknowledged to be largely symbolic and unlikely to be carried out. Falun Gong practitioners and their supporters also filed a lawsuit in May 2011 against the technology company Cisco Systems, alleging that the company helped design and implement a surveillance system for the Chinese government to supress Falun Gong (Cisco denied customizing their technology for this purpose).
Falun Gong outside China
Falun Gong volunteer instructors and Falun Dafa Associations are currently found in over 70 countries outside China, with the most active communities in the United States and Canada. Falun Gong adherents overseas have responded to the suppression in China through regular demonstrations, parades, and through the creation of media outlets, performing arts companies, and censorship-circumvention software mainly intended to reach Mainland Chinese audiences.
Falun Gong was first taught at the Chinese consulate in New York in 1995 as part of the Party's "cultural propaganda to the West," alongside Chinese silk craft and cooking. The consulate at that time also set up Falun Gong clubs at MIT and Columbia University which are active to this day. Starting in 1995, Li himself taught the practice outside of China, chairing a series of conferences in Sweden and at the Chinese embassy in Paris, upon invitation by the PRC ambassador to France. Li taught in Australia and North America in August and October 1996, respectively.
Falun Gong's growth outside China largely corresponded to the migration of students from Mainland China to the West in the early- to mid-1990s, and in North America and Europe, the practice was taught mainly on university campuses. It is organized by regional Falun Dafa Associations and contact persons who volunteer to teach the practice.
Since its ban in China, numerous Western governments and human rights organizations have expressed condemnation for the suppression in China and sympathized with Falun Gong's plight. Since 1999 Members of the United States Congress have made public pronouncements and introduced several resolutions in support of Falun Gong. In 2010, House 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.
Adam Frank writes that in reporting on the Falun Gong, the Western tradition of casting the Chinese as "exotic" took dominance, and that "the facts were generally correct, but the normalcy that millions of Chinese practitioners associated with the practice had all but disappeared." 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.
To counter the support of Falun Gong in the West, the Chinese government has launched their own propaganda campaign, which 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 also noted 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.
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.
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 observes that Falun Gong also lacks robust backing from the American constituencies that usually support religious freedom: liberals are wary of Falun Gong's conservative sexual morality, while Christian conservatives don't accord the practice the same space as persecuted Christians. The American political center does not want to push the human rights issue so hard that it would disrupt commercial and political engagement with China. Thus, Falun Gong practitioners have largely had to rely on their own resources in responding to suppression.
Among the most persistent controversies surrounding Falun Gong is its characterization by the PRC government as "xiejiao"—a "heterodox organization," "evil religion," or "evil cult." The state-run Chinese Buddhist Association, concerned with Buddhist apostates taking up Falun Gong practice, were the first to term Falun Gong xiejiao in the latter half of 1996. A direct translation of that term is "heretical teaching," but during the anti-Falun Gong propaganda campaign was rendered as "evil cult" in English. Western media initially adopted this language after the PRC government's media reports, but soon began using less loaded terms. According to Chang, in the context of imperial China, the term "xiejiao" was used to refer to non-Confucian religions, though in the context of Communist China, it has been used to target religious organizations which do not submit to the authority of the Communist Party.
The Chinese government's view that Falun Gong is a destructive cult, widely used as part of Chinese state propaganda against the practice, is largely criticized by mainstream Western scholarship, while a minority of members of the anti-cult movement claimed that Li meets their definition of a manipulative cult leader.
Opinions differ on whether or not Li made money from the practice, and if so, how much. Dai Qing states that by 1997, Li was receiving annual income in excess of ¥10 million through sales of his books, noting that Falun Gong practitioners purchased numerous copies of Li's works, pictures, and made voluntary donations. Ian Johnson disputes the theory that Li made any serious money from Falun Gong, and noted that during the period of Falun Gong's greatest book sales in China, Li Hongzhi did not receive royalties because all publications were bootleg (the texts having been banned by the authorities in 1996 in an attempt to curb the practice's growth).
Danny Schechter noted that from 1992–1994, while Li did charge fees for the lectures seminars he was giving across China at the invitation of local qigong societies, his fees were said to be considerably lower than those of competing qigong practices, and the local qigong associations received a substantial share. Li justified the fees as being necessary to cover travel costs and other expenses, and on some occasions, he donated the money earned to charitable causes. In 1994, Li ceased charging fees altogether, thereafter stipulating that Falun Gong must always be taught for free. The practice’s teachings are available for free download online.
Li Hongzhi's conservative moral teachings have attracted some concern in the West, including his views on homosexuality. During a lecture in Australia, for instance, Li Hongzhi said, "Things such as organized crime, homosexuality, and promiscuous sex, etc., none are the standards of being human." In light of Li's teachings on homosexuality as immoral, a nomination of Li for the Nobel Peace Prize by San Francisco legislators was withdrawn in 2001. The Falun Dafa Information Center states that the group welcomes gays, lesbians, and bisexuals to the practice, that they are not accorded special treatment, and that while Falun Gong teaches that certain practices "generate more karma", this does not equate to a position statement, social stance, or regulation. In discussing the portrayal of Falun Gong as “anti-gay,” Ethan Gutmann notes that Falun Gong's teachings are "essentially indistinguishable" from traditional religions such as Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism. Some journalists have also expressed concern over Falun Gong’s teachings on the children of interracial marriages, and noted a belief in distinct heavens for people of different races.  Concern stems from a statement of Li's identifying such children as products of "a chaotic situation brought about by mankind" indicative of "the Dharma-ending period". The Falun Dafa Information Center has responded by explaining that this aspect of the practice’s cosmology “in no way amounts to an endorsement of racial purity,” and points out that many Falun Gong practitioners have interracial children.
Opinions among scholars differ as to whether Falun Gong contains an apocalyptic message, and if so what the consequences of that are. Li situates his teaching of Falun Gong amidst the "Dharma-ending period" (末法), described in Buddhist scriptures as an era of moral decline when the teachings of Buddhism would need to be renewed. Li also maintains that mankind has been destroyed 81 times, and, according to some interpretations, that the end of the current age may be approaching. At least one follower suggested there would be "some sudden change that will be good for good people, but bad for bad people." In Heather Kavan's opinion, Falun Gong members don't leave the group because they believe that it's the only way to save themselves from the predicted apocalypse. Merle Goldman, professor of Chinese history at Boston University, noted the existence of similar religious movements in Chinese history "that talk about a new world coming and have often spelled the end of a regime." Richard Gunde, Assistant Director of the Center for Chinese Studies at UCLA, argues that Falun Gong is unlike western cults that fixate on death and Armageddon, but merely promises its followers a long and healthy life. "Falun Gong has a simple, innocuous ethical message," Gunde says, "and its leader, Li Hongzhi, despite his unusual, if not bizarre, statements, is in many ways simple and low key." At the local level Li's fantastic claims seem to be of little theological importance, since Falun Gong practice does not require unquestioning acceptance of all of Li's teachings, and there is no overt emphasis on dogmatically enforcing orthodoxy, according to Craig Burgdoff.
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