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Falun Gong: the ‘evil cult’ feared by China

The movement has an awkward place in Hong Kong

If you walked down the streets of Hong Kong’s busiest shopping districts a few months ago you would probably see booths adorned with giant yellow banners that say ‘Falun Dafa is Good’. You might even hear a full uniformed band chanting one of their favourite slogans: ‘Abolish the Chinese Communist Party.’ By Nat Cheung.

This is Falun Gong (or Falun Dafa), a religious movement founded in 1990s China. At its core, the movement is about the Buddhist principles of truthfulness, kindness, and forbearance, as well as the practice of meditation and qigong (an ancient system of coordinated breathing and physical exercises).

As it grew in popularity and size, the CCP began to view it as a threat. In 1999 they rolled out a nationwide propaganda campaign to crush the movement, denouncing it as an ‘evil cult’.

The persecution of Falun Gong followers starts here. There have been reports of false imprisonment, forced labour, psychiatric abuse and organ harvesting. Demonstrators are staging gory reenactments of these torture methods in public, and are now declaring that ‘Heaven shall destroy the CCP’.

Having been booted out of China, Falun Gong found new followers inTaiwan and some American cities where they are protected by civil liberties. However, the movement has an awkward place in Hong Kong.

On one hand, they are staunch allies of the pro-democracy movement; on the other, they are still seen as a cult due to the group’s ostentatious and ‘mainlander’ image. Crucially, the National Security Law introduced in June threatens to outlaw Falun Gong as a ‘subversive’ and ‘secessionist’ force.

The law also criminalises acts of ‘collusion with foreign or external forces’, which brings the group’s activities abroad into question. Falun Gong’s headquarters are in New York. The US government funds their Freegate software, which helps internet users (mainly from China) view websites blocked in their countries.

They also run The Epoch Times, an international newspaper with websites in 21 languages and 35 countries. In an effort to lobby for international sanctions on China, they have sided with far-right politicians in Europe and the US. A 2019 report named it the second-largest funder of pro-Trump Facebook advertising after the presidential campaign. The paper has subsequently been banned from running ads on the website.

The fate of Falun Gong in Hong Kong will have a symbolic importance in China’s policy towards the city. These days, you don’t really see practitioners with their booths or public marches anymore.

Their position is especially precarious, not only because their core values can now land them in prison for life, but also due to their persistent image as a fringe or even extremist group that has not been fully accepted by pro-democracy activists or Hong Kongers generally. Altogether, this makes them an easy target if Beijing wanted to further crack down on dissidents, or send out a warning.

It’s possible that, with their global reach and backing from foreign politicians as well as human rights groups, Falun Gong could endure the ongoing erosion of civil liberties in Hong Kong, or at least continue to operate behind the scenes.

It’s clear that they have been prepared for a full exodus out of China for many years, even if that means facing other kinds of backlash for their ties to far-right politics in the West.