They’re a familiar sight exercising and meditating in suburban parks. A joint Foreign Correspondent-Background Briefing investigation delves into the world of Falun Gong and its mysterious leader.
Anna is speaking out about her experiences in Falun Gong out of concern for the movement's growing influence. Foreign Correspondent/Background Briefing: Scott Strazzante
It was a hot and humid day in rural New York state as Anna and her mother sat in the small room next to the grand Tang Dynasty-style temple, waiting for him to appear. “Master is coming soon,” said a woman sent to wait with them.
Fourteen-year-old Anna was wearing a dress with straps in the oppressive April heat. “Oh no, you cannot show your shoulders,” the woman said. “You cannot show too much of your chest, because Master is coming.”
It was Anna’s mother who had arranged this “special appointment” with Master. Everything would be taken care of after this, she told her daughter. They both knew what she meant — the anorexia Anna had been battling for many months.
Anna grew up deeply involved in Falun Gong
But Anna had come reluctantly. Her mother had tricked her, saying they would run errands together, until Anna realised the car was heading along the familiar road north. She knew the route well, knew where it led.
Nearly two hours outside of New York City, in the shadow of the densely forested Shawangunk Mountains, is a place they call “The Mountain”.
Anna remembers a gravelly path, up a steep slope and then you see it, the beautiful lake, so perfect she could hardly tell if it was natural or just another imitation.
But then that was The Mountain, a place where replica ancient Chinese temples sat among the green North American hills.
And where the real and the unreal were sometimes hard to untangle, especially for a child.
Dragon Springs in rural New York state
Anna waited. A few minutes later, Master entered the room.
He spoke first to the woman and then to Anna’s mother. Then he looked at Anna, looked right into her eyes. He raised his arms, waving them in the air, then he was chanting something she couldn’t understand.
“By then it was pretty clear what this was supposed to be,” says Anna, now 25. “This was supposed to be an exorcism.”
Anna started going to The Mountain as a young girl
She was face to face with the man reckoned a God-like figure among his followers at The Mountain, who Anna had grown up believing could read her mind and listen to her dangerous thoughts.
But now the spell was broken.
“I remember looking into his eyes and thinking, ‘you are just another regular, pathetic man’,” she says.
On the way home driving south, Anna recalls how her mother was relieved. “You’re all better,” she told her daughter. “You’re normal now. Now I love you.” Anna just looked out the window.
“It was like seeing everything about the practice just crumble before my eyes. I could not believe it anymore.”
Today, Anna, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, is trying to rebuild her life after what she sees as abusive experiences in the Falun Gong spiritual movement. She is revealing for the first time the secretive world she discovered at The Mountain, also known as Dragon Springs, a spiritual base for Falun Gong and the sometime home of its reclusive founder and leader, Master Li Hongzhi.
It’s estimated Falun Gong has tens of millions of followers worldwide who praise the healing properties of its meditation exercises and the wisdom of Master Li’s teachings.
Anna looking through rainy window
A joint investigation by the ABC’s Background Briefing and Foreign Correspondent has also found families damaged by their involvement with the movement and claims its teachings on modern medicine could have contributed to premature deaths, which Falun Gong denies.
It comes at a time when media outlets linked to the movement are becoming serious players on the conservative side of America’s media, throwing their weight behind Donald Trump and his tough stance on China.
Falun Gong in a Sydney park.
Falun Gong teaches qi gong
Falun Gong hands lifted in Sydney park
Falun Gong practitioners are a familiar sight in many cities across the world, calmly practicing their exercises in parks. Many say the spiritual movement's practices lead to improved health and healing.
“This group is not fading into obscurity,” says Anna. “It has a lot more power than I thought and that is very concerning to me, especially when I think about how many people are probably going to become indoctrinated and how many children and families are going to be affected by this.”
As with many of its followers, Anna’s family first encountered Falun Gong by seeing a group meditating in a park. One of them handed her father a flyer explaining the movement’s philosophy and her mother bought some tapes and books to learn more about it.
Gradually, it took over their lives.
Falling into Falun Gong
Anna’s mother had a favourite memory of her daughter she would proudly share with other Falun Gong practitioners.
Anna pictured through a fence
How, when Anna was four, she saw her in the backseat of the family car playing with phantom lights, dancing in the air.
They were “law bodies”, her mother would explain, “small, physical manifestations of the Falun Gong emblem”.
For a time growing up in Falun Gong, Anna would tell the story too, knowing it was one her mother cherished. “I wanted to believe and be a good practitioner so my mother would be happy and, you know, give me approval,” says Anna.
In those early years, Anna watched as her mother gradually became absorbed in Falun Gong. She pulled Anna and her sibling out of a Catholic school and quit her job in the family business to take up selling books for Falun Gong. Her time was increasingly spent doing exercises, meditating, and reading the movement’s teachings.
Anna at age 4
Master Li Hongzhi even once made an appearance at a study group in their home. Anna began to feel her mother had become more devoted to Falun Gong’s teachings than to her children.
“Part of the whole premise of the practice is getting rid of your human attachments in order to attain salvation,” says Anna. “I think a lot of parents conflate human attachment with basic parental love and emotional presence with your children.”
As a young child, Anna came to believe Falun Gong’s teachings too, but there were some that raised deeply personal questions for her. Among them was being taught that she was different to other children because her mother was Chinese and her father was European.
“The leader of Falun Gong claims that race mixing in humans is part of an alien plot to drive humanity further from the gods,” says Anna. “He says that when a child is born from an interracial marriage, that child does not have a heavenly kingdom to go to.”
Anna with her father, whose face has been blurred to protect Anna's identity. Supplied
Some practitioners have explained Master Li’s teachings as metaphorical, such as his claims that aliens walk the earth and disguise themselves as people to corrupt mankind. But Anna learned it as literal truth. At 11 years-old, her mother read her the teachings about mixed-race children.
“As an 11-year-old, to hear the teachings coming from not only the religion that you’re believing in, but from your own mother, it was very damaging,” says Anna.
The family started spending weekends and holidays at The Mountain, flying across the breadth of the US to be closer to the movement’s global base . “It was my mother’s dream for our entire family to eventually live at Dragon Springs.”
The dance audition
It was Christmas day, the day of the audition. Anna’s mother woke her early in the morning so they could start the long drive north to The Mountain.
Anna, whose family became involved in Falun Gong.
At first Anna resisted going, but this was too important to her mother. So Anna made a decision about how that day would go down.
“My intent was to fail on purpose so that I would not have to live at The Mountain”.
By this time, Anna’s family had moved across the US to the east coast to be closer to Dragon Springs, Falun Gong’s 160-hectare complex in regional New York. For many it’s a sanctuary. Permanent residents include Falun Gong practitioners who fled persecution in China after the movement was banned there in 1999.
But for Anna, The Mountain was no haven. The presence of Falun Gong’s leader, Master Li Hongzhi, seemed to pervade the complex.
A covered walkway through Dragon Springs
A lawn and statues at Dragon Springs
A main building at Dragon Springs
Few outsiders area allowed inside Dragon Springs. Neighbours took these photos from a nearby property.
“It felt spiritual but in this sort of ominous and somewhat judgmental way,” says Anna.
“Part of the practice is this notion that Master Li first of all can read everyone’s mind and that he has heavenly bodies out there in the world doing this for him as well. So I grew up with this notion that my thoughts were always being monitored. And my mother said that at Dragon Springs, you were in a greater presence of spirits and the gods.”
Anna felt she needed to hide her deepest thoughts. She had started having crushes on female friends and classmates. Li Hongzhi’s teaching that homosexuality was wrong, and creates negative karma, played on her mind. When Master Li made an appearance in Dragon Springs, the believers would immediately stand. Many seemed awestruck. “They treated him like a God,” Anna recalls.
At this time, Master Li was establishing the professional dance troupe now known as Shen Yun, which is based in Dragon Springs and toured the world before COVID-19. Anna’s mother encouraged her to train to be a Shen Yun dancer. “She thought that it was the highest honour possible and that it would guarantee me getting into heaven, essentially.”
Who is Li Hongzhi?
Li Hongzhi is a former Chinese government clerk who founded Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, in China in 1992. He moved to the US in the mid-1990s. His spiritual movement is based on traditional meditation and breathing exercises called qigong. But Master Li added a supernatural layer: it would prepare people to return home to heavenly kingdoms where they had once dwelled, and even teach practitioners to levitate and see through walls.
But Anna felt she was not as gifted as the other dancers — and then there was the incident at the summer dance camp in New Jersey. Anna’s teacher placed her in front of a mirror and lifted up her shirt. “She grabbed my stomach, shook it, and then turned to the other kids in the class — there were several of them — and said, ‘Do you see this, everyone, this is an example of how a woman should not look’,” she says.
At the age of 13, Anna was hospitalised with anorexia.
The audition was set to take place in the Dragon Springs’s main music rehearsal hall. Anna still remembers sitting on the dark carpet under a ceiling painted with clouds against a blue sky. The other dancers lined up in the room were “full Chinese, instead of mixed” and Anna knew they were better dancers.
The choreographer who two years earlier had shamed her in front of the class was there, as was Master Li, who would serve as the ultimate judge. He paced the room, observing.
Anna looks back on her time in Falun Gong with distress.
“I felt like just my whole being was wrong,” says Anna. “I tried my best to just make it look like I was simply a bad dancer and yeah, I did not get called back. My mother suspected I had done this on purpose.”
The failed audition heightened tensions in the family. Anna and her father moved back across the US while her mother stayed behind. Anna says her final visit to The Mountain — when she was subjected to Master Li’s “exorcism” — triggered a severe relapse of her eating disorder.
As she struggled with her illness, Anna says her mother rejected doctors’ attempts to put her on medication, quoting Falun Gong teachings.
“It means you are a bad practitioner. It means you do not fully trust Master Li. If you take any kind of medication or go to a hospital, even.”
In Sydney’s inner-west, another daughter is coming to terms with her estrangement from her mother.
Like Anna, Shani May says her mother Colleen put Falun Gong ahead of her family — and her own health.
Shani May looking out window
When Shani gave her mother a photo of her baby son Ellery to hang on the wall in place of a photo of Master Li, Colleen quickly swapped them back. When Ellery developed a tumour and spent nearly a year in hospital, she had to pressure her mother to visit him. “And then when she did have time, she’d be looking at her watch all the time, because she had somewhere to go,” Shani says.
As time went on there was something for Colleen to do every day of the week, then it was a few nights a week too, then weekends. “The next thing you know I’m the one trying to book in time to see her. So it really took over”.
Shani May holding a picture of Colleen
Like Anna, Shani’s anger with Falun Gong runs deep. She blames the movement’s teachings on modern medicine for the death of her mother, who stopped taking her blood-pressure medication after joining Falun Gong.
“If it wasn’t for Falun Gong, she’d still be with us. It would have taken two tablets a day and she’d still be with us,” she says.
Colleen May died three years ago after suffering prolonged ill health that she tried to manage through meditation and cleansing. Shani still has trouble reconciling how Colleen changed after she joined Falun Gong. Her mother was once a fixture of bohemian society, married to the famous jazz singer Ricky May. Her wedding dress was designed by the drag queen Carlotta. Her friends were flamboyant showbiz entertainers.
But after Ricky May died of a heart attack in 1988, Colleen spent years looking for something to fill the void. She found it a decade later when she saw people doing meditation and exercises in Sydney’s Ashfield Park.
A photo wall tribute to Ricky May in Shani's home
“She said, ‘Oh, I met these lovely people in the park and they do meditation once a week and I’m going to go down and do that with them’.”
The Falun Dafa Association of Australia says it welcomes individuals of any sexual orientation to practice the discipline, but “like most world religions … espouses conservative sexual ethics”. It teaches that any sexual relations outside marriage are “understood to create negative karma” but “this does not translate into a discriminatory attitude toward the gay community”.
Shani says Colleen soon lost her bohemian spark. She became uncomfortable with alcohol or being in the presence of gay people. “Growing up at Kings Cross and the Latin Quarter [nightclub], these are all people that she loved back in those days.”
But it was Colleen’s new-found attitude to medicine that really shocked her. Even when she attended hospital towards the end of her life, Colleen would resist certain treatments.
Colleen and Ricky May in 1964. Supplied
Colleen in 1961. Supplied
with Shani in 1976. Supplied
Colleen in 1988. Supplied
Shani's father was a famous jazz singer and her mother was a glamorous dancer. They travelled the world together.
“She pulled her IVs out,” says Shani. “She would spit the tablets at the doctors. They had awful trouble trying to control her blood pressure, her cholesterol, her calcium levels — everything went haywire.
“And she just, even in that sickness kept thinking, ‘If I take this, I’m going to be a bad practitioner’.”
Ben Hurley, an Australian now based in Taiwan, knew Colleen as a fellow practitioner in Sydney. He says he witnessed people telling her not to take medicine and encouraging Colleen to strengthen her belief in Master Li instead.
Colleen May (right) found solace in Falun Gong and gave much of her time to the movement's activities. Supplied
“In Falun Gong, the teachings are you don’t acknowledge illness,” says Ben. “There’s plausible deniability because Li has a range of teachings … that says ‘if you’re sick, go to the hospital’, but then there are always parts of teaching that Master Li can cure all of your illnesses and you just have to believe in him.”
Lucy Zhao, president of the Falun Dafa Association of Australia, says Colleen was a friend and claims her health improved after she started practicing Falun Gong.
“Whether she actually continued to take medication or not is her personal choice,” she says. “Personally, I didn’t tell her or pressure her not to take medicine.”
She says any practitioners who encouraged Colleen to avoid medicine did so based on their “personal interpretations”. The Falun Dafa Association added that it is ultimately a personal choice whether someone seeks medical treatment, but when people have taken up the practice and understood the universal principles behind it, diseases can disappear.
In a diary Colleen kept in her later years, she wrote of a trip to New York and a visit to “Shangri La”.
“I think I dreamt of going there when I was a child,” she wrote.
“Just being there, I haven’t experienced this feeling anywhere. You feel light, happy, like you’re separated from this world, quite beautiful, the lake serene.
“When the gong sounded, the sound seemed to go out to a great distance and lingered. The structures unbelievable how they have been made. No nails, no paint, the timber oiled that gives it a gold colour.”
But Dragon Springs’ neighbours in Deerpark, New York, say more has been going on inside the compound than peaceful meditation since Falun Gong established its spiritual base here.
For generations, Grace Woodard’s family has lived in the Deerpark area. She’s a member of the Deerpark Rural Alliance, which has been set up in opposition to Dragon Springs’ relentless expansion over the past two decades. Grace says locals originally welcomed the newcomers.
“There’s no transparency,” says Grace. “They’re doing their own thing. It’s like the Forbidden City — only certain people can go in.”
Driving around town, she points out property after property bought by Falun Gong practitioners. “All the houses we’ve passed are practitioners, this is where some students and performers live there,” she says. “And this whole area they wanted to put their shopping mall in, all along here. They have some Australian members, some New Zealanders, a few Germans.”
Grace Woodard, a Deerpark resident, drives around her neighbourhood
Buildings in the Dragon Springs compound, New York state
A gatehouse outside Dragon Springs, New York state
At a guardhouse at the entrance to Dragon Springs, a security unit patrols the front gate. When the ABC approaches seeking an interview, they call the local police.
A statue outside the Dragon Springs gatehouse
A sign says welcome to Deerpark
Dragon Springs’ vice president Jonathon Lee agrees to be interviewed in a nearby antique shop owned by a Falun Gong practitioner. He says the high security is to stop Chinese spies from the embassy infiltrating the compound.
Dragon Springs vice president Jonathon Lee
“We have seen embassy cars roaming around in the early days,” he says. “We blocked them and then called the police. But now they are smarter.”
He says Dragon Springs has been transparent about its building works and one of its purposes is to provide a haven for refugees from China. “It’s all ordinary people who practice Falun Gong, who want to have a sanctuary, especially people initially who were persecuted ... and their parents had died.”
Construction work at Dragon Springs
Dragon Springs roof framing.A roof being build at Dragon Springs
Construction taking place at Dragon Springs. Cranes and an unfinished roof
Grace Woodard's neighbour Frank Ketcham, who took these photos, regularly treks through the forest to try to work out what's going on in the Dragon Springs compound.
Dragon Springs is just a small slice of an expanding empire connected with Falun Gong. Practitioners set up The Epoch Times, once a free newspaper which is now published online and printed across the USA, Australia and other countries. Last year, in an advertising blitz, The Epoch Times spent nearly $US2 million on Facebook ads which pushed a pro-Trump message. Its Youtube news channel also appeals to a conservative audience.
Another media outlet linked to Falun Gong is the broadcaster NTD (New Tang Dynasty Television), which has collaborated with former Trump strategist Steve Bannon to produce Claws of the Red Dragon, a drama critical of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Jonathon Lee insists Falun Gong is not politically aligned but many of the practitioners see Donald Trump as an ally in the fight against the CCP.
“Trump is very hard on China in terms of Falun Gong persecution,” he says. “They think Trump is a hope for us to eventually be able to survive in China.”
An advertisement for The Epoch Times newspaper
The Epoch Times maintains it is not owned or operated by Falun Gong, but Ben Hurley, who worked on the Australian English-language edition, says it is in every sense a Falun Gong outlet. “Everyone who works there is a Falun Gong practitioner. They have a few people, a few token non-Falun Gong practitioners that they point to every time, but those people are outside the fortress. They’re not a part of the organisation.”
The Epoch Times has also been accused of deceptive practices. Last August, Facebook banned it from advertising after it posted subscription ads with a pro-Trump message through front groups like Honest Paper and Pure American Journalism.
Ben Hurley looks at a computer. He was a Falun Gong practitioner for 10 years.
Ben Hurley was a Falun Gong practitioner for 10 years and worked for the Australian version of The Epoch Times.
“Essentially they were creating a number of Facebook groups or pages that didn’t disclose they were part of the publisher or part of The Epoch Times publishing group,” says investigative journalist Alex Kasprak, who works for the fact-checking website Snopes. “That’s a clear violation of Facebook’s policy.”
The Epoch Times denied any deception, saying it was obvious they were behind the ads. “Without exception, these ads are overtly Epoch Times advertisements for our subscriptions,” says The Epoch Times’ publisher Stephen Gregory. “And there is no secret there, since it’s all public.”
He also points out that “every single advertisement went through Facebook’s review process and was approved … before running.”
Facebook took action again in December, taking down posts from a network that it linked to the Epoch Media Group. The BL, or The Beauty of Life, was posting fake profiles of supposed Trump supporters that were actually stock photos and even artificially generated images. In one example, the actress Helen Mirren’s image was used as the profile picture of a fake account. Facebook found BL spent more than $US9 million on ads that reached 55 million accounts.
Alex Kasprak discovered BL was operated from Vietnam by former employees of The Vietnam Epoch Times. Epoch Media Group denied any involvement, saying it split with Vietnam Epoch Times a year before.
There is no doubt Falun Gong members have suffered terrible persecution since the Chinese government banned the movement in 1999, fearing its growing popularity and power.
Shani May looks out the window of her Sydney home
Jonathon Lee insists Falun Gong is a force for good, devoted to the three principles of “truth, compassion and forbearance”. “Don’t tell lies, always tell the truth. Whatever you perceive to be the truth, always tell the truth.”
For Anna, Falun Gong “tore my family apart” and The Mountain will forever be a place of dread.
Anna framed by flowers. Anna has spoken about her time in Falun Gong to inform others
“I feel a lot of anger when I think about the fact that there are children and young adults living there with little to no access to the outside world who are only being taught the teachings of this practice, which I believe are very damaging,” she says.
“It makes me very worried and very angry to think about that.”
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