Three years ago I published an article on my blog about why I stopped believing in Falun Gong. The responses were slow at first, but gradually the number of people reading and engaging with the blog began to grow, and then people started getting in touch. They were young, smart, devastated people struggling to re-adjust to society after abandoning their belief in Falun Gong, and they were reaching out to me for nothing more than solace and affirmation.
Three years on, the emails are still coming. And while the stories vary in their details, there are a number of consistent themes.
The stories express a mix of excitement and terror. Excitement that they can now listen to pop music; or eat sashimi; or have a beer; or have sex; or take up a hobby; or hang out with non-believers — without feeling filthy and unworthy. And lingering terror as they face up to their living god, and attempt to banish him from their minds and out of their lives.
It’s hard to understand the depth or the complexity of these feelings if you haven’t held a belief as extreme as Falun Gong. The decision to leave is like upending your life, abandoning your certainties, and waking up to confront a different, at first alien world.
I’m no psychologist and I have no training in how to handle these conversations. I always ask people who get in touch with me if they are seeing a counsellor. Then I just try to find ways to tell them that they’re brave, that they’re worthy of respect, that they deserve to be happy, and they will be happy if they can just get through the first few years.
One of the first topics that always comes up in conversation is the difficulty of seeing Li Hongzhi, the founder and spiritual leader of Falun Gong, as a man and not some omniscient deity. A number of people laboured over the decision to contact me before finally plucking up the courage, because they believed that Li could read their minds, and that his fashen or “law bodies” — basically, copies of himself that exist in a spiritual dimension — were always next to them and watching their every move and thought.
Some hadn’t dared to tell their believing parents or spouses that they had given up their belief, because they believed it would be impossible for them to accept. Among those that did reveal they had left, one was locked in a car, another in a relative’s house while adherents tried to talk them back into belief.
Others had to cut off contact because their relatives became too aggressive — which makes sense, in a way, once you see it from the perspective of believers. Li has taught his followers that those who take up the belief and then leave will enter the “gate of no-life” — hell, in other words. He has described it in detail, likening it to being boiled in a pot of human sputum. When I first read that, I had to look up the meaning of “sputum.” I find it comical now, but it’s real for believers.
Each of the people who got in touch with me knew stories of people who had died from treatable conditions because they refused to get medical help due to their interpretation of Li Hongzhi’s teachings — parents, siblings, friends. I personally knew at least four people who died from treatable illnesses, and many more through acquaintances.
So why were they drawn to my blog? Because they recognised from what I had written that I would understand their complicated emotions. The dominant narrative about Falun Gong among Western media is about a peaceful, if eccentric, group of people who adhere to some strange beliefs, and who are being persecuted by the Chinese Communist Party.
This is why the ABC’s recent coverage of Falun Gong is so important to the growing ex-Falun Gong community, of which I’m proud to be part. The ABC has begun to tell an important story that has been neglected or overlooked for too long. I found that its television reports, podcasts, and online articles were well-researched, powerful, and important.
Clearly, not everyone agrees with my assessment. An article appeared on this site that was highly critical of the ABC’s coverage of Falun Gong. It was written by Matthew Robertson, a doctoral student at Australian National University, and Wendy Rogers, Professor of Clinical Ethics at Macquarie University. Robertson is, like me, a former journalist with the Falun Gong affiliated media outlet, The Epoch Times. He says he learned Chinese so that he could read the original teachings of Li Hongzhi after discovering the true meaning of human life through Falun Gong, according to a Chinese-language Epoch Times report. Wendy Rogers, for her part, has engaged with Falun Gong for some years due to her concerns that the Chinese state is harvesting their organs — a practice that is deeply troubling, and beyond the scope of this article.
Robertson and Rogers argue, in essence, that the ABC has re-framed the media narrative on Falun Gong such that it takes on a more sinister hue. They say the ABC portrays Falun Gong as a threat to public safety due to its dangerous teachings on medicine, and that it is secretive and dishonest. Foreign Correspondent and Background Briefing have both rejected such a characterization of its coverage, arguing they simply gave critics an opportunity to be heard and Falun Gong fair opportunity to respond. But from my perspective, after being a staunch follower for 12 years, such a characterisation would be accurate.
Robertson and Rogers also argue that the ABC effectively ridiculed Falun Gong for its beliefs. I personally didn’t see that — although it’s hard for me these days not to have some kind of visceral reaction to Falun Gong’s teachings about gay people being disgusting, interracial children having no heaven to go to, and aliens slowly taking over human bodies (not to mention the less-publicised, but widely-held, belief that Donald Trump is an angel from heaven).
But it was the attempt by Robertson and Rogers to attack the credibility of the ABC’s reports, to suggest the ABC had the malicious intent to vilify Falun Gong practitioners, and to label the ABC’s reports as a form of tyranny, that really bothered me.
Robertson and Rogers claim the ABC’s coverage didn’t “engage with the beliefs of adherents themselves.” I disagree. The ABC journalists did more than any other reporting team I‘ve encountered to seek out former believers and ask them what it’s really like in Falun Gong. The journalists spoke with a number of former believers, including me, Anna, and Nuratni. They spoke with Shani May, whose mother — a believer I knew well — died of a treatable condition after refusing medical treatment, and passed away from strokes and seizures caused by high blood pressure. And they spoke with a greater number of former believers on background for their fact checking. I know this, because I assisted with this part of the process.
Robertson and Rogers dismiss the views and experiences of these former believers for a range of reasons. One, they say, is the “daughter of a first generation, apparently overbearing Chinese immigrant mother.” Another, they claim, blames her mother’s death on Falun Gong (Colleen May, the mother who died, was 75, they remind us). Another (me), they say, is a progressive who is disaffected and ashamed of his former beliefs.
I found this deeply offensive, as if our views and experiences somehow don‘t matter and should be disregarded. Considering Robertson is, I understand, a Falun Gong practitioner himself and given Falun Gong‘s public narrative about itself as a persecuted group, I found it strange he didn‘t see the irony in this attempt to marginalise us.
Leaving aside the fact their article seems largely to ignore Hagar Cohen’s more detailed three-part series on RN’s Background Briefing, I have to ask: How many more perspectives do these critics need to see before they accept a broader negative pattern of behaviour? It seems Robertson and Rogers are expecting from the media a depth of nuance and analysis that one might find in an academic paper or book.
The other, off-hand criticism they make of the ABC’s coverage of Falun Gong — and here they join their voices with the inveterate ABC-haters at The Daily Telegraph — is that it was applauded, and selectively put to use, by the propaganda organs of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This seems to me rather like criticising the satirical site The Onion after North Korea’s propaganda outlets promoted one of its pieces. (It’s worth pointing out that, by publishing an article that is largely supportive of Falun Gong, ABC Religion & Ethics in fact refutes a core accusation from Falun Gong, that ABC journalists are agents for the CCP — if that needed to be refuted.)
None of the ex-Falun Gong people I know are supportive of the way the Chinese Communist Party has acted against Falun Gong after becoming aware of its darker side. The CCP’s campaign against Falun Gong is violent, murderous, deceptive, and out of touch. Moreover, this campaign has had the unintended consequence of helping Falun Gong become more powerful overseas. Now, every time a media outlet outside of China criticises Falun Gong, the Falun Gong community have the ability to pull out the “we’re being persecuted” card — as if they’re being persecuted in Australia.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been told by Falun Gong believers that I must be an agent for the CCP. The way I see it, the notion that we somehow have to choose between Falun Gong and the Chinese Communist Party is a logical fallacy. I don’t like either side of this sordid choice, and I reserve the right to criticise both — because that’s the nuanced, complicated world we live in. And that is exactly what the ABC’s reports did.
Beyond seeking a right-of-reply to key claims being made, it is not the responsibility of an independent media outlet to delve into Falun Gong’s narrative about itself when it writes a critical report. And considering that Falun Gong has its own multi-language media outlets with huge advertising budgets dedicated to telling its side of the story, I think Falun Gong will be fine.
I applaud the ABC for having the courage to do the reporting it did, and facing down the ensuing protests and pressure from Falun Gong and its allies. And I hope there’s plenty more coverage like it, because there is a lot more of this story still to be told. Falun Gong’s stranger teachings should not, I contend, be regarded in the same way as those in the texts of other mainstream religions. Its leader is still alive. Its interpretations of teachings tend to be literal, not metaphorical. Falun Gong practitioners believe Li Hongzhi is a god — they hang on every word he speaks and he carries an enormous amount of influence over what believers say and do.
The question for readers of Falun Gong’s media content — and, more importantly, for government figures consulting with Falun Gong believers on strategic matters such as a country’s policy towards China — is whether these people truly bring their own unique, independent, considered viewpoints to the table, or whether they are just following the words and whims of one man.
Ben Hurley is a freelance journalist based in Taiwan, where he writes mostly about business topics. He was a Falun Gong believer for 12 years before distancing himself in 2013. He appeared in the ABC programs “The Power of Falun Gong.”