Falun Gong group in Winnipeg
Falun Gong was not “banned by the Chinese government as an evil cult” on July 22, 1999, as many newspapers rather carelessly write. It was not so much as called that term until October of that year.

When the term was applied, it was not the outcome of measured analysis, investigative findings, or theological debate. It was not arrived at by scholars of religion, nor sociologists, or psychologists. Nor was it the consensus of the government.

Rather, it was a political move, one engineered by an identifiable individual. That person was Jiang Zemin, then head of China’s communist party. According to a November 9, 1999, report by the Washington Post, “It was Mr. Jiang who ordered that Falun Gong be branded a ‘cult,’ and then demanded that a law be passed banning cults.”

The label appeared at a time when the Party’s nascent anti-Falun Gong crusade had grown into a bumbling public relations mess. Not only was the Falun Gong standing up to the regime, but the violent means being used against it—such as torture and public shows of police brutality—were turning the tide of public opinion in Falun Gong’s favor. The Chinese public was growing increasingly sympathetic to the group’s plight, even as Party propaganda was repeatedly ratcheted up. International criticism was meanwhile swelling.

Something had to be done if the campaign was not to prove an embarrassing and costly failure. The legitimacy of his rule was being called into question—rightly—by some. Jiang desperately needed to curb the tide of support for the pacifist meditators.

The move to label Falun Gong an “evil cult” was thus for Jiang, like the persecution itself, self-serving.

According to the Post, “The crackdown was undertaken to demonstrate and solidify the power of the Chinese leadership … Communist Party sources said that the standing committee of the Politburo did not unanimously endorse the crackdown and that President Jiang Zemin alone decided that Falun Gong must be eliminated.”

Citing a Party official, the same story noted that, “This obviously is very personal for Jiang.”

What then did Jiang hope to accomplish with the label?

First, it was meant to undercut public sympathy for the beleaguered Falun Gong, turning empathy instead into suspicion. Second, it would shift the spotlight away from the unlawful acts of the Party-state to instead the victim, calling into question his integrity. Thirdly, it would serve to dehumanize the Falun Gong, paving the way for more drastic violations of rights; indeed, torture and violence increased greatly in the years following. Fourthly, it would paint individual Falun Gong adherents as “victims” of some cultish leader, victims who the benevolent state could then “rescue” and “rehabilitate.”

But the term also had a further, more distant aspiration. One that would play out overseas, beyond China’s borders. Specifically, it was meant to resonate with the West and exonerate its crimes against humanity.

According to a February 14, 2001, report in the Asian edition of The Wall Street Journal, China’s communist party has “enthusiastically adopted the language and arguments of the Western anti-cult movement in its propaganda against Falun Dafa … China has attached itself to the anti-cult movement to justify its crackdown.”

Further evidence of that fact is the English term itself, “cult” or “evil cult,” which is a manipulated translation from Chinese. As Amnesty International notes, the Chinese term “xiejiao” is perhaps more accurately translated as “heretical organization” or heretical religion. According to at least one source, the cult label was arrived at with the help of a Western PR company. It was crafted, that is, to play off fears of cults in the West, where Falun Gong and its qigong kin were largely unfamiliar and could be portrayed as nefarious.

Finally, it should be noted that Western scholars of religion who have studied Falun Gong in depth, such as David Ownby, have noted that Falun Gong does not share the characteristics of cults. It does not involve leader worship, or charges fees; nor does it isolate practitioners from society, intervene in their personal lives, or encourage any behavior that could be construed as unlawful or dangerous. Such scholars have instead recognized it as a new religious movement.

Similarly, a wide range of international actors—including United Nations Special Rapporteurs, prominent human rights groups, and democratic governments—have repeatedly referred to the campaign against Falun Gong as one of unjustified religious persecution rather than as a legitimate government policy to rid society of a supposedly negative influence.  

If anything, then, perhaps the eagerness of China’s communist rulers to brand a pacifist, open, and benevolent meditation group an “evil cult” bespeaks of that Party’s own guilty conscience.

That possibility was duly noted by Time magazine, when in June of 2001 it commented that “they [the Falun Gong] are not murderers; meanwhile, in its 51-year history ruling China, the Communist Party has been responsible for the death of tens of millions of innocent citizens, including its own supporters. Perhaps the evil cult is Jiang’s own party.”