Shen Yun: The Falun Gong cult’s anti-communist propaganda roadshow
The Falun Gong (Falun Dafa) group presents itself as a persecuted spiritual organization, but it is an anti-human religious cult that embraces right-wing politics and operates a massive anti-communist business and propaganda empire. | Left: Shen Yun poster / Left: AP photos show the cult's 'Epoch Times' newspaper, a group of practitioners, and a Falun Gong protest against China.

From February 15-20, 2022, Washington’s John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts will host a sensational retelling of China’s history spanning thousands of years. Shen Yun—the stunning production that has graced stages in a perpetual roadshow across North America since 2006—is returning to the U.S. capital.

The advertising for this affair across 96 cities in America uses beautiful imagery: a woman leaping across a violet-hued field in a brilliantly colored dress beside the phrase “5,000 Years of Civilization Reborn.” This is the innocuous wording Shen Yun uses to showcase its ode to the glory of traditional Chinese civilization and culture. An attendee might, then, be a little taken aback by statements made in the performance that “atheism and evolution are deadly ideas.”

In fact, one can expect to be inundated with a host of bizarre messages in a Shen Yun performance. This dance company, whose name roughly translates to “Divine Rhythm,” performs under the auspices of Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, a spiritual practice drawing on the Chinese Buddhist and Daoist traditions. Followers practice qigong, meditation, and moral philosophy with the aim of achieving spiritual enlightenment. Uniquely among qigong practices, however, this school incorporates apocalyptic and messianic elements centered around founder Li Hongzhi—a battle for human consciousness between the enlightened and space aliens (!) to be followed by an impending judgment day.

Falun Gong leader Li Hongzhi in 1999 before his exile in the United States. | Kyodo News / AP

While practitioners are instructed to be opaque about Li’s teaching with the uninitiated, what can be found about Falun Gong’s beliefs is a bit concerning. Li has claimed that alien life forms intend to displace humanity with clones and that scientific development is the result of alien interference. He has further claimed that race-mixing in humans is an alien plot to drive humanity further from God and that heaven is racially segregated. Li apparently so despises miscegenation that he has been recorded as saying: “When a child is born from an interracial marriage, that child does not have a heavenly kingdom to go to.”

Among other regressive tendencies, anti-communism is a central tenet of Falun Gong. Shen Yun performances have regularly incorporated explicitly anti-communist and anti-Communist Party of China messaging. In 2019, Shen Yun’s performance even included an act in which “Chairman Mao appeared, and the sky turned black; the city in the digital backdrop was obliterated by an earthquake, then finished off by a Communist tsunami. A red hammer and sickle glowed in the center of the wave.”

As Shen Yun so campily demonstrated, Falun Gong has a long and strained history with communism. Since being banned in China in 1999, the organization and its media outlets have lambasted the Communist Party there, claiming severe and unjust religious persecution, backed up with ample help from Western media until recent years.

When Li began Falun Gong, he had only been practicing qigong for about a year, but riding a wave of increased popularity in qigong practice in the 1980s and 1990s, he was able to successfully build a brand. Since its founding, the group’s history has been a contentious one: “Conflict with the media has been central to Falun Gong almost since its inception, for it was not the Chinese government, but journalists, writers, scientists, and ex-members who first criticized Falun Gong. Li’s unscientific claims and professions of divine status invited skepticism, and by mid-1996 Chinese journalists began to publish critical articles about Falun Gong’s supernatural beliefs and Li’s egoism.”

By the late 1990s, Falun Gong had grown massively, pushing a message of Li Hongzhi as mankind’s savior. In spite of this, the Communist Party of China still officially sought to keep peace with the organization. This changed in short order.

At the height of Falun Gong’s influence in China, Li instructed followers to infiltrate the Communist Party. Part of his early strategy for recruitment appears to have been winning over state government leaders and currying favor with them. Meanwhile, the organization began escalating its attacks on Chinese media platforms critical of Li Hongzhi and his religion.

These events escalated into the April 25, 1999, protest in which 10,000 Falun Gong practitioners surrounded the Communist Party headquarters in Zhongnanhai in Beijing and sat silently for 12 hours. By July that same year, the government had outlawed the group and detained many of its members.

During this time, Li and Falun Gong began disseminating a horrifying narrative of the CPC’s persecution—mass imprisonment, torture, even organ harvesting, all over a peaceful protest. This narrative, of course, became a go-to story for demonstrating the terrors of communism.

Xinhua, China’s main news agency, however, alleged that “Li had broken numerous laws, threatened public safety, was responsible for over 1,000 deaths (mainly from members committing suicide or not seeking medical treatment), and that members had infiltrated the Communist Party to overthrow the government.” Additionally, according to Dr. Heather Kavan, in an independent study on the credibility of media reporting about Falun Gong, “[the] research suggests that on the issues of Li and his role in the Zhongnanhai protest, why Falun Gong was banned, and its cult-like nature, Xinhua’s accounts are…generally more accurate than Western ones.”

In this April 25, 1999 file photo, thousands of members of the Falun Gong cult sit in next to Beijing’s Zhongnanhai complex, the headquarters of the Communist Party of China. | Chien-min Chung / AP

In the wake of the curbs on Falun Gong in China, Li fled to New York, where he began operating the 427-acre Dragon Springs compound, which is now the center of Falun Gong operations. Former believers paint a disturbing picture of daily life there: “tightly controlled by Li…internet access is restricted, the use of medicines is discouraged, and arranged relationships are common.”

Li’s teaching on “the necessity of enduring physical hardship, harassing critics, and denigrating science in favor of his purportedly infallible truths” permeates the culture of the compound and the group’s doctrine. True to the form of a cult, Falun Gong’s members are expected to devote their lives to its message and “Master Li.” Practitioners are required to proselytize and cut off friends and family members who are not receptive to Falun Gong’s message. All of this creates a deeply insular environment where believers are subject to Li’s whims. One former member wrote that she “had grown up believing [Li] could read her mind and listen to her dangerous thoughts.”

Members of Falun Gong are also expected to receive their news from Li’s approved media outlets, the largest of which is The Epoch Times newspaper, which regularly hosts regressive opinion pieces about the LGBTQ+ community and hawks anti-China sentiment.

The outlet, almost entirely staffed by Falun Gong cultists, is known to traffic in right-wing conspiracy theories along the Trumpist line—coronavirus disinformation, claims that Hillary Clinton is a communist, and allegations of massive voter fraud in the 2020 U.S. election. This makes sense when one considers that Li Hongzhi reportedly stated Donald Trump had been “sent by heaven to destroy the Chinese Communist Party.” In fact, in 2020, Epoch Times spent $1.5 million on Facebook ads in just six months promoting Trump, before being banned from the platform.

It seems, though, that Epoch Times’ current political agenda is a new phenomenon. According to a 2019 exposé by NBC News, “Before 2016, The Epoch Times generally stayed out of U.S. politics, unless they dovetailed with Chinese interests. The publication’s recent ad strategy, coupled with a broader campaign to embrace social media and conservative U.S. politics—Trump in particular—has doubled The Epoch Times’ revenue, according to the organization’s tax filings, and pushed it to greater prominence in the broader conservative media world.”

Falun Gong’s ‘Epoch Times’ newspaper has made itself into a prominent voice for the far right in the United States. It regularly celebrated Trump when he was president and backed his Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him. | Epoch Times

The outlet’s alliance with Donald Trump has certainly been profitable for Falun Gong. In 2017, The Epoch Times doubled its revenue from the previous year to $8.1 million, right around the time that it expanded its online presence and started pushing an aggressive pro-Trump agenda. “Though the source of their revenue is unclear, the most recent financial records from each organization paint a picture of an overall business thriving in the Trump era,” NBC reported.

Beyond the simple bottom line motive that has so enriched Falun Gong in the last few years, Li’s alliance with the far-right elements of U.S. politics serves the organization’s anti-communist purpose. Trump’s escalation of tensions with China was something of a godsend to a group that had been advocating stringent measures against the country for years.

Falun Gong has made no secret of its goal to destroy the Communist Party of China. This agenda is central to most of their operations, not least of which is Shen Yun. In 2021, the dance company adopted the tagline “China Before Communism.” But what would Falun Gong have China return to?

Before the revolution of 1949, Western and Japanese imperialists had been attacking China steadily since the 1800s, resulting in mass casualties and increased drug trafficking. The fall of the Qing dynasty caused increased political instability, which prevented the Kuomintang central government from operating effectively. Beginning in the late 1920s, Japan began a campaign of intrigue and harassment of China that eventually led to outright invasion and occupation of 25% of China’s territory and control over 33% of its population. This invasion and occupation resulted in numerous atrocities that cost the lives of millions of Chinese. It was the Communist Party of China, in alliance with the Kuomintang in a United Front, that was able to eventually drive out imperialist invaders.

When the Communist Party rose to power in China after the war, quality of life markers increased significantly. This was especially the case in recent decades. A Stanford University-published article from 2015 noted that “between 1950 and 1980, China experienced the most rapid sustained increase in life expectancy of any population in documented global history…gains in school enrollment and public health campaigns together are associated with 55-70 percent of China’s dramatic reductions in infant and under-5 mortality….”

In roughly the same period, total food production in China rose 170%, and China’s population grew by 78%. This is all in spite of the infamous famines of 1958-62. The Communist Party put into motion changes that would lead to the elimination of famine in China, a previously unthinkable historical development.

Li-Town: The Falun Gong Dragon Springs compound in Otisville, N.Y., where founder Li Hongzhi rules. | Julie Jacobson / AP

Citizens of China today enjoy a life expectancy of around 77, which has risen steadily since 2009. Additionally, the average Chinese citizen has access to healthcare on a scale unavailable to citizens in the U.S., food security, and earlier retirement ages. Considering that Li Hongzhi lives in a palace and exerts authority over his devoted followers like a feudal lord, it makes a little more sense that he would advocate for a reactionary “return” to the China that existed before socialism.

Shen Yun, a striking display of Falun Gong’s propaganda and the reach of its influence in North America dramatizes historical and mythical events in Chinese history. This is not exactly a representation of the reality of daily life for the average person in China at any time in its extensive history. And while Shen Yun seems to uphold itself as an arbiter of Chinese culture, the performances focus more on conveying Falun Gong’s political agenda.

So why are the Kennedy Center and other event venues around the continent allowing themselves to be a platform for this regressive and dangerous cult? Do these cultural institutions really want to associate themselves with an organization whose leader opposes interracial relationships, homosexuality, and modern medicine? The Kennedy Center—and any other venue that gets a knock from Shen Yun at its door—should drop the act and put to bed this divisive culture war propaganda.


Max Chandler
Max Chandler

Max Chandler writes from Washington DC.