The rumours of a coup in Zhongnanhai and Xi Jinping’s ‘house arrest’ dominated all trends on Twitter from 24 to 26 September. But at the heart of the rumours is a sprawling media ecosystem backed by the Chinese religious movement ‘Falun Gong’. Falun Gong considers the whole of the Chinese Communist Party a mortal enemy and evil. The Epoch Times and the New Tang Dynasty TV are part of the Falun Gong-backed media ecosystem, which provides news to the overseas Chinese community in the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, Europe, and Singapore.
Within the Chinese dissident community, YouTubers like Jennifer Zeng are ardent followers of Falun Gong and amplify stories produced by its media ecosystem.
The Xi Jinping ‘coup’ rumour was first picked up by New Tang Dynasty. The TV channel cited a former journalist and now dissident named Zhao Lanjian, who made some minor flight cancellations sound far more sensational than they were. But that’s the everyday bread and butter of the Falun Gong-backed media. A combination of factors made the rumour circulate widely, and Indian social media users played a role. Since the Covid pandemic started, the Falun Gong media has become an outsized influence on the Indian media space. Jennifer Zeng is given a regular platform in Indian TV debates on China, including appearing on Times Now, StratNewsGlobal, TV9Bharat, and others. Zeng’s YouTube channel is also hugely popular among the Indian audience interested in China.
A social media handle named ‘Nepal Correspondence’ was the first in the subcontinent to pick up the rumours from the Falun Gong-backed media, which later circulated on India Twitter. On 23 September, ‘Nepal Correspondence’ repeated the claims initially appearing in Zeng’s YouTube video about Xi Jinping getting ‘arrested’.
Also read: Here’s how rumours of Xi Jinping’s ‘arrest’ and ‘coup’ started
The rise of a Chinese ‘alt-media’
The Epoch Times, a once-obscure newspaper handed for free on the streets of New York and Toronto, began to rise in prominence after the newspaper aligned with former US President Donald Trump’s political movement. The newspaper’s popularity started to rise in prominence around 2016 and 2017.
The Falun Gong religious movement came into the spotlight after media outlets tied to the movement gained an outsized influence within the US’ conservative politics and populism – especially supporters of Trump. The Falun Gong-backed media tried to throw their weight around when Joe Biden won the election too. The Epoch Times published extensively to cement the theory of voter fraud started by Trump to sway the US election results.
According to NBC, The Epoch Media Group spent over $1.5 million on about 11,000 pro-Trump advertisements in 2019. Its revenue almost quadrupled since the beginning of the Trump presidency, and the newspaper was endorsed by the former president himself.
In 2017, The Epoch Times leadership envisioned a new future for the paper with a Facebook strategy that included turning the paper into a hub of alternative media and spreading Falun Gong ideology around the world, according to a New York Times report. Now, The Epoch Times has over 535,000 subscribers on YouTube. The management’s gamble to turn the media group into a gigantic alt-media operation has worked, confirmed by a study of the group’s growing influence on Germany’s media space.
The media house reports in French, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, Russian and German, apart from Chinese and English.
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Falun Gong’s founder who can ‘read minds’
The group has been persistently targeted by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) with includes mass arrests and incarceration of remaining Falun Gong followers on the mainland. Falun Gong or Falun Dafa is a Chinese spiritual movement that is considered one of the five mortal threats by the CCP. Chinese diplomats regularly try to stop Falun Gong-backed media from reporting more widely in the US and elsewhere.
The religious group’s past is questionable.
Li Hongzhi, the founder of the Falun Gong movement, now lives and preaches from his 427-acre compound called Dragon Springs (or The Mountain) in New York. The biographical details of Li’s past are either provided by his followers or the CCP—it includes everything from working as a grain clerk to being a trumpet player for a kind of forestry-police band. In 1992, Li founded the Falun Gong movement by mixing the Chinese exercise practice called qigong and his philosophy, somewhat inspired by Daoism. The trajectory of the Falun Gong movement has often been compared with the Scientology movement. Li considers the CCP his mortal enemy and describes the party as ‘evil’ and ‘devils’.
The movement’s motto—“Truthfulness, compassion, forbearance”—may make the religious group appear to have a benevolent agenda, but Li holds extreme views, which include the power of ‘telepathy’ and even belief in aliens. Li has claimed he can teach people to levitate and ‘see-through walls’, and that he can ‘read’ people’s thoughts.
The followers of the Falun Gong movement have reported abusive practices that have, over the years, destroyed many families.
“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,” reported ABC News, citing followers’ testimonies.
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Opinion over facts
Despite claims of a ‘coup’ and political turmoil linked to Xi’s ‘flight cancellation’ debunked by multiple news outlets, The Epoch Times hasn’t given up backing the rumours.
“Based on the fact that before the CCP’s 18th and 19th National Congresses, there had also been incidents of large-scale flight cancellations, he suspects that it was a result of political struggles,” reported the newspaper on 27 September, citing a Chinese American YouTuber Chen Pokong.
There is no link between flight cancellations and past Party Congresses, as Chen insinuates.
Though Falun Gong media are a target of CCP’s persistent, targeted campaigns, the tactics adopted by them to counter these narratives can be dubious.
The Epoch Times, with the backing of Li Hongzhi, has promoted extreme views on the origins of the Covid pandemic—from the theory that the coronavirus was God-sent to punish the CCP to the virus being leaked by the CCP from a lab. The origins of the novel coronavirus remain unclear.
The salient point about Falun Gong media’s job isn’t to report facts as they stand but rather to take a position to counter the Communist Party by all means possible – including disinformation.
Meanwhile, Beijing largely ignored the news churned out by the ‘rumour mill’.
Instead of directly addressing the ‘coup’ rumours, Chinese State media outlet The Paper asked foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin about US-sponsored disinformation campaigns revealed by Stanford Internet Observatory. The Chinese foreign ministry lapped at the question by The Paper reporter and went on a long tirade about the “US’ being the largest disinformation propagator”.
Today, the Falun Gong-back media ecosystem exists in a vacuum created by Beijing kicking out foreign correspondents and barring reporters from visiting the mainland.
The dark silence that prevails around the direction of Chinese politics allows the likes of The Epoch Times and Jennifer Zeng to fill the gaps with fairy tales like the ‘coup’.
India’s growing interest in the Chinese political system and its place in international order will require the public to improve its understanding of the Chinese media ecosystem. Wishful thinking about a coup wouldn’t change the direction of Chinese politics.
The author is a columnist and a freelance journalist, currently pursuing an MSc in international politics with a focus on China from School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. He tweets @aadilbrar. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)