By Peter Zhang
Amidst the ongoing debate over so-called fake news in the United States, American media outlets lack any kind of consensus as to what constitutes “fake news.”
This debate is heating up. Advocacy journalism is on the rise, and it is unsettling. Critics contend, however, that different voices can still be heard in our open society, especially with social media platforms.
Yet confidence is lacking that average Americans can discern what is true news from the false and vicious. As observed by the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) a century and a half ago, “I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America.”
The most pressing concern, however, is the foreign propaganda exerting influence on U.S. soil. Despite all the headlines about Russia’s meddling in our elections, it is China, subtly and secretly, that leads the way.
Fake news in the People’s Republic of China is nothing new; it is part of life for the 1.4 billion Chinese people.
Following the footsteps of the former Soviet Union, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) set up its own Ministry of Propaganda back in May 1924, which was suspended during the turbulent years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and resumed in October 1977.
Today, the Ministry not only monopolizes the airwaves and printed materials, but also the internet, all for the purpose of mind control, or more precisely, turning the masses into victims of Stockholm syndrome.
In the CCP’s efforts to mold opinion in and out of China about the spiritual practice Falun Gong, one can see its entire arsenal of media manipulation on display—a handy case study of fake news in its most extreme form.
Initially, CCP Praises Falun Gong
Of all the media campaigns waged by the CCP, its assault on Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, has been the most belligerent, reminiscent of the propaganda crusade during the Cultural Revolution era.
Rooted in Buddhist traditions, Falun Gong, which was first publicly taught in 1992 by the founder Mr. Li Hongzhi, consists of two core parts: five sets of meditative exercises and the principles of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance.
Along the lines of the Buddhist belief system, this mind-body practice holds that practitioners who abide by these moral standards and faithfully follow the exercises can achieve self-fulfillment and enlightenment.
Initially, the CCP used its state-run media to tout Falun Gong for its health benefits and for uplifting the morality of society. Among the better known media employed in this effort are the following: China Central TV (1993 & 1998), People’s Public Security Newspaper (1993), Qigong & Science Journal (1993), Beijing Daily (1996 & 1998), Medicine & Health Newspaper (1997), Hong Kong TV (1998).
On Nov. 24, 1998, Shanghai TV (STV) broadcast footage of local residents practicing Falun Gong exercises in a park and reported: “This morning, nearly 10,000 Falun Gong practitioners showed up to do the exercises…
“By now Falun Gong has volunteer sites throughout our country, including Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, as well as Europe, North America, Australia, and other Asian countries. There are some 100 million people practicing Falun Dafa.”
Beijing Leadership Becomes Hostile
Falun Gong initially appealed to the CCP as a health regime. According to an article in a February 1999 issue of the US News & World Report, a senior China Sports Commission official said, “Falun Gong and other types of qigong can save each person 1,000 yuan in annual medical fees. If 100 million people are practicing it, that’s 100 billion yuan [US$14.9 billion] saved per year in medical fees. Premier Zhu Rongji is very happy about that. The country could use the money right now.”
Sinologists have pointed out that the CCP regarded as a surprise Falun Gong’s rapid growth, happening virtually under its nose. Jiang Zemin, the Party’s chief at that time, regarded that growth as an existential threat.
After all, China, as a communist state, does not allow any independent organization to exist unless the Party controls it. In addition, Falun Gong’s Buddhist-like precepts of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance go against the CCP’s doctrines of atheism, class struggle, and revolution by force.
Mao Zedong, the founder of the CCP, once pointed out that political campaigns must occur “every seven or eight years.” Why? The real reason is that the Party needs a new enemy periodically to re-energize the Orwellian society that the Party nurtures.
All communist regimes share three common traits: 1) rule by violence and fear, 2) control of information; 3) mind control via communist ideology. The CCP’s media tactics include: defamation, information manipulation, deception, and censorship.
On July 20, 1999, Jiang announced his decision to eradicate Falun Gong. Three months before—on April 25—some 10,000 practitioners staged a public appeal in front of Zhongnanhai, the seat of the CCP headquarters in Beijing, seeking legal recognition and protection.
Unfortunately, Jiang was not moved; he set up a Gestapo-like, extrajudicial department called the 610 Office to direct a nationwide campaign of persecution against Falun Gong.
Massive arrests of Falun Gong practitioners took place while all forms of state-run propaganda machinery began to wage a “living room war” against Falun Gong and its founder. The usual half-an-hour evening news on CCTV was turned into a one-hour special to demonize Falun Gong, reversing its previous positive words for this meditative practice.
The 610 Office issued a series of decrees instructing all sectors of society, including educational institutions from elementary school to universities, to participate in the so-called “anti-cult” campaign.
In order to vilify Falun Gong as a cult, the Ministry of Propaganda invented 1400 “suicide cases,” blaming Falun Gong for suicides that were in fact committed by non-practitioners. Longtime China watchers found this ploy both despicable and unbelievable.
First, Falun Gong, like other Buddhist denominations, is known to prohibit any form of killing, including suicide. Second, Falun Gong had been around since 1992, and not a single Falun Gong suicide case was ever reported in China until the Ministry of Propaganda, all of a sudden, produced these alleged cases following the repression of the practice in July 1999. Third, Falun Gong is practiced in over 70 countries worldwide, yet there has not been any suicide case reported to this day outside of China.
The Staging of Suicides on Tiananmen Square
The most notorious story is perhaps the so-called self-immolation incident on Tiananmen Square on Jan. 23, 2001, which was staged, according to some Western journalists, by the Chinese authorities.
While the CCP’s Ministry of Propaganda claimed that five Falun Gong practitioners attempted to “enter heaven” through self-immolation on Tiananmen Square, the international community found the assertions at odds with the facts.
Only the state-run media were allowed access to the alleged “Falun Gong victims” while the international press, including the victims’ family members, were barred from contacting them.
The Ministry of Propaganda ordered all its media outlets to feature this incident as headline news until the Washington Post published an investigative report, “Human Fire Ignites Chinese Mystery” on Feb. 4, 2001, that described one of the alleged victims, a woman named Liu Chunling, as having “worked in a nightclub, [and] took money to keep men company”—behaviors very far from the moral standard held by Falun Gong practitioners. None of her neighbors had ever seen her practice Falun Gong.
More embarrassingly for the Beijing authorities, a CNN producer on the scene later pointed out that she didn’t see any children among the five self-immolators while every Chinese state-run media outlet had already reported that the 12-year-old Liu Siying was one of them.
CCP Erects Internet Firewall
To prevent the masses from having access to truthful news, the CCP has beefed up its censorship of the internet since 2000, creating the world’s largest firewall system as part of its “Golden Shield Project.” Not surprisingly, all Falun Gong-related websites are blocked, even including MIT’s website at one point, because it hosts the MIT Falun Gong club.
A 2016 Harvard study finds: “The Chinese government has long been suspected of hiring as many as two million people to surreptitiously insert huge numbers of pseudonymous and other deceptive writings into the stream of real social media posts, as if they were the genuine opinions of ordinary people…We estimate that the government fabricates and posts about 448 million social media comments a year.”
These online commentators are called “the 50 cent party” because they are reportedly paid 50 cents for every post. Inciting hatred, spreading misinformation, and promoting state propaganda against Falun Gong is their job.
Despite the fact that the CCP’s policy of persecution has not changed, Beijing ceased its media campaign against Falun Gong in recent years.
China specialists have observed that Beijing’s propaganda against Falun Gong has failed both at home and abroad, due to its deplorable human rights abuses of Falun Gong practitioners. The horrific organ harvesting from imprisoned Falun Gong practitioners since 1999, which the media began to expose in 2006, has particularly damaged the CCP’s ability to make its propaganda case against Falun Gong.
Over the years, Beijing’s influence operations through its overseas media outreach, however, have reached a new level. In addition to its major media outlets such as China Daily (People’s Daily overseas edition) and CCTV-4 (CCTV’s overseas channel), China is in the process of setting up 1,000 Confucius Institutes by 2020 around the world.
Canada’s McMaster University had to shut down its Confucius Institute in 2013 over a discrimination case, in which Sonia Zhao, an instructor hired in 2010, had to sign a contract that she cannot practice Falun Gong.
In an effort to counter foreign influence operations, last year the U.S. Department of Justice ordered Xinhua News Agency and China Global Television Network (formerly CCTV), Beijing’s two largest media outlets in America, to register as foreign agents or lobbyists.
While Beijing’s media enjoys the freedom to propagate communist content worldwide, Western media is heavily censored in China. Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and many other popular websites are blocked in China. Yet Chinese state-run media are allowed to have Facebook and Twitter accounts to promote their party-state agenda.
Worse still, some Western technology companies have voluntarily signed the so-called self-discipline pledge to collaborate with Beijing’s censorship authorities.
They conduct self-censorship to filter politically sensitive words, such as Falun Gong and Tiananmen massacre in 1989. Apple Inc., for example, is now hosting Chinese users’ iCloud accounts at a data center inside China, claiming to comply with the local law. This gives the Big Brothers in China easy access to user’s information.
As George Orwell wrote in 1984, “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” Media serves as a propaganda tool for mind control in a communist society. When Beijing has a free rein to spread messages around the world that, by justifying censorship and oppression, undermine our common humanity, innocent people might be deceived, and these self-serving lies consumed as “truth.”
What the world needs now, more than ever, is truthful information and the right to freedom of conscience, expression, and association. The poet and scholar John Milton said it best in an address in 1644 before the English Parliament, and later printed in the pamphlet “Areopagitica”: “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”
Peter Zhang contributed this article which was published first on EET. Peter is a researcher of political economy in China and East Asia. He is a graduate of Beijing International Studies University, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and Harvard Kennedy School as a Mason Fellow.