Framing Falun Gong: Xinhua News Agency’s Coverage of the New Religious Movement in China

Chiung Hwang Chen. Asian Journal of Communication. Volume 15, Issue 1. March 2005.

Religious Culture in Contemporary China

Falun Gong caught the eyes of the Beijing leadership when more than 10,000 of its practitioners gathered at the Zhongnanhai government compound in Beijing on April 25, 1999. It attracted the attention of the world when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) started cracking down on the group three months later, claiming this to be the most serious political incident since the student uprising at Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. Scholars have attempted to contextualize the cultural, political, and economic climate in contemporary China that allowed this group to rise in a relatively short period and to assess the causes of the CCP’s nationwide campaign oppressing the group. Relatively little attention, however, has been paid to exploring the media’s role in supporting the government’s cause in this campaign. This study examines journalistic narrative and framing of Falun Gong as a social threat in one news organization’s attempt to legitimize the government’s crackdown against the group. Although the economic reforms and political relaxation since the 1980s might have expanded the media’s latitude, the press, especially state-owned media outlets, still functions as an agent for the Beijing regime in important political and social issues. This paper shows how journalists, through news frames, construct particular parameters within which to assess the ‘reality’ about Falun Gong.

Mao Zedong established an atheistic Communist state in 1949 after defeating Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalists during the Chinese civil war. To build a new China, Mao unleashed the Cultural Revolution in 1966, breaking the ‘Four Olds’. Religion at this time was catastrophically affected; all churches, mosques, and temples were secularized or closed. Marxism-Leninism-Maoism became the only ideology/religion allowed in China. After Mao died in 1976, Deng Xiaoping deemphasized ideological struggle and allowed a rebirth of religion in China. The Constitution of 1982 recognized Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism as lawful religions in China. The new constitution asserts people’s rights to religious freedom; it defines such rights within a narrow scope, however. First, by naming specific denominations, the constitution excludes all other belief systems and categorizes them as ‘cults’. Second, with the ‘Five Great Religions’, the attitude of the state is simply tolerant; it does not facilitate the growth of any religious groups. Believers are allowed to assemble, but prohibited from proselytizing. Third, practice of religion is strictly subordinate to the party line. Official regulations require religious bodies to register with the government and only those that accept the state ideology are permitted to register; others are deemed illegal. Christian groups are required to break ties with overseas churches and accept orders from the state (Lambert; Leung). Many groups have refused such institutional and ideological control and have simply gone underground.

The Rise of Falun Gong

Falun Gong is a relatively new part of the social landscape of China. Li Hongzhi combined traditional Chinese thought and physical exercises into Falun Gong in 1992. The literal translation of the term ‘Falun Gong’ is ‘Law Wheel Practice/Exercise’. Law refers to Buddhist doctrine/truth, or Dharma. In Chuen Falun (Turning the Wheel of Law), Li explains that Falun Gong is a combination of Buddhist and Taoist philosophies and meditative traditions, together with Chinese breathing exercises (qigong) and martial arts. To Ying, Falun Gong encompasses every feature of religion, such as a charismatic leader, well-defined doctrines, organizational structure, and rituals. Li, however, does not seek to make Falun Gong into a religion because in an atheistic state religion is viewed as the synonym of superstition. At the time of the government’s crackdown on the group in 1999, Falun Gong claimed 100 million followers, with 70 million in China and 30 million overseas.

The political, economic, and social environment in China allowed Falun Gong to grow in a short period of time. Politically, contemporary China faces an ideological crisis as many people no longer believe in Marxism/Maoism and need something to fill the void. Although the CCP hoped that religion would eventually die out in China when the older generation passed away, it did not happen. In fact, all religious groups, legal or illegal, are experiencing revitalization, attracting tremendous amounts of conversion after 50 years of Communist rule. According to the 1997 White Paper on the Freedom of Religious Belief in China, the five legal religious denominations together claim over 100 million believers (Wong). Xiao asserts that such dissatisfaction with ruling party ideology and practice results from economic reform during the leadership of both Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin. Mass layoffs from state-owned enterprises, official corruption, and the gap between rich and poor all drive people toward religion for comfort. Some argue that the growth of Falun Gong also derives from the popularity of qigong, especially among the elderly, in a time of medical reform that shifted the heavy burden of medical expenses from the state toward citizens (Leung; Lowe). Ying claims that when a society is experiencing dramatic social and moral change, religious groups, such as Falun Gong, can provide stability (see also Leung).

Chinese leaders view the growth of Falun Gong as a threat to the Beijing regime in both numerical and ideological terms. The non-religious claim has made Falun Gong attractive not only to ordinary citizens, but also to an estimated 30 million of the 55-60 million CCP members—members who are not supposed to affiliate with any religious belief. Ching (13) argues that Beijing feels that Falun Gong was ‘competing for popularity with the party’ and that is ‘an unpardonable crime’. Ideologically, as Xiao asserts, Falun Gong’s unorthodox message about the supremacy of divine power over human agency challenges atheistic Marxism/Maoism. Many Communists even pay more loyalty to Falun Gong than to the Party (Ying). Historian David Ownby thus claims that Falun Gong is threatening to the Chinese government because the movement ‘denies [the CCP] the sole right to define the meaning of Chineseness’ (quoted in Sanghvi: 8). Seeing the potential replacement of the old ideology, orthodox Communist leaders condemn the movement as ‘more … treason than heresy’ (Lowe: 214).

Some argue that is it not the number of Falun Gong followers but the efficiency of the organization that frightens the regime. The Zhongnanhai sit-in demonstrated the group’s ability to effectively mobilize people from all layers in society and stage large-scale concerted actions (Kindopp; Perry; Tong; Xiao). Between April 25 and July 27, 1999, the organization mounted 307 protest demonstrations against various government branches and media organizations. These tactics, ironically, mimic Mao Zedong’s revolutionary style (Perry; Sanghvi). Such mass-mobilizing ability has been lost in the contemporary Communist Party. The Falun Gong protest shamed the Chinese leaders because the organization is, as Xiao (128) sees it, ‘more efficient, more combative, and more appealing’ to the Chinese people than the CCP; this ‘was enough [for the government] to condemn the sect’.

Perry points to China’s rich traditions of resistance and revolution, arguing that religious groups often connected themselves to the people’s rebellions against the existing government; the Confucian/Mencian concept of a Tianming, or ‘Mandate of Heaven’, was often installed in such uprisings. Perry argues that the Chinese government is very much aware of this history and deeply fears Falun Gong’s ability to mobilize the masses, especially in a time when the Communist leaders ‘find themselves ideologically adrift and presiding over an increasingly moribund party apparatus’ (2001: 171). To the Beijing leadership, an effective crackdown on Falun Gong thus is urgently necessary to prevent the recurrence of history and to prove that the ‘Mandate of Heaven’ is still on its side.

Marxist Press with Chinese Characteristics?

Chinese news media have traditionally been characterized by means of the ‘Soviet Communist Theory of the press’ (Siebert, Peterson & Schramm). Even until close to the end of last century, Lambeth (1995) still insisted that China, like Cuba and North Korea, continued the Communist press system. Many scholars, however, question such outdated, ideologically biased characterization, arguing that the Chinese press during the post-Mao era has transformed itself into a non-normative model (see Huang; Ostini & Fung). Others point out that since the 1980s, media organizations in China have reflected the ideological shifts implicit in economic reform and tried to define a new role for themselves in society. Zhao (292), for example, asserts that the Chinese news media’s ‘political role as the Party’s mouthpiece has been increasingly eroded by ever more powerful pressures for commercial success’. Lee: 561), however, cautions against such liberal interpretations of the contemporary Chinese press system, claming that although the power of the market has influenced the nature of ‘command journalism, … the existence of a market economy does not guarantee press freedom’. Lee points out that press freedom and profit extend only to ‘politically safe’ and ‘socially useful’ news genres. Zhou He agrees, calling such a contradictory market-Party-oriented media system a ‘socialist face’ with a ‘capitalist body’, or ‘Party Publicity Inc’ (see also Yu; Zhao). Chan’s research confirms this notion. In analyzing government’s media policy, he finds that Chinese media have moved away from a propaganda model toward hegemony, allowing the media free expression within certain political parameters. Chan, however, points out that propaganda returns when important political issues are involved and cites the coverage of Falun Gong as the prime example of such an intense propaganda effort. I likewise find this to be the case, as I explain below. Nevertheless, recognizing that the media followed the government’s line in this case is only part of the story; examining the particular narratives and news frames used by the media adds important insight.

Journalistic Narrative and News Frame

Hans Kellner argues that historical events or ‘facts’ contain little meaning in and of themselves. Through literary strategies, historians connect events together to establish meanings. The telling of news is not much different from history in these respects. Journalists are not annalists or chroniclers. They do not simply record events; they write stories (Bell) and interpret events (Schudson). Fiske (129) explains that narrative in news stories connects events together and ‘create consequence out of sequence’ in a meaningful and understandable way. Therefore, journalists mold ‘facts’ within a limited number of ‘narrative frameworks’ (Olasky) or ‘culturally specific story telling codes’ (Bird & Dardenne) to promote certain social values. As Zelizer suggests, journalism is as important socially for the ways it constructs meaningful communities, and communities of meaning, as for its attempts to dispassionately inform about events.

But whose story is being told or what kind of community does journalistic discourse promote? Journalists’ rhetorical decisions are never neutral (Mumby). Journalists’ literary techniques inescapably carry political and ideological implications (González). Each interpretation of the world, or narrative through which the world is read, serves some purposes more than others. Every story teaches/confirms certain moral vales, or ‘moralize[s] reality’, as White puts it. The structure ‘is neither natural nor arbitrary’, but represents a choice with significant implications for its meaning (Wald: 254; see also Kellner). Omissions are as important as inclusions for a story to support or create a certain kind of reality and viewpoint. Ideology has inescapably been behind the choice of what to include and what to leave out in a story. Frus, therefore, concludes that ‘all decisions [relating to how to tell a story] are political ones’ (1994: 114).


This study examines news frames in the coverage of Falun Gong that create a certain sense of reality about the group. Scholars, such as Reese, Gandy, and Grant, point out that news frames refer to narrative devices and structures that are used repeatedly over time to tell news stories. Because of their persistence, news frames affect how audiences understand issues by presenting a narrow range within which audiences think about certain phenomena (D’Angelo). While many may regard news framing primarily as a paradigm utilizing quantitative content analysis, Paul D’Angelo argues that news framing constitutes a multiparadigmatic research program, accommodating a wide range of theories, methods, and techniques in analyzing the construction, dissemination, and effects of news frames.

I chose Xinhua News Agency as the primary source for this analysis because of its importance in providing wire service to media organizations in both China and the world. It is the only news agency in China and is also a government-owned entity. In fact, all of the most important, more established, and widely circulated media remain under the direct control of the government. To provide better understanding of coverage from the Zhongnanhai protest in Beijing through the government’s crackdown on Falun Gong, this study explores Xinhua news from April 1 to December 31, 1999. The reason to start a few weeks before the protest was to determine whether Falun Gong was newsworthy then. The Lexis/Nexis database yielded 309 news items about Falun Gong during this time period, excluding news highlights, photo lists, and repeated stories. I find, not too surprisingly, that this part of the Chinese media still upholds government ideology, a situation that approximates a lapdog theory of press systems. I employed discourse analysis within the framing program to provide fine-grained insight on how journalists told the story of Falun Gong and the government crackdown. I examine what D’Angelo calls ‘a frame construction flow’, or how journalists construct frames in news stories, in the coverage of Falun Gong. I argue that Xinhua fulfilled its lapdog function by changing its coverage about Falun Gong and telling a persuasive story to serve the cultural values that the government desires. More specifically, I would like to show the power of journalistic frame building in supporting the government position in cracking down on the movement.

Timing and the Government Storyline

This study finds a strong link between government policy and reported news. Table 1 provides a timeline of the important events during the period of study.

Table 1 Important Dates in the Chinese Government’s Crackdown of Falun Gong in 1999

April 25

10,000 Falun Gong practitioners sit in at the Zhongnanhai government compound in Beijing
July 22 The Chinese government officially bans Falun Gong
July 29 The Chinese government issues a nationwide wanted circular to arrest Li Hongzhi, the leader of Falun Gong
August 18 The Chinese government defines ‘cult’
September 9 The US State Department denounces China’s ban on Falun Gong
October 30 A new law passes banning all cults
December 7 US President Bill Clinton criticizes China’s violation of human rights in oppressing Falun Gong
December 26 Four Falun Gong leaders, Li Chang, Wang Zhiwen, Ji Liewu, and Yao Jie, were sentenced to 18, 16, 12, and 7 years, respectively

Even though the mass protest occurred in late April, the Chinese government did not take action for nearly three months. Figure 1 indicates that, parallel to the government’s action, Xinhua produced only two stories between the protest and the ban. Yet as soon as the CCP proclaimed Falun Gong illegal on July 22, the news agency exploded with coverage about the group and the ban, producing 100 news items during the last nine days of July and 91 articles the following month. The coverage of the crackdown was disrupted during the period from half a month before to half a month after the 50th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China on October 1. After that, the amount of the coverage remained significant—although not as high as at the beginning of the campaign—until the end the year.

Figure 2 shows that government officials and experts are the two major news sources, followed by the media and former Falun Gong practitioners. Media self-reference includes not only reference to other news organizations’ publications, but also Xinhua‘s own articles in support of government action. Editorials in the government-owned People’s Daily are the most cited news source, followed by Xinhua‘s own commentaries. Among sources used, none expressed any disagreement with the government. The fact that there are no current Falun Gong practitioners quoted or any opposing comments presented points to the relationship between Xinhua and the Chinese government. In this case, the agency functions as a governmental mouthpiece instead of responding to (Western) journalistic professional standards of objectivity, fairness, and balance.

Xinhua‘s coverage of Falun Gong changed dramatically before and after the government’s decision to ban the group. As mentioned earlier, more than 10,000 Falun Gong practitioners gathered in front of the Zongnanhai central government compound in Beijing on April 25, 1999. Xinhua reported the event two days later, providing background about an earlier Falun Gong protest in Tianjin City, during which practitioners protested a magazine article that accused Falun Gong of being harmful, especially to young people. The Xinhua article reports that Falun Gong practitioners in Tianjin and other areas, ‘upon hearing some rumors’, came to gather around the Zongnanhai compound. Xinhua then describes the reaction of Chinese authorities in dealing with the protest:

[They] listened to [the protesters] patiently, and did some persuasion … [and] issued an announcement, calling on the practitioners not to believe in rumors, but to observe related regulations and jointly maintain the capital’s public order. The gathering disappeared after persuasion work on the evening [of] the same day. (‘Chinese official’, April 27, 1999)

The article presents only the official view of the story, without providing perspectives from Falun Gong practitioners, onlookers, or frontline law enforcement personnel. Other than that, however, it is rather a straightforward description of how the government handled the protest. Citing an unidentified official, Xinhua reports that the government ‘[has] never prohibited any health fitness activities’ and that ‘different views and opinions are allowable, and can also be reported through normal channels according to law’. Although it transmits the view that mass protest will ‘jeopardize social stability’ and the ‘hard-won’ ‘political, economic and social situation’, the article (as well as the government) does not deem Falun Gong illegal or harmful. Rather, it is simply a health activity.

Xinhua did not run another story on Falun Gong until June 14. This might indicate that neither the government nor the news agency considered the April 25 protest a big deal. The purpose of the second article was to clarify ‘rumors’ that the Chinese government was about to curb Falun Gong and that Communist Party members who practiced Falun Gong would be expelled from their positions. The article quotes a CCP official:

‘The rumors are completely baseless and were made to confuse people’, said the official. ‘The purpose for spreading the rumors was to incite large gatherings, create chaos and disrupt social stability’. He said most Falun Gong practitioners cited their disbelief in and refrained from spreading the rumors …

He reaffirmed that governments at all levels have never prohibited physical fitness activities. The Chinese people are totally free in selecting any form of exercises, adding that different opinions are normal in this respect. (‘Official on rumors’, June 14, 1999)

Xinhua again supports the perspective that Falun Gong is a form of exercise and does not mention or hint at the illegal status of the group.

News coverage changed significantly when the CCP announced its ban on Falun Gong on July 22. Xinhua suddenly paid extraordinary attention to the event, producing 15 news items on that day, 20 the next day, 11 on the third day, and at least one or two news items almost every day for the following months. The tone of the articles also changed noticeably from relatively neutral to completely negative. Corresponding to and helping to legitimize the government’s ban, during this period, Xinhua repeatedly employed certain narrative frames to persuade readers that Falun Gong should indeed be outlawed. The following section analyzes these modes of persuasion (Powers & Lee, analyze some of these strategies in more direct relation to formal discursive categories).

A Political Struggle between Materialism and Idealism

As mentioned earlier, the ideological crisis subsequent to economic reform has created a vacuum in China’s belief system. The sudden rise of Falun Gong, in Chinese leaders’ view, poses an ideological threat to the regime. Coverage in Xinhua reflected this attitude, calling the campaign ‘a serious political struggle’ that the CCP has to win (‘Urgent eds’, July 22, 1999). Xinhua cites government officials in article after article to posit a binary opposition between materialism and idealism, Marxism/Maoism and Falun Gong, atheism and theism, orthodox and heresy, or as we might also say, the One and the Other. One article, for example, cites an official circular:

Marxist dialectic materialism and historical materialism represent the world outlook and methodology of the proletariat, and … the scientific theories of Marxism established on the basis of this worldview should serve as the spiritual pillar of communists. Falun Dafa as created by Li Hongzhi preaches idealism and theism and denies all scientific truth, and thus is absolutely contradictory to the fundamental theories and principles of Marxism. (‘Urgent eds’, July 22, 1999; see also e.g. ‘Major mass’, July 24, 1999; ‘Non-Communist parties’, July 23, 1999; ‘People’s Daily‘, July 25, 1999)

The article thus suggests that Chinese people, especially CCP members, should be educated in Marxism to enhance ‘their political sensitivity and … capabilities’ and ‘to differentiate right from wrong’ (‘Urgent eds’, July 22, 1999; see also ‘Communist youth’, July 23, 1999; ‘PLA, armed’, July 24, 1999).

Some articles condemn Li’s doomsday theory as not only ridiculous, but evidence of treason. Citing an article by the Policy, Law and Regulation Department, Xinhua reports that Li pronounces that he ‘is the sole “savior”‘ who can save mankind from a future catastrophe (‘Analysis’, July 23, 1999). It is exactly such claims of supernatural power that irritate and threaten the Communist Party. By asserting himself as ‘the rightful ruler’, the article argues, Li seizes power of the established and ‘overruns the government and the law’ (‘Analysis’, July 23, 1999; see also ‘People’s Daily‘, July 22, July 25, 1999). Or as another article suggests, ‘If Li Hongzhi’s heretical theories spread, the party’s foundation will be shaken, and the great cause will be undermined’ (‘People’s Daily‘, July 25, 1999). For the survival of the party, Xinhua reports, party members must ‘hold high the great banner of Marxism’ and ‘guard against the erosion of theism’ (‘Party members’, July 26, 1999) because, as the People’s Liberation Army puts it, ‘only Marxism can save China and only the Chinese Communist Party can lead us to accomplish the great cause of reinvigorating the Chinese nation’ (‘PLA, armed’, July 24, 1999).

This Marxism-vs.-Falun Gong reasoning did not last long, however. As Perry points out, the Chinese government might have realized that by employing such rhetoric, the CCP actually exaggerates the importance of Falun Gong and puts the group on equal footing with the Party itself. The narrative of the ban as a crusade for party survival generally disappeared by the end of July. Instead, a war between ‘science’ and ‘feudal superstition’ became the key thread of the campaign. Many articles attempted to discredit Falun Gong by associating the group’s beliefs with ignorance and superstition. Xinhua‘s reports create a logic: Marxism=materialism=atheism=science; on the other hand, Falun Gong=idealism=theism=superstition. Xinhua utilizes numerous scientists, astronomers, and even athletes to show the folly of Falun Gong’s worldview. One article, for example, asserts that ‘Li usually belittles great scientists like Charles Darwin and Issac Newton, although he himself is just a junior middle school graduate who doesn’t know the difference between an organism and minerals’ (‘Analysis’, July 22, 1999). Xinhua thus advises people to use science as a ‘mirror’ to ‘expose any monster’, or more precisely, ‘the fallacies of Falun Gong’ (‘Chinese scientist’, July 26, 1999; also see e.g. ‘China intensifies’, July 28, 1999; ‘PLA technical’, August 9, 1999; ‘Using scientific’, July 31, 1999).

One article perhaps serves as one of the most effective arguments against Falun Gong, claiming Li’s doomsday theory and positioning himself as the savior of the world

fundamentally deny the progressive tendency of human history, deny the tremendous accomplishments China has attained in the two decades of reform and opening-up, and deny the significant changes and progress of the Chinese people’s ideological and mental outlook. (‘People’s Daily‘, July 27, 1999)

Therefore, scientific research, conflated with Marxist/Maoist ideology, is given a political mission as ‘the ideological weapon’ not only ‘to strip the mask from all pseudo-sciences and any other idealistic trickery’ (‘Non-communist parties’, July 23, 1999; see also ‘People’s Daily‘, July 27, 1999), but also to promote ‘socialist modernization construction’, according to the Minister of Science and Technology (‘Noted scientists’, July 24, 1999).

Li as Malicious Fallacy

In order to legitimize the ban against the group, the CCP employed various schemes to discredit Falun Gong’s leader Li Hongzhi. One strategy, as reflected in Xinhua‘s coverage, was to demystify Li by showing readers that he is merely a common person who possesses no supernatural power. On the first day of the ban, an article provided a timeline of Li’s life: he was born in 1952, went to school between 1960 and 1969, worked on a Liberation Army stud farm and played trumpet in a band. He was discharged from military service in 1982 and found a job in a cereals and oil company. He quit his job and began practicing qigong in 1991; one year later, he started teaching Falun Gong (‘Life and times’, July 22, 1999). Another article suggests that Li’s family and associates believe Li is ‘just an ordinary person’ and his ‘miraculous abilities were “nonsense” or “impossible” or something they’d never seen’ (‘Urgent life’, July 22, 1999). Xinhua also quotes a midwife who helped with a complicated delivery of Li, saying that ‘without my help, Li and his mother would have been in danger 47 years ago’ (‘Li Hongzhi’s mother’s’, July 28, 1999). Because Li is only a common man, Xinhua reasons, his Falun Gong is nothing extraordinary, but merely a combination of two qigong forms and some Thai dance movements (‘Urgent eds’, July 22, 1999; ‘Urgent life’, July 22, 1999).

Many news stories attempt to demonize Li by ‘exposing’ his ‘dark secrets’, arguing that the Falun Gong leader is ‘a braggart, a liar and a swindler’ (‘Person in’, July 30, 1999). One article, for example, argues that Li used Falun Gong to make ‘a breath-taking sum’ of money ‘on which he has not paid taxes’ (‘Li Hongzhi evades’, August 12, 1999); another one adds that ‘investigators have found Li has several luxury houses and limousines’ (‘Urgent life’, July 22, 1999; see also ‘Li Hongzhi defrauds’, August 6, 1999; ‘New evidence’, August 5, 1999; ‘True face’, July 22, 1999). Xinhua also argues that Li’s behavior does not measure up to his teaching of truthfulness, benevolence, and tolerance. One story points to Li’s medical invoices, asking why Li, as the Falun Gong master who claims that the exercise can prevent and cure illness, still got sick. It also suggests that while Li told practitioners not to take medicine, he himself went to doctors for cures (‘Falun Gong’, July 27, 1999). Some assert Li’s untruthfulness by accusing him of fabricating his birthday to coincide with the birthday of Sakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism (‘China’s theoretical’, July 26, 1999; ‘Chinese magazine’, July 30, 1999; ‘Chinese scientists’, July 26, 1999). Some argue that Li is intolerant because he incited practitioners to attack the government and media (‘Chinese scientists’, July 26, 1999). Others posit the death toll of Falun Gong followers and call it a ‘bloody lesson’. They accuse Li of ‘doing evil instead of spreading benevolence’ and ‘harming people instead of saving them’ (‘People’s Daily‘, July 28, 1999; see also ‘Public security’, July 29, 1999).

Because the Chinese government views the Zongnanhai protest as ‘the most serious political incident since the 1989 political turmoil’ (‘Li Hongzhi’s role’, August 12, 1999), Li’s involvement with the sit-in becomes a crucial element in deciding his crime. Quoting a People’s Daily commentary, Xinhua pronounced on August 12 that ‘the truth has come out’, detailing Li’s schedule between April 19 and 25 to argue that he orchestrated the protest (‘The truth’, August 12, 1999; see also ‘Behind-scene’, August 12, 1999; ‘True face’, July 22, 1999; ‘Urgent life’, July 22, 1999). Quoting People’s DailyXinhua reports that the incident provides a ‘glimpse of the true face of Li and the sect’s ulterior political motives’ (‘The truth’, August 12, 1999)—to create ‘a mystical and horrible atmosphere in an attempt to erode the minds of his followers, disturb public order, and sabotage social stability’ (‘Falun Gong’, July 28, 1999). Therefore, Xinhua suggests, to contain the ‘evil person who has had an extremely disastrous effect on society’ (‘Life and times’, July 22, 1999), ‘continuous efforts are needed to carry the struggle against the illegal Falun Gong cult through to the end’ (‘The truth’, August 12, 1999).

An ‘Evil Cult’ with Tight Organization

Rhetorical strategies employed in news coverage often, if not always, tie the organizational structure of Falun Gong to arguments concerning law and stability. As mentioned earlier, the Chinese government recognizes only five specific religious denominations, while others are deemed illegal. Most articles signify the illegal status of Falun Gong and try to prove that this unlawful group in fact is a ‘highly organized, fully functional … organization’ (‘True face’, July 22, 1999; see also ‘Falun Gong’, July 30, 1999). One article dissects the group, asserting that it is a five-layer entity: from top to bottom are the general station, sub-branches, first-level and second-level instruction centers, and exercising centers. Xinhua also uses the group’s handwritten instructions, appointment letters, and insider informants to show evidence of Falun Gong organization (‘Appointment letter’, August 3, 1999; ‘Falun Gong’, August 10, 1999; ‘Handwritten instructions’, July 31, 1999). Mass protests, Xinhua suggests, are the means for Falun Gong to disrupt social stability. Tong argues that the question of whether Falun Gong is a formal organization determines political and legal legitimacy of the government’s crackdown. If the CCP could prove that Falun Gong was indeed well organized, it would be easier to argue that the group’s protest rallies were orchestrated, rather than the spontaneous acts Falun Gong members claim they were.

Another narrative strategy used in Xinhua stories to condemn Falun Gong is to convince readers that the group is indeed a cult and destructive. Powers and Lee: 268) argue that ‘once a phenomenon is placed into a category of “equivalents,” people tend to treat the individual instance so labeled as they would any other member of the category’; thus reclassifying Falun Gong from a benign to an evil and illegal category was one of the most important discursive moves in suppressing Falun Gong. Some articles assert that Falun Gong ‘deceived many innocent people and inflicted enormous harm on their physical and mental health’ (‘Officials, employees’, July 23, 1999; see also ‘Chinese physicist’, July 26, 1999; ‘Ministries urge’, July 25, 1999); others compile statistics to show the effect. One article, for example, is headlined ‘, reported in founder’s home province’ (’59 cases’, July 26, 1999). One reports that ‘many [Falun Gong followers] have become psychopathic, and in 1997 and 1998, a fifth of the patients in the psychopath ward of a hospital were Falun Gong practitioners’ (‘Analysis’, July 22, 1999; see also ‘Falun Gong’, August 2, 1999).

Many articles tell horrible stories about how practitioners killed themselves and others, or died because they refused to seek medical help. One passage typifies such news coverage.

Ma Jianmin, a retired worker from the Huabei oilfield in North China, was often in a trance and became distraught after two years of practicing Falun Gong. Ma insisted that he had a ‘wheel of law’ in his stomach. Then, one day in 1998, Ma died at home after he cut his abdomen with a pair of scissors to look for the so-called wheel of law.

… Bai Changyu, a section chief geologist at a coal mine in Northeast China’s Fushun City, refused to see doctor or take any medicine when he was sick after he began practicing Falun Gong in 1997. Bai became seriously ill in April 1999, but still refused medical treatment until he finally died, still holding the belief that Li Hongzhi would come to help him. (‘Falun Gong’, July 22, 1999; see also e.g. ‘Chinese magazine’, July 30, 1999; ‘Tragic stories’, July 23, 1999)

Similar stories (and often the same stories) accompanying the death toll of Falun Gong practitioners repeatedly appear in news coverage to show the harm. Serious questions about the truth of these stories have been raised (Schechter). Regardless of the tales’ truthfulness, the way they are told raises credibility concerns. Because Xinhua reporters often do not include attribution to sources, one wonders whether these journalists talked to people involved or simply reported the rumors they heard. Sometimes even if sources are quoted, some sound fishy and some simply repeat the official line. One article, for example, quotes a former follower as saying, ‘Li Hongzhi has advocated truthfulness, benevolence and tolerance among his followers; actually he was only using these banners to disguise his ulterior political motives’ (‘Insiders criticize’, August 8, 1999). Perhaps when it comes to propaganda, the accuracy of the quotes is not as crucial as the message itself.

Xinhua also emphasizes Falun Gong’s illegitimacy by connecting it with ‘cults’, again, apparently with less accuracy than political effect (Schechter). The agency did not use the term ‘cult’ to describe the group until July 30. A few days later, Xinhua cited an article in Wenru magazine and suggested that ‘a cult is not religion, but a kind of evil force in the disguise of religion’. It claimed Falun Gong is ‘an illegal organization with every feature of a cult’, and associated the group with the People’s Temple, David Koresh’s group and Aum Shinrikyo’s organization (‘Falun Gong’, August 9, 1999). Nine days later, Ye Xiaowen, director of State Administration of Religious Affairs, officially defined the term in a popular political TV talk show. Xinhua quotes Ye that ‘a cult is characterized by cheating, madness, fallacy, secretive organizations and activities, and anti-government and anti-social motivations’ and again reinforced the notion that Falun Gong ‘has all the features of a cult’ (‘Top religious’, August 18, 1999).

The Success of the Campaign

From the day after the crackdown, Xinhua has consistently reported on the effect of the campaign against Falun Gong. Stories on the government’s confiscation and destruction of the group’s publications appear regularly (‘Beijing destroys’, July 28, 1999; ‘China confiscates’, July 28, 1999; ‘China cracks down’, July 27, 1999; ‘China destroys’, July 29, 1999). Xinhua also reports that the ban has resulted in the boom of science book sales and science research (‘Falun Gong’, July 28, 1999). Philosophically, support for the government’s action, according to Xinhua, flooded in not only from CCP organs, the military, civil servants, and media, but also from non-Communist parties in China, academic and science circles, health and legal professionals, ordinary people, or virtually, as the agency tirelessly puts it, people from ‘all walks of life’ (‘Taiwan affairs’, July 25, 1999). Even religious groups in China pronounce that ‘the ban will not affect the country’s freedom of religious belief’ (‘China’s Christian’, August 3, 1999; see also ‘China’s Catholics’, August 3, 1999; ‘Chinese Buddhist’, August 3, 1999).

Article after article shows that people ‘have awakened’ because of the media’s exposure of the group’s ‘true face’. A typical article suggests:

Wang Shengli, a retired cadre in the city of Fuyang in East China’s Anhui Province, was a Falun Gong practitioner and a local leader in the illegal organization, but he has given his support to the ban. He says that, after watching the CCTV special report on Li Hongzhi, he got a clearer understanding of Falun Gong and its evil political purposes. Wang has helped local governments teach people to break away from Falun Gong. Wang is just one of the thousands of former Falun Gong practitioners who have changed their minds … (‘Falun Gong’, August 3, 1999; see also e.g. ‘Falun Gong’, August 4, 1999; ‘Falun Gong’, August 9, 1999; ‘Insiders criticize’, August 8, 1999)

This is a selective, one-sided story with a happy ending. Wong points out that during this ‘well-orchestrated nation-wide crackdown’, about 50,000 Falun Gong followers, including 1,200 Party cadres, were rounded up by the police (see also Ching). Although most of them were later released, Perry claims that thousands were sent to labor camps, hundreds to prison, dozens may have died in conjunction with the crackdown. The Falun Gong website and Western media also provide reports of how the Chinese police tortured followers and forced them to ‘confess’ and sign repentance papers (Falun Gong website, 1999). Current practitioners’ voices are totally absent in Xinhua‘s accounts, however.

The coverage of the Chinese government’s response to the international backlash on the crackdown also deserves mention. Western news media report that human rights supporters mobilized against the Chinese government’s handling of Falun Gong in many parts of the world. Xinhua never mentions any of these protests. In an article about Jiang Zemin’s interview with the French press, Xinhua evades human rights issues, concentrating only on Jiang’s statement about Falun Gong’s cultish characteristics and its ‘anti-social, anti-government, and anti-human nature’. The article claims that the Chinese government is in fact in line with world governments, arguing that China is doing the same thing as the US government did to the Davidan group, Japan did to Aum Shinrikyo, and European countries did to the Solar Temple (‘Jiang comments’, October 25, 1999; ‘Jiang’s visit’, September 16, 1999).

News coverage reflects the CCP’s sensitivity toward US criticism on the issue. Quoting Chinese Foreign Ministry personnel, Xinhua claims that US accusations of China’s persecution of religious groups ‘is groundless and wantonly interferes in China’s internal affairs’ (‘U.S. report’, September 9, 1999; see also ‘Spokeswoman’, November 8, 1999; ‘U.S. charges’, October 28, 1999; ‘U.S. Senate’, November 4, 1999). Despite inconsistency on whether Falun Gong is religious or not, the CCP argues that either way the US’s criticism ‘is a gratuitous attack on China’s religious policy’ that may harm Sino-US relations (‘U.S. report’, September 9, 1999). These articles suggest that the ban exists ‘strictly on the basis of law’ and is not only supported by the Chinese people, but also by ‘most countries’, without specifically naming any (‘China’s stance’, October 28, 1999; ‘U.S. Senate’, November 4, 1999). Xinhua also accuses the United States of holding a ‘double standard’ in dealing with cults (‘China strongly’, November 19, 1999; ‘Chinese ambassador’, November 29, 1999; ‘Evildoing of’, November 6, 1999). Quoting Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue, the news agency reports that ‘being merciful to an evil cult means tramping on the human rights of all citizens’ (‘China’s stance’, October 28, 1999).


The sentencing of the four Falun Gong leaders and the public ‘support’ for the legal decision closed the campaign against the group in the old millennium. The campaign has continued into the new millennium, although not as vigorously as in its early stages. To some, the crackdown has been ‘something of a public embarrassment’ and shows ‘a deeply frightened and insecure central leadership’ (Perry: 173). Xinhua served very much a lapdog function in the Chinese government’s anti-Falun Gong campaign. Through narratives and organizing frames, Xinhua portrayed the group as ‘deviant’, ‘dangerous’, ‘evil’, and therefore an entity that needed to be contained.

Like any research paper, this study is limited to a certain length and scope. Here I am not able to address the whole framing process of Falun Gong in Xinhua‘s coverage (on the framing process, see D’Angelo). I focus only on the construction of news frames, and cannot systematically address issues of effectiveness and audience response. Nevertheless, I think a few points on possible effects are usefully mentioned. I believe that the possibility of largely successfully transmitted attitudes from the press to the readers exists in this case. My own unsystematic research on internet discussions and informal conversations with students from China about Falun Gong seem to suggest that the party line has been internalized by many. Exploring this apparent correspondence in more detail would be worthwhile. More theoretically, it has long been recognized that blatant propaganda does not always achieve its aim of persuading people of the correctness of a government’s viewpoint (Powell). People often tune out government lines repeated over and over. However, when it comes to issues on which people do not already have well-formed opinions, propaganda can possess some effectiveness. In these situations the framing structures employed may also be particularly important. News frames set parameters for issues such that it becomes difficult to conceptualize those issues beyond the terms of the frames. For example, it becomes difficult to assess Falun Gong outside the science/superstition or sage/charlatan dichotomies that news reports create, regardless of whether one believes the propaganda. In this sense, news reports structure a certain community of possible understandings, even if not all within the community agree precisely on all particular points. News frames at least establish the terms for debate.