A widely advertised dance performance this week (Feb. 8-14) at the California Center for the Arts, Escondido — tickets are $90 to $200 — and San Diego Civic Center (April 21-23) is actually part of an international right wing propaganda effort.
Images of a beautiful dancer in a midair leap grace the web and billboard ads for local performances of Shen Yun, one of eight touring companies with more than 480 members. The shows are said to be a blend of traditional Chinese dance, gymnastics, a live orchestra, and visually alluring projected images.
This year’s theme is “China before communism” explained by a curated image of the Tang Dynasty as the ultimate guidepost marking the “Golden Age” of Chinese culture.
Layered into the presentations are not-so-subtle messages about the evils of Chinese communism. Given that China is a competing super power seemingly on a path to conflict with the US and its allies, it’s easy to understand why the messaging isn’t an automatic turn off for many people.
Cultural tours are, after all, a recognized means of “soft” propaganda, coming into prominence during the cold war. The US, through the State Department and the CIA, sponsored everything from poetry magazines to art exhibitions as a means of convincing foreign audiences of the advantages held by Western Democracies.
Even the fact that these touring companies are affiliated with the Falun Gong, a cult-like group led by exiles doesn’t seem like a reason to a lot of folks not to experience the “wonders” of these presentations.
But the political implications of these tours go way beyond being an outward manifestation of an anti-communist Taoist meditation group. They aren’t the good guys; rather they are an example of two wrongs not equaling a right.
The Chinese government takes them seriously, since millions of its citizens were followers of Falun Gong until a crackdown in 1999 based on the premise the group had become a religion in violation of the state’s official policy of atheism.
From a Guardian profile:
- The real story of Shen Yun, however, begins as a story of religious repression. Falun Gong (sometimes called Falun Dafa) is a spiritual movement that emerged out of the “qigong boom” in China in the early 90s – an explosion of tai chi-like practices that claimed to promote health through specific movements and breathing. Falun Gong stood out from the many other forms of qigong for a couple of reasons.
- First, Falun Gong’s mysterious leader, Li Hongzhi, had not just created a set of specific exercises, but had mapped out an entire spiritual worldview that looked suspiciously like a religion.
- Second, by the late 90s it was becoming remarkably popular, with an estimated 70 million practitioners, including high-level members of the Communist party. To the Chinese government, the fact that a quasi-religious organisation stubbornly outside party control could inspire huge numbers of people to action was reason for concern. The seemingly harmless sight of middle-aged people exercising in the park began to look like a threat.
The core philosophy of Falun Gong is resurrection of a sanitized past. Scientific advances –including evolutionary theory and modern medicine– of past centuries are destroying the human race., according to Li Hongzi. His moral teachings –homosexuality makes one “unworthy of being human”, for instance– are close to or the same as those proffered by traditionalist versions of religions such as Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism. There are vague suggestions of a soon-to-come apocalyptic event where-in true believers will be saved.
Where Falun Gong deviates from righteous religiosity has to do with their beliefs about extraterrestrial entities intervening in human affairs.
In a 1999 interview with Time Magazine, Li Hongzhi said he is the sole salvation of humanity which has become corrupted by interdimensional aliens who have overtaken the bodies of humans for the past century and which have driven us into corruption by promoting scientific progress throughout the 20th century.
Li teaches that there are 10,000 supernormal powers attainable by the moraltranscendence of true believers. Practitioners are supposed to pass through various levels until they reach the state of “cultivation of a Buddha’s body”.
The dance troupe is said to be part of a funding mechanism for the Epoch Times, initially a vehicle for disseminating disparaging news about the Chinese regime. As social media outlets began cracking down on the reach of fake news outlets after the 2016 election, the paper stepped in to fill the void.
An NBC investigation emphasized the connection between the Epoch Times’ political bias and Falun Gong’s apocalyptic worldview. “Former practitioners of Falun Gong told NBC News that believers think the world is headed toward a judgment day, where those labeled ‘communists’ will be sent to a kind of hell, and those sympathetic to the spiritual community will be spared,” the article read. “Trump is viewed as a key ally in the anti-communist fight.”
All of this reverence for yesteryear, along with leaps of faith over logic, and belief in their invincibility make the group attractive to the domestic far right and vice versa. When NBC ran their expose, the Wall Street Journal jumped into the fray with an op-ed accusing it of being in line with Beijing’s propaganda.
The conspiracies of the Q movement, anti-vaxx conspiracies, and the fantastical exhortations of the former President and his followers have all found a home at the paper, which has had a dedicated social media team ripping off mainstream media news accounts and giving them a right wing twist.
From the Guardian:
- The principal goal of Epoch Times – now publishing in 36 countries under the supervision of a network of non-profits – is not to generate profit, he says, but to mount a long and broad “influence operation”. And the goal of that influence operation, in turn, is “to foment anti-CCP sentiment”.
- By leveraging the deep partisan polarization in US politics, and by tapping into a long tradition of anticommunism on the American right, according to Carusone, the outlets have sought to link Biden and the Democratic party to radical leftist movements like antifa, and then publish “anything that ties them to CCP influence”, however spurious…
- …Although there is no evidence of direct cooperation, they have already shown a willingness to echo anti-China messaging with the likes of the former Trump aide Steve Bannon and billionaire Chinese exile Guo Wengui, also known as Miles Kwok, who has financed Bannon’s activities through consulting contracts and donations.
The Epoch Times remains apart from the MAGA movement in that its direction and operation control comes via Dragon Springs, a 400-acre compound in upstate New York that houses temples, private schools and quarters where performers for the organization’s dance troupe, Shen Yun.
While it has a similar political outlook with the Trumpian right, it’s also an expression of political power for the organization and its leader. Its more outrageous articles are regularly boosted by Republican elected officials to give their fringe viewpoints credibility.
The Washington Times newspaper started out as a similar effort under the direction of Rev. Sung Yung Moon, who spent more than $2 billion on the project in its first two decades. It garnered support from Republican presidents like Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush, gaining acceptance among the broad conservative movement. The One America News (OAN) owes its existence to early support from the paper.
More importantly, Epoch Times shares the vision for a more authoritarian government in Washington. And a big part of that ambition from the right involves discrediting the institutions supportive of our current form of democracy.
The Shen Yun dancers aren’t extorting their audiences to ban books and fight gun safety measures; they don’t have to as part of a broader movement to undermine democracy. By not paying the (volunteer) performers, the troop serves as a fundraising vehicle supportive of all the right’s causes.
The funny thing about this is that, when you come down to it, the authoritarian utopia they seek differs from their international opponent only in the names at the top.
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