The Bigger Picture
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The Bigger Picture

China, a Cult, and the Alt-Right

The bizarre story of The Epoch Times, the far-right’s richest conspiracy machine

Elvert Barnes, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

If you’ve had the absolute displeasure of arguing with conspiracy theorists online, you might have been sent videos like this:

Screenshot by the author

These interviews can be insanely long, sometimes up to four hours, and usually feature an obscure journalist combing through video footage, searching for any frame where they can chant “See, Antifa!”

In the clip pictured above, military blogger Michael Yon cites his evidence of secret far-left forces organizing the Capitol attack as everything from participants handing out water bottles to protestors wearing black. Y’know, things that you see at every protest.

The channel trying to pass these rambles as journalism, Crossroads with Joshua Philipp, is just a small piece of the Epoch Times media group. Though the format of their shows is similar to InfoWars and OAN, their promotion of conspiracy theories, anti-vax propaganda, and pandemic denialism is both more subtle and promoted through a highly funded advertising machine.

The Epoch Times is bigger than many realize, but the Times itself and Joshua Philipp’s show aren’t their only media. They formerly ran a massive Facebook network, whose $9.5 million ad budget paid almost entirely for pro-Trump, anti-China, and Antifa scare ads. Seeing the writing on the wall when the news media began exposing their origins and propaganda, they created more than 600 fake pages to promote their content. Some had names like “Pure American Journalism,” and some even posed as journalists with AI-generated profile pictures. This led to their ban from advertising on the network, but they’re back at it again funding similarly veiled campaigns on YouTube.

So, how does a news outlet with almost no following before 2016 and an appetite for fringe conspiracies get this kind of budget, and who’s behind their bizarre operations?

Buckle up, this gets weird.

Falun Gong, the Scientology of China

Epoch Media Group is closely tied with Falun Gong, also known by the name Falun Dafa. They’re a religious group built in the early 90s around a Qigong-like practice who claim to center their beliefs around the principles of “truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance.” In reality, none of these are at their core, and Falun Gong instead has all the classic markings of a cult.

Megalomaniac leader? Check. The group’s founder Li Hongzhi, known as Master Li, claims to be able to levitate and followers are taught he can read their thoughts. Though it’s hard to tell his exact corporate role in Epoch, he’s promoted the paper as “our news” and his views on politics clearly influence it heavily.

Isolate compound? Check. They operate a 430-acre facility called Dragon Springs in rural New York, complete with hundreds of permanent residents, schools, and high-dollar performance facilities. They keep a full staff of security on deck 24/7 and steer media and onlookers far away. The place is reminiscent of Scientology’s “Gold Base,” but with the visual stylings of Chinese paganism rather than science fiction. We’ll come back to this one.

Like many cults, Falun Gong places a heavy emphasis on physical health and views its practices as an alternative to medical treatment, sometimes even pitching a cure to cancer. They rail against science, medicine, Western philosophy, and above all else, communism. This stems very largely from their segregationist views; Master Li teaches that races come from different gods, that mixed-race people are spiritually incomplete, and that communism was created by aliens, given to Europeans, and intentionally spread to China to separate it from Heaven.

They claim to be persecuted by the Communist Party of China, and this is true. The party banned the religion in 1999, and a few thousand practitioners have undergone harsh treatment in re-education camps, much like many Chinese Muslims and Christians. In return, Falun Gong has scaled up its claims of this persecution and used it as a PR stunt. Across the world in New York City, they regularly stage protests alleging that the party is rounding them up specifically for live organ harvest, and while China has been known to harvest organs from executed prisoners, little suggests the targeting of the Falun Dafa for this purpose, especially to the gruesome extent they suggest.

While a spiritual group financing thousands of pro-Trump pieces seems weird on the surface, given the beliefs of the Falun Dafa, it makes a lot of sense. Trump’s speeches demonize the Chinese government heavily, he has a pension for legitimizing conspiracy theories, and he regularly attacks political enemies as “radical communists”. In a strange way, the two are a match made in heaven. Not only did Falun Gong seize on an opportunity to promote its anti-CCP agenda, but it also built a mutually beneficial relationship with a political campaign supported by millions. Epoch gets a huge platform of viewers who already distrust China to preach propaganda to. Trump gets a credible-looking source to spread false headlines through, complete with White House reporters and free ads.

Trump expanded the market for conspiracy theories massively, but because The Epoch Times was only making about $3 million a year for most of his presidency, they couldn’t have paid for that Facebook advertising on their own. That’s where the cult’s free labor comes in, as well as its even stranger second business.

Shen Yun, Ballet with a Dark Side

Photo by Kilyan Sockalingum on Unsplash

Before the pandemic hit, you’d likely at some point encountered a brightly colored billboard featuring beautiful Chinese dancers, its headline reading: “Shen Yun- 5,000 Years of Civilization Reborn”.

This is perhaps where the story of Epoch and Falun Gong gets darkest. Shen Yun is a band of six production companies founded by Master Li that tours the world, using song and dance to portray a fabricated history of China, rebranding the barely 30-year-old “Dafa” as China’s historic religion. The show itself has plenty of its own oddities; neon lights over traditional Chinese sets, a tsunami with the face of Karl Marx, and a song beginning with “Atheism and evolution are deadly ideas” are some of the less subtle ones. The most unsettling thing about Shen Yun, however, is the cast itself.

Devout practitioners from Master Li’s circle are expected to do volunteer service for the religion. Some of these volunteers write for their ever-expanding media arms, many of which reach far beyond the official Epoch Times brand, but many more perform for Shen Yun, working morning to night performing meditation rituals and rehearsing without pay at the Dragon Springs compound. A short documentary by ABC features a defector, who was forced into the production as a teenager. Though only working on the show for a short time, she was publicly shamed so harshly by its director about her weight that she became severely anorexic. Worse yet, she was denied proper medical treatment.

It’s unclear exactly how much money Shen Yun makes for Falun Gong, but performers largely work for free and tickets sell for prices that compare to Broadway. I’d be willing to bet that this is how Epoch financed its advertising, as well as how Hongzhi has purchased his numerous homes and the compound itself.

Epoch’s New Plan

I mentioned earlier that Facebook banned The Epoch Times from paid promotion when they deleted its web of fake sites. Though their main page is still public and has more likes than Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh combined, most of their posts engage poorly these days. Some don’t even break a hundred likes, and in a desperate attempt for algorithm points, many of their new posts are inspirational videos and cute animals.

Still, Facebook is basically a dead medium for Epoch. Their new forte is YouTube, and they’ve gotten smarter about gaming the system. While their main channel only has about 400k subscribers, they directly claim ownership over three: Crossroads with Joshua Philipp, Facts Matter with Roman Balmakov, and American Thought Leaders- The Epoch Times. All are built with aesthetics that mimic more familiar Fox shows, and all three primarily target older men. As with their former Facebook network, Falun Gong hasn’t been transparent with the media they own, and as they did in those days, they’re spending an absurd amount on advertising.

Though each of Epoch’s public channels has garnered at least ten million views, most of these shows are relatively new. Two started in 2019, and Roman Balmakov only joined a week after the election was called for Biden.

Epoch’s shows don’t even account for half of all video media owned by Falun Gong. They run an even bigger YouTube and television network called New Tang Dynasty, which publishes almost entirely pro-Trump and anti-China stories, contrasted against the concoction of real news and conspiratorial content Epoch uses to convey legitimacy.

NTD’s main channel has a quarter-billion views on its own, and it’s also more public than Epoch about its subsidiary channels, nearly all of which are larger than Epoch’s shows. The main difference between the two is NTD only claims to be a news network on their main page. The remainder of their channels are a strange multi-genre mix. The most innocent of these are cooking channels that don’t push religious material on the surface level, and I haven’t found issues with these yet, but even the network’s beauty channel buries meditation guides linking Falun Dafa websites in their descriptions.

They don’t publicize it openly anymore, but the Dafa also produce China Uncensored, a semi-satirical podcast hosted by Chris Chappell who even goes as far as to joke about Falun Gong funding him, implying it’s a comment-section allegation, while the channel pushes the same assertions about Falun Gong’s miracle cures. They’ll then cite The Epoch Times for reference.

It’s clear that Falun Gong is trying to reach a diverse audience with its propaganda. Though NTD’s channel doesn’t try as hard to build trust in itself as a media outlet, it doesn’t need to. They have The Epoch Times to do that.

When the time comes and any of these individual media arms are restricted by the platforms they spread on, all Li Hongzhi has to do is divert resources to another one. There’s a certain marketing genius at play here. Falun Gong takes advantage of American conservatives’ distrust of the media and faith in Trump and uses it to promote its own messages. When Epoch claims in their taglines that their coverage is non-partisan, that there’s no hidden agenda behind it, don’t believe it for a second.

The danger of Falun Gong isn’t that it’s trying to recruit Westerners. Li Hongzhi’s contempt for Western ideas spans far beyond communism; recruitment is not his primary interest. His incentive to create a force in our news media is the discredit and eventual overthrow of the party that exiled him when he abused his followers.

It’s fine, and even essential to criticize the Chinese government. Its record of human rights abuses has been expansive since its inception, but we put ourselves in a very dangerous position when we allow our meter on truth to be regulated by a cult that obscures its dishonest practices and hides its presence in the news.

The degradation of brutal regimes in our media must be dissected by those who are journalists for the sake of journalism, who pursue transparency for the sake of credibility, and who don’t even need to say the word to be truly transparent. Falun Gong’s fake news isn’t about Trump, it’s not about the Republican Party, it’s not even really about China. It all goes back to the agenda of the single sociopath at its head and his strange ideas about how the world should be. They don’t need or want the mainstream media to be the ones to expose China. That same media would also be capable of exposing them.

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Aila Oakes

Aila Oakes

Based in New Orleans. Contributing stories about culture, media, news, LGBT+ topics, and internet rabbit holes. (She/Her)