Edit: This post is currently blocked in China (thanks to Kai for letting us know), so we’ve edited the title and permalink in the hopes that will shake off what we suspect is a keyword-based block.
There is nowhere on earth we can learn about or read about without bias, but even given the assumption that bias exists everywhere, China might be the worst country in the world to attempt to study if you’re trying to assess the veracity of anything remotely controversial.
Let’s take, for example, the most recent English language issue of the Epoch Times, sitting for free on a table near the entrance of Yale University’s Hall of Graduate Studies. This issue begins their series marking the tenth anniversary marking the outlawing of Falun Gong in China in 1999, and contains several articles documenting the events that led to the ban. Specifically, they say the regime “zeroed in” on Falun Gong after the publication of Zhuan Falun (Falun Gong founder Li Hongzhi’s rambling treatise). They don’t mention why, what was contained in the book, or, for that matter, that their newspaper was founded by Falun Gong members. It is as though the CCPs banning of Falun Gong was a thunderbolt out of a clear blue sky.
Of course, it’s not really a secret that the Epoch Times has an agenda. At best, their reports are “difficult to corroborate” (Orville Schell), at worst, they are an embarrassment to journalism. Still, they have their supporters. UPenn professor Arthur Waldron said “foreigners (and Chinese) who want to get a sense of what is really going on in China should pay at least as much attention to The Epoch Times as they do to the People’s Daily.”
As far as we can tell, he wasn’t intentionally being ironic, but it’s actually a great point. People searching for information on Falun Gong are likely to find a long list of articles and websites run by supporters or a long list of condemnations, depending on what language they’re searching in.
And the truth is, it’s very difficult to tell what the truth is. On the one hand, Falun Gong sounds an awful lot like some of the crazy cults that exist in the US; In the Zhuan Falun, Li Hongzhi writes that:
He can personally heal disease and that his followers can stop speeding cars using the powers of his teachings. He writes that the Falun Gong emblem exists in the bellies of practitioners, who can see through the celestial eyes in their foreheads. Li believes “humankind is degenerating and demons are everywhere”; extraterrestrials are everywhere, too; and that Africa boasts a 2-billion-year-old nuclear reactor. He also says he can fly.
On the other hand, at least some of the reported rights violations — which include some pretty horrifying things — are probably true. After all, the CCP is willing to abuse other citizens with reckless abandon, so why would Falun Gong practitioners be any different? As is often the case, it seems the truth lies somewhere in the middle of the two extremes, but when it comes to China, the extreme voices are often so loud they completely drown out any moderates. Here, it’s People’s Daily vs. Epoch Times. A few weeks ago, it was People’s Daily vs. World Uighur Conference. Whenever the next issue comes up it will happen again.
The problem, of course, is that most people don’t care as much as we do, and aren’t willing to spend hours sifting through drivel and propaganda for the little nuggets of truth that accidentally got left lying around. So they end up believing that either one side or the other murders babies, and everyone digs in further. Falun Gong is an “evil cult” or China is an “evil empire”; there is no middle ground.
This kind of extremism prevents understanding when understanding is what we desperately, desperately need.
For the record, I personally think that Falun Gong is about as crazy as Scientology, and that China has every right to ban the spread of anti-science superstition as it leads to people making idiotic medical decisions; but I also think China could easily enforce this ban in a way that is nonviolent and that allows Falun Gong believers to think whatever they want (and do whatever exercises they want) so long as they stop telling people qigong can cure all of their diseases.
Also for the record, I’ll be monitoring the comments here pretty carefully as this has the potential to lead to its own idiotic screaming match between extremists. What we’re talking about here is how extremism prevents learning, growth, understanding, and intelligent discourse (or how it doesn’t).