Are Scholars Giving In to Chinese Propaganda?

Are Scholars Giving In to Chinese Propaganda?
Photo Credit: AP/達志影像

What you need to know

‘Under direct and indirect influence from China, academic freedom is being extensively dishonored in Western countries.’

In January 1991, one year after the Tiananmen Square Massacre, I fled China and arrived in Australia as an overseas student, to embrace freedom in Australia. The freedom I sought included academic freedom.

Within the rigorous academic environment of RMIT University, I completed a research project for the Australian Educational Researcher journal entitled, “Wishing for dragon children: Ironies and contradictions in China’s education reform and the Chinese diaspora’s disappointments with Australian education.”

Sadly, today I see that Australian scholars are succumbing to the propaganda tactics of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Under direct and indirect influence from China, academic freedom is being extensively dishonored in Western countries. An example of this involves the co-option of Australian scholar Helen Farley, an honorary senior research fellow at the School of History and Religion, University of Queensland (UQ), and an associate professor (Digital Futures) at the University of Southern Queensland (USQ).

Professor Farley’s articles have been translated into Chinese and published online by Chinese agents – their intention being to promote the idea that foreign scholars support the continuing campaign of persecution against Falun Gong in China, which began in 1999.

Lacking research

In 2014, professor Farley published a piece in the book, Sacred Suicide, entitled, “Death by whose hand? Falun Gong and suicide.” She wrote a similar article, “Self-harm and Falun Gong: Karmic release, martyrdom or suicide,” published in the Journal of Religion and Violence, which is distributed by U.S. publisher the Philosophy Documentation Center.

Regarding the shortcomings of professor Farley’s research, Terence Russell, an associate professor at the University of Manitoba, has this to say: “Dr Farley can at least be accused of negligent scholarship for failing to provide documentation for many of her claims about Falun Gong.”

Professor Maria A. Fiatarone Singh at the University of Sydney wrote: “The writing style in the chapter is definitely questionable at best, with reporting of things as fact (like the immolation and extensive suicides) which are seemingly anything but factual.”

Nonetheless, the publication of these articles was supported by some university administrators in Australia and by the editor of the publications in which these articles appeared, Professor James R. Lewis of the University of Tromso, Norway.

Self-immolation at Tiananmen Square

Professor Farley’s piece in Sacred Suicide is based on a reported self-immolation incident that took place in Beijing in 2001.

On Jan. 23, 2001, five persons allegedly set themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The entire scene was caught on camera from several angles. Just hours after the event, Chinese state-controlled media flooded the airwaves with reports that the self-immolators were Falun Gong practitioners. These reports included grisly footage of the victims, and portrayed Falun Gong teachings as directly responsible for the tragedy.

The reports had the intended effect: people across China changed from respecting and sympathizing with Falun Gong to being infuriated with it and turning against it.

Two weeks after the self-immolations, the Washington Post published a report on an investigation into the identity of the participant who had died, and found that “no one ever saw [her] practice Falun Gong.”

Soon after, a video was published by Minghui (a website that reports on the Chinese Communist Party’s persecution of Falun Gong) entitled “54 facts that reveal how the ‘self-immolation’ on Tiananmen Square was actually staged for propaganda purposes,” showing obvious discrepancies in the self-immolations and claiming it was a hoax.

This video was cited at a United Nations meeting on Aug. 14, 2001, when the NGO for International Education Development made a formal statement, declaring: “The Chinese regime points to a supposed self-immolation incident in Tiananmen Square on January 23, 2001, as evidence to support its attempts to slander Falun Gong. However, we have obtained a video of the incident that in our view proves that this event was staged by the government. We have copies of this video here and those interested can pick up a copy.”

The video helped many Chinese understand that the self-immolations were staged, and eventually the party stopped broadcasting the self-immolation incident. It now seems that the regime has found foreign scholars who will claim that the five self-immolation victims were Falun Gong practitioners.

Professor Farley’s tactic

How did professor Farley attempt to prove the five self-immolation victims were Falun Gong practitioners? At the beginning of her Sacred Suicide piece, she states: “The teachings of Falun Gong explicitly forbid suicide, yet in 2001, five protesters set themselves ablaze in Tiananmen Square resulting in the death of two.”

She repeats this statement several times, telling the reader that Falun Gong practitioners set themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square, stating it as an indisputable fact though providing no evidence to back up her claim.

She has also stated: “The leadership of Falun Gong were quick to deny any connection to the incident. From the United States, it released its own video, charging the Chinese Government with fabricating the incident.”

This indicates that she knows there is uncertainty about the true identity of the people involved in the self-immolations. However, she then goes on to make statements to the effect that it is indisputable that the individuals were practitioners, ultimately claiming that it is “undoubtedly” so, even though she fails to provide any evidence to prove this assertion anywhere in the article.

The fact that professor Farley mentions the video means she knows about the 54 facts. The Washington Post’s investigation and the statement from International Education Development are all openly published online, but she neglects to mention them.

She continues in her Sacred Suicide piece: “Authorities also maintain that several hundred practitioners had cut their stomachs open looking for the ‘Dharma Wheel’ that turns in response to the practice of the five meditative exercises characteristic of the movement.”

Although the authorities made this allegation, they never backed it up with evidence. If dozens of people had done this, it would not be difficult for the authorities to provide evidence. It’s a falsehood that not even the Chinese authorities have tried to prove, yet professor Farley repeats it in her article.

Fabricated evidence

Professor Farley also misrepresents the content of Falun Gong’s teachings, which are published on in many different languages. Any statements that are not directly from this website cannot be used to represent the teachings.

For example, in order to prove that Falun Gong teachings welcome martyrdom, professor Farley claims in the Sacred Suicide piece: “[Master] Li teaches that the ‘Ending Period of Catastrophe’ is almost here, that contemporary society is degenerate and will be purged. The only ones who will be saved are those who are genuine Falun Gong practitioners.”

She does not indicate where her information came from – and the fact is that nowhere is this stated in the Falun Gong teachings.

Another example is this statement: “Though the leadership of Falun Gong tried to distance themselves from the self-immolations of 2001, the mass suicides and immolations continued.”

In fact, there have been no “mass suicides” or self-immolations among practitioners. In professor Farley’s country, Australia, there are several thousand Falun Gong practitioners. Did she find even one case of suicide or immolation here?

A curious title

Something does not add up regarding professor Farley’s position as honorary senior research fellow at the School of History and Religion, UQ.

Her biography shows that in the past 10 years, her main work in teaching and research was focused on education and educational technology, with very little in religious studies. In 2013, she received A$4.4 million in funding through the Australian government for a three-year education project at the University of Southern Queensland (USQ). She also heads up the USQ-led Collaborative Research Network to develop a Mobile Learning Evaluation Framework.

Given these professional commitments, it is hard to comprehend how professor Farley has had time to do religious research in recent years. However, on the Chinese website that promotes her articles defaming Falun Gong, she is introduced only as an “honorary senior religion researcher at UQ” with many research topics and publications in religious studies.

Professor Singh wonders how Farley can actually “have qualifications in everything from vet science to ICT to religious studies.”

On the Chinese Government website, the title of “honorary senior religion researcher” is used solely to promote the articles defaming Falun Gong in Chinese.

‘No case to answer’

Three months ago, we, a few individual Falun Gong practitioners, contacted professor Farley by e-mail in the hopes of meeting her and discussing the issue. We have not heard back from her.

We then emailed several people who have a relationship with professor Farley or with the article, including administrators and colleagues at UQ and USQ, the editorial team of the book, Sacred Suicide, and the Journal of Religion and Violence. We informed them of the issues, and sought their advice on how best to resolve them.

Having seen our e-mail, Tromso’s professor Lewis has tried to stop us from voicing our complaints on the subject, implying that he would publish further articles on Falun Going if we did not “shut up.” Later he wrote an article entitled “Sucking the ‘de’ out of me” to defame Falun Gong, claiming that this was the consequence of our complaints. “De” refers to virtue or merit in the Falun Gong system.

When I raised my concerns about the lack of academic credibility in the articles by professor Farley with USQ Vice-Chancellor Professor Jan Thomas, she replied: “There is no case to answer relating to the allegation.”

One of the biggest problems with professor Farley’s articles is that they legitimize the Chinese regime’s propaganda regarding Falun Gong. Also, they could mislead people into supporting a brutal and unjust persecution that has been documented by Human Rights Watch and the UN Rapporteur on Torture.

I will end with some illuminating comments from professor June Teufel Dreyer, Department of Political Science, University of Miami: “While I cannot comment on the specific details of a particular case, the number and similarity of similar instances indicate that it is part of an ongoing pattern of the Chinese Communist Party acting to suppress a religion not only within China but in other countries as well.”

“There is, moreover, no evidence to indicate that Falun Gong has any notion of subverting the Chinese Government, or of contemplating bodily harm to any other human being.”

This article originally appeared in News Weekly as “Honorary fellow means to dishonourable end” and has been approved for reproduction by The News Lens International. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone.