Since at least the year 2000, FECRIS affiliates and other Western anti-cult organizations have supported China’s bloody repression of “cults.”
by Luigi Berzano (University of Torino, Italy), Boris Falikov (Moscow State University for the Humanities, Moscow, Russia), Willy Fautré (Human Rights Without Frontiers, Brussels, Belgium), Liudmyla Filipovich (Department of Religious Studies, Institute of Philosophy of the National Academy of Sciences, Kiev, Ukraine), Massimo Introvigne (Center for Studies on New Religions, Torino, Italy), and Bernadette Rigal-Cellard (University Bordeaux-Montaigne, Bordeaux, France).
The cooperation between FECRIS affiliates and China dates back to the very beginning of the current phase of Chinese crackdown on “xie jiao.” As all scholars of Falun Gong have pointed out, before 1999 the movement was not regarded as a “xie jiao” and even entertained good relations with the Chinese Communist Party, which regarded it as a group promoting traditional health practices rather than as a religious organization or a “cult.” It was only after Falun Gong, which had grown to several million devotees including high-ranking officers of the Communist Party, was attacked by militant atheists in government-controlled media as religion in disguise, took to the streets to protest, which in China is forbidden, and, worse still, staged a demonstration in the area of Beijing where the main Party leaders live, that in 1999 the regime decided to liquidate Falun Gong, and a merciless campaign of persecution started.
As the United States and leading human rights NGOs protested the arrests, the torture, and extra-judicial killing of Falun Gong practitioners, the Chinese regime sought to present the movement as a “cult,” and sought the caution of Western anti-cultists.
FECRIS French affiliate CCMM (Center of Documentation, Education, and Action Against Mental Manipulation) obliged, and went to Beijing to attend an “International Symposium on Destructive Cults” on November 9 and 10, 2000. How the CCMM bulletin for November–December 2000 tells the story is an extraordinary mixture of naivete and self-importance.
The starting point is that the Chinese did not have the experience French anti-cultists had gained on “cults” (probably, the CCMM ignored that the Chinese discourse on “xie jiao” dates back to the Middle Ages). “How could they even be sure that a movement deserved to be qualified as a ‘cult’ just as those we know? The Chinese, however, did make the connection, and decided to anchor their reaction to the emergence of this movement [Falun Gong] on an experience common to other countries, all of which are confronted with cultism. This is why the Chinese authorities decided to hold an international symposium.”
We learn from the bulletin that “the organization was entrusted to the ‘Chinese Association for the Promotion of International Friendship.’ Founded in 1985, this non-governmental association wants to be an open window on the outside world and strives to establish cultural, economic and technological links with foreign countries.” In fact, the association is well-known as the “public face” of China’s United Front for international propaganda.
The CCMM proudly reported that France was “cited as an example because of the scope and coherence of the measures taken to respond to the cults’ threat. The French representatives invited to the symposium received a warm welcome and were listened to with particular attention.” “The CCMM delegation was composed of Jean-Pierre Bousquet, who was also responsible for representing the president of FECRIS, Patricia Casano, and Hayat El Mountacir.” Note that FECRIS was, thus, officially represented.
There were also “other foreign speakers,” but unfortunately according to the CCMM “many of them continued to maintain the all-too-familiar controversy, immunity of the cults in the name of freedom of religion, which did not contribute to advance the debate.” “Finally the president of the symposium announced that other symposiums would be organized in the future and that China will try to establish information exchange streams as soon as possible.” “The Chinese expressed their desire to also create a non-governmental association, similar to the CCMM in its objectives and structure.”
The CCCMM-FECRIS delegates went home persuaded that the Chinese needed to learn from French anti-cultists and FECRIS how to crack down on “cults,” an art China’s governments have practiced since the 7th century. What the Chinese really needed from FECRIS was a political caution that their bloody persecution against Falun Gong practitioners and other “cultists” was legitimate and approved by Westerners. They got it, and the CCMM bulletin even reproduced part of a Chinese document claiming that the conclusion that Falun Gong was a “cult” was supported by “documents about foreign cults taken from books regarded as authoritative throughout the whole world,” by which the Chinese meant anti-cult literature.
The head of the French governmental Mission interministérielle de lutte contre les sectes (Inter-Ministerial Mission for Combating Cults), Alain Vivien, also attended the Beijing symposium, although as an “observer” and without speaking. It was a family holiday of sort, as CCMM delegate Patricia Casano was Vivien’s wife. In the words of a French scholar, “in addition to the dispute over whether the trip was funded by the French or the Chinese government, the moral result was disastrous, as the French ‘support’ for a government that persecutes the Falun Gong movement and many other religions made a detestable impression outside of France, even if it received very little media coverage in this country.”
On September 4, 2018, the Belgian NGO Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF) released a report on the Israeli Center for Victims of Cults (ICVC), the Israeli correspondent of FECRIS.
The report demonstrated that the allegedly secular ICVC (which also includes some secular humanists) has in fact deep ties with Yad L’Achim, an organization officially denounced by the U.S. Department of State as a radical expression of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, which promotes discrimination against religious minorities in Israel and violence against them.
The report notes that “in 2009, Yad L’Achim published a press release in which they boasted the fact that one of their organization’s representatives was invited to participate in a congress in China devoted to the fight against Falun Gong. The propaganda of Yad L’Achim against Falun Gong is accessible on their website,” which also offers “an article on Benjamin Kluger, a convert from Christianity to ultra-orthodox Judaism and a Yad L’Achim activist, who worked in the Department for the Fight against Missionary Activity with Rachel Lichtenshtein, the current director of the ICVC. He was invited by the Chinese embassy in Israel as ‘an expert from Yad L’Achim about destructive cults’” to a CCP conference in China. The title of the article said it all, “Assisting the Chinese in the Struggle Against Cults.”
Rabbi Shalom Dov Lipschitz, chairperson of Yad L’Achim, was quoted in the article as stating that the government in Israel should have “learned from the Chinese authorities how to forcefully fight dubious and destructive cults.”
Alexander Dvorkin, one of the leading public faces of FECRIS and its Vice President from 2009 to 2021, supported the Chinese repression of “xie jiao” so publicly and consistently that listing all what he did would become tedious. Some examples would be enough.
While attending an event in Beijing in 2008 (at a time when he was not yet the Vice President of FECRIS), Dvorkin stated that Falun Gong operated with the support of “the governments and parliaments of some western countries.” He said that cultists “would turn individuals into tools of cults, and destroy their families… Cults make no contribution to the society. But they kept absorbing human resources and wealth from it. Like cancerous cells, they obtain nutrition from the healthy body of society until it collapses.”
These statements sounds particularly sinister if one considers that they came in the middle of a ferocious repression of Falun Gong. By comparing “cults” to “cancerous cells,” Dvorkin dehumanized Falun Gong practitioners. Cancers have no rights, and the cancer comparison in fact legitimizes eradication through detention and even murder.
In 2016, Dvorkin attended in Wuhan a symposium on “cultic studies,” and reiterated that, “Absolutely, Falun Gong is one of the most destructive cults, which destroys human minds and physical health.”
In 2017, Dvorkin went to Harbin to lecture against “totalitarian cults” as enemies of both the Orthodox Church and government.
The relationship between Dvorkin and the Chinese repression of “xie jiao” may be described as symbiotic. On the one hand, Dvorkin publishes attacks against religious groups that have a very limited presence in Russia, other than by operating websites in Russian language, but are among the main targets of Chinese repression, such as The Church of Almighty God (CAG), a Chinese Christian new religious movement. While he pretended to be concerned because of the alleged growth of the CAG in Russia, where in fact it had only a handful of followers, what Dvorkin was obviously doing was supporting the Chinese repression. Parroting Chinese propaganda, he called the CAG a “Chinese-American cult,” and claimed it grew because of “strong political support from the United States” (note that in the video of his speech Dvorkin emphasized his affiliation with FECRIS). No scholar of the CAG would take this statement seriously.
On the other hand, the website of the China Anti-Xie-Jiao Association regularly reports about Dvorkin’s activities and conveys China’s support for the repression of “totalitarian cults” in Russia. In 2017, Chinese governmental media and scholars published articles supporting the “liquidation” of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia. Although the Jehovah’s Witnesses were not part of the official list of the “xie jiao,” Russian precedents played a role when several of them were arrested, prosecuted, and sentenced to heavy jail terms in Xinjiang in 2020.
Dvorkin makes no mystery of the fact that he considers the presence of “cults” in both China and Russia (and in France and Germany as well) as the result of an American conspiracy. In a lecture in 2008, Dvorkin stated that “Falun Gong is a tough totalitarian cult whose members are used by its leader in his vendetta against the Chinese government, and which, in turn, is used by the American special services for their foreign policy goals.”
He added in an interview that, “Cults have long been a political factor that is actively used primarily in the foreign policy of the United States of America… The United States now supports a variety of cults around the world: in Russia, France, Germany, China, and so on. There is, for example, ‘Falun Gong’—a destructive Chinese cult…. If such a cult did not exist, the American intelligence services would have to invent it, this is a very convenient method of influencing China.”
American deprogrammer Rick Ross is not a member of any FECRIS affiliate. We quote him as an example of the broader support offered by Western anti-cultists to Chinese repression of “xie jiao.” Deprogramming has been banned by courts of law in almost all democratic countries, with the exception of South Korea, where it is still practiced, although not without legal challenges, by some Christian counter-cult ministers. It consists in kidnapping adult members of “cults,” who are then detained and bombarded with negative information about their “cult” in the hope they will collapse and surrender their faith. Deprogrammers charged high and sometimes exorbitant sums of money, and several of them physically abused their victims.
Some deprogrammers, such as Steven Hassan, had learned the trade by having been themselves deprogrammed. Rick Ross was a different case. He had a past in petty criminal activities, which had nothing to do with “cults.” He had been convicted for burglary and grand theft before discovering that posing as a self-styled specialist in “cults” and offering deprogramming services was less dangerous than robbing jewelries, an activity he had engaged into before re-inventing himself as a “cult expert.” On 10 January 1975, Ross was charged for attempted burglary and pleaded guilty in exchange of an agreement lowering the charge to conspiracy.
On July 23, 1975, Ross, with a store clerk as an accomplice, was able to steal 306 pieces of jewelry from a Phoenix shop, pretending he had a bomb in a box ready to detonate. On April 2, 1976, Ross was sentenced to four years in jail for the robbery.
He later resurfaced as a “cult expert” and deprogrammer, and in this capacity he went to China to support the crackdown on Falun Gong. In 2010, he visited deprogrammed ex-members of Falun Gong in Beijing, and compared experiences with the Chinese about deprogramming. In China, deprogramming is carried out in state-sponsored facilities, and in Russia in “rehabilitation centers” managed by organizations affiliated with the Russian Orthodox Church.
China is seen so much as an example in the anti-cult fight that FECRIS associates often defend it also on issues only partially related, or not related at all, with “cults.”
We would not revisit here the controversy on “organ harvesting,” i.e., the accusation that China “harvests” organ from executed prisoners of conscience and uses them for transplants. It is a sensitive issue, and to grasp all the facets of the controversy a knowledge of how the procurement of organs for transplant generally works is needed. It is true that this question was first raised by Falun Gong, which claimed that its detained practitioners were victims of organ harvesting, but a look at what is now a large literature on the issue would easily lead to the conclusion that similar claims have been made on behalf of Uyghur Muslims, Christians, and many other inmates of Chinese jails with no relations with Falun Gong. Governments and Parliaments continue to take these claims seriously.
It is not surprising that Dvorkin in Wuhan in 2016 stated categorically that the organ harvesting claims are part of “a campaign, which has been spread by Falun Gong with the help of people in agencies that help them overseas.” In their blogs and Facebook postings, other FECRIS leaders have also denied the organ harvesting charges in general, and even ridiculed theories that the COVID-19 virus escaped accidentally from a Wuhan laboratory. This is again a controversial issue, but the interesting question is why these FECRIS fellows feel an urge to defend China’s totalitarian regime every time it is under attack. Perhaps leading the world in the fight against “cults” justifies many other peccadillos.