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The German Edition of the Falun Gong-Affiliated ‘Epoch Times’ Aligns with the Far Right

On the eve of the German election Sunday, it’s no surprise that Russian state-funded media outlets are attacking German Chancellor Angela Merkel, sensationalizing migrant violence, and providing conciliatory coverage of far-right groups. Russia, after all, is now infamous for its attempts to disrupt Western countries by supporting populist movements. But in Germany, there’s a surprising new member of the right-wing media universe: the German-language web edition of the flagship newspaper of the Falun Gong, the vehemently anti-Beijing spiritual movement banned in China since 1999.

American urbanites may recognize the Epoch Times from its quietly ubiquitous presence at corner newsstands in many U.S. cities. A newspaper closely affiliated with Falun Gong, a group whose reclusive leader, Li Hongzhi, resides in the United States, the Epoch Times U.S. edition isn’t easy to place on the U.S. political spectrum. Its editorial slant exists primarily to promote the views of the Falun Gong and its leadership’s staunch opposition to the Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.). The newspaper’s coverage of unrelated U.S. and international issues is otherwise banal.

But the German-language edition of the newspaper, which went web-only in 2012, has become a favored platform for far-right nativism, attracting readers who oppose immigration and support groups such as the far-right populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD) and anti-immigrant protest group Pegida. As such, Epoch Times Deutschland has become known as a member of the far-right media scene, in the same club as Russia’s state-funded outlets RT and Sputnik, and Kopp Report, a website known for promoting conspiracy theories and right-wing populism.

The Falun Gong newspaper’s German website’s hard swing to the right may just be a business decision designed to maximize clicks in a newly xenophobic political environment. But it also could reflect the staunchly racist views of the movement’s founder, affectionately known as “Master Li” by many followers, who has taught that miscegenation produces flawed children and brittle societies.

Since 2015, Europe has faced its largest migrant crisis since World War II as millions of refugees fleeing the Islamic State and the civil war in Syria poured across borders. While many Germans, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, welcomed asylum-seekers with open arms, the influx of largely Muslim migrants has also sparked a nativist backlash. Across Europe, anti-immigrant sentiment, combined with long-standing economic troubles and a widening gap between rich and poor, has fueled the rise of far-right populist parties.

Epoch Times Deutschland appears to have ridden this wave of right-wing outrage, according to a March 2016 investigation by online outlet Meedia, which reports on the German media industry. The Epoch Times Deutschland slant should sound familiar to Americans, who over the past year have witnessed the triumph of populism and rising distrust of traditional media. Epoch Times Deutschland’s reports tend to show Pegida and AfD members in a sympathetic light, while casting doubt on mainstream media and politicians. Recent articles report claims that ARD, a German public broadcaster, has “biased” coverage of Pegida; present the AfD as the guardian of democracy; and frequently cast anti-immigrant statements by politicians as reasonable.

Epoch Times Deutschland’s coverage has earned it a following among Germany’s resurgent far-right. Meedia referred to it as a “favorite media” of Pegida supporters, noting that the far-right group shared Epoch Times Deutschland articles on its Facebook page almost every day. Pegida continues to share Epoch Times Deutschland content regularly, including an August 29 video criticizing Merkel for her pro-immigration stance. (Other content frequently shared on the group’s Facebook page includes stories from RT, conservative German outlet Focus, and a far-right website called “Journalist Watch,” which paints mainstream media outlets as untrustworthy.)

It’s not clear why the German website of a Falun Gong newspaper would choose to promote right-wing populism in Germany. The organization promotes spiritual practices based loosely on the principles of qigong, Buddhism, and Daoism, along with some heterodox views, including the belief that aliens arrived on earth about 100 years ago. The C.C.P. banned the group and labeled it an “evil cult” in 1999 after it staged a large protest in Beijing. Many adherents fled abroad, while others who stayed in mainland China were imprisoned and tortured. Nowadays, the group is known for its vehement opposition to the C.C.P. Sometimes its members can be spotted at sidewalk protests in Hong Kong, New York, or Washington, D.C., sitting in quiet meditation or practicing the slow, flowing postures of qigong next to placards denouncing the Party.

It could be a business decision. Epoch Times Deutschland’s often-critical coverage of immigration and Merkel, and particularly its often-uncritical coverage of Pegida and the AfD, corresponded with a rise in its web traffic. Its website garnered 4 million views in January 2016, up from 1.7 million the previous year, according to the Meedia report.

The German-language and U.S. English-language editions of Epoch Times operate as separate editorial entities, according to Stephen Gregory, publisher of the U.S. English-language editions. Gregory added that “there are no editorial calls, no common editorial planning, no sharing of editorial resources.”

In the past, the Epoch Times seemed relatively unconcerned with profit. Based in New York, it is distributed in 17 languages in more than 30 countries around the world, but its readership appears to be low. Epoch Times Deutschland operates its online edition with corresponding social media accounts, including a Facebook page with about 77,000 likes.

“Epoch Times is an independent media outlet, neither left nor right,” Zheng, an Epoch Times Deutschland manager who requested to use only her surname, told ChinaFile. “The Falun Gong has no opinion on social affairs and is neutral. But as a media outlet, it naturally should report neutrally, objectively, and accurately about things that happen in society and about the topics that people are concerned about.”

It’s possible that appealing to anti-immigration sentiment may just be part of a business model made viable by the rise of far-right nativism in Germany. But such views also align with the teachings of Li Hongzhi, who believes that mixed-race children are “pitiable” and “physically and intellectually incomplete.” Li has taught that each race on earth corresponds with a matching race in heaven, so those of blended heritage don’t belong to any heaven and have no gods to look after them.

The spiritual leader also has implied that there are economic and political implications for countries where racial mixing is common.

“The gods above won’t recognize a region where there is a concentration of mixed races, so normally the people in such a region will be destitute and have a hard life,” said Li at a Houston conference in October 1996.

To be sure, Epoch Times Deutschland is only a small drop in Germany’s far-right media ocean. The AfD, which is expected to enter the German parliament for the first time after the election on Sunday, has achieved its success through a surge of grassroots support and smart campaigning. But at the very least, the editorial slant of the Falun Gong’s German media outlet demonstrates the appeal of far-right and nativist ideas in Europe.

Correction: This story was corrected to address an error in fact-checking. An earlier version of the story incorrectly described the Falun Gong spiritual group as owning The Epoch Times.