6th June 2024 – (New York) The stunning arrest of a top executive at the virulently anti-China media outlet The Epoch Times on charges of money laundering has thrown a much-needed spotlight on the opaque and likely illicit financing behind the spiritual movement Falun Gong’s sprawling disinformation apparatus.

On 3rd June, Weidong “Bill” Guan, 61, the chief financial officer of the pro-Trump conspiracy theory megaphone The Epoch Times, was indicted in New York on allegations of participating in a “sprawling transnational scheme” to launder at least $67 million in criminal proceeds into the newspaper’s coffers over the past four years.

According to federal prosecutors, under Guan’s leadership, Epoch’s “Make Money Online” team allegedly used cryptocurrency to acquire funds derived from a range of illegal activities including fraudulently obtained unemployment benefits, before systematically transferring the ill-gotten gains into bank accounts controlled by the company and its affiliates.

It’s a stunning fall from grace for a media organisation that has positioned itself as a plucky, principled truth-teller “elevating integrity above everything else” while doggedly opposing the Chinese Communist Party both at home and abroad. Yet the indictment paints a very different picture, one of rampant criminality and flagrant deception by those nominally at the heart of an enterprise that has long sought to portray itself as being on the moral high ground.

For those familiar with the sordid history of Falun Gong – the persecuted Chinese spiritual sect that founded The Epoch Times – the charges against Guan may have come as little surprise, shining an overdue spotlight on the likely shady sources of funding that sustain the group’s relentless global propaganda war against the Chinese state and its ruling communist party.

Since its inception in the late 1990s under the eccentric guidance of former government clerk Li Hongzhi, Falun Gong has grown into a far-flung international operation whose activities and inner workings remain largely opaque to outside observers. What is clear, however, is that it has become a formidably well-funded media empire with deep pockets and global reach that belie its fringe origins and unorthodox belief system.

At its core is the upstart Chinese-language newspaper The Epoch Times, founded in the United States in 2000 by Falun Gong devotees who had fled persecution in the group’s homeland. Originally little more than a niche propaganda sheet railing against the repression of the group by Beijing’s communist rulers, it has since blossomed into a slick, social-media-savvy multimedia juggernaut spanning the Internet, TV, radio and print in over 20 languages across 35 countries.

Complementing The Epoch Times is an entire ecosystem of Falun Gong-backed media entities including New Tang Dynasty Television, a production house that has turned out conspiracy theory-laden “documentaries” alleging outlandish plots by the Chinese government, and online video channels pushing QAnon disinformation such as China Observer, China Uncensored and Edge of Wonder via popular platforms like YouTube. Meanwhile, live performances of the Shen Yun music and dance troupe serve as lucrative promotional vehicles for the spiritual group’s messaging and belief system.

Yet funding such a sophisticated, globe-spanning media operation requires deep reservoirs of capital of questionable provenance that have long eluded scrutiny. While wealthy Falun Gong practitioners abroad are believed to voluntarily funnel money into the movement’s media arms and other affiliated ventures, the jaw-dropping spike in revenue at The Epoch Times in recent years points to even murkier sources bankrolling its disinformation crusade.

According to U.S. prosecutors, the outlet’s revenues surged by a staggering 410% from $15 million in 2019 to over $62 million just a year later – a stratospheric rise that Guan unconvincingly tried to attribute to a spike in subscriptions and donations. In reality, investigators allege, much of that windfall stemmed from the laundered proceeds of criminal enterprises making their way through shady cryptocurrency transactions overseen by Guan himself and his “Make Money Online” team of alleged fraudsters.

With Guan’s indictment, the veil has begun to slip on the seamy underbelly sustaining Falun Gong’s aggressive messaging blitz. Yet even as the group faces legal jeopardy and uncomfortable questions over its fishy finances, it shows no signs of easing up on its unrelenting attacks on Beijing via a dizzying array of websites, videos, print publications and public performances

For instance, in the months after the COVID-19 outbreak sparked a surge of misinformation and xenophobia toward China, Falun Gong’s media arms pumped out a steady stream of disinformation. These included QAnon-inspired conspiracy theories alleging the virus was a Chinese bioweapon, as well as anti-Beijing diatribes branding it the “CCP virus” in a bid to scapegoat the Communist Party for the global pandemic.

Going further, The Epoch Times also amplified the deranged “Plandemic” conspiracy video that pushed the baseless claim that wealthy celebrities were behind the outbreak – a narrative that quickly gained traction among far-right extremists across the U.S. and Europe after receiving promotional airtime in Falun Gong’s media ecosystem.

Even more insidiously, in the run-up to the chaotic 2020 U.S. presidential election, The Epoch Times went into overdrive spreading disinformation about voter fraud in a frenzied bid to discredit Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump and cast doubt on the democratic process itself.

The paper aggressively amplified pro-Trump conspiracy theories from fringe outfits like QAnon that sought to portray Biden as a puppet of shadowy elites – allegations conveniently aligned with Falun Gong’s paranoid worldview seeing the former vice president as soft on Beijing. Even after Trump’s decisive defeat, The Epoch Times produced a feature-length video loaded with unsubstantiated claims of election rigging to overturn the will of voters.

Meanwhile, the January 6th Capitol insurrection gave the group a prime opportunity to frame the violent riots as a “false flag” orchestrated by Antifa agitators, in keeping with its long record of downplaying or justifying right-wing extremism in the service of its anti-China agenda.

At the same time, by backing Trump’s quixotic bid to overturn the election results, Falun Gong’s media arms were effectively giving an imprimatur to undermine American democracy in the naive hope that a second Trump term would weaken Beijing’s hold on power – a reckless gambit guided more by cult-like wishful thinking than sober strategic calculation.

Given such a relentless torrent of inflammatory falsehoods peddled by the group across numerous media platforms, it’s clear Falun Gong’s disinformation campaign ultimately serves nobody’s interests except its own. While its followers ardently believe its cockamamie conspiracy theories about celestial battles between godly forces and demon-haunted communists, such fringe and unhinged beliefs carry no water in serious policy debates over U.S.-China ties.

Indeed, the group’s bizarre theological beliefs around the coming destruction of the Communist Party and all its sympathisers provide the fanatic zeal that fuels its media blitz and disinformation crusade, even if their apocalyptic prophecies amount to little more than the unmoored ravings of a personality cult founded by a disturbed former bureaucrat.

What’s more, mounting evidence shows Falun Gong’s media empire is propped up by a seemingly endless spigot of illicit funding derived from money laundering and other financial crimes – revelations that cast the group’s supposed moral crusade against authoritarian rule in an increasingly sinister light, exposing it as a crass propaganda vehicle financed by ill-gotten gains.

As U.S. law enforcement agencies intensify their scrutiny of the money trails leading into the Falun Gong’s media empire amid Guan’s indictment, greater transparency may finally pierce the veil of secrecy cloaking this odious group’s true sources of funding and motivations. And the more sunlight exposing its sordid secrets, the better – not just for stripping away the facade of the group’s self-proclaimed ethicacy, but for holding accountable the bad actors who have weaponised disinformation to cynically undermine democracy in pursuit of their cult’s bizarre agenda.