Dancers dressed in colorful clothes twirl gracefully in front of digitized Chinese landscapes, an ambiguous message in the background. Since 2006, the Chinese-American company Shen Yun, currently on tour in France, has broadcast vehement criticism of Beijing and conservative remarks worldwide through its grandiose shows. “Atheism and evolution, harmful theories. The poison of the Chinese Communist Party is a cancer.”

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In mid-February, in Tours, a soprano performed an ode to the divine in Mandarin, castigating “modern thoughts” which “corrupt” humanity. The words are translated into French on a giant screen. Some 2,000 won over spectators then witnessed a chase between pacifist demonstrators and Chinese police officers. Highlight of the show: one of the agents changes sides, because “he realizes that larger forces are perhaps at work”, we can read in the program. The demonstrators depicted in the show, which for months has been the subject of a strong promotional campaign online or on billboards in major French cities, are members of Falun Gong even if the posters do not specify this.

This spiritual movement created in 1992, which claims nearly 100 million followers and notably promotes qi gong, a slow gymnastics from traditional Chinese medicine, has had a mixed fate in China. First supported by Beijing, which saw in it a way to maintain the health of the population at a lower cost, it ended up being qualified as an “evil sect” by the Chinese regime when it wanted to develop outside the supervision of the Communist Party, overwhelmed by its success. China banned it in July 1999, a few months after 10,000 of its members surrounded the government headquarters without violence but for nearly 13 hours to demand the release of several followers. This demonstration, the largest in Beijing since the crushing of those at Tiananmen in 1989, completely took the Chinese authorities by surprise. Since then, “tens of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners have been arbitrarily detained and many of them have been tortured,” points out the NGO Amnesty International.

In January, the European Parliament passed a resolution on “the persistent persecution of Falun Gong in China”, ten years after having expressed its “deep concern about credible and incessant reports of systematic, non-consensual harvesting (.. .) organs” by Beijing on prisoners of conscience, including “a large number of Falun Gong followers”. Allegations frequently repeated by this movement, including during the show, but which the Chinese consulate in Marseille considered “fabricated” last year.

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Falun Gong, a “cancer of modern civilized society”, seeks to “overthrow the Chinese government”, assured the Chinese consulate, inviting the southern French public to “stay away” from the “political tool” that is Shen Yun. In 2008, the Chinese embassy in Sweden put pressure on the city of Stockholm to ban the show, in vain, the municipality told AFP. On its website, Shen Yun also reports repeated “threats”, especially financial “from the Chinese embassy in South Korea, sometimes accompanied by cancellations”.

Created in 2006 in New York by a group of Chinese artists, Shen Yun originally aimed to “revive 5,000 years of traditional Chinese culture that Beijing almost managed to destroy,” according to the company, which claims to be independent and non-profit. In France, tickets for the show cost between 69 and 119 euros, with sometimes two daily sold-out performances in theaters with thousands of seats, which seems to generate solid revenue. Eight troupes perform simultaneously around the world. For nearly 800 annual performances and at least hundreds of thousands of spectators, from Japan to Puerto Rico via Italy.

Shen Yun is a “false nose” used “to recruit new members, but with limited success among the Western public who totally ignore China, its history and its realities,” judges Marc Lebranchu, doctor at the CNRS, interviewed by the AFP. According to this specialist in Taoism and the development of Chinese practices, the show also aims to “promote the thought of Li Hongzhi”, the founder of Falun Gong, who despite being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and the Sakharov Prize of the European Parliament, stood out for his controversial remarks.

In an interview with Time magazine in 1999, Li Hongzhi posed in particular as the savior of humanity in the face of “aliens (having) begun to invade the human mind, its ideology and its culture”, some of which “resemble a human , but with a nose made of bones and others of ghosts. Li Hongzhi also described mixed-race people as “intellectually and bodily incomplete” and his movement harbors “not very tolerant” views on homosexuality, notes a report from the French organization National Union of Associations for the Defense of Families and Youth. individual victims of sects (Unadfi) published in 2017. A report written by Pascale Duval, spokesperson for Unadfi, after “several reports” of sectarian abuses within Falun Gong. However, no similar denunciation has reached her for at least five or six years, she assures.

Conversely, the movement is criticized for its proximity to the American ultraconservative movement. In 2018-2019, The Epoch Times, a media affiliated with Falun Gong, paid some 1.4 million euros for around 11,000 pro-Trump advertisements broadcast over six months on Facebook, some of which peddled conspiracy theories, according to NBC News . The Epoch Times’ X account in French also gives a large share to conservative French media. Shen Yun, in this sense, becomes a “mixture of anti-communist, anti-modern and retrograde discourse dressed in Chinese exoticism with Disney-Hollywood sauce (…) in the service of an ultra-conservative Americanized Chinese religious movement” , criticizes academic Marc Lebranchu.

Édouard, a 67-year-old retiree, saw none of this in Tours. Neither he nor his companion, amazed by “the interaction between the dancers and the digital paintings”, had heard of the persecution of Falun Gong, but “it is a reality and it must be known”, assures -he. Contacted on multiple occasions, the movement in France did not respond to AFP.