On Thursday evenings commuters bustling to their trains in downtown Chicago are hailed by two sets of hawkers handing out free weekly newspapers. One paper’s the Reader; the other is the mysterious Epoch Times. Few of the Chinese-American vendors who cry “Free, free” speak any more English than that.

The Epoch Times is a handsome broadsheet splashed with color and brimming with international news. There’s a smattering of local stories too, last week a piece on the Bears’ Kyle Orton and a survey of Chicago cafeterias. What the paper aspires to be–or at least to seem to be–is clear: graceful and eclectic reading, smartly presented. The motto on the masthead is almost Onion-worthy in its chipperness: “A fresh look at our changing world.” But the curious commuter who sticks with the paper will notice a focus on human rights and a preoccupation: it exists to denounce and discredit the Chinese Communist Party.

“Throughout its 80-plus years,” says the paper’s Web site, theepochtimes.com, “everything the CCP has touched has been marred with lies, wars, famine, tyranny, massacre and terror. Traditional faiths and principles have been violently destroyed. Original ethical concepts and social structures have been disintegrated by force. Empathy, love and harmony among people have been twisted into struggle and hatred.”

That’s a quote from “Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party,” a series of reports the Epoch Times published last fall that won it a national award from the Asian American Journalists Association. One of the reports focused on the persecution of Falun Gong in China. “At least 1,143 Falun Gong practitioners have died from persecution in the last five years,” it stated. “The brutal tortures…are many and varied. Beating, whipping, electric shock torture, freezing, tying with ropes, handcuffing and shackling for extended periods, burning with open flame, lit cigarettes or hot irons, being cuffed and hung up, being forced to stand or kneel down for a long time, being jabbed with bamboo sticks or metal wires, sexual abuse, and rape are just a handful of examples.”

Falun Gong is a spiritual movement–or, according to the Chinese government, a dangerous cult. It dates back to 1992, when Li Hongzhi–described in a 2001 Time article as a “former trumpet player and grain clerk”–combined elements of Buddhism, Taoism, and Qigong. Li Hongzhi left the country in 1995 and now lives in the States, but he’d sown a whirlwind. The “traditional morality” he preached–of truth, compassion, and tolerance–resonated with millions of Chinese, and in a February 1999 article U.S. News & World Report stated that he’d amassed some 60 million followers, more than the Communist Party had. The government was uneasy, the article said, but leaning toward co-optation. But that April some 10,000 “practitioners” unhappy with the way Falun Gong was being portrayed in the state-controlled press stunned top government officials by materializing outside their compound in Beijing, meditating silently for 12 hours, then disappearing. The rattled government soon ordered mass arrests.

“Worried that a cancerous religion was infecting its atheist state,” Ian Johnson of the Wall Street Journal wrote the following April in a series of articles on Falun Gong that would win a Pulitzer Prize, “Beijing declared Falun Gong an ‘evil cult’ last July and formally banned it.” By 2001 Time could report that “meeting by meeting, person by person, through a vast chain reaction of threats, slaps, intimidation and violence, China’s Communist Party has broken Falun Gong.”

Maybe. Maybe not. In 2000 a group of practitioners retaliated, choosing a name evocative of the new millennium and launching the Epoch Times as a Chinese-language newspaper distributed in expatriate communities. The paper’s representatives insist the Epoch Times isn’t controlled by Falun Gong and doesn’t speak for Falun Gong–though contributions from individual Falun Gong practioners help keep it afloat. What’s certain is that if China hadn’t put its foot on Falun Gong’s neck the Epoch Times wouldn’t exist. Now it boasts in promotional materials that it’s the “most widely distributed newspaper in the world,” publishing in eight languages in 29 countries, with a worldwide circulation of 1.5 million. The Chinese-language Epoch Times published in Chicago comes out in a tiny Tuesday edition pretty much limited to Chinatown and in a Friday edition of 23,000 copies that circulate in 14 states.

The English-language Epoch Times was launched last year in New York, where it’s headquartered. It came to Chicago in February. Most of this city’s 10,000 copies are given away in the Loop and on the Gold Coast each Thursday, but small numbers are sent to Milwaukee, Madison, Minneapolis, and Saint Louis–and, when the General Assembly is in session, to legislators’ offices in Springfield.

In a statement submitted to a subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives last July, Stephen Gregory, chairman of the board of the English-language Epoch Times, made the remarkable claim that after the paper published “Nine Commentaries” some three million Chinese renounced their membership in the CCP, most by visiting a Web site the paper set up for that purpose. The number would have been much bigger, he said, but most Chinese don’t have access to the Internet.

Gregory told the subcommittee about a 2001 incident in which thugs beat one practitioner demonstrating outside the Chinese consulate at Clark and Erie and threatened to kill another. “The Epoch Times laid out, for everyone to see, the details of the beating,” he said, including links between the attackers and the consulate. The next year similar links were cited in a federal lawsuit filed by about 50 Falun Gong practitioners across the country who accused the Chinese government of conspiring to harass them. The suit is pending.

A Chicagoan, Gregory was until recently administrative coordinator of the University of Chicago’s Olin Center for Inquiry into the Theory and Practice of Democracy. He writes for and helps edit the Epoch Times, oversees the English edition’s opinion page, and chairs the frequent teleconferences of the edition’s six-person board. He’s been a practitioner since 1998. There’s an air of mild paranoia at the Epoch Times, and Gregory was at first reluctant to talk to me.

“The media aren’t doing a good job covering the persecutions in China,” he said, explaining why the Epoch Times is necessary. “The Chinese government hasn’t been subtle about letting the media organizations know that if they don’t print the kinds of stories it wants, they won’t be able to report and distribute. Everyone wants to get rich in China. You can see that in the behavior of Google and Yahoo.”

As a vast, irresistible business opportunity, China can write its own rules and expect the world to respect them. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported this year that China “continues to be the world’s leading jailer of journalists,” with 42 behind bars at the end of 2004, yet “private companies, both foreign and domestic, have overwhelmingly demonstrated complacency toward government censorship.” CPJ also noted that Yahoo has “censored its search engine in China” and that Google’s new Chinese-language news service “doesn’t display Web sites blocked by Chinese authorities.” The CPJ report recalled that in 2002 a Cisco spokesman told Newsweek, “If the Chinese government wants to monitor Internet users, that’s their business.”

Last April, according to CPJ, a Chinese journalist who’d discussed media restrictions in e-mails was sentenced to ten years in prison for “leaking state secrets abroad.” A Yahoo subsidiary provided information that helped the government make its case, and a spokesman told CPJ that “just like any other global company, Yahoo must ensure that its local country sites must operate within the laws, regulations and customs of the country in which they are based.”

Like any other burgeoning world power, China doesn’t let its influence lapse at its frontiers. CPJ reported that to protect its relationship with China the government of Malaysia was confiscating editions of the Epoch Times. In 2001 the Jamestown Foundation reported that China was buying into Chinese-language media in the U.S., offering free content, and leveraging advertising dollars–all to manipulate coverage. In 2002 the mayor of Santee, California, told the Washington Times he’d received a letter from the consul general in Los Angeles expressing “our hope that your city, by taking your citizens’ interest into consideration, will earnestly consider the request from the Chinese side that no recogni-tion and support in any form should be given to the Falun Gong cult organization.”

A piece by Mick Dumke in this week’s Reader tells us a resolution condemning the CCP for religious persecution was tabled last week by the City Council’s human relations committee. An Epoch Times executive who showed up for the vote guessed that the Chinese embassy in Washington had interceded.

I called the embassy and asked for a comment on the Epoch Times. “It’s a propaganda tool,” said a spokeswoman. “They’re just spreading rumors.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.