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The War against Cults in China

Last year a lady was queuing in McDonald’s in Shandong Province in eastern China. While she was waiting, she sent a text message to a friend saying she had just seen some rather strange people who had rudely accosted her. Moments later she was beaten to death by these same people before horrified onlookers as they shouted: “She has a demon!” Her “crime” was she had not wanted to give them her mobile number and other private details.

Her attackers were members of the ultra-secretive cult formerly known as Eastern Lightning but now calling itself The Church of Almighty God. The Chinese government acted swiftly; the perpetrators were arrested and two were later sentenced to death. At the same time, a massive nation-wide swoop arrested hundreds of other cult members. The action was reminiscent of the similar crack down in 1999 when Beijing ruthlessly crushed the Falungong cult whose members had dared to demonstrate by the thousands outside the very gates of the top leaders’ residential compound.

China has been experiencing a major revival of religious faith—especially Buddhism and Protestant Christianity—since the Mao days when all religious expression was completely suppressed. However, at the same time there has been an upsurge in cults, many of them quite bizarre.

This is nothing new. For centuries, going back as far as the Han dynasty two thousand years ago, when the Red Eyebrows cult was a major force, China’s ruling elite have struggled to contain and, if necessary, suppress fanatical religious movements. Many have proved a serious threat to the ruling dynasty. It should not be forgotten that it was the support of the Buddhist White Lotus societies which helped the first Ming Emperor to overthrow the hated Mongol Yuan dynasty in 1368. On assumption of power, he turned against the secret societies, but they survived for centuries to come.

China’s Communist Party is officially atheistic, but persecution of religion and sectarian activity can be traced back many hundreds of years to Confucian scholar-officials who had a deep, and well-founded, suspicion of Buddhist and Daoist cults. In times of famine, official corruption, and oppression from harmless benevolent societies, these easily turned into foci for armed revolt against the ruling dynasty. China’s rulers have a long historical memory which is foreign to newer nations such as the United States. China’s present Communist bureaucrats have not forgotten the devastating effects of the pseudo-Christian Taiping Rebellion in the mid-19th century which came near to overthrowing the reigning Qing (Manchu) dynasty. Hong Xiuquan was a failed Confucian scholar who had visions of God and Jesus and formed a movement which destroyed all idol temples and viewed the Qing dynasty as demonic. It conquered Nanjing, nearly took Beijing, and was only crushed with foreign aid. Some 20 million people perished in the process. It is little wonder that today local Communist officials view unregistered house churches with suspicion, and that at the highest level Christianity is still often viewed as subversive. This may explain the sudden, vicious campaign of demolitions of churches and crosses in the heartland of Protestant revival in Zhejiang Province since early last year (2014). The persecution is inexcusable, but it may at least be based partly on the deeply embedded fear that Christianity, and more particularly pseudo-Christian cults, may become tools of political subversion for which the Taiping  Rebellion is the all too real prototype.

What exactly constitutes a “cult” in China? For centuries, Confucian bureaucrats were on the lookout for groups which were seen as xie—heretical or unorthodox. This included, as we have seen, extreme Buddhist and Daoist sects and secret societies as well as Christianity at times. The Communist Party is the heir to this tradition. The Party’s religious policy is based on the dubious assumption that there are only five tolerated and acceptable religions in the country—Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Catholicism (but only the state-controlled variety—not the genuine Vatican-based Roman Catholicism), and Protestantism. As China has opened her doors over the last three decades, pragmatic adjustments have been made to allow adherents of Russian Orthodoxy and perhaps Judaism to also worship. However, this Party-imposed straitjacket hardly allows room for manoeuvre for the myriad religions of the many people now legally entering China on business, or as tourists or teachers, or for the many other faiths already existing or springing up at grassroots level.

“Feudal superstition” has been a target for officialdom since the days of Mao. Yet how in practice can illegal superstition be differentiated from “orthodox,” state-tolerated Daoism and Buddhism which also contain many superstitions and magical practices? “Cults” in China are generally seen by the government as subversive, anti-Party, secretive groups which are led by charismatic charlatans given to immoral womanizing and fleecing their flocks out of money and property. Once labelled, such groups and leaders find it virtually impossible to assert their innocence. The arbitrariness of the state’s actions regarding cults can be seen in its attitude to Falungong. For years, this syncretistic movement gathered millions of supporters quite legally, holding mass rallies in stadiums which thousands attended, including top Party officials. Millions of cassettes and DVDs were distributed across the country. Yet a few months after supporters peacefully (if unwisely) demonstrated in the heart of Beijing, the movement was savagely suppressed and driven underground. What caused this dramatic volte-face? The main reason was that Falungong was now seen to be a political threat with the ability to infiltrate the Communist Party itself. It can be argued the Party took a sledge-hammer to crack a nut and actually helped create the very underground movement it feared.

The difficulties of applying these unclear and subjective definitions of what constitutes a cult are illustrated by what happened some years ago in regard to the Mentuhui—the Disciples Church (or cult). The Three Self Patriotic Movement sent out two investigative teams at government bequest. One group returned and reported the group was a harmless house-church movement. The other reported back that they were a highly dangerous cult. In another case, when many house churches in Inner Mongolia were infiltrated and taken over by the dangerous Eastern Lightning cult, it was the “orthodox” house-church Christians who had to flee from local officialdom who bizarrely turned a blind eye to cultic activities. The central government periodically issues regulations calling for a crack down on cults, but in practice, how this is implemented depends on the attitudes of local officials.

With the growth of house-church Christianity in Henan, Anhui, and other largely rural areas in the 1980s, there was simultaneously a growth of cults and sects. This can be explained by the rural poverty of many peasants, to whom apocalyptic messages about the destruction of the Communist Party, painted as Satan or the Red Dragon, and the coming of a new heaven on earth, were attractive. The last 30 years have seen vast upheavals economically and socially all over China. Millions have moved to the cities seeking their fortune. Many now enjoy a middle-class lifestyle, but there are still hundreds of millions of people in rural villages and city slums who have failed to get rich as promised by the Party. These people are ready fodder for bizarre cults. Some charismatic preachers have formed their own cults from a mishmash of Christian truth, only half-digested, and deep-rooted folk religion and superstition. Marxism and Maoism have failed, and although intellectuals often despise religious expression, many ordinary people are still deeply influenced by astrology, witchcraft, animism, and syncretistic superstitions taken from Buddhism, Daoism, and local cults.

According to some accounts, the Party itself was to blame when in 1983 it launched a massive “Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign.” Hundreds of house-church leaders were arrested and detained leaving a vacuum which was quickly filled by less well-educated or biblically taught leaders. Thus, the mid- and late-eighties saw the rise of several dangerous cults such as the Established King (Beili Wang), Disciples (Mentuhui), Lord God cult (Zhushenjiao), Three Grades of Servant (Sanban Puren), and others. In all these cases, charismatic leaders invented their own scriptures, maintained a cast-iron grip on their followers and often were sexually immoral and milked their devotees of cash and property. The Chinese government has suppressed these cults ruthlessly, executing several of their leaders. Wu Yangming, the founder of the Established King cult, was arrested in April 1994 and executed in September 1995. Liu Jiaguo, the founder of the Lord God cult, was executed in October 1999. Xu Shengguang, the founder of the Three Grades of Servant cult, was tried for the murder of rival cultists and executed in November 2006.

The cult which today has the most influence is without doubt Eastern Lightning or as it now calls itself, “The Church of Almighty God” (Quannengshen). Over the last three decades it has frequently changed its name. It has devotees in virtually every province and over the last decade or more has spread its influence overseas to North America and Europe. Last year it even took out a full-page advertisement in The Times in London.

Eastern Lightning was founded by Zhao Weishan, from Heilongjiang in northeast China, in the early 1990s. However, he soon moved the centre of his operations to Henan where he proclaimed the coming of the “Female Christ”—a woman believed to live near Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan. He later sought asylum in the United States from where he appears to control the cult. Its theology is simple: there are three ages in God’s timetable: the Age of Law, the Age of Grace and the Age of Judgement. The Bible is effectively dismissed as out of date, and the work of Christ to have largely failed. The focus is on calling people to escape God’s wrath poured out on China and the Communist Party and place their faith in the Chinese female Messiah. Salvation is by keeping God’s Law as expressed in the voluminous writings of the cult which are full of diatribes and cursing against unbelievers.

From the United States, where Zhao gained asylum in 2001 on the specious grounds of religious persecution in China, he appears to successfully mastermind the cult worldwide. Eastern Lightning is well-funded and prolific in its propaganda—several of its books contain over 1,000 pages. According to its own internal documents, this cult particularly targets leaders of evangelical house churches in preference to other Christians. It is condemned by both Christians in the registered and the unregistered church and is widely regarded by Chinese believers to be demonic in inspiration.

Its practices go far to bear this out. It specializes in intimidation, blackmail, physical violence and murder—as seen most recently in the case of the woman murdered in McDonald’s. People are lured into the cult by monetary incentives but find it almost impossible to leave.

Cult members are trained to infiltrate orthodox house churches as “moles.” For weeks or months they give every evidence of being devout Christians—praying, singing and using all the right, pious language. However, when they deem the time to be ripe, they target house-church leaders, inviting them to their own Bible studies to reveal “higher truth.” The revelation of the female Messiah is then gradually introduced. Christians have been kidnapped and brainwashed by the cult. Those who have resisted have been drugged and had compromising photos taken of them. They have then been threatened with blackmail and beaten.

Both Three Self (official) churches and house churches have circulated materials to counter Eastern Lightning. The cult has had a negative effect in other ways, apart from its sheep stealing. First, it has helped create a climate of fear and mistrust in some house churches which goes against the traditionally warm atmosphere of close fellowship they usually engender. Secondly, it and other cults have given an excuse to local authorities to crack down on perfectly orthodox house churches under the pretence they are heretical cults. In 2014, it seems that there has been an increase in the number of house churches facing persecution from being wrongly so labelled.

Chinese Christians agree that only sound biblical teaching can expose the cults. The recent action by the Chinese government will only have forced Eastern Lightning further underground as has happened with Falungong. Criminal actions should be punished, but only love and patient explanation of the true gospel can win back the thousands who have been led along this dark road.

Image Credit: ShanghaiDaily

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Tony Lambert

Tony Lambert is the director for research, Chinese ministries, for OMF International and the author of China's Christian Millions, The Resurrection of the Chinese Church and the recently published Pray for China! A 30 Day Prayer Guide.View Full Bio