China's state security apparatus may have set its sights on a new target -- fringe religious groups.
- By Bethany Allen-EbrahimianBethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a Tea Leaf Nation Fellow at Foreign Policy. Before joining Foreign Policy, she lived and worked in China for more than four years, including one year studying at Peking University in Beijing. Allen-Ebrahimian holds an M.A. in East Asian studies from Yale University and a graduate certificate from the Johns Hopkins-Nanjing University Center for Chinese and American Studies.
On the evening of May 28, five alleged cult members bludgeoned a woman to death at a McDonald’s in China’s eastern province of Shandong. The adherents of the cult, called the Church of Almighty God, had attempted to recruit the woman to join their sect, then viciously attacked her after she refused to give them her phone number. Caught on video, the attack has sparked online outrage across China, directed both at onlookers and McDonald’s staff who made no attempt to save the woman’s life, as well as at the continued existence of the banned, openly anti-Communist Party cult.
Chinese state media has responded to the violent murder and subsequent outcry with a steady drumbeat of articles calling for a crackdown on religious sects. On June 3, state news agency Xinhua ran a front-page piece providing the names, descriptions, and "social harms" of 14 officially identified "evil religions," or cults. In addition to the Shouter’s Cult, affiliated with the Church of Almighty God, other cults include the Apprentice Society, founded in the central province of Shaanxi in 1989 and which the article claims now boasts around 300,000 followers. The Apprentice Society encourages adherents to spend days in prayer instead of working, and discourages them from seeking medical care when ill.
Also making the list is the Unification Church, well known in the United States and founded by the late South Korean businessman and media mogul Sun Myung Moon — the article characterizes "collective marriage" as one of the religious sect’s "social harms." A similar June 3 article run by party mouthpiece People’s Daily included a rare mention of Falun Gong, an offshoot of Buddhism that became the target of a crackdown in 1999 after members organized a large-scale political protest in Beijing; its name and related terms are subject to stringent censorship in China.
Chinese authorities have long been wary of religious sects. The 19th-century Taiping Rebellion, a violent uprising led by a man claiming to be the younger brother of Jesus, lasted for 14 years and resulted in the deaths of over 20 million people. During the Cultural Revolution, a period of political chaos and violent social upheaval in the 1960s and 1970s, authorities and grassroots militants alike heavily persecuted religion in any form. In 2012, Chinese authorities rounded up 500 members of the Church of Almighty God for preaching the idea of an imminent global apocalypse.
To be sure, China is far from the only country that is home to fringe religious groups, as state media has been swift to point out: Eight of the 14 cults listed in the Xinhua article were founded outside of mainland China. According to the state-run Global Times, Zhao Weishan fled to the United States in the 1990s after Chinese authorities banned the sect, while a People’s Daily article on June 5 called the United States a "stronghold for the breeding of cults." Apart from using this to score political points against the United States, the articles have a simple message: "Don’t let cults lead you astray" — or else.