This week a Chinese court gave the death penalty to five members of a Chinese cult called the Church of the Almighty God, also known as Eastern Lightning. The condemned were found guilty of beating a woman to death in a McDonald’s, after she refused to give them her phone number. They were trying to recruit her for the cult, which claims to have “millions” of members. The BBC has more:
The public face of the Church of the Almighty God is a website full of uplifting hymns and homilies. But its core belief is that God has returned to earth as a Chinese woman to wreak the apocalypse.The only person who claims direct contact with this god is a former physics teacher, Zhao Weishan, who founded the cult 25 years ago and has since fled to the United States, correspondents say.Since the killing, Chinese authorities say they have detained hundreds of members of the cult.
The strong Chinese reaction against splinter groups—in this case, five death sentences—sometimes surprises Western observers, but we only need to look to China’s history to see why such groups give Beijing officials the willies. In the 19th-century, the catastrophic Taiping Rebellion involved a group not wholly unlike the Church of the Almighty God. In that rebellion a millenarian sect lead by Hong Xiuquan claiming to be the younger brother of Jesus, rose up against the Qing dynasty. At least twenty million people died in the ensuing conflict.Eastern Lightning, like its Taiping predecessor, grounds itself in Christian texts and ideas. The “god” now born as a woman to bring the apocalypse is seen by the sect as the third in a series: Yahweh, who gave the Old Testament; Jesus who came to save humanity and now the third has come to judge the human race and bring the end of the world. The rapid growth of this movement shows the degree to which many Chinese feel alienated from the official ideology, the appeal of Christian messages in China, and the sense of popular unease as China changes rapidly. There is nothing here to make Beijing feel good.There’s another reason that the rise of an apocalyptic cult would be of such concern. China’s long history of rising and falling dynasties has given rise to a school of historical analysis that looks for patterns in Chinese history. This approach, shared by many ordinary people and many distinguished Chinese intellectuals down through the ages, seeks to identify recurring features of the decline and fall phase of a dynasty’s cycle. The rise of apocalyptic religious cults is one of the classic signs of dynastic decadence, as is the rise of a pervasive culture of corruption among officials and the spread of local unrest. That’s not a picture that Beijing likes and President Xi is working hard to fight these perceptions as he works to retool the Communist “dynasty” for the 21st century. We should expect to see continued vigilance and harsh crackdowns against this group—and not just this group but even more “mainstream” Christian churches as well. To Western Christians, the distance between their faith and eccentric cults is clear, but this isn’t necessarily as clear to President Xi and his allies.Meanwhile, Christianity in both orthodox and heterodox varieties is spreading rapidly in China, and the ruling party doesn’t know which to fear more: apocalyptic death cults or regular Christian faith. The democracy movement that ended military rule in South Korea drew on that country’s powerful Christian churches. Even closer to home, the Hong Kong democracy movement features many Christians.There have been many signs of greater official pressure against the growing Christian presence in China. From Xi’s point of view this may all be part of a necessary set of policy changes aimed at stabilizing and modernizing Communist Party rule. Xi wants to revive and restore “authentic” Chinese religious and cultural traditions and the state is pushing a Confucian revival and giving Buddhism a helping hand in the competition with both Christianity and Islam. In this light, Xi looks more like the Emperor Diocletian, the last Roman Emperor to fight Christianity as a danger to the empire, than like a Chinese Constantine, who sought an alliance with the church to bolster a troubled state.However, if Christianity in China continues to boom, and if the problems of modernity continue to shake society and the state to their foundations, a future Chinese leader could well take the Constantinian path. That choice that would have far reaching consequences inside China and beyond, and a better relationship between the Christian churches and the Chinese state may ultimately be a necessary part of China’s modernization. We are not there yet, and President Xi looks set to play his hand according to a very traditional set of Chinese ideas. Whether he can renovate and strengthen the post-Mao order in China is impossible to predict, but he is very determined to try. If Xi has anything to say about it, there will be no new Taiping Rebellions on his watch, and foreign religions with subversive political ideas will be held at bay.