China Still Exists; Beijing’s Doomsday Problem Persists

The People’s Republic of China, like the rest of the world, still existed as of 19:30 PST on December 21st, 2012. U.F.O.-watchers had gathered in Hunan, anti-cult organisations had issued reassuring text messages, and the United Nations’ had denied on its official Sina Weibo account that it sold tickets for an ark. Meanwhile, the number of ‘Almighty God’ “cultists” detained by authorities reached 1,000 on Thursday. From Reuters:

In recent weeks, hundreds of members of the Almighty God group have clashed with police, sometimes outside government buildings, in central Henan, northern Shaanxi and southwestern Gansu provinces, according to photos on popular microblogs.

The government says it is a cult calling for a “decisive battle” to slay the “Red Dragon” Communist Party, and which has been spreading doomsday alerts related an old Mayan calendar seen by some as predicting “the end of the world” on December 21.

Police have now detained around 1,000 members the Almighty God group across some seven provinces, the People’s Daily reported on its website on Thursday, saying about 400 of them had been detained in the remote western province of Qinghai.

The group is also accused, according to Global Times, of “encouraging people to donate all of their belongings” to its leaders before the end arrived, a strategy also suggested by sceptical astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.

At The New York Review of Books, Ian Johnson argued that the crackdown reflects the Beijing’s growing uncertainty in the face of a broader religious resurgence.

It would be easy to see this as just a Chinese version of the global Mayan craze. And given the problems facing Xi Jinping, China’s new leader—among them a slowing economy and escalating tensions with maritime neighbors—groups like the Almighty God might seem like a sideshow.

But this would be a mistake. Following decades of suppression, religious movements have become a potent force in China, attracting hundreds of millions of Chinese. This has made groups like Almighty God a growing challenge for the new government. Above all, Beijing is struggling with the question of social control—how much it can continue to wield over an increasingly wealthy, educated, and assertive population.

Religion has become a focus for these tensions because China is undergoing a religious revival driven in part by widespread concern that age-old Chinese values have been eroded by “getting rich is glorious” economic modernization. Organized religion and other spiritual movements, such as Confucianism and efforts to protect traditional culture, are rapidly gaining traction. Many religious groups have decided they can’t wait for government approval and are simply organizing and seeing how the chips fall. To a surprising degree, they have succeeded: unregistered churches, lay Buddhist organizations, and clan-based charities have all developed under the government’s radar screen.

Much of the government’s unease arises from fear of foreign agitation, illustrated repeatedly by its insistence that the Dalai Lama is behind Tibetan self-immolations, and again this week by a set of leaked instructions on dealing with foreign missionary activity. From William Wan at The Washington Post:

The 16-page notice — obtained this month by a U.S.-based Christian group — uses language from the cold war era to depict a conspiracy by “overseas hostile forces” to infiltrate Chinese campuses under the guise of academic exchanges while their real intent is to use religion in “westernizing and dividing China.”

[…] The document talks about infiltration by religion as a whole, but it singles out Christianity as particularly dangerous and the United States as leading the effort. No other country or religion is mentioned by name.

[…] In the document, authorities warn that foreigners are using academic research, study abroad, English-language instruction and charitable work as pretexts to spread religion among China’s youths. “The intensity of infiltration is increasing,” the document reads. “You must not underestimate the current harm and the long-term effect of such phenomenon and you must take forceful measures.”

Religious groups were also described as a U.S.-backed threat in an essay which provoked fierce criticism after appearing in the overseas edition of People’s Daily in July. But discussing the leaked document on his Sinostand blog, the Economic Observer’s Eric Fish suggested that the authorities have mistaken the goals of missionary activity in China.

As the document suggests, there are indeed thousands of these people in China; many of whom conduct activities that would raise legal issues even in Western democracies. I heard stories of teachers requiring students to attend Bible studies in order to pass their class. Many used Christian teaching materials and held English classes based on Biblical themes. I even heard about a teacher requiring his students to put on a play about the seven deadly sins that featured Jesus lugging a crucifix.

But a few things jumped out at me from this document. The first was how the government still fundamentally misunderstands what motivates Christian missionaries. To some degree, this is understandable. Chinese officials tend to be pragmatic worldly people with little exposure to religion. The idea that someone would spend so much time and resources changing others’ beliefs for no tangible reason makes no sense. That these missionaries feel duty-bound to a supernatural deity and believe they’re literally saving their converts just doesn’t register. Clearly, there must be some devious political agenda beneath that pious surface.

There are indeed those like Bob Fu who have explicit regime-change goals, but they seem to be a small minority. Most seem to consciously avoid even mentioning politics. They may expend disproportionate effort on students with political ambitions, but this is more in hopes of getting religious policy relaxed, not overthrowing the entire system.