With the government cracking down on apocalypse rumors this week, rounding up members of an outlawed cult known as the Church of Almighty God, The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos explores the Communist Party’s uneasy relationship with spiritual movements and its attempts to discredit them:
China has a long history of religion-infused political rebellions, dating at least to the nineteenth century, when a group called the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom attempted to overthrow the emperor. But these days the Party is especially uncomfortable with obscure religious beliefs because, in the post-Socialist era, many in China have begun to hunt for something to believe. At times, it can feel like half the people at a dinner table are trying out a new guru. In my neighborhood the other day, I was walking down a hutong that hugs the eastern wall of the Confucius Temple, when I came upon a new set of official posters on the bulletin board. They were cartoons with big-headed smiling figures and puffy comic-book writing, beneath the title, “Be On The Lookout for Cults, Build Harmony.”
This was the latest offering from the government body known as the Beijing Counter-Cult Association. The association seems to be especially busy in our neighborhood because it’s ground zero for spiritual activity of one kind or another in the capital. In addition to the Confucius Temple, it is home to the Lama Temple (Beijing’s largest Tibetan monastery) and it has several blocks of fortune tellers. The new posters contained a set of instructions: “Countermeasures for the Falun Gong’s Everyday Tricks of Trouble-Making and Destruction.”
It’s been thirteen years since China cracked down on the Falun Gong spiritual movement, arresting practitioners and pressuring them to renounce their beliefs. (The group’s status was the subject of a hearing this week before the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.) But China maintains a fierce opposition to the group, and the posters provided a sense of how the government perceives that kind of threat.
In response to Osnos’ piece, historian Jeffrey Wasserstrom of the University of California-Irvine commented that China’s history of doomsday cults stretches back far before the Taiping Rebellion. Meanwhile, The New York Times’ Andrew Jacobs has more on the Church of Almighty God:
Critics, including clerics from established Christian congregations, accuse Almighty God evangelists of strong-arm conversion tactics that include kidnapping and study sessions lasting days that they describe as brainwashing. Among the group’s central tenets is a belief that the messiah has arrived and that she is in hiding somewhere in China.
To protect themselves from near-constant persecution, congregants do not know one another’s names and instead call one another by nicknames like “Doggy” and “Little White Rabbit,” according to a report last week in China Business View. The church seems to have especially alarmed Chinese leaders by prophesizing the coming demise of the Great Red Dragon, its evocative code name for the ruling Communist Party.