China's Anti-Cult Campaign in Context

In late April, reports filtered out from China that about 100 leaders of the evangelical China Gospel Fellowship -- a major house church grouping that claims some four million members -- had been arrested by the police. Soon after, contradictory but more reliable reports said these key leaders had almost certainly been kidnapped by the sinister Lightning from the East (LFE) cult in a carefully orchestrated strategy.

This bizarre event shows how confusing the situation can be for Chinese Christians -- and even more so for overseas observers.

Some Western Christians who tend to always place blame on the Chinese authorities were brought up short. As the Chinese government's crackdown on cults continues and reports of both cultic activity and of persecution of genuine house church believers continue to emerge, it is necessary to stand back, take stock, and analyze the entire situation. It is crucial for Western Christians and those concerned for human rights not to jump to ill-informed conclusions but to see often confusing and contradictory events in their overall context.

The Reality of Cults in China Today
The vast revival of religion since the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) has spawned a bewildering variety of sects, cults and new religions. Maoist ideology has failed to satisfy Chinese spiritual aspirations. The void has filled with a plethora of religious sects, which the government has growing difficulty in categorizing.

If some 70 percent of the population are peasants, then over 800 million people are living in semi-literacy and poverty, prone to superstition, witchcraft and magic.

The five religions tolerated by the authorities -- Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism -- are like icebergs floating in a murky ocean that conceals depths of folk-religion, bizarre cults and outright fanaticism. Witches and shamans beat the spirits out of possessed or mentally ill patients. People die because of exorcisms and false promises of faith healing.

In late 1998, members of the pseudo-Christian cult Lightning from the East "armed with daggers, steel bars, and powdered lime lured their victims out of their villages under the pretext of praying for the relief of illness, but disfigured their victims, breaking their legs and cutting off their ears," a May 2000 Tianfeng article stated. LFE's belief that Christ has returned as a Chinese woman living in Henan province is completely heretical from a Christian standpoint, but not necessarily a punishable offense. However, any government would take action against those who rape, steal, injure and even murder under the cloak of sectarian religious activities.

The Historical Background
The Chinese have a long history -- and a long memory. The government is well aware that over the centuries most dynasties fell when impoverished and desperate peasants formed into religious cults and secret societies that sooner or later mutated into open rebellion. The Red Turbans and the White Lotus were examples of Daoist or Buddhist sects that rose up against the emperor.

However, the most recent rebellion came from the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, which seized Nanjing as its capital from the decadent Manchu Qing dynasty in 1853 and was only suppressed 11 years later at the cost of 20 million lives. The Taiping "emperor," Hong Xiuquan, was a failed Confucian scholar who had read a Christian tract and had visions that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ, sent to this earth to destroy the "demon" Manchus.

Many missionaries were initially impressed by the Taiping fervor for the Ten Commandments and the Sabbath Day. Could this be God's means for the evangelization of China? But Hong's brutal slaughter of his opponents and his vast harem brought bitter disillusionment.

Today, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) no longer extols the Taipings as peasant revolutionaries as in the radical Maoist years. The CCP is poised to welcome capitalists and entrepreneurs into its ranks. Some Party cadres wear designer suits and hold lavish banquets costing more than 10 years' income of the average farmer.

China already has a huge number of rural unemployed. Urban unemployment is expected to triple over the next four years as reforms initiated by China's membership in the World Trade Organization bankrupt uncompetitive industries, according to an April 29 Reuters/China Daily report. Only three years ago, Beijing was rocked by the demonstrations of 10,000 Falun Gong supporters outside the CCP leadership compound.

Is it any wonder that the suppression of sects and cults, seen as the spawning ground of political disaffection and rebellion, is now a top priority for what has become an intensely conservative and reactive rather than proactive regime? "Unity and Stability" at all costs has become the CCP's mantra.

Defining Cults
In April 2000 the Ministry of Public Security defined a cult as any organization which:

Sets up an illegal organization in the false name of religion.

Deifies its leaders.

Fabricates and spreads superstition and heterodox beliefs to excite doubts and deceive the people and recruits and controls its members by these means.

Systematically disturbs social order and injures the lives and property of citizens.

This is a catch-all list of regulations that can be used to ban virtually any religious organization. Most house churches can be falsely labeled cults under the first, third and fourth points. All house churches that have not registered are illegal and members are potentially liable to arrests and fines. Those that spread the gospel vigorously can be accused of spreading heterodox beliefs and recruiting followers.

In practice, the CCP has so far listed 14 cults as illegal, in addition to Falun Gong. Of these, 12 are "Christian" and only two are Buddhist. Of the "Christian" cults, many are heretical by orthodox Christian standards.

For instance, the founder of the Lingling cult, Hua Xuehe, claimed he was the "Second Jesus." The founder of the Lord God cult, Liu Jiaguo, claimed to be the "Lord God," swindled believers out of 400,000 RMB and raped 19 women. Wu Yangming, the founder of the Established King cult, also claimed to be the Messiah and raped many women.

The Shouters or Local Church, based in California, was founded by Witness Lee, Watchman Nee's right-hand-man. Although on the fringes of the Christian world in that they hold a very narrow view of themselves as the only true church and Lee's views on the Trinity have been criticized, many consider them to be Bible-believing Christians. Viewed with suspicion by most evangelicals, for years they have operated freely in the U.S., Taiwan and other countries. However, in China they are banned -- probably because of Lee's strong anti-communist views.

The Total Scope Church, also known as the New Birth Church, was founded by Xu Yongze and has grown to many millions. This house church has been criticized both by the Three Self state church and by other more conservative house churches as being a cult.

There is certainly evidence of "sheep-stealing" and of high pressure on new converts, forcing them to weep and wail while confessing a whole list of sins. However, a fair assessment would be that the group is extreme in practice, rather than heretical in doctrine. Xu and many members have been imprisoned at different times and the church strongly persecuted.

Orthodox House Churches
Orthodox unregistered house churches are placed in a peculiarly difficult position at present. The mere fact of not being registered means they are technically illegal and may suffer the full weight of the law.

In practice, conditions vary considerably. In some areas, the authorities turn a blind eye. Many house churches operate semi-openly, their leaders and places of worship known to local police and officials, but meetings are relatively undisturbed. In other areas, they have to meet secretly or "underground."

The government relies to some extent on local official church leaders in the Three Self Patriotic Movement, China Christian Council or Patriotic Catholic Association to keep them informed of all religious activities. In areas where these "patriotic" religious leaders are sympathetic to their unregistered counterparts, a compromise ensues.

One patriotic Catholic bishop was even allowing his pro-Vatican underground counterpart to hold training seminars in his church. However, in areas where the local official clergy are hostile to house churches, they may spy, inform and encourage the police to arrest house church leaders, falsely labeling them as cults.

In many places, Religious Affairs Bureau officials may be knowledgeable about Christianity and the orthodoxy of unregistered house churches. However, in some rural areas they are incredibly ignorant. A few months ago, police arrested house church believers in western China because they were kneeling to pray. Police automatically labeled them as belonging to the Falun Gong cult.

Clear Distinctions
The Chinese government should not arbitrarily label groups "heretical," China watchers say. Government at all levels should allow full religious freedom, only intervening if criminal activity has been undertaken by a religious organization.

In China, the tradition of Confucian state orthodoxy has been overlaid by the orthodoxy of "Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong thought" that is basically hostile to all religions. Only mainstream religions as defined by the state are tolerated. The state wrongly arrogates to itself the right to label religious groups as orthodox or heterodox. It still regards "freedom of religious belief" as a privilege to be granted by the CCP rather than as a basic human right.

The whole bureaucratic structure of control of religion by the CCP through the Religious Affairs Bureau and the compliant patriotic religious associations is inimical to genuine religious freedom and increasingly anachronistic as China continues to open up in so many other fields.

The CCP should recognize that genuine Christian faith makes good citizens. It should cease persecuting house church believers. It should also realize that religious heterodoxy is no excuse for the government to breach human rights.

On the other hand, Christians overseas need to recognize the reality of cults in China today. They should not demonize the Chinese authorities nor dismiss every report of cultic activity as disinformation. They need to recognize that unregistered groups cover a wide spectrum from perfectly orthodox Christians to the lunatic and criminal fringe.

Perhaps above all they need to distinguish wider human rights from purely Christian issues. They will rightly wish to support Christians wrongly imprisoned for their faith. But what about Tibetan Buddhist nuns tortured in prison? While assessing Falun Gong as a dangerous cult from a Christian perspective, will they nevertheless speak out against the reported death in Chinese police custody of over 100 Falun Gong followers?

To this end they may like to ask the following questions whenever a case of purported religious persecution is reported and action urged:

Is the report reliable? Is it exaggerated? Has it been confirmed? What is the motive behind spreading this report? (e.g.: Is it anti-communist propaganda with a political motivation?)

Is the Chinese government right in labeling a group as criminal or cultic?

Is the group or leader genuinely Christian and biblically-based?

If the group is "heretical," to what extent? Is it merely extreme in some aspects?

Even if it is heretical, does that justify government persecution? (We may regard some as heretical, but all operate freely in Western society. Should China be allowed a double standard in criminalizing many fringe religious groups?)

If a crime has been committed, does it justify fines, imprisonment, or even the death sentence?

If certain leaders or members of a group have been rightly found guilty of criminal activities, does this mean that all the members of the group are necessarily guilty and should also be outlawed or punished?

Is this a case which as a Christian: (a) I can wholeheartedly pray for and challenge the Chinese government about? If so, what is the wisest course of action that will most help the persecuted group or individual? (b) I have some reservations about, and need more information before I can wholeheartedly support. (c) I recognize is heretical or non-Christian but nevertheless is a gross miscarriage of justice.