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Lecture by Massimo Introvigne: Persecuting the Church of Almighty God as a Xie Jiao in China
What Is a Xie Jiao?
On September 15-16, 2017, I was among the speakers of a conference at the University of Hong Kong on the Chinese notion of xie jiao. The aim of the conference, which followed a closed door seminar organized in Zhengzhou, Henan, in the previous month of June, was a dialogue between the Chinese Anti-xie-jiao Association, which is directly connected with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Chinese authorities and scholars, and Western scholars, on the notion of xie jiao and on one particular movement China regards as a xie jiao and banned since 1995, the Church of Almighty God.
Chinese and Western sources translate xie jiao as “evil cult,” but the translation problem was precisely at the heart of the conference. Xie jiao is an expression used since the times of the Ming Dynasty, well before the current controversies on “cults” (ter Haar 1992). The pendulum switched repeatedly from using it with a theological meaning, “heterodox beliefs,” or with a criminological one, “criminal religious movements,” or “religious movements conspiring to overthrow the government.” Today, China has adopted a list of xie jiao, whose members may be arrested and sentenced to imprisonment, or worse, for their normal religious practices, but the impression I derived from the conference is that, within the same Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the notion is unclear, notwithstanding attempts to provide legal definitions. The most recent attempt to date resulted in Rule 1 of the Interpretations on the Issues Concerning the Application of Laws in Criminal Cases Relating to Organizing and Utilizing Evil Organizations to Destroy Law Enforcement, issued on January 25, 2017, by the People’s Supreme Court and the Office of the People’s Supreme Attorney, interpreting Article 300 of the Criminal Code, which mentions xie jiao. These were defined as “illegal organizations, which, through fraudulent use of religion, qi gong, or any other name, by deifying and promoting their ringleaders, or by fabricating and spreading superstitious fallacies and other means to confuse and deceive others (…), control group members and harm society” (Chen 2017, 7–8). Obviously, this definition is vague and dangerous, since it does not clarify which religious beliefs are “superstitious fallacies.” Faced with these problems, it seems that within the same CCP there are at least three different schools or thought.
The first uses xie jiao in the traditional Chinese pre-Communist sense, asking the government to protect the “orthodox” beliefs and persecute the “heterodox” ones. A Christian pastor even seriously argued that a movement claiming to be Christian but denying the traditional notion of the Trinity should be regarded as xie jiao – and he meant regarded by the police and the courts, which is somewhat paradoxical in an officially irreligious state. From a Western point of view, this theory is obviously unacceptable. The government and the courts have no business in deciding which theological ideas are right and which are wrong. Religious liberty covers all sort of beliefs, as “strange” as they may seem. Of course, the history of religions also shows that all religions were “new”when they were born, and were regarded as heretic and persecuted by the existing religious and political establishment. Typically, this happened to Christianity at its beginnings.
The second school is influenced by the Western anti-cult movement and is in touch with the international anti-cult federation FECRIS, which, particularly through its Russian branch, is in turn eager to gain some recognition in China, and with some American “professional” anti-cultists such as Rick Ross. Ross is a bizarre character who became a “deprogrammer,” i.e. somebody who kidnapped member of “cults” and tried to compel them to leave their religious movement, after a distinguished career in crime—he specialized in robbing jewelry shops (Justice Court, Northeast Phoenix Precinct, Maricopa County, Arizona 1975; Superior Court of the State of Arizona in and for the County of Maricopa 1975; Kastrow 1975; Superior Court of the State of Arizona, Criminal Division 1976). Apparently, however, he is taken seriously in China.
This school is happy to translate xie jiao as “cult” and to apply to the xie jiao the definitions of the anti-cultists, based on brainwashing. Here lies another paradox, because the idea of brainwashing was invented by American intelligence agents during the Cold War as a form of anti-Chinese propaganda. Brainwashing was something the evil Chinese Communists did. Of course, today in China few are aware of this origin of the word “brainwashing”—at the conference, we tried to remind them of it, and also to explain that the theory of brainwashing has been rejected as pseudo-science by mainline scholars and regarded as such by courts of law in the U.S. (Anthony and Introvigne 2006).
There is also a third school, which would accept to define xie jiao in behavioral terms, as groups that systematically commit serious common crimes. By “common crimes” we mean crimes punished by laws of general application, such as rape, homicide, or child abuse, not the imaginary crimes of “being a cult” or “practicing brainwashing.” It is the only school we can have a dialogue with. It seemed to have some adherents within the Chinese police, but we don’t know how seriously this position is taken by the higher spheres of CCP in Beijing. Also, even those who adopt this more acceptable definition of xie jiao include, within the serious crimes making a group a xie jiao, the fact of opposing the CCP, which shows how different are the legal categories in China with respect to the West. And all this discussion takes place under the shadow of a new Chinese law on religions that will come into force in February 2018. Unfortunately, it will further restrict religious liberty. A Hong Kong scholar described it as the worst Chinese law on religion in the last thirty years.
The vagueness of the definitions of creates, as Hong Kong scholar David Palmer explained, a dangerous situation, which opens the way to subjectivity and arbitrariness. A xie jiao is simply a group that the CCP, for whatever reason, does not like (Palmer 2012).
This does not mean that a government does not have the right to ban criminal organizations. Religious liberty does not protect groups that systematically commit common crimes. Of course, these crimes should be ascertained by independent courts of law through a fair trial. When a consistent criminal pattern emerges, a group can be banned, as it happens in the West for terrorist organizations, some of which claim to be motivated by religion.
Considering that members of groups labeled as xie jiao are exposed to harsh repression in China, I proposed this definition of a “criminal religious movement,” which is my preferred translation of xie jiao—a movement that can be rightfully banned: “a religious movement that either, or both, advocates or consistently engages as a group in major violent or criminal activities, including terrorism, homicide, physical violence against members, dissidents, or opponents, rape, sexual abuse of minors, or major economic crimes.”
First of all, scholars can (and perhaps should) advise authorities what criteria they should not use to identify “criminal religious movements” (CRM). They should not use the faulty notion of brainwashing, which, as decades of legal experiences show, would entangle them into intractable problems. And they should not use theological definitions based on questions of belief, doctrine, and heresy. For example, several groups within the Hindu or Buddhist, and some in the Christian, traditions, including the Church of the Almighty God, consider their leaders as “living gods” but, unless this is constructed as a license for the leaders to rape or beat the followers, the mere belief in the leader’s divinity is not criminal per se.
“Extremism” is also a vague and unacceptable standard. In the 2017 decision “liquidating” the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, a faulty notion of “extremism” was mentioned, regarding as “extremist” any group that argues that its is the only true religion and way of salvation and that all other religions are false. We find similar affirmations in the holy books of most religions, and religion in general is not where we can expect to find pluralistic and relativistic ideas of truth.
Let’s now examine five key elements of my definition of criminal religious movements. The definition does not purports to solve all the problems associated with defining “religion,” but at the same time stays away from attempts to label certain groups as “pseudo-religious,” which are either based on the naïve notion that all religions are by definition benign, or lead to very difficult questions about what is a “genuine” religion. For the functional purpose of the definition, a religious group is a group characterized by religious beliefs and practices, without investigating their orthodoxy, quality, or “strangeness.”
Second, the definition refers to crimes committed, advocated, or justified by a group as a group. It is not enough that some members of the movement commit crimes. That some Catholic priests are pedophiles does not make the Catholic Church a CRM, as the institution’s doctrines do not condone pedophilia (although some bishops did), and the vast majority of Catholics and priests abhor it. The definition implies that the movement as a group, in its corporate capacity, either, or both, advocates in its doctrines or consistently and systematically commit crimes.
Third, the definition implies that crimes should be major ones, such as terrorism, rape, homicide, child abuse, physical violence, and even serious and consistent economic crimes, such as international money laundering. Many religious groups are accused in some countries of tax elusion or evasion, and minor administrative wrongdoings. This alone should not lead to the conclusion that the group is a CRM.
Fourth, the definition also insists on well-defined crimes, punished by existing laws of general application and not by new laws created for the specific purpose of acting against the so called “cults.” As such, it focuses for example on physical violence rather than on elusive notions of psychological violence, on beating or murdering opponents in this life rather than on threatening them with the flames of Hell in the next, and so on.
Fifth, it should also be obvious, but perhaps it needs to be stated when dealing with legal systems very different from the Western ones, that the crimes should be ascertained by courts of law through fair trials, where the defendants should have the opportunity to be assisted by independent lawyers and exert their rights of defense. And that the common laws religious movements are accused of violating should be consistent with UN and other international declarations of human rights. This would not be the case, for example, for a law defining any criticism against the government or a ruling party as a criminal offense.
The Church of the Almighty God and the Xie Jiao Controversy
After Falun Gong, the Church of the Almighty God is the group most targeted in China as a xie jiao. Chinese authorities, understandably, deny that they have tortured or assassinated in jail members of the Church of the Almighty God, as the Church itself claims. They do not deny, however, that thousands of devotees of the Church have been arrested and sent to camps for “reeducation” for no crime other than being a member of a banned xie jiao. CCP-connected activists and scholars claim that these measures are needed because the Church of Almighty God, under the cover of religion, is a typical xie jiao conspiring against the government and is guilty of very serious crimes, from homicide to beating and kidnapping leaders of other Christian churches.
Are these claims believable? And do they make the Church of Almighty God a criminal religious movement? Each claim should be examined separately, and all the available documents collected and studied. I insisted with the Chinese authorities that all the documents they have about these incidents should be make available to independent scholars. Certainly, there is no shortage of texts produced by some leaders of other Chinese Christian churches, who hate the Church of Almighty God because it converted many from their flocks. And I also interviewed, as did several colleagues, leaders and members of the Church of Almighty God who now live in South Korea or the United States.
Clearly the Church of Almighty God does not have a good opinion of the CCP and in fact identifies it with the Dragon of the Book of Revelation. However, if one reads its literature, the impression is that the Dragon would fall by itself, and there is no appeal to a revolution.
CCP and some Chinese Christian leaders have also accused CAG of violence against pastors and elders of other churches. There are reports of pastors kidnapped in 2002 and one can also find impressive pictures of a pastor with his ear cut, allegedly by CAG members in 1998. While further studies of these cases of 15-20 years ago are needed, they cannot be considered as persuasively proved, because, as far as I have ascertained, no member of CAG has been tried or convicted in China for these crimes.
I want to discuss here what, in the jargon of the American FBI (with which I have worked for many years in analyzing cases of religious-related violence), is called a “critical incident.” Sometimes, the verdict whether a group is a criminal religious movement verges largely on one “critical incident,” which is so horrific that, if guilty, the group can justifiably be labeled as criminal. I believe that, in the case of the Church of the Almighty God, the “critical incident” is the murder of a client of a Chinese McDonald’s diner in 2014. This is often quoted in Chinese and international media as the key evidence of the criminal character of the Church of the Almighty God. It is really the “critical incident,” and all the rest pales in comparison.
On the McDonald’s murder, I have enough documents, without excluding that others may surface in the future, to have reached what I believe is a safe and fair conclusion. I have presented it in an article published on The Journal of CESNUR (Introvigne 2017). I would summarize it here.
On May 28, 2014, a group of “missionaries” entered a McDonald’s diner in Zhaoyuan, Shandong and started preaching, asking customers for their phone numbers in order to contact them again in the future. One client, Wu Shuoyan (1977–2014), refused to supply her phone number. One of the “missionaries,” Zhang Lidong (1959–2015), beat her to death. Chinese authorities and media quickly claimed that the Church of Almighty God was responsible for the murder. However, on the basis of research by Emily Dunn, the author of the only academic book on the movement published so far (Dunn 2015, 204–205), and others, it appears that the Church of Almighty God was not responsible for the murder. At the trial following the events in Zhaoyuan, Zhang Lidong and other members of the group explicitly declared that they were not members of the Church of Almighty God led by Zhao Weishan. They regarded as “Almighty God” two persons, Zhang Lidong’s daughter, Zhang Fan (1984–2015), and her friend Lü Yingchun. The latter is at the origin of the small group that committed the 2014 crime, which can be described as a syncretism with beliefs taken from several different Chinese new religions.
The messianic role of the duo was exclusive, and this is important to distinguish, and indeed oppose, the belief of the group in Zhang and Lü as a dual “Almighty God” to the doctrine of the Church of Almighty God. At trial, Lü Yingchun clearly explained:
“The state labeled Zhao Weishan’s fake ‘Church of Almighty God’ as a xie jiao, and we label them as ‘evil spirits.’ Only Zhang Fan and I, the ‘firstborn sons,’ could represent the real ‘Church of Almighty God.’ Zhang Fan and I are the unique spokeswomen for the real ‘Almighty God.’ The government has been cracking down on the Almighty God that Zhao Weishan [the ‘Priest’ and administrative leader of the Church of the Almighty God] believes in, not the ‘Almighty God’ we mention. They are fake ‘Almighty God,’ while we are the real ‘Almighty God’” (The Beijing News 2014). Zhang Fan added: “Up till now, only my father, my younger brother, my younger sister, Lü Yingchun, Zhang Qiaolian and me are adherents of the real ‘Almighty God.’ In 2010, I was the ‘firstborn son’ of ‘Almighty God.’ I became ‘God Himself’ because I obtained the authority from the heaven to kill evil spirits this May. Speaking of ‘God Himself,’ that is to say, I am God in substance. Lü Yingchun is also God in substance” (The Beijing News 2014).
There are other elements differentiating the doctrine of the group that committed the murder from the theology of the Church of Almighty God, but this one is decisive. Chinese authorities insist on the fact that they found in the home of Zhang Lidong literature of the Church of the Almighty God. The Church of Almighty God insists that its literature was probably planted in Zhang’s home by the police itself, but the question does not appear to be crucial. Although statistics are impossible, due to Chinese repression that compels the Church to operate clandestinely, scholars and the government itself agree that members are in the hundreds of thousands, and that millions of pieces of literature have been distributed, some of them even left “in public locations such as train stations for passers-by to discover” (Dunn 2015, 151). Its possession, thus, hardly indicates that somebody is a member of the Church.
Some Christian critics of the Church of Almighty God believe that it was in the defendant’s interest to downplay any relations with the banned organization of Zhao Weishan during the trial, given the Chinese courts’ hostility to that Church. However, had they adopted a conscious defensive strategy (which they probably didn’t), defendants could rather have claimed that they were not totally responsible of their deeds, since they had been manipulated by the “evil” Church of Almighty God, and that would perhaps have served them better in trying to escape the death penalty for their most serious crime, homicide.
In fact, at least two defendants did not escape the death penalty. On October 11, 2014, Zhang Lidong and Zhang Fan were sentenced to death, and executed on February 2, 2015. Lü Yingchun was sentenced to life imprisonment. The other members of the group, who were in the McDonald but did not directly participate in the murder, were sentenced to lesser penalties.
To me it is clear that the group responsible for the brutal murder was not part of the Church of Almighty God, although Chinese authorities were able to persuade the media otherwise–but not the scholars who studied the movement seriously.
The question of the Church of Almighty God is a stress test for the whole question of the xie jiao. For the Chinese authorities, who are hostile to all religions not directly controlled by the governmental apparatus, the Church of Almighty God is identified as a typical xie jiao for its rapid growth and great number of members, as well as its criticism of the CCP. Some leaders of Chinese Christian communities also identified the church as a xie jiao, because its doctrines shocked their views of Christian orthodoxy, and no doubt also because many within their flocks were converted to the Church of Almighty God, something their pastors were at loss to explain. However, if China wants to honor the international conventions on religious liberty it has ratified, it cannot ban a group on the basis of its theological beliefs, including the belief that the Almighty God has returned to Earth in our days. Nor can an accusation of being a xie jiao, which implies very serious consequences, be sustained on the basis of vague accusation of “brainwashing,” a notion debunked as pseudo-science by mainline scholars and courts of law in the West.
As mentioned earlier, the only notion of xie jiao compatible with religious liberty is based on consistent criminal behavior. This behavior should be proved in fair trials where defendants can argue that they are innocent. No such trial followed the accusations of violence and kidnapping. One trial followed, of course, the “critical incident” of the McDonald’s murder, and the documents of this trial, as published and reported by the same Chinese official sources, indicate that the Church of Almighty God was not responsible of that crime.
While further research on certain incidents should follow, so far no clear evidence has emerged justifying the inclusion of the Church of Almighty God in a list of criminal religious movements.
It is also worth noting that the crackdown on the Church of Almighty God started in China before the incidents currently used to justify it. Human rights activists have concluded that these incidents are not the real reason for the persecution, which is accompanied by a campaign including what is now called “post-truth” and “mediabolization,” a new word indicating “demonization through the media.” They believe that the persecution and demonization of the Church of Almighty God is part of a larger strategy to crack down on Protestant groups that do not belong to the CCP-sponsored Three Self Patriotic Movement. Guo Baosheng wrote that “with the suppression of the Church of Almighty God and the most recent publication of the list of cults, the CCP carries out a whole persecution of the fledging and rapidly increasing [independent] Christianity, and makes the official theorists conclude that ‘Non-TSPM (Three-Self Patriotic Movement) House Churches prepares the space for cultivating xie jiao’” (Guo 2014). According to another human rights activist, Xin Shuyan, “in the eyes of the CCP rulers, only the church obedient to them is a good and legitimate church. The church that does not listen to them is one that conducts improper religious activities; and whichever church p that threatens their rule will be regarded as a xie jiao” (Xin 2014).
After the McDonald’s murder, well-known Chinese novelist Murong Xuecun wrote in an editorial on the New York Times: “The government’s anti-religion campaign is not borne of concern for public security stemming from a horrific murder. This is a concerted effort to bring independent churches and their followers into line. The clampdown is simply the government’s way of strengthening its control of society. […On June 1, a CCTV report outlined the “six characteristics of evil cults,” which a legal “expert” said included the cult of personality, immorality and restrictions of individual and spiritual freedom. As many Chinese people took to the Internet with renewed anti-religious fervor to thank the government for exposing the true nature of “evil cults,” I realized that the name of the biggest cult is hidden in plain view: the Communist Party” (Murong 2014).
Anthony, Dick, and Massimo Introvigne. 2006. Le Lavage de cerveau: mythe ou réalité? Paris: L’Harmattan.
Chen, Qingping. 2017. “Reflection on the Definition of Cults and Its Related Problems.” Paper presented at the conference The Question of Xiejiao in China and the Case of the Church of Almighty God, University of Hong Kong, September 15-16, manuscript in the conference booklet.
Dunn, Emily. 2015. Lightning from the East: Heterodoxy and Christianity in Contemporary China. Leiden: Brill.
Guo, Baosheng. 2014. “警惕以“邪教”名义大规模迫害基督教” (Be Wary of Persecution on Christianity in the Name of the “Cults”). HRIC (Human Rights in China) Biweekly 133 (June 13–June 26, 2014). Accessed September 3, 2017.
Introvigne, Massimo. 2017. “‘Cruel Killing, Brutal Killing, Kill the Beast’: Investigating the 2014 McDonald’s ‘Cult Killing’ in Zhaoyuan.” The Journal of CESNUR 1 (forthcoming).
Justice Court, Northeast Phoenix Precinct, Maricopa County, Arizona. 1975. “State of Arizona vs Ricky Allan Ross and Jeffrey Ward Nuzum: Order Holding Defendant to Answer before the Superior Court.” January 10.
Kastrow, Rob. 1976. “Clerk is Held as Suspect in Jewelry Theft.” Arizona Republic, July 25.
Muromg, Xuecun. 2014. “China’s Clampdown on ‘Evil Cults.’” The New York Times, June 18. Accessed September 21, 2017.
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