Over the past ten days, China has been riveted by accounts of what authorities say are its very own doomsday cult: the church of Almighty God, which has prophesized that the world will end today. Authorities have said the group staged illegal protests and basically spun out of control, forcing them to arrest 1,000 members in the biggest crackdown on a spiritual movement since the Falun Gong sect was banned in 1999.
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.
During the Hu Jintao years the government kept alive the formal structures that said all religious activity had to be coordinated by the State Administration for Religious Affairs. But it also tolerated much of this unofficial activity, perhaps feeling that it was mostly apolitical. In general, however, it deferred the decision of what to do about religion, just as it has with tough questions on the economy, the environment and foreign policy. But the government is also wary of ceding too much influence over any sort of civil society organization, worried that China could develop the sort of independent movements that toppled Communism in Eastern Europe. Some signs indicate that it may think that things have gone too far.
Earlier this month, for example, the state-run Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association came down hard on a recalcitrant bishop by revoking his appointment as coadjutor bishop of Shanghai. Thaddeus Ma Deqin had stunned churchgoers on July 7 when at the end of the ceremony consecrating him as bishop, he said his new post left him with no time to fulfill his duties in the state-run association, which the government had set up to bypass the Vatican. His stand won him wide admiration among Chinese Catholics, but the government apparently felt it had to push back by making it clear that bishops cannot opt-out of the government organization.
Tibetan Buddhists have also been served notice. Although among the Tibetan population it is very difficult to separate religious issues from ethnic unrest, the government views the Tibetan Buddhist clergy as hostile to Chinese rule and has started holding monks responsible for the nearly 100 self-immolations that have taken place since 2009. In recent weeks it has started prosecuting monks it says are responsible for the dramatic protests.
Protestant churches are also coming under scrutiny. Probably China’s fastest-growing religious movement, unregistered Protestant churches now attract some 40 million members, or twice the number of those who go to government-sponsored churches. Two years ago, the government issued a circular announcing it would register these churches and promptly closed down the country’s most famous unregistered church, Shouwang.
This is the background to the recent crackdown on Almighty God, one of China’s most established Pentecostal sects. In its current form, the church has tens of thousands of members, with some estimates going as high as 1 million. It is an offshoot of an earlier sect, Lightning from the East, which itself harkens back to a group in the 1980s called the Shouters and, back before the Communist takeover, to the first wave of indigenous Christian groups such as the Little Flock and the True Jesus Church. The historian Daniel H. Bays, in his recently published A New History of Christianity in China, argues that these groups are “one of the largest examples in Christian history anywhere of creative cross-cultural adaptation.”
In what looks like an old-style political campaign, local authorities in several provinces have latched onto Almighty God as if it were a serious threat to public safety and order. Yet the authorities have not been able to come up with much more than photos of a police car with a smashed windshield at a rally. Given the one-sided nature of the reports, it’s impossible to say what happened. But if this is the best the government can do to justify the crackdown, then it’s pretty small beer.
It’s easy to make fun of groups like Almighty God, with the end-of-the-world messages they circulate in handbills. Almighty God has a track record of bullying non-believers, which is also problematic. But it is not a doomsday cult encouraging members to commit suicide. It is also infinitely smaller and less threatening than the sectarian groups in Chinese history that toppled governments, and which are often trotted out to rationalize government crackdowns.
The popularity of millennial messages also reflects rural China’s recent tumult. In living memory, rural China has suffered the worst famine in world history, the destruction of traditional religion, and decades of exploitive economic policy, first to finance Communist-style heavy industrialization and in recent years to feed China’s burgeoning cities. Little wonder that those left behind feel that their world is ending.
So why come down so hard on the doomsayers? The crackdown has been strongest in Qinghai, a province on the Tibetan plateau without a big Christian population but with a strong “stability-maintenance” force to combat Tibetan separatism. One explanation is that officials there wanted to show their troops’ value to the new leadership.
But it is also true that the head of the government agency responsible for religious affairs, Ling Jihua, is at the center of one of China’s biggest scandals this year. Ling had been the consigliore to the former party head, Hu Jintao, until Ling’s son died after wrecking a Ferrari on a Beijing highway and Ling tried to cover up the crash by changing his dead son’s name in police reports. Ling, who had been rumored to be on the rise, was instead forced out early and put in charge of the party’s United Front Work Department, which oversees religious policy. Could the tough line on religion be Ling’s way of showing Xi that he’s a good lieutenant and shouldn’t be shunted aside? At the very least it is fair to say that a leader as damaged as Ling isn’t in a position to initiate the sort of far-reaching initiatives needed to accommodate China’s recent spiritual awakening.
Indeed, what’s striking about the country’s changing social dynamics is the extent to which they are being shaped by religious groups rather than the government. A decade ago, authorities in China smashed one of the world’s biggest charismatic Christian churches, the 500,000-member South China (Huanan) Church, sending its leaders to jail on charges of rape, torture and kidnapping. The actions were widely condemned as violations of religious freedom, with US-based organizations attacking the imprisonment of church leader Gong Shengliang.
Then something interesting happened. On their own initiative, a group of Chinese human rights lawyers and Christians investigated the church. Their conclusion: the church had indeed coerced some people into converting and Gong may have raped women or at least coerced them into having sex. The government was in part right, they concluded in a study, which helped defuse much anger about the arrests, as well as international outrage. Later, Gong even sent a letter out of prison asking for forgiveness.
The investigation showed that China’s religious organizations were able to regulate themselves. But maybe more important were the longer-term consequences. Many church leaders concluded that a key problem faced by the Huanan Church was that it had been an underground movement, which forced its leaders to be secretive and encouraged the concentration of power in a few hands while stifling internal debate. Their solution: radical transparency. Essentially, these mostly urban church leaders decided to face the consequence of operating in the open. They began posting online their scheduled services, church bulletins, and even videos of sermons to show authorities that they have nothing to hide. Surprisingly, some local officials have accepted this approach—many local public security managers have decided they have bigger problems elsewhere.
But such tolerance for unsanctioned religious activity is not universally shared. While some local officials have decided not to interfere, other officials are cracking down. As Xi and his team take control in Beijing, the question is what will the new government’s religious policy look like? Are the harsh measures against the Catholic bishop and the Almighty God sect indications of more repression to come? Or can Xi’s team build on the broader trend in recent years toward openness and autonomy? Whatever the answer may be, it seems likely that Xi will not be able to fall back on the caution and inertia that have characterized Beijing’s approach to these issues for several decades. And with tensions growing on many fronts, the one sure thing is that Xi doesn’t have much time to decide.