August 5, 2012
by Xuyang jingjing
Students of Danhua Primary School in Haozhou, Anhui Province, hold a banner with signatures against cults, on October 13, 2011. Photo: IC
More than a decade after China cracked down on Falun Gong, an once-thriving cult in the country, a new wave of awareness campaigns has been launched to educate people from cults and remind them to stay away.
In small towns and residential communities in cities, authorities have launched educational campaigns to inform people about the various kinds of cults, the harm they can cause and the ways of spotting them.
While not yet a grave threat to the government and society, cults continue to grow and appeal to a large number of people. Therefore, it is particularly important for authorities to stay vigilant, experts and campaigners say.
Earlier in July, police in Chengde, Hebei Province, raided a gathering of the "Disciples Church," a recognized cult and detained the organizer.
The "Disciples Church" was founded in 1989 by a farmer in Shaanxi Province who claimed to be the reincarnation of Christ. Followers are told to worship this founder.
The "church" claims that followers do not need to see a doctor when they are ill but can be cured through prayer. It also states that students can gain knowledge without going to school once they join the church.
Though the first two generations of leaders have died, the "Disciples Church" is growing. At its peak four or five years ago, it had tens of millions of followers, far more than Falun Gong, scholars say.
Becoming more numerous
China identified Falun Gong as a cult and uprooted it in 1999, seven years after it was formed. At the time, it had around 2 million followers and had resulted in the deaths of about 1,700 people, official numbers show.
There are many cults like the "Disciples Church" that are quietly spreading in China, according to Li Anping, deputy secretary general of the China Anti-Cult Association that was founded back in 2000.
The cults promise good health or security to its members to lure them in, and then gradually begin to control them through brainwashing or other methods, explained Li. "They usually cause physical or psychological harm to the followers, while the leaders or key members accumulate great wealth in the process," he said.
It is uncertain exactly how many cults exist in China. According to documents circulating online and that have been posted on some local government websites, the State Council and the Ministry of Public Security have identified at least 14 cults since the 1990s, including the "Disciples Church."
Some of these cults were homegrown and some were introduced from the US or South Korea. They mostly claim to be sects or offshoots of Buddhism or Christianity and have followers all over the country.
Many of the cults have organized attacks on local government agencies and attempted to overthrow the government, and some even intend to build their own "kingdom," according to the documents.
"There is no doubt that these cults are not religions, but rather use the name of religion to control people and achieve other purposes," said Li.
Worldwide however, cult is sometimes just another word for the New Religious Movement (NRM) formed in the latter half of the 20th century, when tens of thousands of groups sprung up advocating unorthodox teachings.
There are many controversies surrounding NRM in both the theological and sociological fields. Its opponents accuse groups within it of exerting mind control over their members, engaging in immoral sexual conduct and in extreme cases, causing mass suicides.
One of the most shocking cases was the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995 that killed 13 people and injured about 5,500 others. The attack was staged by the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult. Its leaders and some key members have since been tried and sentenced.
Different countries handle cults in various ways. While any new religious groups can get registered and protected in the US, they still have to operate within the law. France passed the About-Picard law in 2001 that was intended to protect people from certain sectarian or cultic movements.
It is difficult to find an equivalent in the English-speaking world of the type of cults that Chinese law prohibits, but the legal supervision sees the problem from a social standpoint, rather than a religious one.
Xiejiao, literally wicked religion or sect, is defined as an illegal organization founded in the name of religion or qigong, a traditional Chinese practice. Such organizations often have a charismatic and pseudo-messianic leader and spread superstition to trick people and control members.
Those who use cults to trick people into hurting themselves, collect money, or organize attacks on government offices are punishable by law.
"Since we uprooted Falun Gong in 1999, we have continued to raise awareness and crack down on cults," said Li. "We do not punish but instead educate the followers, as they are victims. We were able to bring around 90 percent of those who used to practice Falun Gong."
"Today they will not pose serious threats to our society, but we should remain vigilant and maintain stability," said Li.
In China, 28 provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions have set up anti-cult associations as registered social groups.
The Beijing Anti-Cult Association has recently put up posters in neighborhoods, advocating "a life of science" and reminding families to boycott cults and build a harmonious society. Sources close to the matter said that they were told to launch such campaigns by the authorities.
In Chongqing, farmers uprooted from their homes because of the Three Gorges Project become vulnerable target of cults, according to an article published recently on the China Anti-Cult Association's website. "The backward economy, poverty and dire living conditions created a hotbed for cults," it reads.
While cults primarily target vulnerable demographics such as the elderly or the less-educated, intellectuals, civil servants and Party members have also been known to become devout followers.
Rapid social transformation and ensuing social problems as well as a growing need for spiritual fulfillment in today's China have brought about the revival of religion and contributed to the spread of cults, scholars say.
Gao Shining, a researcher of religious studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, wrote in 2009 that any new beliefs or new religions could become a way for the public to voice their discontent over social problems and injustice such as the income gap and corruption.
Throughout Chinese history, non-mainstream cults or worship groups were often a way for those who felt underprivileged to rebel against the elite, said Yan Kejia, researcher and director of Institute of Religious Studies, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.
What may be unique about cults in China is that not only do they promise physical and spiritual well-being, such as curing illnesses and attaining heaven after death, but also establish themselves as a cure to social problems, said Yan.
"They want to save society, and therefore some scholars have referred to Chinese religion as promising a 'redemptive society,'" he added. "The popularity of cults is not necessarily directly connected to the development of religion in a country, but it most certainly reflects a society's religious needs."
Growing spiritual needs
Chinese government officially recognizes five religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism. Its Constitution stipulates that citizens enjoy freedom of religion. A 2007 survey showed that about 31.4 percent of the population, or about 300 million people above the age of 16, held religious beliefs.
Overall, China is not a religious country, but more and more people are turning to religion. According to research by Yang Fenggang, a sociology professor who heads a center on religion and Chinese society at Purdue University in the US, more than 18 percent of Chinese mainlanders identify themselves as being Buddhist. A recent Pew Report of Global Christianity put the number of Christians in the mainland at 5 percent.
This is not to say that most Chinese people do not engage in some sort of religious practice or folk beliefs. Ways of belief and practices are spontaneous and highly individualized, rather than institutional, said Li Tiangang, a professor of religious studies at Fudan University.
"Chinese people believe in many different gods or spirits," he said. "It's very inclusive, and therefore there is, by and large, peace between different beliefs."
But diffused beliefs could easily become a problem once they become organized, turn secretive and are manipulated as history shows, he added. Indeed, ancient dynasties were very much aware of the danger of secretive non-mainstream religions that often tried to overthrow emperors.
The issue of cults is sensitive in China, especially when many people tend to confuse it with underground churches, or unregistered churches. "Those unrecognized religious activities and cults are two different matters. The bottom line is people should not use religion to achieve other purposes," said Yan.
"A prominent fact today is that many people attach social conflicts to religion, and create confrontation around," concluded Li Tiangang. "We should address them as social and religious issues separately."