As you’ve likely already heard, thousands of doomsday predictors have been arrested throughout China as part of the “evil cult” Eastern Lightning. Unfortunately many Chinese Christians are willing to dismiss them as a cult and agree with their treatment, but these arrests should concern everyone advocating for human rights in China and especially those concerned with religious freedom and yet there has been little discussion of this within the Western Media. Within this story are several important issues worth taking a moment to consider.
While Eastern Lightning meets many of the sociological definitions of a cult by urging members to cut off ties to their non-believing family members and friends, unquestioning faith in their charismatic leader, and exerting coercive pressure on those who try to leave (a piece focusing on the practices of this group appeared in Time magazine back in 2001); it has persisted for decades without facing mass arrests. What has changed is their growing public demonstrations, distribution of pamphlets and their calls for overthrowing the Party during a time when the Party is already nervous about their grip on power. While I may not agree with their beliefs and am concerned about abuses being committed by this group, they should still have a right to pray in public and distribute their information (and there is so far no evidence that these arrests are connected to concerns over abuses within the sect), however these basic rights are denied to all Chinese people. Their mass arrests do not seem to be based on rule of law as there has been no due process, but rather on an arbitrary label of “evil cult.” As noted Human Rights Lawyer Teng Biao tweeted, “The government has no power to determine what is a cult. The law can punish only actions, not thoughts.”
Furthermore, it should be considered in what kind of environment is the end of the world treated as good news? As the BBC reported, most of the arrests have come in Guizhou and Qinghai province, two of China’s poorest provinces. In China’s not so distant past, Falun Gong gained great popularity in the countryside as rural health care fell apart. Looking even further back, the Taiping Rebellion took route in Guangxi province and attracted people from the countryside who were looking for any other option than continuing their current lives. And while the Communist Party is not a religious movement, it was able to mobilize this same mistreated demographic. Many would argue that the key to a revolution in China is the “peasants,” and the concern from the Party is that cults grow most successfully among these marginalized groups, but their response of cracking down on believers ignores the roots – China’s rural citizens receive far less support than their urban counterparts.
So far, I have been incredibly disappointed by the media coverage on this important development, and feel that if thousands of Christians, dissidents, lawyers, or teachers had been arrested the coverage would have been vastly different. The idea that the cult members should be treated any differently from these other groups ignores many fundamental beliefs related to human rights. Within China (and every other country), it is not uncommon for major religious groups to act against “new” religious groups. In this case we see orthodox Christians acting against this heterodox sect, but in other cases we see Buddhists acting against Christian house churches in places where Christianity is growing quickly, and Atheists acting against Muslims in places where Islam and racial politics are difficult to unwind. Their complicit cooperation with the state’s desire to control religious practice is a major stumbling block for further improvement in human rights. Unfortunately, these groups are failing to see that their own ability to express their beliefs freely are wrapped up in the ability of others to practice freely.
So while it may be easy for many to dismiss the arrest of thousands of cult members, it should be difficult for us to ignore the trampling of the rule of law, the limitations on religious freedom, and the rights of individuals to gather and make themselves heard.