Earlier this week, China began arresting members of a cult who had been spreading Mayan prophecy rumours that state the world would end on December 21.By Monday over 100 members of the “Almighty God” cult (also known as “Eastern lightning”) had been arrested. Newer figures suggest over 500 have been arrested in this crackdown, while the group itself says over 2,000 have been put in jail since 1995.
James Griffiths at Shanghaiist has taken a look at the group:
The cult, which originated in Heilongjiang and teaches that Jesus “has returned as a plain-looking, 30-year-old Chinese woman who lives in hiding and has never been photographed”, have been accused of abducting and brainwashing prospective believers. Reports also suggest that cultists have attacked mainstream Christian churches who would not accept the ‘third testament’ to the Bible written by the cult’s lady-Jesus.
Members of ‘Eastern Lightning’ are typically drawn from peasant communities with low levels of education and generally wholly legitimate gripes against the government, who the group’s message of an impending reckoning for the ‘wicked’ understandably appeals to. According to Protestant group China for Jesus, ‘Eastern Lightning’ has over a million members.
The Chinese authorities perhaps have reason to be worried about cults: a 19th century leader who claimed to be the brother of Jesus Christ and created the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom with 30 million followers sparked a brutal war. Modern China cracked down on the Falun Gong spiritual movement in the late 1990s.
As Evan Osnos notes, “cults” and “spiritual movements” have become an aspect of life in the post-Communist world, where “many in China have begun to hunt for something to believe.”
“At times, it can feel like half the people at a dinner table are trying out a new guru,” Osnos wrote for the New Yorker this week.
While some of these cults may seem absurd, China may be right to take them seriously. As a knife attack at an elementary school, later linked to doomsday theories, shows, they can have horrifying real-world effects.