China continued its crackdown against the Quannengshen cult, better known as “The Church of Almighty God” or “Eastern Lightning” in the West, with an unspecified number of arrests and trials in August. According to Chinese media, movement leaders and key senior followers were targeted in the latest arrests.
The Church of Almighty God achieved international notoriety in early 2014 when a group of its followers murdered a 37-year-old woman in front of terrified onlookers at a McDonald’s restaurant in eastern China. The victim was kicked and beaten with a metal mop handle in front of her seven-year-old son because she refused to give the cultists her phone number. Cell phone video of the horrifying assault became a viral sensation. Some of the perpetrators were executed the following year.
China launched its first serious crackdown against Quannengshen members in 2012 and ramped up its efforts to wipe out the cult with a wave of arrests in 2017. Chinese officials in 2017 said they were concerned with how quickly the cult was recruiting members even after the horror of the McDonald’s murder. The cult is believed to command millions of dollars in funding and counted over a million members worldwide at its high-water mark.
According to Sky News, a series of trials underway in Heilongjiang province since July 31 involve top cult members arrested during the 2017 crackdown. A police official testifying at the trials said Almighty God “recruits less-educated women who have family problems,” luring them with a soft pitch that offers fellowship and conventional Christian teachings, and later indoctrinating them by controlling their communications with the outside world and forcing them to watch “brainwashing” videos.
“In the beginning, new recruits were not forced to donate or attend the gatherings but after becoming a convert they were manipulated to leave their family and devote everything to the cult,” the official said.
China’s state-run Xinhua news service quoted former cult members who said followers are ultimately expected to donate heavily to the organization, and much of the money is siphoned away to support the luxury lifestyle of top leaders, including enigmatic cult founder Zhao Weishan, who emigrated to the United States with his wife in 2000. Xinhua cited documents seized by the police that showed the cult transferring about $20 million overseas between November 2016 and March 2017.
Among the signature beliefs of the Church of Almighty God are that Jesus has been reborn as a woman called “Lightning Deng,” who might be Zhao Weishan’s wife, and that faithful followers of Christ have been called to fight an apocalyptic battle with the “Great Red Dragon,” by which they mean the Chinese Communist Party. It’s easy to see why the latter belief would pique the interest of Chinese law enforcement.
Zhao’s whereabouts are one of the stranger details of the Eastern Lightning story. Given that he ostensibly leads a murderous international cult with thousands of followers and a fixation on overthrowing the Chinese government, China might be expected to file charges against him and demand extradition, much as Turkey does with Imam Fethullah Gulen. No such demands are mentioned in Chinese media coverage, which tends to blandly state that Zhao and his wife/messiah obtained asylum in the United States at the turn of the millennium and live extravagantly off donations from their followers, while expressing little interest in what role he might play in directing the cult’s most nefarious activities.
This leads to speculation that the Church of Almighty God might have suffered a schism of some sort, and even that the McDonald’s murder in 2014 was not perpetrated by authentic members of the faith. The most cynical observers wonder if China is cracking down on Quannengshen to make religion, in general, look weird and dangerous, or using the hunt for Quannengshen leaders as cover for political prosecutions.
Some think the Chinese government has dramatically exaggerated the size of the cult to justify the crackdown. People allegedly affiliated with the Church of Almighty God are prone to conflicting statements and fanciful claims, so even if there is no political motivation behind China’s arrest and trial of purported cult leaders, the full truth about them is not easy to pin down.