Eastern Lightning may be a cult, but they still have rights

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.

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About T

I have been working in China for nearly five years now. I have traveled to more than 30 cities and towns, and have lived in 3 provinces. I am interested in issues concerning development in China and the rest of the world. I hope to provide a balanced look at some of the issues facing China as it continues its rise to power.
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7 Responses to Eastern Lightning may be a cult, but they still have rights

  1. Joel says:

    Totally agree with your main point here re: rights. I was pretty disappointed in the response of some atheists to the Shouwang story when it was big for the same reasons. Scary how people (not just New Atheists) can so quickly throw their (supposedly) cherished values out the window when it comes to ideological opponents, often in the name of those very same values.

    The longer we live here the more my impression grows that this group and FLG are bigger than I first imagined. We’ve encountered FLG tracts in bathrooms and even had them stuffed in our apartment door frame. Jessica’s been approached by members in supermarkets. I had my first run-in with Eastern Lightening in the form of a member handing out cards outside the main Three-Self church in Tianjin after Sunday services. Didn’t know what it was at the time but kept it on the fridge, and one day months later finally looked up the website and thought, Holy cow! Eastern Lightening! And of course once we became semi-literate we started noticing the anti-cult banners and posters that aren’t uncommon.

  2. Hua Qiao says:

    It’s been interesting to watch the showdown between Falun Gong and the Hong Kong Youth Care Association in Hong Kong. The HKYCA is clearly financed by Beijing and they seem to have a free pass to intimidate and cover the posters of FG. On Kowloon side, the HKYCA white red and black posters are all over the place. They are attached to street barriers and in places that no other association seems to be permitted to do. Tacit support from the HK police. The more i see this, the more i shift my sympathies from neutral to positive about Falun Gong.
    I support free speech but if you saw the bullying tactics of how the HKYCA makes its point, you would want to vomit. Shameful.

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  7. This group has been very abusive and abducting true Christians this is wrong and should not be tolerated for it is breaking the laws of the land. Many accounts of their cultic practices can be read here as eye-witnessed by true Christians that suffered much from them: http://www.chinaforjesus.com

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