The American Interest discusses the Chinese crackdown on Church of the Almighty God (also known as Eastern Lightning) after a recruiting operation turned murderous. The general background is most probably familiar, but it’s important enough to run through again:
The strong Chinese reaction against splinter groups — in this case, five death sentences—sometimes surprises Western observers, but we only need to look to China’s history to see why such groups give Beijing officials the willies. In the 19th-century, the catastrophic Taiping Rebellion involved a group not wholly unlike the Church of the Almighty God. In that rebellion a millenarian sect lead by Hong Xiuquan claiming to be the younger brother of Jesus, rose up against the Qing dynasty. At least twenty million people died in the ensuing conflict.
Eastern Lightning, like its Taiping predecessor, grounds itself in Christian texts and ideas. The “god” now born as a woman to bring the apocalypse is seen by the sect as the third in a series: Yahweh, who gave the Old Testament; Jesus who came to save humanity and now the third has come to judge the human race and bring the end of the world. The rapid growth of this movement shows the degree to which many Chinese feel alienated from the official ideology, the appeal of Christian messages in China, and the sense of popular unease as China changes rapidly. There is nothing here to make Beijing feel good.
There’s another reason that the rise of an apocalyptic cult would be of such concern. China’s long history of rising and falling dynasties has given rise to a school of historical analysis that looks for patterns in Chinese history. This approach, shared by many ordinary people and many distinguished Chinese intellectuals down through the ages, seeks to identify recurring features of the decline and fall phase of a dynasty’s cycle. The rise of apocalyptic religious cults is one of the classic signs of dynastic decadence, as is the rise of a pervasive culture of corruption among officials and the spread of local unrest.
Since the 18th century, the divorce of theological innovation from social revolution in Occidental public consciousness has pushed the religious question — originally identical with tolerance — into ever deeper eclipse. Until very recently, within the West, any attribution of genuine political consequence to such matters had seemed no more than eccentric anachronism, although this situation is quite rapidly changing. Elsewhere in the world, religious issues retained far greater socio-political pertinence, largely because the common millenarian root of enthusiasm and rebellion had not been effaced.
It is possible that the Chinese approach to dissident religion remains ‘strange’ to many in the West. There can surely be little doubt, however, that whatever convergence takes place will tend to a traditional Chinese understanding far more than a contemporary Western one. The gravity of the stakes ensures it.