Chinese “anti-cult” crusade
In his article, “China’s Clampdown on “Evil” Cults ” New York Times, 17 June 2014, (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/18/opinion/murong-chinas-clampdown-on-evil-cults.html?_r=0), Murong Xuecun discusses the underlying motives and implications of the Chinese government’s crackdown on “cults”. What he uncovers is a facade that masks authoritarian policies, for a concern of public safety.
Throughout history, religion has been a source of conflict both within and between states. China’s anti-cult movements serves as an interesting example of how religious movements are being preemptively targeted to prevent conflict within state. The most interesting idea put forth in this article is the notion that the labeling and tactical use of “cults” is a means of strengthening government control.
Ernst Troeltsch’s definition of cults as “small religious groups that are mystical in orientation and that live in high tension with traditional groups and society” is useful in dissecting how the term is used a means of social control.
Xuecun begins his article by making reference to a murder committed by members of the Church of Almighty God, a Christian sect. It was reported by Chinese state reporters, that the killer’s religious beliefs were responsible for the crime. Following the murder, the Chinese government commenced a nation-wide investigation to crackdown on its published list of 20 active “cults,” with many of these groups having roots in Christianity. Xuecun explains the government’s problem with “foreign” Christianity as political. Chinese officials cite Christianity as a contributor to the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe; as such the problem with Christianity is not so much its doctrine, but rather the imposition of Western ideology that may “threaten China’s national security.”
Christianity does not have a mystical orientation; therefore, the mass labeling of many Christian sects as “cults” does not fall within definition provided by Troeltsch. Xuecun also uses the term “evil cult” several times, which is synonymous with the term “dangerous cults”; a phrase that is often dropped by popular media to denote groups that are disliked, but not necessarily “evil” or “dangerous.”
What’s ironic about the government’s anti-cult crusade is that they don’t target all Christian groups. In fact, Xuecun explains that China has two classes of Christianity: legal and illegal churches. The qualifying factor to become a legal church is to accept being managed by the government. These government-backed churches, operate on the principle of “freedom from foreign interference,” which sounds quite political in nature. Illegal churches are labeled as such because they operate without state-approval – not necessarily because of specific principles they practice under.
Xuecun notes that the government promotes communism as the “religion” of China. With the second half Troeltsch’s definition in mind, the labeling of all non-state controlled religious movements, as cults, is clearly strategic. The label of “cult” denotes a tension with society, in this case, a communist society. Groups that don’t exclusively promote a communist doctrine may be considered a threat to national security. By manipulating the term, the government is able to use protecting public welfare as a ruse for strengthening communist rule.