In some ways, Eastern Lightning are hilarious. For starters, the cult's core belief is that Jesus Christ has been reincarnated as a middle-aged Chinese woman called Lightning Deng who now lives in Chinatown in New York. Then there are the bizarre evangelizing attempts to recruit China's rural communities-stuff like the sudden appearance of live snakes painted with scripture and mysterious glow sticks hidden in people's homes that somehow (I'm really not sure how) signal the second coming of Christ.
Leaders of Christian groups warn their members against the "flirty fishing" methods supposedly adopted by Eastern Lightning ladies to convert Christian men to the path of their female Christ. Lastly, of course, there's the name, which sounds more like an energy drink or AC/DC cover band than a cult. Perhaps that's why, these days, they often use the alias "Church of the Almighty God."
To their victims, though, Eastern Lightning aren't a joke. In fact, to some they must seem kind of terrifying. The cult operates by infiltrating China’s underground house churches (proper ones are banned in China) and integrating themselves into the community, before allegedly seducing, kidnapping, bribing, or blackmailing members into joining them. Highly organized and comprised of more than a million members, according to some estimates, Eastern Lightning train their leaders to build trust slowly over months before making their move.
Their activities have not gone unnoticed by the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the two sides are currently engaged in a low-key fight to the death.
One of Eastern Lightning's main tenets is that the Communist Party of China is Satan incarnate-they call it “the Great Red Dragon”-and that its rise to power signifies the end of the world. That may sound like the plot of a video-game, but in a country where the persecution of Christians continues to rise and unregistered religious leaders are imprisoned or “re-educated through labor" by the government, it's perhaps not all that surprising that religious rhetoric is becoming so militant.
Eastern Lightning started in the 90s when their founder, Zhao Weishan, met a woman in Zhengzhou, Henan province. The woman called herself “Lightning Deng” and had written a book, Lightning from the Orient, which restyled the Christian narrative in Chinese terms. It's unclear whether the two are in on the plot together or if Zhao is taking advantage of Deng, but what's certain is that it was Zhao who declared her to be the reincarnation of Christ and started gathering followers with her as the spiritual leader.
The pair are currently thought to be “escaping religious persecution” in Chinatown, New York, where they continue to spread their religion safe from the fiery death-breath of the Great Red Dragon. Eastern Lightning pamphlets have also shown up in San Francisco, which has a large Chinese immigrant population.
While the cult have remained largely secretive in their home country, they briefly surfaced at the end of last year, holding protests across China to coincide with the "Mayan Apocalypse." Wei Guangzheng, a 30-year-old interior designer from Hebei province, told me some peculiar stories about the cult, which began to take hold of his neighborhood around the time of the 2012 apocalypse washout.
“Most of their believers live in the countryside, with little education, and they're mostly unemployed," he said. "They dance naked together in their basement-all female-and light up bonfires, like a party. A few days before the 2012 ‘doomsday,’ a preacher came to our house when my mother was alone, saying that the end of the world was coming and she had to join Eastern Lightning to be saved. My mom replied, 'I've arranged to play mahjong with friends and I have to go. I haven't got time to believe in God right now.' Good one, Mom."
The government has been upping its efforts to root out the cult since the December 2012 protests, sometimes subjecting Christian house church members to violent interrogations in an effort to reach Eastern Lightning members.
Dennis Balcombe, a well-known American pastor who preaches in China, was released from house arrest a few months ago after being detained during a government crackdown on large religious congregations. After determining that he wasn't an Eastern Lightning adherent, the authorities let him go. I spoke to Dennis about his experiences being targeted both by the government and the cult.
“I was recently detained by the Religious Affairs Bureau after a hotel worker reported our meeting," he told me. "They sent a few dozen police to see if we were Eastern Lightning or not, but concluded that we weren’t and let us go. Paranoia about Eastern Lightning has been growing since the December 21st Mayan prophecy. They’re extremely violent and use sex to try to convert people. I’ve heard stories of Christians being burned, beaten, and told to kill their children. When they kidnap you, you usually don’t get out for six months, and that whole time they’re trying to brainwash you."
While it's not possible for us to corroborate these claims, Dennis continued to allege that Eastern Lightning aren't just concerned with religion, but with making a profit out of their converts. "They're like the Mafia," he told me. "They’ve extorted 100 million remnibi ($16,453,755) from mainly poor, rural people. They’re extremely well-trained. It’s like a criminal element infiltrating your church. Leaders of Christian house churches have also been offered huge sums of money-like 150,000 remnibi ($24,670)-to bring their followers and themselves into the cult. The government believes they have funds coming from outside of China.”
Dennis told me how, by training leaders over Skype, the cult have managed to spread all over Asia, establish a base in Hong Kong and become “more aggressive than ever before.” He was recently confronted by four Eastern Lightning members trying to convert him while at a religious conference in Hong Kong. When they refused to leave, he took his camera out, hoping to obtain a photo to show authorities, but was physically attacked by the women. Before they could wrench the camera from him, he snapped a photo and got away.
Outside of Chinese Christian communities, the cult’s violent activities go largely unreported. But within those circles, Eastern Lightning are highly feared. I contacted the director of one of the largest Christian ministries in Asia, but he declined to speak to me out of fear that the cult would target him. He did tell me that "there are many Chinese who would comment," but that they wouldn't want to be interviewed because, "they tended to be house church leaders on the run from the police."
I contacted multiple defectors from the cult, but they also refused to comment, suspecting that I was somehow connected with Eastern Lightning or the government. The deeper I dug, the more I realized that their paranoia made absolute sense.
In 2002, Eastern Lightning kidnapped 34 leading members of an underground Christian network, the China Gospel Fellowship, and held them captive for two months. I managed to speak to an American missionary, Hope Flinchbaugh, who met one of the kidnapped Fellowship leaders while in China. According to Flinchbagh, women from the cult seduced the captured pastors and took compromising photographs to blackmail them later if they resisted their conversion efforts.
One pastor, she said, was drugged and restrained while two women whispered Eastern Lightning doctrine into both of his ears throughout the night. Others had "legs broken and ears cut off." When one of the victims finally escaped and informed the police, every single one of the cult members supposedly disappeared without leaving a trace.
Recently, the cult seems to be distancing themselves from their violent reputation and moving into a stage of positive PR. By expanding outside mainland China, where they aren't forced underground, Eastern Lightning have been able to put on a friendly face, opening offices and evangelizing through a flashy new website that pegs the kidnappings and other horror stories as propaganda. "The government of the great red dragon," the website claims, "used all kinds of cruel means to suppress in a bloody way, making the country filled with rumors. The entire mainland [of] China became a world of terror." That same website, however, also has a section entitled “Typical Cases of Punishment for Resisting the Almighty God.” This includes an account of Li X, a 55-year-old woman from Ruzhou City, whose "vagina bled and discharged rotten flesh" when she supposedly prevented Eastern Lightning from preaching in her village. "At the time when the people were putting her body into the coffin," the story goes, "a thunderbolt suddenly came from the sky, and it flashed around in front of the funeral shed like a fiery dragon.”
I contacted their offices in Hong Kong and Macau. Both of them denied all of the claims against them, and distanced themselves from the mainland group. A spokesperson from the Macau office said, "I’ve heard stories, but I don’t believe that they could have anything to do with people from our Church. Our Church centers around beliefs in love and loving other people. That’s why I don’t think someone from our Church would do harm to someone else. You’ve got to look at where these stories are coming from: from the government. And what is the government in China like at the moment? They don’t necessarily always tell the truth about people. Our beliefs are about being good to people, so we could never hurt anyone."
A member of the Church in Hong Kong said: "That's in China, we’re in Hong Kong, so we don’t really hear about stories like that. But they’re just stories and could have come from anywhere... These kinds of stories are hearsay, so we can’t really comment on them."
Considering Eastern Lightning are essentially the Marlo Stanfield of the Chinese messiah complex game-holding gatherings at short notice, using code names, and mobile phones registered under false aliases, resisting confession in police interrogations, scattering at the first sign of police, etc., etc.-it's no surprise that the government is trying and failing so hard to crush them. The rest of Eastern Lightning's evasion tactics are detailed in a document titled, "The Measures Against the Big Red Dragon's Spies."
So what exactly are the Big Red Dragon’s spies up to? In 2002, a secret Chinese government document was leaked to the US congress by an American Christian NGO. It contained a speech by Bi Rongsheng, the deputy director of the religion section of the Public Security Bureau (PSB) of Heilongjiang Province. In it, the Chinese official reveals his government’s great anxiety about Eastern Lightning and their need to “work more [and] talk less to smash the cult quietly.”
He admits that “our intelligence work has not touched deep into the core of this cult organization to such a point of a breakthrough, placing us on the defensive” and expresses worry that it will “definitely disturb people’s thought and seriously endanger the rule of the Party.”
He argues for the need to “enhance the build-up of secret forces and the operation of planted agents” and emphasizes that “the open trial is not appropriate for this cult case.” At one point he even expresses fear that Eastern Lightning have begun “to infiltrate into inner circles of the Party.”
The CPC has historical reasons to be terrified of apocalyptic movements-the millenarian Taiping Rebellion in the 19th century caused over 20 million deaths-but the issue isn’t so black and white. Eastern Lightning may be guilty of torture, kidnapping, sedition, and extortion on a huge scale-and, in some cases, of murder. But so is the CPC.
When China decided that the spiritual movement Falun Gong was a dangerous outlet for social discontent in 1999, they began a huge propaganda campaign against them. Using extralegal force, the government now arrests practitioners and subjects them to ideological conversion, forced labor, physical torture sometimes leading to death and, allegedly, organ harvesting.
Compared to the peaceful Falun Gong, Eastern Lightning are far crueler and more secretive. But considering Falun Gong have been largely eradicated, those characteristics may well be Eastern Lightning's main strengths-strengths they need in a country where the persecution of Christians rose by 125 percent in 2012 alone.
In the right light, with their enigmatic female Jesus and fiery gospel leveled against the Great Red Dragon of the CPC, Eastern Lightning are fighting a revolution against an equally shady and violent government. While this doesn’t excuse their actions or their absurd doctrine, it does complicate the issue because, until China loosens its grip on religious practice, it’s likely that they will continue to antagonize an already volatile population of believers. Frankly, the CPC may do well to heed the old line that "when people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing-they believe in anything."
All images are stills from a freely distributed Chinese Public Security Bureau video, which was given by the PSB to Christian pastors in China to warn them about Eastern Lightning. Video courtesy of Pastor Dennis Balcombe.
Translation and additional reporting by Liu Cheng and Jack Barry.
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