Soft power can win fight against cults

China Daily/June 12, 2014

Edited by Wang Fan

The May 28 tragedy in Zhaoyuan, Shandong province, in which six "Church of the Almighty God" followers beat a woman to death, has highlighted the harmful consequences of destructive cults in China and prompted the Ministry of Public Security to announce a crackdown on cults.

The crackdown alone may not prevent cults from spreading in the country, says Lu Yunfeng, professor of sociology at Peking University. The authorities need to take more comprehensive measures to deal with cults.

Although many countries and regions have taken strong measures to curb destructive cults, the results have often not been very effective. A good example is China's Taiwan, where Yiguangdao (I-Kuan Tao) has grown from a small sect into one with almost 1 million followers in 30 years despite the local authorities' continuous attempts to rein it in.

Lu says many cults have grown at a faster pace after crackdowns, because they can spread their tentacles through social networks by using "friends". Worse, crackdowns can sometimes cause a "scarcity effect". That means, crackdown can "encourage" cults to adopt "innovations" to sustain the networks. So the networks can be more "pure" and secretly organized, and the crackdown can serve as a "filter" to maintain the members who are most loyal and stubborn. All of these may make the crackdown in the future more difficult.

The spread of cults has a lot to do with the lack of enough channels for people to seek spiritual help at a time when China is undergoing social transformation. "Emerging cults are like fever ... a symptom that reminds us that not all is well with society", Lu says. Proper "social governance", he says, could be the cure to the social ailment of cults.

For that, we have to first lessen our reliance on the State, and let the people and social organizations play a bigger role in countering cults. Since cults are destructive in nature, non-cult followers see them as a threat to society, he says.

One of Lu's students seeking admission to a master's course has spent more than a year working on a paper on the "Church of the Almighty God". Investigations show that the cult is widely hated by its followers' family members because it demands that its adherents "sever" relations with their families. Media reports also say that one of the six suspects in the Zhaoyuan case believes his mother is a "demon" who should be "murdered". His mother is one of the victims-turned-opponents of the cult.

The authorities, therefore, needs to go further, beyond administrative measures, to use more legal means to deal with cults. For example, instead of simply banning destructive cults, it can start legal proceedings against cult leaders and followers to punish them for their illegal activities. Such measures, however, need some time to yield results.

Citing the example of Mormons in the United States, Lu says they used to advocate (and practice) polygamy which was contradictory to federal laws. But the federal government insisted on strictly enforcing the law, and the Mormons officially gave up practicing polygamy in 1890, a full 28 years after US Congress passed the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Law.

A different example is the Waco Siege of 1993, when an investigation into Davidians in Waco, Texas, led to a clash between police and cult followers. Altogether, 86 followers died in a fire and 10, including four police officers, died in gunbattle. Besides, the authorities have to find out the social causes behind the spread of destructive cults and deal with them appropriately. "You cannot forever stop water in a pot from boiling by keeping on adding more water ... you need to extinguish the fire," Lu says, quoting a Chinese proverb.

Disappearing traditions - like the bonds within extended families and the sense of belonging in a community - have left a void in society which cults have rushed in to fill. Many scholars in religion believe cults are popular mainly in certain rural regions of the country that are relatively underdeveloped, and appeal chiefly to uneducated women and senior citizens. Such people believe cults can help solve some of their problems, which are not merely material.

However, material benefits, like donations for medical treatment, and physical help in times of need do help cults to attract followers. That explains why some local authorities find penalizing people for being cult followers has not fully succeeded in reining in cults. Since not all followers join cults for material benefits, they don't leave them when they suffer material loss.

The authorities, therefore, need to improve social services to prevent more poor people from falling prey to cults to seek spiritual (and perhaps material) comfort. Moreover, they also need to help strengthen social relations and encourage the development of bona fide social organizations which would provide spiritual comfort for ordinary people. For instance, Lu says, local governments could help build "love families", where former cult followers can interact with anti-cult groups to understand their mistakes.

For several years, Lu has been deliberating on a deeper question: How to transform China's religion policy into a national strategy? Giving the example of the US, he says the country's Constitution clearly states "freedom of religion", but all US dollar notes carry "In God we trust" in capital letters, and US presidents have been ending their speeches with "God bless America" for the past several decades.

That, Lu says, is quite a smart strategy, of including Protestant tradition in the US' national identity. The practice is well explained in US scholar Samuel P. Huntington's Who Are We? The Challenges to America's National Identity.

Lu advises Chinese to ask the same question: Who are we? The answer may be hard to fathom. But Chinese people do need to follow certain values that conform to traditional Chinese culture and are linked with China's national identity. Only when they succeed in doing so will destructive cults lose their appeal and be rooted out of society.

The author, Zhang Zhouxiang, is a writer with China Daily.

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