It was at the back of the restaurant — beyond the fry stand, the grease-slicked counter, the droves of gawking patrons — where the murder happened. The restaurant was a McDonald’s. It was a Wednesday evening. The murderers, who bludgeoned the woman to death with chairs and a mop, belonged to a cult described as China’s “most radical.” Called the Church of the Almighty God, it claims to have a million followers, aggressively promotes Doomsday scenarios, wants to destroy the Chinese Communist Party and believes that Jesus Christ has returned — as a Chinese woman.
But it was the McDonald’s murder that has consumed a Chinese court’s attention over the last two months. Days ago, two church members were convicted and sentenced to death for a killing that, even by the standards of the Church of the Almighty God, was peculiar and brutal.
According to prosecutors, five members tried to recruit a woman patronizing the McDonald’s in question, asked for her phone number and beat her to death when she refused. Defendant Zhang Lidong, who arrived that night in luxury Porsche Cayenne car, never offered much explanation.
“You could just tell she was not a good person,” he said in a state television interview, describing the 35-year-old mother. “She was a demon, the evil spirit. We had to beat her to death.”
The trial, which brought greater attention to the Christian cult without elucidating its murkier aspects, marked another clash in a decades-long feud between the Chinese authorities and the church. The Chinese have long been suspicious of religious organizations and have been known to crack down, imprison or even execute dissidents with little provocation.
In late 2012, the state arrested more than 1,300 members after the church fretted over an impending doomsday following the release of the disaster film, “2012.” Then this year, following the the McDonald’s murder, state media reported that Chinese authorities had arrested 1,000 more cult members.
“The suspects, all seized since June, are allegedly involved in more than 500 cases,” Xinhua said in a brief report. “Among them are nearly a hundred ‘high-level organizers and backbone members.'”
Adding more confusion is the cult’s convoluted Web site. It speaks of life’s three stages — ploughing, sowing and harvesting — and offers a series of books, including one depicting a viola floating over a lake amid a flurry of doves. “Follow the lamb,” says the church, which also goes by the name Eastern Lightning. “And sing new songs.” Its Facebook page describes the group thusly: “The Lord Jesus has already Come. God’s sheep hear the voice of God.”
Much of the church’s teaching hinges on Jesus, who to them is now a woman named Yang Xiangbin. Little is known of the woman beyond this: she reportedly suffered some sort of mental breakdown after failing a national exam and “has a history of mental illness,” according to China’s People’s Daily. In the early 1990s, the 30-year-old woman came into the orbit of a square-jawed man named Zhao Weishan in Zhengzhou, Henan province, according to the Christian Research Institute. Zhao claimed that God had told him she was the “female Christ,” and he began attracting followers to her.
The ethos of the group, however, is as much about dissent as it is religion. On its Web site, it castigates the ruling politburo for its “evil deeds,” labeling it the “Great Red Dragon.” It produces movies telling members what to do if the government captures them: “Even if they beat me to death, my soul is still in God’s hands.”
“It’s about as illegal and politically sensitive as religion gets in China,” Emily Dunn, of the University of Melbourne, told CNN. “As the government has cracked down more, Eastern Lightning’s rhetoric has escalated against the government.”
As is the nature of many churches accused of being a cult, the only members who comment on it are those who have extricated themselves under acrimonious conditions. “The strategy is to slowly draw you in,” one 31-year-old former member told the Telegraph. “It is like taking classes in school. They told us there are three steps to believing in God. First you believe in Joseph, then in Christ, then in the female reincarnation of Christ. They asked us to convert more people or God would be upset…. At night I would always feel scared when I was alone.”
One man, a prominent American pastor named Dennis Balcombe, was detained by the Chinese government and questioned about the church. “They’re extremely violent and use sex to try to convert people,” he told Vice magazine. “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.”
Which is exactly what prosecutors say the church had in mind in May when members approached their victim in the McDonald’s. And when she denied their attempts at recruitment?
“I beat her with all my might and stamped on her, too,” Zhang told state television, the BBC reported. “She was a demon. We had to destroy her.”