A secretive cult that exploits the weak and vulnerable

Updated: 2014-06-26 09:20

By He Na, Li Yao and Adelina Zhang (China Daily)

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Rebuilding family ties

Underground banks and stolen money

By Li Yao and He Na

Quannengshen, or The Church of Almighty God, is a secretive organization, and the biggest mystery surrounds its financial operations.

In 2009, the sect used underground banks to transfer more than 100 million yuan ($16 million) in donations from followers on the mainland to Hong Kong, according to Yeung Tze-chung, general secretary of the Concern Group on Newly Emerged Religions. He believes the money is used to buy ad space in newspapers, distribute pamphlets and organize meetings.

Many people in provinces such as Henan, Liaoning, Shandong and Anhui told reporters that family members had stolen money and donated it to the cult. "My wife had donated at least 30,000 yuan before she disappeared from home three years ago," said Ling Zhanzhang, from Henan.

Critics say Quannengshen's leaders make full use of Hong Kong's links with the mainland, and its tolerance of law-abiding outsiders.

"In their plan, Hong Kong is a center for channeling their financial resources overseas. It's also a venue for big conferences, because it's much easier for followers from the mainland to visit Hong Kong than another hub, such as South Korea, or its headquarters in the United States," Yeung said.

However, after several Quannengshen members were accused of the murder of a woman at a McDonald's restaurant in Zhaoyuan, Shandong province, the cult has lain low in Hong Kong. "It's better for members in Hong Kong to maintain a low profile right now. Most of them have relatives on the mainland, and if they were to cross the border for a family visit, they could be identified and arrested by the authorities," Yeung said.

L ian Meng, founder of the Anti-Almighty God League, an important platform in the fight against Quannengshen, and whose website has attracted 2 million visits since it was established in 2012, said his family has been ruined by the cult. His website posts victims' stories and describes Quannengshen's recruitment methods and activities to warn people about its true nature.

The 33-year-old from Hefei, Anhui province, has also registered two chat groups on Tencent QQ, a popular instant-messaging service. The groups have about 2,000 members each, all of whom are concerned relatives of cult members.

"I learned about my wife's abnormal behavior four years ago. She often disappeared for entire afternoons, and my first instinct was that she was having an affair. After we had argued about it several times, she finally admitted that she had been out recruiting new members," said Lian.

"She was a good wife and mother, but she changed. She even tried to prevent me from taking our 10-year-old son to the hospital when he was seriously ill. She said God would cure him, instead. My parents-in-law tried to change her mind, but she scolded them and said they should die at an early age," he said.

A tense standoff lasted a year, until Lian's wife disappeared just after Spring Festival in 2011.

"I often dream of her and recall the good times. The methods I used were wrong. If I had another chance, I would treat it like a sickness and try to guide her, or call the police to ensure that she cut her ties with the cult immediately," he said.

Dangerous influence

Yeung Tze-chung, general secretary of a Hong Kong-based NGO called The Concern Group on Newly Emerged Religions, said: "The cult's influence is dangerous because it preaches anti-social, anti-establishment messages that cut individuals off from their families."

A conservative estimate by the NGO puts the number of Quannengshen followers in Hong Kong at 2,000, with more than 90 percent of them being women from the mainland who moved there after marriage. Most were regular churchgoers.

Yeung said the women were on the margins of Christian society in Hong Kong, partly because of the language barrier - they speak Mandarin, while the people in Hong Kong mainly speak Cantonese - and membership of Quannengshen provided them with greater self-esteem and an easier path to religion because the cult has very clear instructions about how to win God's favor. They feel respected and valued in this close-knit group where they are given easy tasks and make new friends, who they encourage to join.

In response to the cult's growing influence, mainstream churches should undertake reforms to engage with these women and establish a real bond with them, Yeung said.

According to Kung Lap-yan, an associate professor of religion at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, gathering more information about Quannengshen's followers would help determine why it appeals to people, and identify needs that are neglected by organized religion but embraced by the cult.

The sect's most effective recruitment method is for its members to form close, personal relationships with those they target, exploiting a weak link in an impersonal society. To minimize the group's influence, members of the public, churches, schools, and local governments should strive to strengthen social connections, show compassion and a caring attitude, and give a helping hand to those in need. That way, deprived families and individuals won't need to turn to Quannengshen as a form of compensation, Kung said.

He said the biggest problem facing Quannengshen is that it's too secretive. The more the cult keeps to itself and employs opaque tactics, the more people will become suspicious and hostile to its aims. However, that could result in the sect's members feeling increasingly isolated and victimized, and that resentment could result in increased radicalization, he warned.

Contact the authors at hena@chinadaily.com.cn and liyao@chinadaily.com.cn

Qi Xin contributed to this story.