China / Cover Story

A secretive cult that exploits the weak and vulnerable

By He Na, Li Yao and Adelina Zhang (China Daily) Updated: 2014-06-26 09:20

A secretive cult that exploits the weak and vulnerable

A local lays a bunch of flowers as a mark of respect for a woman murdered by alleged members of Quannengshen at a McDonald's restaurant in Zhaoyuan, Shandong province. Liu Youzhi / For China Daily

The Quannengshen, or Eastern Lightening, sect was banned in China nearly 20 years ago, but it made national headlines after several of its underground followers were arrested for murdering a woman in Shandong province last month, report He Na in Henan province, Li Yao in Hong Kong and Adelina Zhang in New York.

A secretive cult that exploits the weak and vulnerable

At first glance, Zhangzhai looks like any other village in China. It seems to be a peaceful place, mainly populated by elderly people and children, but upon closer inspection, a very different picture emerges.

The villagers do not chat much; indeed, many appear to be looking at each other with hate in their eyes. Some of the surrounding fields have long been untended, and the streets are almost deserted. In most villages of this kind, the elderly sit outside their houses looking after the children of their sons and daughters who have moved to the cities in search of work. In Zhangzhai, some of the children are left at home, unsupervised, behind locked doors.

"This used to be a very vibrant place, and the villagers were simple and honest. However, after a growing number of locals began believing in Quannengshen, everything changed," said Ling Zhanzhang, who lives in the suburbs of Shangqiu city in Henan province. "Parents are not behaving like parents, and mothers are not taking care of the family and the kids. In many people's minds, no one is more important than God, and nothing is more important than recruiting more members," the 32-year-old said.

"At least 30 percent of villagers follow Quannengshen, and some of them are core members. Many families have been ruined, with mothers cutting off relations with their children, and other women leaving home without warning. My family is among those ruined by this cult," he said.

Quannengshen, which is also known as The Church of Almighty God, Eastern Lightning, the Seven Spirits Sect, and several other names, was founded in Henan by former physics teacher Zhao Weishan in the early 1990s, but when the sect was outlawed in 1995, Zhao and other top leaders fled to the United States.

The alternative name "Eastern Lighting" comes from the Gospel According to Matthew in the New Testament: "For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of man be."

The sect's followers believe that Jesus has returned to Earth in the form of a woman called Yang Xiangbin, who was born to an ordinary family in Zhengzhou, Henan. Apart from Zhao, only five female devotees are allowed to meet the female "Jesus", and they regard her teachings, which they record, as "The Word of God". Those who fail to accept her teachings will suffer a terrible death or severe punishment, according to the sect, which believes traditional Christianity is outdated and says Yang will save her followers from the apocalypse. In addition, Quannengshen members are required to refuse all contact with close relatives and to serve God without question.

Ling's wife, an adherent of the sect, left the family two years ago, despite her husband's protests.

"My wife's parents are core members of Quannengshen, and are very proud of it. My wife was not a firm believer, but every time I came close to getting her to renounce the sect, her parents would visit and my efforts would be in vain," Ling said.

"After so long without their mother, my daughter, aged 9, and my 6-year-old son are looked down on at school. They've become introverted and don't like going to school now," he said.

To add insult to injury, when Ling's leg was injured in an accident at work, instead of helping him through the hard times, his parents-in-law visited the hospital to berate him. "They scolded me and said the injury was a punishment from God," he said.

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