Late last month Wu Shaoyan went into a McDonald’s restaurant in the northern city of Zhaoyuan and sat down at a table.
As she waited for her husband and seven year-old son, six people belonging to an illegal sect known as the Church of Almighty God approached her and asked for her telephone number.
When she declined, one of the group called her a ‘devil’ and ordered his companions to beat her with a steel bar. Minutes later Wu lay unconscious on the restaurant floor. She was pronounced dead later that night.
In the days that followed many people took to social media to express their shock. How could such a violent attack happen in such a public place, they asked, and why did no one step in to help?
In footage of the attack, several people can be seen standing and watching. “I think the thing that is most frightening about the Zhaoyuan case is not that someone died,” writes Cairang Duoji in a commentary in Beijing News. More, it’s the indifference of those looking on, he suggests.
In the Global Times, a professor called Zhu Lijia warned that China’s rapidly changing society means that people are looking for the kind of spiritual meaning that the sects claim to provide.
But one thing that no one felt the need to question was why the attack had happened in Shandong province.
For most people the answer is clear enough – that cults are a particular problem for northerly provinces.
“The south has gangsters, the north has cults,” was the way that one weibo user summed it up, and not many people – not even northerners – seemed to disagree with him.
So does this stereotype hold true?
Well, to a certain extent, yes. Since the Cultural Revolution most of the cults and heterodox sects in China have emerged in provinces above the Yangtze River (which traditionally serves as the dividing line between north and south).
The Church of Almighty God, which is also known as Eastern Lightning, was founded in Henan in the early 1990s by a man named Zhao Weishan, who claimed Jesus had come back to earth in the form of a woman named Deng.
Another group known as the Disciples Association was started in Shaanxi in the late 1980s by a farmer named Ji Sanbao, who also claimed to be Jesus.
Both groups are banned by the Chinese government, along with 12 other so-called “evil cults”.
So why do cults seem to pick up more followers in the north?
One theory is poverty and lower levels of education. Although the north as whole does not suffer from those problems, the provinces in which some of these organisations have flourished do tend to be worse-off. Henan and Anhui in particular are signficantly underdeveloped compared to their neighbours.
Another theory is that people in areas that were more deeply affected by the Cultural Revolution are more prone to indoctrination.
Again anecdotal evidence appears to back this up, with elderly people often the first members of families to join some of the banned organisations.
In another Global Times article – about families who were worried about their relatives – the interviewees were all adult children trying to extract their parents.
The article also said that religious sects often target ballroom dance groups frequented by middle-aged or older women for new recruits.
A third and possibly related theory is that social structures are stronger in the south. This chimes with a recent study in the journal Science that renews the claim that the south of China is more collective in outlook because rice has been grown traditionally, while the north is more individualistic, because wheat is the staple crop.
The thinking is that the cooperation of the whole village is required to grow rice because it requires labour-intensive planting, as well as relatively complex irrigation systems. Wheat can be grown with the involvement of fewer people, the study claims.
“I’m not surprised to see that most of the cults exist in the north. People in the villages are bored, there are no systems in the villages that can organise these farmer to get together to do something useful,” an armchair sociologist wrote on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-equivalent.
Lastly, people from both the south and the north have suggested that it is the southerners love of money that stops them from joining religious organisations in fear they might be asked for their cash.
“We have pyramid schemes not cults in the south. We are only interested if there is the opportunity to make money,” wrote one southerner.
If China’s official version of history allowed for closer study, a stronger argument might be made that cultish behaviour fuelled one of the world’s most violent uprisings, the Taiping Rebellion, which started in Guangxi (a region in China’s south).
The rebellion – said to have been responsible for the deaths of as many as 20 million people – has been portrayed by early Maoist historians as a proto-communist uprising against a corrupt feudal class. But what the history books generally don’t mention is that the rebellion’s leader claimed to be the younger brother of Jesus. His Taiping Heavenly Kingdom went on to control large parts of southern China, ruling about 30 million people at its peak and seeking to replace Confucianism and Buddhism with its own form of Christianity.
Meanwhile the People’s Daily weighed into the debtate this week, warning its readers against stereotyping “People should not be discriminated on the basis of where they come from.”
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