Aug 19, 2014

McDonald's murder in China: 'evil cult members' face trial for woman's death

Jonathan Kaiman
The Guardian
August 18, 2014

China will try a group of "evil cult members" for murdering a woman at a McDonald's restaurant, in a case which has shed light on the religious group and the government's repeated efforts to wipe it out.

Graphic of CCTV shows a woman being killed at a McDonald's  in Zhaoyuan, China
CCTV shows a woman being killed at a McDonald's
 in Zhaoyuan, China.  (Xin/Imaginechina)
The state news agency Xinhua said at the weekend that a court in Yantai, Shandong province, will try five people for murder on Thursday, three of whom "used a cult organisation to undermine enforcement of the law".

In late May, the five defendants – Zhang Fan, Zhang Lidong, Lü Yingchun, Zhang Hang, and Zhang Qiao – and a 12-year-old child walked through a McDonald's in Zhaoyuan, also in Shandong, soliciting phone numbers from diners. One woman, Wu Shuoyan, 37, was waiting in the restaurant with her seven-year-old son; when she refused to give her number, the group beat her to death with chairs and a metal mop handle. The act was captured by CCTV cameras and witnesses using smartphones. The footage quickly went viral online, with many web users wondering why bystanders did not intervene.

State media quickly turned the conversation to religion: the attackers belonged to the quasi-Christian group Church of Almighty God, also known as Eastern Lightning, Xinhua said. One of the attackers, Zhang Lidong, later appeared in a prison interview, which was broadcast on national television. The unemployed pharmaceutical salesman said the group – which he has been a member of for seven years – attacked Wu "because she is a monster. She is an evil spirit. We are not afraid of the law. We have faith in God."

The Church of Almighty God was founded in 1989 by Zhao Weishan, a physics teacher who grew up in Henan province, central China, but fled to the US more than a decade ago. Adherents believe Jesus has returned to earth as a Chinese woman named Lightning Deng, and hold that belonging to the group will save them from an impending apocalypse. Members believe they're entrenched in a life-or-death struggle against the "Great Red Dragon" – a clear reference to the ruling Communist party.

Zhang Lidong, above, is accused of killing a woman
 at a McDonald's cafe, in Shandong. The victim was
allegedly attacked there by Almighty God followers.
Photograph: An Xin/Imaginechina
Chinese authorities have listed the Church of Almighty God as one of 14 banned "evil cults", along with the persecuted spiritual group Falun Gong, and have made repeated attempts to eradicate it – Xinhua said in June that more than 1,500 group members have been detained.

Yet the group appears to be spreading throughout Chinese provincial cities and rural areas, and is beginning to gain a foothold in Hong Kong, Taiwan and the US. Its website claims that it has millions of members.

A Taiwanese phone contact on its website led to a woman who said the group has no spokesperson. She then sent a link to a statement about the McDonald's murder, which the group posted online.

"This case itself is full of lies and layered with dubious facts – the lies used to frame and entrap the Church of Almighty God are collapsing in on themselves," it said. "What's really astonishing is that the rulers of such a magnificent country would use such vile and reprehensible methods to shift the blame [for the attack] on to the Church of Almighty God."

State media honed in on the group in December 2012 after it organised small-scale demonstrations to coincide with the rumoured Mayan apocalypse. Authorities arrested more than 500 adherents across nine provinces.

"The government designating something as an 'evil cult' is a problematic concept from a human rights point of view," said Maya Wang, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch. "The McDonald's killing was terrible, and I think the people should be held accountable. But then the government has subsequently gone after members of Eastern Lightning for organising activities that weren't against the law."

Other Christian organisations have derided the Church of Almighty God's doctrine as heresy.

"One person from my church was converted to the Church of Almighty God – I tried to get the person back and didn't succeed," the leader of one underground Protestant church told the Guardian in 2012. Many adherents live in rural areas and lack formal education, he said. The group "parses the meaning of each [biblical] verse, and makes sure their messages are highly relevant to Chinese culture. So it's very easy for Chinese people to understand what they're preaching."