Apocalypse Now

China’s Doomsday Crackdown

Long wary of cults, the Communist regime has deemed some doomsday believers a threat to society.

AFP / Getty Images

Doomsday is making big headlines in China. In local papers across the country, nerdy scientists have been quoted at length about magnetic poles reversing. Reporters have interviewed famous Beijing foodies about what they’ll eat for their last meal. Doomsday believers have even flocked to boat-builders in hopes of buying an ark.

Then there are the arrests. Chinese police have deemed some doomsday believers a threat to social stability. Authorities have detained at least 93 members of a banned sect known as the Church of the Almighty God, including 37 in the hardscrabble inland province of Qinghai. By handing out flyers and texting cellphone users, the group allegedly “brainwashed others into believing the end of the world is near,” according to The Global Times, a state-owned English-language paper.

The Christian cult has adapted the Mayan prophecy that some interpret to mean the world will end Dec. 21. Starting Friday, followers believe that the sun will disappear for three days. Then there will be earthquakes, tsunamis, and other calamities. Nonbelievers are doomed to perish, followers say, and they have urged each other to withdraw money from banks to prepare for the second coming of a “female Jesus.”

Doomsday believers exist in many countries, but what’s surprising is the extent to which Chinese state media has given the topic so much attention. Publications have cited international surveys showing China has the highest percentage of doomsday believers, followed closely by Russia.

Beijing’s officially atheistic Communist regime has long been wary of cults. In 1999 the party launched a wide-ranging crackdown against the outlawed quasi-Buddhist Falun Gong sect. Thousands of members have been detained since, and many have been abused in detention or sent to labor reeducation camps.The Almighty God sect is an especially sensitive subject for the regime because it depicts China as an imperial family on the decline, dominated by a big red dragon—a reference to the Chinese Communist Party, which followers say must be overthrown.

Yet long before China became Communist, the country’s leaders expressed a fear of cults. From 1850 to 1864, a civil war known as the Taiping Rebellion—led by a man claiming to be the younger brother of Jesus—left an estimated 20 million people dead and nearly toppled the ruling Qing Dynasty. In 1900, an anti-Christian sect whose members believed they were immune to bullets launched what came to be known as the Boxer Uprising, besieging Beijing’s Legation Quarter and auguring the 1911 fall of the Qing Dynasty.

Today the survival of the ruling Communist Party does not seem under serious threat from doomsday cultists—unless of course their prophecies come true. Yet some analysts worry that a growing number of Chinese are developing some sort of doomsday complex, stockpiling food and survival equipment as an unconscious way to deal with the stress and anxiety that is consuming their lives.

There was reportedly even a doomsday link to the recent stabbing spree at a Henan province primary school last Friday—coincidentally the same day as the horrific U.S. school shooting in Connecticut. After police detained 36-year-old suspect, Min Yongjun, he reportedly told them his actions were triggered by a belief that the world would end Friday. Min is slated to be charged with the mass knifing, which injured 22 students and an 84-year-old villager. Even if the apocalypse does not occur on Friday, lives may already have been ruined by those fearing the end of days.