HUAIDE, China – Kuang Yuexia and her husband, Cai Defu, considered themselves good Christians. They read the Bible every night before bed. When their children misbehaved, they dealt with them calmly. They did not curse or tell lies.
But when Zhang Chengli, a neighbor, began hounding them last year to leave their underground religious sect and join his, it seemed like a test of satanic intensity. He scaled the wall of their garden, ambushed them in the fields and roused them after midnight with frantic calls to convert before Jesus arrived for his Second Coming and sent them to hell.
Ms. Kuang poured dirty water on Mr. Zhang’s head. Mr. Cai punched him. Yet Mr. Zhang persisted for months until the couple’s sect intervened and stopped his proselytizing for good.
Mr. Zhang’s body – eyes, ears and nose ripped from his face – was found by a roadside 300 miles from this rural town in Jilin Province, in northeastern China. The police arrested Mr. Cai and fellow sect members. One of them died in police custody during what fellow inmates described as a torture session.
China’s growing material wealth has eluded the countryside, home to two-thirds of its population. But there is a bull market in sects and cults competing for souls. That has alarmed the authorities, who seem uncertain whether the spread of religion or its systematic repression does more to turn peasants against Communist rule.
The demise of Communist ideology has left a void, and it is being filled by religion. The country today has more church-going Protestants than Europe, according to several foreign estimates. Buddhism has become popular among the social elite. Beijing college students wait hours for a pew during Christmas services in the capital’s 100 packed churches.
But it is the rural underclass that is most desperate for salvation. The rural economy has grown relatively slowly. Corruption and a collapse in state-sponsored medical care and social services are felt acutely. But government-sanctioned churches operate mainly in cities, where they can be closely monitored, and priests and ministers by law can preach only to those who come to them.
The authorities do not ban religious activity in the countryside. But they have made it so difficult for established churches to operate there that many rural Chinese have turned to underground, often heterodox religious movements.
Charismatic sect leaders denounce state-sanctioned churches. They promise healing in a part of the country where the state has all but abandoned responsibility for public health. They also promise deliverance from the coming apocalypse, and demand money, loyalty and strict secrecy from their members.
Three Grades of Servants, a banned Christian sect that claims several million followers, made inroads in Huaide and other northern towns beginning nearly a decade ago. It lured peasants like Yu Xiaoping, as well as her neighbor, Ms. Kuang, away from state-authorized churches. Its underground network provided spiritual and social services to isolated villages.
But it also attracted competition from Eastern Lightning, its archrival, which sought to convert Ms. Yu, Ms. Kuang and others. The two sects clashed violently. Both became targets of a police crackdown.
Xu Shuangfu, the itinerant founder of Three Grades of Servants, who says he has divine powers, was arrested last summer along with scores of associates. Mr. Xu was suspected of having ordered the execution of religious enemies, police officers said.
Yet such efforts rarely stop the spread of underground churches and sects, which derive legitimacy from government pressure.
“Beijing cannot tolerate religious groups that are not directly under its control,” says Susanna Chen, a researcher in Taiwan who has studied the rural sects. “But for every group they repress, there are two to replace it. And the new ones are often more dangerous than those that came before.”
The Comfort of Baptism
Huaide is in the heart of China’s breadbasket. Corn grows 10 feet tall on treeless plains that surround rust-belt factories and tidy brick villages, stretching east to the North Korean border.
After the autumn harvest, the fields have been stripped of all but a foliage of corn leaves and the town settles into a languorous winter rhythm. But the placid surface hides Huaide’s spiritual turmoil.
Yu Xiaoping, a farmer and shop attendant here, grew up an atheist. Her father was a Communist Party member and a elementary school administrator who frowned on religion, especially when he discovered that his sister attended church. But he died of stomach cancer a decade ago, leaving a small plot of land, a tiny pension and a dying ideology.
Ms. Yu got a part-time job in the local farmers market. She, her sister or her baby niece slept shoulder-to-shoulder with her mother on the family kang, or platform bed, in their two-room home. She felt pinched for cash and confined.
One winter day in 1995 her aunt invited her to attend services in Gongzhuling, about 40 miles away, the closest state-authorized Protestant church. Ms. Yu agreed on a whim. She was surprised to find the simple beige-and-white assembly hall packed with 700 congregants, praying and singing in one voice. Ms. Yu returned the next week, this time taking the bus alone. On her third trip, she was baptized.
Ms. Yu is now 36 years old, petite, rosy-cheeked and prone to giggle. But she talks about having a purpose in life imparted by God.
“Until the day I found God, I felt like I was wandering aimlessly,” she said. “Suddenly I felt clear of mind and free of guilt and sin.”
Huaide did not have its own church. But soon Ms. Yu received invitations from new friends to attend private services. Villagers discussed the Bible. Sometimes a visiting minister delivered a sermon.
Many visiting ministers criticized the government-licensed church Ms. Yu had attended. They questioned its mandate that parishioners must be at least 18 years old, arguing that God intended children to hear the Gospel. The state’s requirement that church members register offended her, as did the stipulation that Communist Party officials, like her late father, forswear Christianity.
“Religion must be based on your heart, not on such rules,” she said.
One day a visiting minister – Ms. Yu says she remembers him clearly for his southern accent – delivered a scathing criticism of state-backed churches. He said they emphasized outdated, literal readings of the Bible instead of interpreting how scripture should inform today’s world. He urged her to consider an alternative that he said brought Jesus’ teaching alive: Three Grades of Servants.
The Appeal of a Sect
Xu Shuangfu, who the authorities say was born Xu Wenkou, is a religious entrepreneur. Now in his 60’s, he founded Three Grades of Servants in Henan Province in the late 1980’s and oversaw its growth despite serving time in custody.
The sect’s hierarchy is based on what Mr. Xu argued is the theme of a trinity that runs through scripture, including three servants of God (Moses, Aaron and Pashur, the ancestor of a priestly family) in the Old Testament, and three friends of Jesus (Martha, Mary and Lazarus) in the New Testament. Mr. Xu occupies the top grade and maintains that he, as Moses did, talks to God.
The group is millenarian. Mr. Xu, followers say, predicted that Jesus would return to earth and eliminate nonbelievers in 1989, then again in 1993. When this did not happen, Mr. Xu explained that even God misjudged how long Abraham’s descendants would stay in Egypt. He did not set a third date for the Second Coming.
Though he failed to divine the future, Mr. Xu did reach deeply into the lives of his peasant followers. The sect played a guiding role in Ms. Yu’s life not unlike the way the Communist Party, in its heyday of molding people according to Maoist and Marxist doctrine, shaped her father’s life.
Ms. Yu reported to a “fellow worker” in Three Grades of Servants, a woman who went by the code name Xing Zhi, or Fortunate Aspirations. Xing Zhi coordinated prayer sessions, collected donations and taught Ms. Yu what to wear, what to eat, when to wake up in the morning. She even matched Ms. Yu with another of her young charges, Zhang Qinghai. Ms. Yu and Mr. Zhang read the Bible together, discussed their goals and fell in love. They married a decade ago, six months after meeting.
“You are not required to marry within the group,” Ms. Yu said. “But Xing Zhi said if you find someone you love who is also in the group, then that is the ideal.”
Like Ms. Yu, Kuang Yuexia and her husband, Cai Defu, had their first religious experience at a state-authorized church. But the distance and the demands of raising two girls and a boy made their visits infrequent.
Then in 1995, Mr. Cai developed a brain tumor. He underwent an operation that forced the family to borrow $1,500 and left his speech impaired. Doctors recommended further procedures. But they could afford no more medical bills and he recuperated at home, slowly.
Three Grades of Servants sent a local organizer, Chen Zhihua, to read the Bible and sing hymns with Ms. Kuang and the bedridden Mr. Cai. Sect members helped Ms. Kuang tend her four acres of corn during her husband’s illness.
Ms. Kuang, 46, talks in nervous soliloquies that often give way to tears when she discusses religion. She said Three Grade of Servants became a defining force in her life.
“I loved the songs and the discipline,” she recalled. “I used to get angry with the children before they taught me how to change my personality. I learned that you must eliminate hate from your mind.”
She said the teachings improved her husband’s health. The sect preached calm when facing trial, and Mr. Cai learned to control the flow of blood to his brain, she said, reducing the hemorrhaging that had occurred when he became stressed. He resumed working in the fields.
“Enhancing our understanding of the Bible achieved results that expensive medicine could not achieve,” Ms. Kuang said.
A few years ago Ms. Yu and Ms. Kuang received a summons to attend a service at the home of Ms. Chen, the local organizer, and discovered that the “big servant” himself, Xu Shuangfu, had arrived to deliver a sermon. Everyone kept silent in his presence.
Ms. Kuang remembers better how he looked than what he said. He had round cheeks but very white skin and a beatific smile, making him appear part Chinese and part Western.
“He looked like Jesus,” she said.
On the Margins
Since the early days of economic reforms in the 1980’s, China has eased restrictions on religious activity, especially in the cities.
But registration requirements and periodic harassment limit growth, as does a chronic shortage of clerics. The five officially recognized religions – Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism – cannot promote themselves or expand easily. The goal seems to be to prevent any from acquiring clout to rival the Communist Party.
The losers are marginalized people who need spiritual support the most, like laid-off workers and rural migrants in cities and peasants in the countryside. They get little benefit from churches that cannot, by law, reach out to them.
One movement that took advantage of this gap was Falun Gong, which espouses an idiosyncratic mix of traditional Chinese qigong exercises and meditation. Its millions of loyal followers resisted stubbornly, though peacefully, when the government crushed it in 1999.
Christian sects form and mutate in the countryside, vying to attract the same disadvantaged classes.
“Cults are thriving among those the government has abandoned,” says Kang Xiaoguang, a political scientist at Qinghua University in Beijing. “They provide social services the government no longer does. They give people a sense of belonging,” he said.
There are the Shouters and the Spirit Church, the Disciples Association and White Sun, the Holistic Church and the Crying Faction. Many are apocalyptic. A few are strongly anti-Communist. Three Grades of Servants and Eastern Lightning are among the largest, each claiming membership in the millions.
Their identities may be less important than their profusion. They erupt suddenly, shocking authorities with their secrecy, financial wherewithal, tight-knit organization and, occasionally, their willingness to use force.
For the Communist Party, this is uncomfortably reminiscent of China’s past. Millenarian sects have been harbingers of dynastic change since the Yellow Turbans contributed to the fall of the Han Dynasty at the end of the second century. As recently as the 19th century, the Taiping and Boxer rebellions weakened the Qing Dynasty and fostered the social turmoil that eventually helped the Communists themselves to take power.
Earlier this year, the government ordered the agency established to combat Falun Gong, called the 610 Office, to pursue a crackdown against rural cults.
“The threat posed by Falun Gong has been superseded by organizations in the countryside that are vying with the party for people’s hearts,” a document posted by the 610 Office says. “Some are even the spearhead of a movement to seize power from the Communist Party.”
The Religious Battle
The 610 Office lists Eastern Lightning as a top target. The group was founded in 1990 by a woman, surnamed Deng, who claims that she is the returned Jesus Christ. It recruits mainly from other religious groups and often uses tactics that include spying, kidnapping and brainwashing, according to two people who say they were forcibly held by the group.
Authorities banned Eastern Lightning several years ago. But it has expanded to become by some foreign estimates the largest underground religious group in China.
In Huaide, as in other northeastern hotspots, Eastern Lightning set its sights on the main local religious force: Three Grades of Servants. In early 2003, Eastern Lightning recruited a few members in Huaide. They in turn were given conversion quotas and an urgent timetable: to save as many souls as possible before the female Jesus wiped out nonbelievers.
Ms. Yu and her husband were approached by two former members of their own sect who had converted. They were given a 1,000-page customized Bible and hymn book, bound in yellow. Eastern Lightning followers returned frequently to discuss the contents and persuade them to convert.
“If you didn’t say yes to one person, they would just send another, like messengers from the Devil,” Ms. Yu said.
Zhang Chengli, a local farmer and Eastern Lightning operative, headed the team to convert Ms. Kuang and Mr. Cai. According to Ms. Kuang, he followed them to their home and in the fields. His message was blunt.
“He told us that if we joined Lightning, then God would protect us,” Ms. Kuang said. “But if we didn’t join, we would die.”
After midnight one night he stood outside their bedroom with a bullhorn. He yelled through the window, “Convert or die!” Ms. Kuang said.
Another day he clipped the wings of a pigeon and tossed it into their vegetable garden. The bird hopped around until Ms. Kuang captured it and brought it into her pantry, thinking it might make a meal. When she inspected it, she found a note glued to its belly. It read, “Those who cannot see the light will die.”
To get rid of Mr. Zhang, Ms. Kuang dumped household wastewater on his head. Mr. Cai, ignoring his own sect’s teachings on remaining unruffled, punched Mr. Zhang and smashed his bicycle tires with a metal pipe.
When Mr. Zhang persisted, they considered alerting the police. But they were themselves part of an underground Christian group. And they decided it was morally wrong.
“However bad he was,” Ms. Kuang said, “I could not report another Christian to the police.”
A Lethal Solution
Three Grades of Servants had been fighting defections in several northeastern provinces. So when Xing Zhi, the chief coordinator for the sect in Huaide, heard about Mr. Zhang’s campaign, she took decisive measures.
She told Mr. Cai to notify her the next time Mr. Zhang came calling, Ms. Kuang said. Ms. Yu’s husband was deployed in a stakeout. When Mr. Zhang pedaled by, he was intercepted, gagged with tape and stuffed into the back of a white van, which sped away, according to local residents who saw the abduction.
Assassins sliced away Mr. Zhang’s facial features before discarding his corpse. That turned out be a calling card of Three Grades of Servants, which has been linked to several grisly murders. The police were able to identify him only because he was carrying a report card from his son’s school, Huaide Elementary, in a back pocket. They began a crackdown.
In an evening raid, Ms. Yu and her husband; Ms. Kuang and Mr. Cai; and Ms. Chen, their neighbor and fellow sect member, were whisked to Jilin provincial police headquarters. Ms. Kuang was so nervous she threw up in the back seat.
Ms. Yu and Ms. Kuang said that they were shackled to metal chairs and interrogated through the night in adjacent rooms. In the early hours, both women recalled hearing Ms. Chen scream and moan in pain.
When dawn broke, the police abruptly suspended their inquest and dismissed Ms. Yu and Ms. Kuang with orders to say nothing about their detention. Shortly thereafter, the women learned that Ms. Chen had died in custody. The police told Ms. Chen’s family that she had suffered a “sudden heart attack.”
Nearly a year after they were detained, their husbands remain in custody, though they have yet to be charged with a crime. Xing Zhi, the sect’s promoter, was also arrested.
The founder of the sect, Xu Shuangfu, was apprehended this summer after a long manhunt. Christian activist groups abroad led a campaign to protest the arrest, citing it as evidence of harsh reprisals against house churches. China’s Public Security Bureau said in a written statement that Mr. Xu was charged with ordering murders and leading an “illegal cult.”
Ms. Kuang now lives alone in Huaide. Her children have moved away to find jobs in the city. She says she lives in fear of retaliation, either by Eastern Lightning or the police.
Recently she spotted two police officers entering her yard, presumably to resume their interrogation. She said she was so afraid of another round of grilling that she drank a bottle of rat poison in front of them. She was taken to the hospital to have her stomach pumped.
Ms. Yu still lives with her mother and sister. A charcoal grill her husband used to sell barbecued meat on the street is rusting by their door, filled with rainwater and sludge.
The police confiscated her Bible. But she still prays often for her husband’s release. The violence in her village only confirmed her faith in Xu Shuangfu. She said he predicted all along that evil authorities and devilish sects would compete for influence at the crucial juncture.
“This is exactly what happens,” she said, “when the world is coming to an end.”
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