LÜ YINGCHUN – ZHANG FAN GROUP TIMELINE
1959 (October 8): Zhang Lidong was born in Shijiazhuang, Hebei, China.
1975 (March 8): Lü Yingchun was born in Yantai City, Shandong, China.
1984 (October 24): Zhang Fan, daughter of Zhang Lidong, was born in Shijiazhuang, Hebei, China.
1990 (August 23): Zhang Qiaolian, the future lover of Zhang Lidong, was born in Shijiazhuang, Hebei, China.
1996 (March 1): Zhang Hang, daughter of Zhang Lidong, was born in in Shijiazhuang, Hebei, China.
1998: Lü Yingchun came to believe that she was in the Biblical position of the “Firstborn Son.” She later realized that meant she was “God Himself.”
Early 2000s: Lü Yingchun led a study group in Zhaoyuan. She also spread her messianic claims through the Internet.
2001 (September 12): Zhang Duo, son of Zhang Lidong, was born.
2002: Zhang Fan was admitted to the Beijing Broadcasting Institute (renamed in 2004 as the Communication University of China).
Mid-2000s: Zhang Fan, and possibly Lü Yingchun, read a book titled 七雷发声 (The Seven Thunders Sound), whose authors were a couple from Baotou, Inner Mongolia: Li Youwang and Fan Bin.
2007: Zhang Fan read a book whose title she later recalled as God’s Hidden Work (神隐秘的做功), possibly a pirated or imitated version of The Hidden Work Done by God (神隐秘的作工) published by the Church of Almighty God, but she did not manage to contact that church.
2008 (October): Zhang Fan noticed Lü Yingchun’s activities on the Internet and contacted her. She later visited her in Zhaoyuan.
2009: Zhang Fan converted her mother, Chen Xiujuan, and, through her, her father Zhang Lidong, her sister Zhang Hang, and her eight year-old brother Zhang Duo to Lü Yingchun’s group.
Late 2009: Zhang Fan borrowed 50,000 RMB from her mother to support the move of the authors of the Seven Thunders book, Li Youwang and Fan Bin, from Baotou to Zhaoyuan, where they started living with, and being supported by, the Zhang family. Fan Longfeng also became part of the group’s inner circle.
2010: Lü Yingchun started living together with Zhang Fan.
2011: Zhang Fan pronounced Li Youwang an “evil spirit” (邪灵), and he and his wife left the group in Zhaoyuan and moved to Dongyin, Shandong. Fan Longfeng was also identified as an “evil spirit” (邪灵) and expelled from the group.
2014 (on or around May 20): Lü Yingchun and Zhang Fan announced they were the Two Witnesses of the Book of Revelation, and were both God. They also identified Chen Xiujuan, Zhang Fan’s mother, as an “evil spirit” (邪灵), and expelled her from her home and from the group. Zhang Fan and Lü Yingchun allowed Zhang Lidong to welcome in the family home his lover, Zhang Qiaolian, and admitted her into their group.
2014 (May 27): Zhang Fan and Zhang Lidong killed the family dog, Luyi, an event they considered highly significant.
2014 (May 28): Instigated and helped by Zhang Fan, Zhang Lidong beat Wu Shuoyan to death in a McDonald’s diner in Zhaoyuan, Shandong, China. Also present were Lü Yingchun, Zhang Hang, Zhang Qiaolian, and Zhang Fan’s thirteen year-old brother, Zhang Duo.
2014 (May 29): The Chinese Police claimed to have found material of the Church of Almighty God in Zhang Lidong’s home.
2014 (May 31): A video of an interview with Zhang Lidong was aired by CCTV, China’s national television.
2014 (June 1): Zhang Lidong and Zhang Fan were interviewed by Phoenix Satellite TV.
2014 (August 21): The trial of those accused of the McDonald’s murder took place at the Intermediate People’s Court in Yantai, Shandong.
2014 (October 11): Zhang Lidong and Zhang Fan were sentenced to death by the Yantai Intermediate People’s Court. Lü Yingchun was sentenced to life in prison. Zhang Hang was sentenced to ten years of jail and Zhang Qiaolian to seven years.
2015 (February 2): Zhang Lidong and Zhang Fan were executed.
The Lü Yingchun – Zhang Fan group was a small and short-lived movement; there are relatively few details available on its history and development (Introvigne 2017). The group has been conflated with the Church of Almighty God, a church targeted by the Chinese government at the same time that the Lü Yingchun – Zhang Fan group emerged, both by Chinese authorities and in the media. Since the histories of the two movements became intertwined and their identities have been erroneously linked, careful attention will be paid in this profile to the actual and erroneous links between the two movements.
The most relevant characters within the group were the Zhang family from Shijiazhuang, in the province of Hebei, and Lü Yingchun, a young woman who was born in Yantai City, Shandong, on March 8, 1975. Zhang Lidong was born on October 8, 1959 in Shijiazhuang, Hebei. He married Chen Xiujuan, and the couple had three children: two daughters, the elder daughter Zhang Fan (1984-2015), born on October 24, 1984, and the younger daughter Zhang Hang, born on March 1, 1996, and a son, Zhang Duo, born on September 12, 2001 (Wang 2014).
Although she later quarreled with her husband, who had in the meantime acquired a lover named Zhang Qiaolian, Chen Xiujuan had a relevant part in the genesis of the group’s religious interests. She was a member of the Three Redemption Christ, or Mentuhui (门徒会), the “Association of Disciples,” a new religious movement founded by Ji Sanbao (1940-1997) in Shanxi in 1989. Ji, who had been a preacher for the Pentecostal Sabbatarian denomination known as the True Jesus Church, presented himself as “God’s stand-in” (shen de tishen, 神的替身) and the center of the Third Redemption (Dunn 2015a:35-39).
Lü Yingchun had messianic aspirations from an early age. As she later stated at the trial:
I grew up knowing that I was “God Himself.” In 1998, I read the word “firstborn son” in a book concerning “Almighty God.” I was convinced that I was the ‘firstborn son’ myself. (…) Finally, I discovered that I was ‘God Himself’ (The Beijing News 2014).
“Firstborn son” is a title used in the New Testament for Jesus Christ (see Hebrews 1:6; Revelation 1:5). Starting in the early 2000s, Lü Yingchun led a study group in Zhaoyuan. She also spread her messianic claims through the Internet.
Zhang Fan also confessed that in 2007 she “picked up a copy of the book of ‘Almighty God’ at our doorstep” and found it persuasive” (The Beijing News 2014). In an interview, she said that the book was called God’s Hidden Work (神隐秘的做功). It was possibly a pirated or imitated version of The Hidden Work Done by God (神隐秘的作工) published by the Church of Almighty God, unless she simply misquoted the title. She did develop an interest in the Church of Almighty God, but never managed to contact the organization. “I never had contact with the Church of Almighty God because they were very secretive and I could not find them,” she later stated (Phoenix Satellite TV 2014).
Zhang Fan’s conversion came when she started following Lü Yingchun on the Internet, and found her answers to those criticizing her “terrific” (The Beijing News 2014). She then traveled to Zhaoyuan to hear Lü preaching. Enthusiastic about Lü, in the summer of 2009 she converted her mother Chen Xiujuan and, through her, her whole family, including her father Zhang Lidong, her sister Zhang Hang, and her eight year-old brother Zhang Duo. Eventually, the whole Zhang family moved to Zhaoyuan, where they rented a two-story building. One story hosted the family textile business and the other the religious gatherings.
Before moving to Zhaoyuan, and after she was admitted in 2002 as a student to the Beijing Broadcasting Institute (renamed in 2004 the Communication University of China), where she would graduate in 2008, Zhang Fan read a book called The Seven Thunders Sound (七雷发声). In Zhaoyuan, she found out that the book, that possibly Lü Yingchun had also read, had been written by a couple from Baotou, Inner Mongolia: Li Youwang and Fan Bin. At that time, Li and Fan were in prison. Zhang Fan borrowed 50,000 RMB from her mother and send them to Baotou so that, upon their release from jail, Li and Fan could move to Zhaoyuan and stay with the Zhang family. Li and Fan “were addressed as ‘the two witnesses’ [from Revelation 11:3-12] and Lü Yingchun and Zhang Fan were called ‘the firstborn sons’” by a group that at that time consisted of twenty to thirty believers (Xiao and Zhang 2014). Fan Longfeng also became part of the group’s inner circle, and in 2010 Lü Yingchun started living together with Zhang Fan.
Some believe that the reference to the “seven thunders” in the apocalyptic visions of Revelation 10:1-7 may indicate a connection with the Church of Almighty God, but the latter is obviously not the only group with an interest in the Christian Book of Revelation and its symbols, and neither the book nor the authors are mentioned in any of the numerous Church bibliographies and Web sites. It seems safer to conclude that they operated yet another independent group.
Events leading to the horrific murder began in 2011 when Zhang Fan pronounced Li Youwang an “evil spirit” (邪灵), and he and his wife left the group in Zhaoyuan and moved to Dongyin, Shandong. Fan Longfeng was also identified as an “evil spirit” (邪灵) and expelled from the group (Xiao and Zhang 2014). With the Li and Fan couple out of the picture, Lü Yingchun and Zhang Fan were free to reveal gradually that they were both the Two Witnesses of the Book of Revelation and God, although a full disclosure to their small group might have come only in May 2014.
Around May 20, 2014, they also identified Chen Xiujuan, Zhang Fan’s mother, as an “evil spirit” (邪灵) and expelled her from the group and from the family home. Then, they told Zhang Lidong, Zhang Fan’s father, that his marriage with Chen Xiujuan had ended and he can “call his ex-lover Zhang Qiaolian over so that they could live together.” Now, “they were husband and wife instead [of Chen Xiujuan]. Lü gave them a new spiritual name each. [Zhang Lidong] was called Adam and Zhang Qiaolian, Eve” (The Beijing News 2014). Zhang Qiaolian, who was previously not particularly religious, declared her faith in Lü Yingchun and Zhang Fan as the Almighty God, and was accepted as a member of the group.
On May 28, 2014, one of the most brutal murders in the history of new religious movements was perpetrated in a McDonald’s diner in Zhaoyuan, in the Chinese province of Shandong [Image at right]. Six “missionaries” (Zhang Lidong, his daughters Zhang Fan and Zhang Hang, his son Zhang Duo, his lover Zhang Qiaolian, and Lü Yingchun) entered the diner preaching their religion and asked clients to leave their phone numbers for further contacts. Wu Shuoyan (1977-2014), a sales assistant working in a nearby clothing store, refused to give her number. She was declared an “evil spirit” (邪灵) and beaten to death with a mop handle (Dunn 2015b, 204). Except for the thirteen-year-old Zhang Duo, all were arrested, and tried by the Intermediate People’s Court of Yantai on August 21, 2014. On October 11, 2014, Zhang Lidong and Zhang Fan were sentenced to death. Lü Yingchun was sentenced to life in prison. Zhang Hang was sentenced to ten years of jail and Zhang Qiaolian to seven years. On February 2, 2015, Zhang Lidong and Zhang Fan were executed.
At the time of the murder, the Chinese government was engaged in a campaign for eradicating the Church of Almighty God, or Eastern Lightning, a new religious movement born in China in 1991. The Church of Almighty God priest (i.e. administrative leader and spokesperson for the Almighty God) is Zhao Weishan (b. 1951). The group teaches that Jesus Christ has returned to Earth as the incarnated Almighty God. Although the movement never mentions her name nor any biographical details, and cautions that any information supplied by outside sources may be wrong, most scholars believe it identifies Almighty God with a Chinese woman, Yang Xiangbin (b. 1973) (Dunn 2015a, 2015b). For a number of reasons, together with Falun Gong, the Church of Almighty God came to incarnate for the Chinese authorities the quintessential xie jiao (邪教) (Dunn 2015b:21-23), an expression often translated as “evil cult,” but which was used in China since the mid-Ming period with the meaning of “heterodox teachings” or “criminal religious movement” (ter Haar 1992).
Records from a teleconference on June 16, 2014, where officers of the Chinese Central Office for the Prevention and Handling of Cults (also referred as the Central 610 Office) discussed the Church of the Almighty God. They recommended to “firmly grasp the typical case of ‘May 28 McDonald’s Murder’ in one hand to expose the reactionary nature, deceptive tricks and serious threats of the cult,” and “vigorously promote foreign projects” of propaganda.
Immediately after the murder of Wu Shuoyan, therefore, Chinese police and media quickly and incorrectly attributed the murder to the Church of Almighty God, and this accusation is still routinely repeated by international media. As evidence for the accusation, Chinese media mentioned that, one day after the murder, the police claimed to have found material of the Church of Almighty God in the home of the main defendant, Zhang Lidong (1959-2015) (Chen 2014), including the book The Scroll Opened by the Lamb (Phoenix Satellite TV 2014). After another two days, Zhang Lidong appeared on CCTV, China’s state television. He stated that he was jobless and that he had killed Wu because she was an “evil spirit” (邪灵). Asked what was his religion, Zhang answered: “Almighty God” (全能神) (CCTV 2014). [Image at right]
This evidence offered an apparently direct link between the murders and the Church of Almighty God. A more careful and measured investigation might have led in a different direction. Scholars and the government itself agree that members are in the hundreds of thousands, and that millions of pieces of literature have been distributed, some of them even left “in public locations such as train stations for passers-by to discover” (Dunn 2015b:151). Its possession, thus, hardly indicates that someone is a member of the Church. Further, Zhang Lidong and the other members of the group frequently used the term “wicked spirit” (恶灵), which does not appear in the language and literature of the Church of Almighty God, as synonymous with “evil spirit” (邪). When the term is used by the Church of Almighty God, there are very specific rules for identifying whether someone is possessed by an “evil spirit” (邪灵). These rules are incompatible with the fact that the victim of the murder, Wu Shuoyan, was declared an “evil spirit” (邪灵）based only on her refusal to supply her phone number.
A counter-narrative did, in fact, emerge challenging the connection between the Church of Almighty God and the God and the Lü Yingchun – Zhang Fan group. This narrative was supported by the conclusion of Australian scholar Emily Dunn that none of those who entered the McDonald’s and were responsible for the crime was, at the time of the murder, a member of the Church of Almighty God but rather were members of a different, independent group (Dunn 2015b, 204).
As is the case in other Chinese new religions, the core belief of the group was the messianic role of the duo Lü Yingchun – Zhang Fan. The frequent references to the Book of Revelation implied that apocalyptic times were coming, with a final confrontation between good and evil. Those who would accept the divine role of the two young women, “two fleshy bodies sharing a same soul” (The Beijing News 2014), would be saved. That we live in the last days, Lü Yingchun explained, was confirmed that the fact that today people would easily and unwittingly become “Satan’s” minions when they did not understand the situation and would not stand on the side of “God.” Once that happened, we would be under even greater attack by the “devil” (魔鬼) during the battle between two spirits (The Beijing News 2014).
The Lü Yingchun – Zhang Fan group went further than prophesying an imminent Endtime and appointing itself as the exclusive path to salvation, a not unfamiliar strategy by some radical new religious groups. Two additional positions it assumed were critical to moving the group toward the events that were to determine its ultimate destiny. First, the group connected itself to the Church of Almighty God by claiming that church to be “fake” and itself to be authentic and morally superior. At trial, Lü Yingchun clearly explained:
The state labeled Zhao Weishan’s fake ‘Church of Almighty God’ as a xie jiao, and we label them as ‘evil spirits’ (邪灵). Only Zhang Fan and I, the ‘firstborn sons,’ could represent the real ‘Church of Almighty God.’ Zhang Fan and I are the unique spokeswomen for the real ‘Almighty God.’ The government has been cracking down on the Almighty God that Zhao Weishan believes in, not the ‘Almighty God’ we mention. They are fake ‘Almighty God,’ while we are the real ‘Almighty God’” (The Beijing News 2014).
It is even possible that Lü Yingchun was expressing frustration at the state’s attention to the Church of Almighty God rather than to the Lü Yingchun – Zhang Fan group and inviting the higher profile that government suppression would bring.
Whatever Lü Yingchun’s actual intent, it could be argued that it would have been wise strategically to emphasize any relations with the banned organization of Zhao Weishan during the trial, given the Chinese courts’ hostility to that Church. This strategy would have allowed the defendants to have claimed that they were not totally responsible of their deeds, since they had been manipulated by the “evil” Church of Almighty God. A claim of diminished responsibility might have enhanced the possibility of escaping the death penalty for their most serious crime, homicide. After Lü Yingchun’s statement, this line of defense was closed.
The second position that the Lü Yingchun – Zhang Fan group assumed was responsibility for enforcing moral order, not just inside but also externally and not just symbolically but physically. At trial, Zhang Fan claimed status as “God himself” and the authority to “kill evil spirits”:
Up till now, only my father, my younger brother, my younger sister, Lü Yingchun, Zhang Qiaolian and me are adherents of the real ‘Almighty God.’ In 2010, I was the ‘firstborn son’ of ‘Almighty God.’ I became ‘God Himself’ because I obtained the authority from the heaven to kill evil spirits (邪灵）this May. Speaking of ‘God Himself,’ that is to say, I am God in substance. Lü Yingchun is also God in substance (The Beijing News 2014). [Image at right]
This claim elevated the authority of the Lü Yingchun – Zhang Fan group above the state by claiming the independent authority to use lethal force, a foundational claim of unique state authority. The joint claims of exclusive control over spiritual salvation and the absolute right to enforce that process by all means necessary, internally and externally, set the stage for confrontation, with the path of negotiated surrender all but closed.
Rhetorical condemnation of conventional society is relatively common among new religious movements as are separation from conventional society and symbolic protest. What distinguished the Lü Yingchun – Zhang Fan group was a ritual radicalization that paralleled doctrinal radicalization and occurred equally quickly. In fact, the group started as a study group of various books, including The Seven Thunders Sound. However, this orientation changed very rapidly. In the days leading up to the McDonald’s murder, its only practices consisted of the ritualized missionary propagation of the faith and the exorcising of “evil spirits” (邪灵). The latter practice has a tradition in Chinese religion, but Lü Yingchun and Zhang Fan assumed the authority to actively designate as “evil spirits” (邪灵) members of the group. They were not simply told to leave: apparently, there were rituals characterized by increasing violence.
One symbolic episode was the banning of Zhang Fan’s mother, Chen Xiujuan, from the Zhang family house, and from the group. Although one could cynically conclude that the move was motivated by the desire to reward Zhang Fan’s father Zhang Lidong, a loyal supporter of the two “Gods,” by allowing him to live with his lover, Zhang Qiaolian, rather than with his wife, the expulsion of Chen Xiujuan was enacted as a cosmic drama.
The drama began to unfold in the days preceding the ban when Lü Yingchun and Zhang Fan announced that they would be “leaving Earth soon” and return to Heaven. As this expectation grew, so did Zhang Fan’s persuasion that her mother “was the ‘king of the wicked spirits’ (恶灵之王).
The ‘evil spirit’ (邪灵) was carrying out its work on us. I would kill my mother when I met her. I was furious after having found out that my mother was an ‘evil spirit’ (邪灵) and wished upon her a horrible death.
Although Zhang Fan did not resort to actual physical violence against her mother, she did engage in symbolic violence. “Words like ‘Cruel killing, brutal killing, kill the beasts’ were written on the wall in my house. I wrote those words,” Zhang Fan recalled (The Beijing News 2014).
Symbolic violence soon turned into physical violence and first targeted the family pet dog, named Luyi. Lü Yingchun
identified the figure of Chen Xiujuan in the eyes of the dog, which was raised by Chen Xiujuan but was now becoming the tool of the ‘demon’ (恶魔), the substitute of Chen Xiujuan. […] Lü Yingchun pointed to the dog and shouted, ‘Chen Xiujuan, I’ve identified you!’ […]. In front of the ‘demon’ (恶魔), we are supposed to dump it or kill it immediately (Xiao and Zhang 2014).
The episode concerning the dog may seem trivial, but Zhang Lidong devoted to it a significant percentage of his statement during the one-day trial where he was confronted with the very real possibility of being sentenced to death. Exactly one day before the McDonald’s murder, Zhang Fan felt that something was seriously wrong about the dog.
Zhang Fan, reported her father, found Luyi under the coffee table and took it outside by its tail. She threw the dog onto the floor of the stairway outside the door, and Luyi could not run after that, but crawled instead. Zhang Fan beat the dog with a mop and broke it. The dog stopped moving after a while of beating, but Zhang Fan said, ‘Its tail is still moving.’ I stepped forward and stomped the dog on its head. It bled profusely after a while of stomping, and I guessed that it was dead. I then dragged it by its tail and threw it into the trash bin outside the building (The Beijing News 2014).
Zhang Fan felt that the brutal killing of the dog, which served as a symbolic substitute for her mother, was an event of religious significance, the confirmation of her divine status:
On the 26th in particular, on the evening in which the dog was killed, I was even more certain that I and Lü were ‘God Himself.’ From that evening onwards, I received even greater authority from Heaven and felt especially excited. I had felt that I was God once when I was ten years old, but that was only a thought that flashed in my head for a moment, and I forgot about it after that (The Beijing News 2014).
The escalating, religiously rationalized violence culminated just one day later in the killing of the unfortunate salesgirl Wu Shuoyan, a complete stranger who the group first encountered when they entered the McDonald’s. Her simple refusal to supply her phone number was perceived as an evil deed of cosmic significance, an unpardonable sin against “God” himself, and the sign that the final battle between “God” and the “demons” had begun.
Lü Yingchun’s confession at trial made explicit the spiritual significance of the crime as perceived by the group: [Image at right]
Zhang Hang asked that lady for her phone number, but she refused to give it to her. When I became conscious of it, I found out that we had been attacked and sucked by an ‘wicked spirit’ (恶灵), which caused us to be weak and helpless. The two of us identified her as that ‘wicked spirit’ (恶灵), and cursed her with words. Not only did she not listen, her attack got even stronger. We saw the air on her body spiraling her back and tummy. Her tummy bloated, and our spirits sensed that her suction was growing stronger, and so was her attack. My body grew increasingly weaker. In the course of the battle, I saw Zhang Fan falling little by little, as if there was an ‘wicked spirit’ (恶灵), tugging her downwards. She screamed with all her might but no sound came out of her mouth. I could only hear a very weak scream. I went to drag her up and she shouted at Zhang Hang, saying, ‘Why did you not believe? Why didn’t you move’? I saw Zhang Fan stomping on that woman’s head and shoulders after that, and I did the same on her waist and buttocks. During the ‘demon’s’ (恶魔) attack on us, Zhang Fan and I became gradually aware that the woman must die, otherwise it would devour everybody. I thus told Zhang Lidong and the rest to beat her up until she stopped breathing. Otherwise, as long as she has breath, the strength of the ‘demon’s’ (恶魔) attack on us would not weaken one bit even if her body was weak and she could not move. I told the people who came to stop us, ‘Whoever interferes will die.’ The clash between the woman and us was a battle between two spirits, ‘God’ and ‘devil’ (魔鬼). The others could not see it and neither could they understand it. The police could not understand it as well (The Beijing News 2014).
Originally, Lü Yingchun and Zhang Fan led the group as “shepherds.” In the final days of the group, however, Zhang Fan testified that “in the Almighty God organization, Lü Yingchun and I have the highest positions. We are ‘God Himself.’ My father, younger sister and brother, and Zhang Qiaolian are all the ‘chief priests’” (The Beijing News 2014).
Two elements are worth noting. The first is that no qualification was needed for the priesthood, except the belief in Lü Yingchun and Zhang Fan as the Almighty God. Even a thirteen-year-old boy, such as Zhang Duo, was considered a priest. The second is that, contrary to the traditional Chinese family structure, in the Zhang family, which was at the same time a micro-new religious movement, there was no patriarchal authority or hierarchy determined by age. The father, Zhang Lidong, was supposed to obey the daughter, Zhang Fan, without questioning her orders. The divine claims completely subverted the traditional order, although Zhang Lidong was compensated with the authorization by “God” (and by all his children) to welcome home his lover, after his wife had been evicted and called an evil spirit.
The Lü Yingchun – Zhang Fan group presents an informative case of rapid radicalization and, ultimately, of organizational demise. The group was small and short-lived, and so it never developed a fully formed doctrinal system or leadership and organizational structure. Many of the characteristics that did develop (vehement condemnation of conventional society, imminent endtime predictions, presumption to supreme moral authority, ritualized eradication of evil, charismatic leadership, family-based leadership, and internal infighting) were not extraordinary for religiously based protest movements. What was more unusual about the Lü Yingchun – Zhang Fan group was its orchestration of a particular cosmic drama, one that involved rapid radicalization, the rapid transition from symbolic to physical violence, and the incorporation of physical violence into the cosmic drama it constructed. This process moved the group into a position and a moment where its continuation became untenable (Bromley 2002).
In this cosmic drama the group understood itself to be acting out a preexisting historical record that it was, in fact, creating in real time. It was simultaneously constructing activities in the divine realm (heaven) (the identities and activities of “evil spirits” and following the directions emanating from the divine realm in the earthly realm (identifying and eradicating “evil spirits). This process was facilitated, of course by the status of the two movement leaders as both divine realm and human realm actors who therefore could operate in both realms simultaneously or sequentially. It was this interactive process that moved the group along its trajectory toward confrontation and downfall, probably facilitated by its small size and fluid structure.
The cosmic drama that unfolded almost certainly was serendipitous and not strategic. It was also asymmetrical as the state ultimately possessed a monopoly of power. Nonetheless, the actions undertaken by the group leaders led to an increasingly more constrained set of options for the group. The leaders had declared their group to be morally and spiritually superior to the Church of Almighty God, which eliminated the possibility of invoking a diminished responsibility, victim narrative. They went beyond claiming and exercising moral control over members (through as series of expulsions) to claiming control over non-members. And they claimed and exercised the right to use force in the furtherance of their religious agenda, which presented a direct threat to state authority. Finally, the group’s use of force was carried out brutally, in public space, and in full view of bystanders and video surveillance. There was little room for alternative interpretations of the facts of the case. At this juncture, the state had only to reassert its own authority and invoke the prescribed legal rituals.
Now, with no realistic possibility of escape, the choices were capitulation to the state or continued assertion of divinely authorized status and authority and a continuation of the divinely ordained plan for their lives. They chose the latter. Indeed, the leaders had already announced that they would soon leave Earth and return to Heaven. It is therefore not surprising that at the Intermediate People’s Court in Yantai on August 21, 2014, and in the jails where the defendants were interviewed, apart from Zhang Hang, Zhang Fan’s younger sister, who declared herself not very religious and with mixed feelings about the whole story (The Beijing News 2014), all the other defendants expressed no remorse, and did nothing to avoid the harshest penalties. [Image at right] This included even Zhang Lidong, a man in his prime who had been well-off, although he declared himself unemployed, or in full service of his “Gods,” by the time of the murder (CCTV 2014). This resolution ultimately served the interests of both sides: the state publicly reasserted it authority in this world; the group leaders put themselves beyond state authority to pursue victory in the world beyond.
Image #1: The McDonald’s in Zhaoyuan.
Image #2: Zhang Lidong.
Image #3: Zhang Fan.
Image #4: The crime, as captured by a surveillance camera.
Image #5: The five defendants on trial.
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16 October 2017