If the end of the world does indeed happen on December 21, some of the people predicting it will meet it in a prison cell: Chinese authorities have arrested more than 500 members of a doomsday cult in a nationwide crackdown.
The underground group ‘Almighty God’ – which unofficial sources claim may have several hundred thousand members – held unsanctioned meetings for its followers, distributed warning leaflets and spread doomsday predictions through social media and text messages.
"Dec. 21 is approaching, and on that day half of the world's good people will die, and all evil people will die out — only if you join the Almighty God movement can you avoid death and be saved," reads a handout found in Shaoxing, in eastern China.
Violent clashes between police and dozens of Almighty God members in several provinces has been reported.
A man who stabbed 23 children in Henan province last Friday claimed he was motivated by rumors that the end of the world was coming, though it is not clear if he was exposed to the teachings of Almighty God, authorities said.
The sect, sometimes known as Eastern Lightning, claims to be an offshoot of Christianity, but would be barely recognizable to Western Christians. Founded in the late 1980s, it states that Jesus has been resurrected as a Chinese woman.
It has appropriated the December 21, 2012, date from the Mayan lunar calendar, which has been interpreted to predict the end of the world or a great upheaval. Official media reports that Almighty God only “latched on” to the date recently, as it has caught the public's attention. Eastern Lightning’s pamphlets predict that the date will herald three days of complete darkness, without sunshine or electricity.
Mainstream religions and critics alike have criticized Almighty God for their recruitment tactics – which frequently involve seeking out poor or ill members in existing Christian groups – and for ‘brainwashing’ followers, who are kept under tight supervision. There have also been official accusations of even more sinister behaviour, such as kidnapping, embezzlement, and torture.
The group also advocates the destruction of the ‘Great Red Dragon,’ which is a euphemism for China’s ruling Communist regime – a radical position in a one-party state.
A public notice on the Qinghai provincial government website promised that the authorities will execute a “severe crackdown” on the group, and urged citizens to report any followers to the police.
It is not clear what charges those arrested will face, but authorities have often been intolerant of mass membership in groups outside of official control, particularly those espousing anti-government rhetoric.
Sustained persecution of the spiritualist Falun Gong movement since 1999 has resulted in millions of arrests, and possibly as many as 100,000 deaths through execution or torture while in custody. These numbers are impossible to verify, as Chinese authorities release no data on the activities of ‘subversive’ groups.
Despite government suppression, sects proliferate in China
The Chinese government does not encourage religion – a new worldwide Pew survey showed that alongside Japan, China is one of two countries dominated by people claiming to not follow any religion at all. However, this often results in rogue sects springing up in the stead of mainstream organized religions.
The Mayan Apocalypse prediction – boosted by the success of the 2009 Hollywood disaster film ‘2012’ in China – has given some minority sects particular popularity.
They are not the only ones to take advantage of the craze. Several entrepreneurs have been marketing survival pods that will supposedly allow their buyers to last through the initial weeks of the apocalypse with their own shelter, food and heating. With a cost of upwards of $30,000 per pod, sales have reportedly been low.