How to combat doomsday cults and other undesirables: China-style [UPDATED 2x]

Hitting problems sideways goes back thousands of years in China. Wéiqí 围棋 (aka “encirclement chess” aka “Go”) is at least 2500 years old. And while they’re certainly willing to engage in head-on confrontation, using an indirect approach is the standard M.O. for Chinese authorities when dealing with troublesome, undesirable groups — it’s effective and less accountable. Here are three examples: two on-going and one more-or-less recent.

The Doomsday Cult

侧面地“sideways”is the adverb a friend used this last Sunday to describe the way the gov’t indirectly combats the Eastern Lightning/Church of Almighty God cult (东方闪电 / 全能教会), of whom his mother-in-law is a member. Everything she does and everywhere she goes is monitored, but they haven’t confronted her directly. They went instead to her husband’s employer, revealed a bunch of what they know, and pressured the employer to use his leverage to pressure the husband to contain his wife.

The result so far is that the entire rest of the family now fears for their livelihoods. All of them reject the cult and its teachings, but having a family member involved is enough to put them all at risk. It’s sufficient motivation for a family to do whatever they can to discourage the wayward grandma. Which, in their case, isn’t very much; this group isn’t called cult for no reason (links at bottom). In China, they’re officially an “evil religion” (邪教).

The Social-problem-engaged Non-Profit

A couple years ago a non-profit in our former city got the sideways treatment. They run a project that provides therapy for disabled kids and training for their parents. That project’s major event every year is a Christmas performance; they rent out a local theatre and the kids, parents and teachers put on a show. One year the local authorities decided to squash it. But instead of contacting the org directly or telling them during the monthly meeting to ‘have tea’, they went to the theatre on the weekend before the show was scheduled and told the managers to cancel the booking. The theatre refused; apparently the authorities weren’t offering to cover their lost revenue. So police were sent to the org’s office. I was told by a person present that there was a verbal confrontation between them and the Chinese staff of the disabled children’s project. Apparently one staff member got agitated: “This is not a religious event, and if you want to cancel it then you can bring your battalions to the show and cancel it yourself!” In the end there was a compromise: they could still put on the show, but they had to take out all the parts that had to do with the Christmas Story (so no baby Jesus in the manger, shepherds and sheep and angels and all that).

The Envelope-pushing Church

In the under-reported case of Shouwang, a church in Beijing that’s been engaged in a public standoff with the authorities for over a year, sideways tactics played a key role in creating the mess. They were a large unregistered church network of small gatherings that decided to begin meeting as one big group. This was breaking an unwritten rule in the gray area of illegal-but-tolerated religious practice in China; unregistered normal churches are often left alone so long as they don’t meet in large groups or otherwise draw attention to themselves. After repeatedly being turned out of venues they’d rented by landlords who were being pressured by the authorities, they purchased their own place. But when they were prevented from taking possession of their own property, they began holding their Sunday services outside in a park in protest, demanding an end to the harrassment and that they be allowed to register as a legal organization without being required to join the Party-controlled “Three-Self Patriotic Church” (三自爱国教会). These demands, however, require changes to actual policy, not just an altering of the unwritten rules of the status quo. They want an end to the “sideways” management, and they want official, legally-recognized status.

So they’ve forced direct confrontation with local authorities. Those that aren’t under house arrest are detained by waiting police every single weekend. But consider these details (emphasis mine):

In 2012 … members of Shouwang Church were detained 1,600 times by either Domestic Security Protection agents in various districts [of Beijing] or in more than 90 different police stations across Beijing (for periods of several hours to 48 hours). Sixty people were evicted from their homes and more than 10 people lost their jobs

They’ll use legions of police to make sure a scene isn’t created in a public space on Sunday morning, and they’ll keep the leaders under long-term house arrest. But in the meantime they’ll wear down the rank-and-file, suffocating them by twisting the arms of their landlords and employers. (You can find more details of this on-going saga documented here.)

Update #1: landlords, employers, relatives

I’m adding this update because it’s a perfect real-life example:

the situation has been increasingly tense since the beginning of March. He said, the government departments don’t even bother trying to have any direct contact; instead, they go behind our backs to threaten the landlord and not allow us to continue worshipping here. Then they go to the work units of the individual church members and give them orders, telling them they do not have permission to come to our church anymore, otherwise, they must resign from their jobs or they will be fired.

The senior pastor said, “Last weekend, even my 70-year-old elderly mother was summoned by the neighborhood committee and forced to answer questions about my situation, which gave the old lady a great fright.”

Update #2: Children

I failed to mention in the above examples that children are not exempt from being used as leverage: Ten-Year-Old Girl Detained, Denied Food and Water

Snickers for Confucius, juice box for Buddha

Wandered around Qingdao’s Licun Park 李村公园 for the first time on the afternoon of the Lantern Festival 元宵 just to see what there was to see. Turns out they have a temple to Confucius, which also accommodates Daoist and Buddhist deities and a pagoda you can climb up for the view. I thought the offerings in the temple were curious.

The incense sticks say, “All things according to one’s wishes” 万事如意 and “Certainly grant what is requested” 有求必应

The sign between Confucius’ (孔子) knees says, “Seat of the most sacred master Confucius” 孔子。The offering box behind the cushion says, “Merits and Virtues Box” 功德箱

Surely there’s a “Confucius say…” joke to be made involving that Snickers bar…

Laughing Buddha 布袋/笑佛 and Guanyin 观音 (on Confucius’ left) were faring much better than the God of Wealth 财神, who was over on Confucius’ other side.

Yay juice box! (Technically: a blueberry yogurt drink.)

There’s also a pagoda.

Chinese mythological beasts, which I can never keep straight, maintain watch over the solar water heaters of the apartments below.


This scene at the Temple of the Empress of Heaven 天后 (aka 妈祖) this weekend reminded me that, in China, we’re “special”, and that being special in China is a mixed bag:

(Click to view larger image.).

The picture doesn’t do the scene justice; there were a lot more people around before I managed to get the camera up and clicking. Similar but better pictures from Tianjin are here:

Foreigners are “special” in China, and they tend to both love and hate it. One the one hand, what’s not to love about being special? We get preferential treatment. We’re always the guests. Our mistakes are more easily excused. Supply-and-demand means we have multiple times more leverage than our Chinese coworkers and our salaries and other aspects of compensation reflect it. Guys who rank 2 out of 10 in their home country can find girlfriends with minimal effort. You walk down the street and literally turn heads because you’re special.

On the other hand, there’s the constant “othering” — the staring, the photos, the zoo animal feeling, the “hellooo!”s and “laowai!”s, the invasion of personal space and boundaries, the realization that you aren’t respected but rather just interesting or useful, the daily distancing and reminders that “you’re not one of us and don’t really belong here.”

Foreigners routinely gripe about the negatives while enjoying the positives. It’s a mixed bag that most of us have never faced before coming here, and it’s already on you and affecting you before you’re even aware. Add to that the culture stress (or shock) cycles that everyone experiences, and it can be an emotionally volatile mix. And having foreign children amplifies everything by 10.

Other than being more alert than I used to be (because we have kids now and not all attention is friendly or benign), I mostly just smile and wave and be friendly, even if people are crossing my culture’s personal space boundaries. We tell our oldest daughter she doesn’t have to let people take her picture if she doesn’t want them to, or talk to anyone she doesn’t want to, and we run interference for her if that’s what she wants, while trying to give her a gracious, friendly example. The vast majority of the time, in my experience, foreigners make a much bigger deal of it than it really is.

But then again, I don’t have bright blond long hair. Our friend Shannon (who does have long blond hair) moved back to the U.S. after 3.5 years and wrote “Hero to Zero” about her cultural re-entry stress experience in which she discovered that, in America, she isn’t special anymore.

Unwanted attention can be difficult to handle, positive or not. But as difficult as it can be at the time, all things considered, it’s a small price to pay for existing as the economically privileged minority on this globe. Plus, a lot of the associated stress foreigners bring on themselves. But that doesn’t mean I won’t continue to bat people’s fingers out of my kids’ mouths on the Beijing subway. ;)

[Photo Gallery:] Qingdao’s Temple of the Empress of Heaven 天后宫, Spring Festival 2013

Went looking online for something in Qingdao similar to Beijing’s Spring Festival temple fairs. Yesterday we ended up at the Temple of the Empress of Heaven 天后 on 太平。 It’s not the same kind of thing as the temple fair we experienced in Beijing’s Ditan Park, but it was interesting.

If I’d had the time (we had two little ones with us and their clocks were ticking), I would have loved to talk with some of the red-coated employees who were instructing people how to offer their incense. I thought it was interesting that the majority of people we observed who were offering incense didn’t actually know how to do it and needed directions. I’d love to find out more about what kind of beliefs they have and why, and how similar it is to what we occasionally find in taxis. How people decide their opinions interests me in general.

Anyway, click a thumbnail to begin.

According to taxi drivers the real action is at the Haiyun nunnery on the Lantern Festival 元宵。 They apparently have a candy festival (Google image search this: 海云庵 糖球会) — hopefully we can hit it. One guy compared the scene to a pilgrimage to Mecca. Not looking forward to huge crowds, but something festive would be fun with friends.

Related Photo Galleries:

The Great Chinese Airpocalypse of Jan. 2013

(I insist you play this song while viewing this post.)

Our super-fast train back to Qingdao slithers out of the white muck
at the Tianjin South Station on Monday around 2pm.

One of the reasons we left Tianjin for Qingdao was the air pollution. It’s not that Qingdao’s air is good — it’s just not as apocalyptic (though labeling 175 “lightly polluted” is borderline Orwellian).

But in a curious and unhealthy twist of fate, we were visiting friends in Tianjin (30min fast train ride from Beijing) on the weekend of China’s recent Airpocalypse, when the API clocked in at 755 in the Capitol. Previously the API always just maxed out at 500: “Beyond Index”.

On a bad pollution day in Qingdao (API in the 300s) the mountains in the distance are gone. On a bad day in Tianjin, the building across the street looks hazy and the ones down the road gone. API 300 is horrid by North American standards; they’d be canceling outdoor events. But it doesn’t necessarily elicit comments in China, even though you can see it out your window, smell it immediately when you open your door, and, if you spend any time outside, feel it in your throat. The worst we’ve seen so far in Qingdao is mid-400s.

Over 500, however, is just… dystopic. Here’s a shot I took from a Tianjin parking lot during the airpocalypse, around noon:

And here’s a regional API screenshot from the China Air Pollution app:

We’ve done plenty of crying on the blog about the air pollution in China, and the result is a handy collection of links, organized by topic below. My favourites in bold.

Extracting honest numbers from the Chinese government:

Photos & Visuals:

Chinese Air Pollution & Your Health:

The 2011 China photo gallery is up!

Click any of the photos below to see the best of our 2011 China photos. Most were taken in Tianjin, but a few are from Qingdao/Huangdao and Guangzhou.

People, places, food, “food”, Chinglish, traditions, festivals, social issues… basically we took photos of anything we thought looked or represented something interesting.

Captions in the photo gallery provide info and links.

You can browse a list of all our photo galleries in the sidebar of any photo gallery page.

And here’s some beer-in-a-bag… Merry Christmas!

Qingdao’s slimy green beaches — two photo galleries

If it weren’t for the 2008 Olympic slime attack, I would hardly believe that these are the same beaches we visited when we were in Qingdao this past May: