Statistical data shows that there are over 10, 000 heretical cults, which have hundreds of millions of followers all over the world. In China, heretical cults include Falun Gong, the Church of Almighty God, the Shouters and the Disciple Society. Falun Gong was popular for a time, spreading its presence from modern cities to remote villages and attracting a large number of followers including senior intellectuals and less-educated people. It is worth thinking about why Falun Gong could expand its presence widely and control their followers tightly.
Although Falun Gong was outlawed by the government more than ten years ago, it has not yet been eradicated. The cult still surfaces in some regions from time to time. The reasons why cults are able to spread widely at a quick rate are numerous and complicated. This article analyzes the dissemination channels of the evil cults and the measures that are used to fend them off from the perspective of cultural communication.
I. Cult culture is an inferior one in humans’ subculture system
All humans’ thoughts and ideas, no matter truth or fallacy, are products of human practices in nature. Heretical cults, as a special social cultural phenomenon, give a twisted reflection of the cultural cognition capability of a certain group of people. In terms of cultural levels, cult culture is an inferior one in humans’ subculture system. In its long history, China’s pan-religious culture, whether official or folk, has dealt with the harm caused by heretical cults far more than their distortion of religions.
Heretical cults can incite people, control their followers and make their followers so obsessed that they are willing to go to extreme lengths to achieve their purposes (becoming immortal, avoiding disasters, surviving doomsday or achieving consummation) at the expense of their property, family or even their life. This is because the evil cults meet some people’s psychological needs. Meanwhile, the cults make full use of traditional cultural dissemination channels, which are familiar to their followers, to spread their teachings. Therefore, to fend off heretical cults, we should not only criticize their teachings, but should also analyze their dissemination channels, study the social and cultural factors affecting cult dissemination, and take effective measures to cut off the dissemination channels.
II. Dissemination channels of heretical cults and measures to fend off cults
Heretical cults from different cultural backgrounds have different teachings and adopt different methods to spread their teachings. In the Chinese cultural system, heretical cults disseminate their teachings through blood ties, friendship among fellow villagers, Qigong, religions, and modern media.
1. To spread through blood ties and friendship among fellow villagers
Fei Xiaotong, a famous social scientist, pointed out in his book From the Soil: The Foundations of Chinese Society that Chinese society is a typical acquaintance society, in which interpersonal relationships are based on blood ties. Besides blood ties, friendship among fellow villagers is another important factor. People tend to establish friendships with those who live in the same area. The degree of closeness is in direct proportion to the distance between their residences. The nearer they live, the closer they become. Just as an old saying goes that a good neighbor is better than a brother far off. People tend to trust those who they are familiar with. In an acquaintance society, back-alley news (unofficial news) is considered to be very trustworthy and is often accepted as fact. Therefore, blood ties and friendship among fellow villagers have become effective channels that most evil cults exploit to spread their teachings.
Taking a close look at heretical cults and the spread of their teachings, we can see that most of the cults use blood ties and friendship among villagers to achieve their purposes. Cult leaders ask their followers to have a face-to-face talk with their relatives, fellow villagers or neighbors to spread the teachings. This is the most commonly used means and has proved to be very convenient and efficient. For example, in the tragic event that happened in Zhaoyuan, Shandong Province, all of the criminals Zhang Lidong, Zhang Fan, Zhang Qiaolian, Lv Yingchun are immediate family members or fellow villagers. Research into heretical cults has confirmed that heretical cults are mostly spread among relatives, friends, neighbors and other acquaintances. Therefore, to prevent dissemination of heretical cults, we should pay special attention to the relatives, friends and fellow villagers of cult members. Early monitoring of these channels means better prevention.
2. To spread under the cover of Qigong or religion
The anti-society and anti-government nature of heretical cults and their teachings determines that cults are rejected by mainstream culture and governors as heterodoxy. Most heretical cults, including unorthodox religions, secret sects or superstitious sects, carry out underground activities. They form secret societies and tend to oppose mainstream culture or government. Although some evil cults may seem semi-public in some regions in a certain period of time, most cults remain secret. As underground societies, cults have to establish closely knitted organizational systems and carry out meticulous management. They appoint core members, establish branches at various levels and carry out secret activities, which make them unpredictable and elusive.
In order to survive, most heretical cults carry out activities under the cover of Christianity, Buddhism, Daoism, Qigong or spiritual cultivation, which are basically accepted and supported by the government. Under the cover of traditional religions, heretical cults can reduce resistance and risks in their dissemination process. Evil cults tend to claim that they encourage people to be kind and to devote themselves to good works. Such claims are very confusing because they are in conformity with mainstream value of traditional Chinese culture. For instance, Falun Dafa publicizes its principles of truthfulness, forbearance and benevolence. Cult leaders do not ask their followers to do such things that are anti-social or anti-tradition as killing, taking drugs, drinking alcohol or committing violent crimes. Instead, they hint that followers should get rid of karma or defend the cult at any expense. As a matter of fact, the cult leaders deceive their followers and make use of the trust of their followers to achieve their own vicious political or economic purposes.
After being outlawed by governments and to avoid further crackdowns, heretical cults tend to establish underground organizations, to select core members and to spread their fallacies and heresies secretly. To carry out underground activities, evil cults tend to form a unique system for secret communication. Some core members may change part of their teachings to set up new cults. For instance, Zhao Weishan was a former core member of the Shouters. He claimed that he was a “capable master” and set up the Church of Yongyuan, which was later renamed as the Eastern Lightening, the Real God or the Almighty God. Therefore, governments should keep a close and vigilant watch on all new religions groups and their activities, and intervene as soon as any bad signs emerge.
3. To spread teachings via traditional and emerging media
Heretical cults will not neglect media that enables fast and convenient communication. They try to use both traditional media (including newspapers, magazines, radio and TV) and modern media to expand their presence. In the Internet era, heretical cults use social networks such as QQ, Weixin, Feixin or Yixin as new platforms to spread their teachings.
Firstly, heretical cults make use of traditional media including newspapers, magazines, radio and TV. The cults spare no expense in spreading their teachings via traditional media. For instance, Zhao Weishan, who fled to the US in 2005, invested RMB10 million in 2013 to publish advertisements in newspapers in both English and Chinese languages in Hong Kong. He also bought newsstands to distribute his publicity materials to passersby. In January 2013, he invested 100 million NT dollars to launch 1.5 years of advertisement campaigns in key newspapers such as Liberty Times and United Daily News in Taiwan.
Secondly, heretical cults make use of emerging media including Internet and mobile networks, which enable faster information transmission to larger groups of recipients. With the rapid development of modern science and technology, especially electronic technology, emerging media including the Internet not only provides a new platform for media, but has also become a tool of foreign and domestic heretical cults to spread their teachings. Internet technology enables faster information transmission as well as the mutual interaction between information senders and recipients. At present, heretical cults pay more attention to information transmission via the Internet, making it a unique channel that outperforms other transmission means. Cult members upload or download information and receive directions from cult leaders via the Internet. For instance, Zhao Weishan, the head of the Church of Almighty God, often sends emails from the US to direct his followers in China. These emails have been encrypted by technicians and only recipients can decrypt them with a code. The Church of Almighty God establishes a computer department in all its branches at various levels.
Therefore, in the era of electronic media, we should keep on updating methods to fend off heretical cults, and keep a close watch on cult information via the Internet so as to eliminate loopholes that can be exploited by heretical cults to spread their fallacies and heresies.