Zhaoyuan McDonald's cult murder

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The Zhaoyuan McDonald's cult murder was the murder, on May 28, 2014, of 37-year old saleswoman Wu Shuoyan, in a McDonald's diner in the city of Zhaoyuan, in the Chinese province of Shandong, by members of a criminal new religious movement or cult. Accounts agree on the dynamic of the event, and the name of the perpetrators, two of whom were sentenced to death, but diverge on the matter of which religious group they belonged. The crime generated considerable emotion in China, where media debated both on the evil of the "cults" and on the disruption of the Chinese social fabric evidenced by the fact that the other customers of the McDonald's, whose number would have been sufficient to overcome the assassins, did not intervene to save the victim.[1]

Incident[edit]

On May 28, 2014, six persons, including a teenage boy, entered a McDonald's diner in Zhaoyuan, Shandong, China, claiming to be "missionaries." After presenting their religious message, they asked the diner's customers to supply their cell phone numbers for future contacts. One of the customers, a saleswoman in a nearby clothing store called Wu Shuoyan (1977–2014), refused to give her number. Two of the "missionaries" beat her to death with a mop handle, while the others warned the other customers not to interfere. Surveillance cameras captured the scene. The police arrived at the diner, subdued the assassins and took them into custody.[2] The teenaged boy, Zhang Duo (b. 2001), was too young to stand trial, but the other five perpetrators were committed to trial and appeared on August 21, 2014, before the Intermediate People's Court of Yantai, in the Shandong province.[3] Two of them, Zhang Lidong (1959–2015) and his daughter Zhang Fan (1984–2015), were sentenced to death and executed on February 2, 2015.[4] As for the other three defendants, Lü Yingchun (b. 1975), was sentenced to life in prison, Zhang Hang (b. 1996) was sentenced to ten years of jail and Zhang Qiaolian (b. 1990) to seven years.[5]

Perpetrators[edit]

Zhang Lidong at trial.

The group of perpetrators consisted of the Zhang extended family: a former small textile businessman who had become unemployed by the time of the murder, Zhang Lidong,[6] his lover Zhang Qiaolian, and the three children he had by his marriage to a woman called Chen Xiujuan, i.e. Zhang Fan, Zhang Hang, and Zhang Duo, plus Lü Yingchun, a young woman who lived with the Zhang family.[7] From the information they gave at trial, and in interviews granted from jail to Chinese media, the Zhang family came from Shijiazhuang, in the Chinese province of Hebei, but in 2000 moved to Zhaoyuan, where Lü Yingchun had started a religious ministry that Zhang Fan had come to know via the Internet, in order to participate in Lü's evangelistic activities.[8] In 2008, the group became familiar with a book called "The Seven Thunders Sound" (七雷发声), written by a couple from Baotou, Inner Mongolia, Li Youwang and Fan Bin, who were in jail at that time. Zhang Fan borrowed 50,000 RMB from her mother and sent them to Baotou so that, upon their release from jail, the authors of the book could move to Zhaoyuan and live with the Zhang family, which regarded them as the Two Witnesses mentioned in the Book of Revelation in the Bible.[9] In 2010, Lü Yingchun and Zhang Fan started to live together,[10] and in 2011 Zhang Fan claimed to have received a revelation identifying Li Youwang as an "evil spirit." Li and his wife left the group and Zhang Fan and Lü Yingchun proclaimed that they were themselves the "Two Witnesses."[11] Later, they revealed that they were much more, "God in substance" and "two fleshy bodies sharing a same soul."[12] Cleansing the group, which never had more than some thirty members,[13] of people identified as "evil spirits" became increasingly important.[14] One such "evil spirit," according to Zhang Fan, was her own mother, Chen Xiujuan. On May 20, 2014, she was finally expelled from the family home and the two "Gods" gave her husband, Zhang Lidong, permission to live with his lover, Zhang Qiaolian.[15] Zhang Fan and Lü Yingchun also identified the family dog, Luyi, as possessing the "evil spirit" of Chen Xiujuan. The pet was killed by Zhang Lidong on May 26, 2014, a fact that the group regarded as significant in its battle against the "evil spirits."[16] The dog incident immediately preceded the murder of Wu Shuoyan in the McDonald's diner on May 28, 2014. At trial, Lü Yingchun explained that it was indispensable to kill the saleswoman, as she was a particularly dangerous "evil spirit": "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 'evil spirit,' which caused us to be weak and helpless. The two of us identified her as that 'evil spirit' and cursed her with words. Not only did she not listen, her attack got even stronger. […] During the 'demon's' attack on us, Zhang Fan and I became gradually aware that the woman must die, otherwise it would devour everybody. […] The clash between the woman and us was a battle between two spirits. The others could not see it and neither could they understand it. The police could not understand it as well."[17]

Chinese Official Interpretation[edit]

Chinese official sources claimed from the very day of the murder that the incident had been committed by members of the Church of Almighty God, also known as Eastern Lightning, a new religious movement, whose "priest" is Zhao Weishan (b. 1951), that teaches that Christ has returned to Earth as the Almighty God.[18] Although the movement never mentions her name, and warns that any information supplied by outside sources may be wrong, most scholars believe it identifies the incarnated Almighty God with a Chinese woman born in 1973 and called Yang Xiangbin.[19] The Church of Almighty God has been banned in China since shortly after its foundation in 1991.[20] As evidence that the perpetrators of the McDonald's murder were members of the Church of Almighty God, Chinese sources mention that literature of that Church was found by the police in the home of Zhang Lidong,[21] that in an interview Zhang Fan mentioned a book she quoted as God's Hidden Work (神隐秘的做功), a title similar to The Hidden Work Done by God (神隐秘的作工), which is a text published by the Church of Almighty God,[22] and that Zhang Lidong, asked in his first interview after the murder which religion he believed in, answered: "Almighty God" (全能神).[23] Most international media picked up the story from the media in China, and repeated that the Church of Almighty God was responsible for the crime.[24] The Chinese government used the McDonald's murder as an argument to justify a further crackdown on the Church of Almighty God, with thousands of arrests.[25]

Position of the Church of Almighty God (Eastern Lightning)[edit]

The Church of Almighty God condemned the murder, but maintained it had been committed by "psychopaths" who had nothing to do with the church. It also suggested that for the Chinese Communist Party, which had been severely persecuting the Church of Almighty God long before the Zhaoyuan case, it would not have been difficult to manipulate a group of psychopaths into committing a crime, then exploit it in order to discredit that Church and justify the persecution.[26]

Scholarly accounts of the incidents[edit]

Emily Dunn[edit]

Australian scholar Emily Dunn published in 2015 the first book-length scholarly account of the Church of Almighty God.[27] In her book, Dunn also discussed the McDonald's murder. Her conclusion was that: "International media outlets repeated the Chinese assessment of the Church of Almighty God as bizarre and violent [and thus responsible for the crime]. What they overlooked were Lü Yingchun and Zhang Fan's statements to the court that although they started out as members of Eastern Lightning (in 1998 and 2007 respectively), they had outgrown it."[28]. In subsequent writings, Dunn maintained that the group responsible for the murder was an "offshoot" or schism of the Church of Almighty God, in the sense that its members had once belonged to the church but had left it from many years at the time of the crime and had formed an independent movement.[29]

David Bromley and Massimo Introvigne[edit]

Zhang Fan at trial: she consistently claimed to be God herself.

American sociologist David G. Bromley and Italian sociologist Massimo Introvigne, both specialists of new religious movements, have studied and discussed the McDonald's murder in articles published in 2017 and 2018. Introvigne has also been among the Western scholars invited in June 2017 in Henan by the official Chinese Anti-Cult Association for a seminar on dangerous cults and the Church of Almighty God.[30]. They quote the official Chinese "narrative" attributing the McDonald's murder to the Church of Almighty God, but suggest that a "counter-narrative" identifying the group of murderers as an independent "micro-movement" both is more believable and finds more support in the Chinese official accounts of the trial.[31] They agree with Dunn that, at the time of the murder, the perpetrators were not members of the Church of Almighty God[32], but, unlike Dunn, they doubt they had ever joined that church, although they might have read some of its books. Introvigne's and Bromley's conclusion is based on four arguments. First, Zhang Fan stated in an interview that at one stage she became interested in contacting the Church of Almighty God, but in fact "never had contact with the Church of Almighty God because they were very secretive and I could not find them."[33] Second, at trial the defendants stated explicitly that, although they both used the name "Almighty God," their group and the Church of Almighty God led by Zhao Weishan were two different organizations. As Lü Yingchun declared, "the state labeled Zhao Weishan's fake 'Church of Almighty God' as a xie jiao [evil cult], and we label them as 'evil spirits.' Only Zhang Fan and I […] 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.'"[34] Third, the notion of "evil spirit" (邪灵) in the group responsible for the murder does not correspond to the theology of the Church of Almighty God, which requires lengthy tests to identify the presence of an "evil spirit" while the victim, Wu Shuoyan, was declared an "evil spirit" in a few minutes, based only on her refusal to supply her cell phone number.[35] Fourth, both groups believed that the "Almighty God" incarnated in our time and walks on Earth today, and indeed both hold this as their crucial belief. However, the identity of the Almighty God was different. For the Church of Almighty God, there can be no other Almighty God than the person it identifies as such. For the McDonald's assassins, the Almighty God was a dual deity consisting of Zhang Fan and Lü Yingchun, "two fleshy bodies sharing a same soul."[36]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Introvigne and Bromley (2017).
  2. ^ Dunn (2015a), 204.
  3. ^ The Beijing News (2014).
  4. ^ Introvigne and Bromley (2017).
  5. ^ Introvigne and Bromley (2017).
  6. ^ Xiao and Zhang (2014).
  7. ^ Xiao and Zhang (2014).
  8. ^ Introvigne (2017), 64-65.
  9. ^ Xiao and Zhang (2014).
  10. ^ Introvigne (2017), 65.
  11. ^ Xiao and Zhang (2014).
  12. ^ The Beijing News (2014).
  13. ^ Xiao and Zhang (2014).
  14. ^ Introvigne (2017), 65.
  15. ^ The Beijing News (2014).
  16. ^ Xiao and Zhang (2014).
  17. ^ The Beijing News (2014).
  18. ^ Dunn 2015(b).
  19. ^ Dunn (2015a), Dunn (2015b).
  20. ^ Dunn (2015b).
  21. ^ Chen (2014).
  22. ^ Phoenix Satellite TV (2014).
  23. ^ CCTV (2014).
  24. ^ See e.g. Gracie (2014).
  25. ^ Xin (2014).
  26. ^ Eastern Lightning (2015).
  27. ^ Dunn (2015a).
  28. ^ Dunn (2015a), 204.
  29. ^ Dunn (2015b).
  30. ^ KKNews (2017).
  31. ^ Introvigne and Bromley (2017); Introvigne (2018), Introvigne (2019), which also includes a short video.
  32. ^ The McDonald’s Murder of 2014: The Crime The Church of Almighty God Did Not Commit
  33. ^ Introvigne (2017), 64, quoting Phoenix Satellite TV (2014).
  34. ^ Introvigne (2017), 66, quoting The Beijing News (2014).
  35. ^ Introvigne (2017), 63.
  36. ^ Introvigne and Bromley (2017), quoting The Beijing News (2014).

References[edit]