Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Converting Cult Work: From 610 to Social Service

Set up by the Gulou District 610 Office in 2009, the Loving Heart Home is a local experiment by Chen Dongxiao and his colleagues to try to raise the reentry rate for detained cult members. Photo credit: An Shu

For more than 15 years, Chinese politico-legal authorities have carried out a wide-ranging campaign against so-called cult organizations that has been coordinated via a network of dedicated units known as “610” (read “six ten”) offices. (These offices are named after the date of the order that founded them: June 10, 1999.) Although the effort to wipe out organizations like Falun Gong or the Almighty God sect has, from time to time, featured prominently in Chinese news coverage, much less has been written about the anti-cult offices or the often-controversial measures they employ.

That changed recently with a long feature published in the September 25, 2014, edition of Southern Weekly. The piece focuses on one particular 610 office in an urban district of Nanjing and the innovations its director, Cheng Dongxiao, has introduced to try to make the work of “converting” (or “de-programming”) cult members more effective and less coercive.

Cheng’s main innovation is the establishment of a center in which “model converts” are responsible for helping to convert exisitng cult members. Mirroring trends in other areas of law enforcement and “comprehensive social management,” this is an example of how China might use a community corrections approach to deal with social problems that in the past have relied on detention measures like reeducation through labor (RTL) or legal education classes. Now that RTL has been eliminated and legal education has come under increased scrutiny for, among other things, its murky legal basis, new approaches like Cheng’s may gain some traction with reformers.

As Cheng himself admits, even if less coercive measures are adopted, there is still an urgent need for clearer legislation to govern the practices associated with anti-cult “conversions,” particularly insofar as these practices involve deprivation of liberty. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the article pays no attention to the more fundamental question of whether China’s efforts to eliminate “cults” is justifiable from a human rights standpoint. This standpoint demands that freedoms of opinion be given due consideration in dealing with whatever harmful social consequences these organizations and their members may cause.

As significant as the publication of this unusual article is, it is equally significant to note that it was removed from the Southern Weekly website soon after publication. The reason is not particularly obvious, though there are a number of possibilities. Perhaps this rare look behind the scenes of one of China’s most secretive institutions was simply too daring. Perhaps the softer community-based approach of the Loving Heart Home is considered discordant with recent efforts to strike hard against Almighty God. Perhaps Cheng Dongxiao’s candid assessment of an inconsistent anti-cult system or the article’s description of what takes place in anti-cult “study sessions” was deemed unfit for public consumption.

Another possibility is that the article was pulled because there is, at present, insufficient consensus among the relevant authorities about the merits of Cheng’s approach to combatting organizations classified as cults. There may exist other competing community-corrections approaches or even more far-ranging proposals that would limit the state’s role in dealing with this issue altogether. Thanks to the story’s deletion, we are left to wonder not only where China’s anti-cult campaign might be headed but how much, if any, further sunlight will be allowed to shine on the issue.

In Conversion of “Cult Members,” “610” Goes from Secretive to Open

Southern Weekly, 25 September 2014

After five years, conversion work has begun to pay off at the Loving Heart Home, as attested by the award banners sent by many of the “cult members” who have graduated from its study classes. Photo credit: Liu Yanxun

Past: Preaching the law had little effect. When they left the study sessions, they hadn’t changed deep down and remained cult members.
Later: “Putting cult teachings in context and using cult teachings to undermine cult teachings.” For example, finding weak points and flaws in specific cult scripture and using them as evidence. This collapses a follower’s “sacred beliefs” and achieves double the results with half the effort.
Present: Establish the Loving Heart Home and focus on the “reentry rate.” Implement “self-education and self-management.” It’s like a doctor treating a patient, a teacher treating a student, and a parent treating a child.
Future: Conversion needs to be more public, brought out into the community, and turned into a public interest, and the 610 offices need to gradually recede into the background.

It was raining with low hanging clouds in Nanjing on September 23, 2014. The radio said a typhoon was skirting the region.

Cheng Dongxiao sat in a government office building just a few kilometers from the Yangtze River, his face sunny and full of laughter. Average in height, he spoke rhythmically and rather quickly. Cheng is the director of the 610 Office in Nanjing’s Gulou District. To the outside world, this is an extremely mysterious unit, the full name of which is the Gulou District Office for Prevention and Handling of Cult Problems.

Cheng Dongxiao has been working to convert cult members for 15 years. Since 2009, he has been trying to find more effective conversion methods. The “Loving Heart Home,” which has been running for the past five years, is a product of that effort. “There are very few other countries in the world that have a huge, top-to-bottom anti-cult organizational system like we do,” he notes. “But the actual results from these years have demonstrated that severe anti-cult measures have not only failed to turn the problem around, they have actually made it even more serious.”

“The fight against cults is, in the end, only a contradiction among the people,” Cheng Dongxiao says. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of and ought to be carried out with great fanfare!”

“I’m Most Opposed to Coercive Methods”

Cheng Dongxiao looks back fondly to the past: “Chairman Mao’s ideology is our most outstanding, most valuable possession.” But after more than 30 years of reform and opening, the emphasis on economic development has led to a kind of ideological slackening, he says. This, he feels, is unfortunate.

“When I was first transferred here from the district’s bureau of industry, I didn’t understand at all,” he recalled. “Later, I slowly came to understand the difficult lives these people have experienced.” He said that even though some of them had enjoyed a good life materially, there was something lacking in their spiritual life. Perhaps they encountered some misery or sorrow in their lives and wanted to find a kind of spiritual support.

On June 10, 1999, China set up a hierarchical system of anti-cult prevention organizations, which became commonly known as “610” offices.

At that time, Nanjing was one of the areas hardest hit by the cult problem nationwide, and Gulou, Xiaguan, and Xuanwu districts were the areas of Nanjing most affected. There were large numbers of cult members living in these three districts, including many at high levels within cult organizations and many who created disturbances and spread rumors. The first cult organization to appear in Jiangsu originated in Xiaguan District. At that time, a total of eight cult members were coalesced around a university lecturer.

For the first two years, Cheng Dongxiao says, “all we did was [detain people], and the RTL camps and similar places were all full.”

Besides detention centers and RTL camps, another place for reforming cult members goes by the name of “study class.” With sessions in the spring and fall, each session of 10–20 people lasts for three months. Responsibility for attending to the students goes to government personnel, as well as laid-off workers who receive 100 yuan per day. Cheng says that before each class begins, “We advise these attendants to remain vigilant and take shifts irregularly.”

Cult members sent to study classes stay in standard rooms with a toilet, similar to those found in guesthouses. If a cult member becomes over-excited or unruly, the number of attendants will immediately be increased. “To date,” [notes Cheng Dongxiao,] “there have been no homicides, generally only self-harm.” So [they need attendants with them] “24 hours a day, eating with them, living with them, watching television with them.”

During the daytime, cult members attend classes in their rooms, with one or several instructors for each person. “To make a somewhat inapt comparison,” [Cheng Dongxiao says,] “it feels a bit like a graduate student meeting with his or her advisor.” Sometimes, they may go to a dedicated counseling room, with two instructors generally responsible for counseling as a team. These days, some locations also hold “lecture classes,” but only to deal with issues common to all cult members. Individual problems are harder to resolve, and “individual problems are more pronounced in cult members.”

Cheng Dongxiao admits that they had little success at first trying to preach law to the cult members. Many former cult members who already been converted told Southern Weekly that merely being locked up and preached to about the law had little effect on them. Li He recalls that she wasn’t the least bit afraid back then: “Group solidarity ran high among us inside the RTL camp. We sang songs and recited our scripture, the sound reverberating in waves so much that we really raised the roof.”

Generally, the study classes last three months, which can be adjusted according to each individual’s circumstances and consideration of whether they have fully converted and can successfully leave the study class. To date, there is in fact no clear set of quantitative indicators [used to make such determinations].

For many years, the experience has involved the “three statements and five documents.” The “three statements” refer to the “statement of guarantee, statement of repentance, and statement of severed ties.” The “five documents” require the individual to write clearly on these five subjects: “how I got involved in cult activities in the past,” “past and current views on cults,” “why cults are a danger to society,” “in what ways cults have endangered me,” and “how I have endangered society.”

Do some people fake it? It’s possible. One reason is “our instructors can’t actually teach.” Some cult members write their three statements and five documents, leave the study class, and go home. But they have not truly changed. They’re still cult members and still believe in those old cult ideas. Some even become more committed to the cult.

“What I’m most opposed to are coercive methods,” says Cheng Dongxiao.

Cheng picked up a stack of documents from the table, saying they were quantitative indicators proposed by a group of experts who had recently come up from Xiamen. He said they were currently working on a project to develop a comprehensive assessment form to measure cult-member conversion. The hope was that this would be more scientific and systematic than the artificial and subjective “three statements and five documents” and better at evaluating whether a cult member has truly transformed their thinking and beliefs.

“It’s Hard to Change Beliefs or Souls”

Cheng Dongxiao and his colleagues began looking for more effective methods in 2002, including “putting cult teachings in context” and “using cult teachings to undermine cult teachings.”

“Besides the law, you also have to start from cult doctrines and scriptures,” [Cheng says]. The bookshelves in his office are completely filled with cult literature. “If I want to destroy the cults, I have to understand cult scripture and doctrine better than the cult members themselves, then compare it to orthodox Buddhism or scientific theories and look for weak points and flaws.”

“I’ve read these several dozen times,” Cheng says. “I’m constantly going back to check things. We can’t neglect any areas.”

When trying to undermine cult teachings, one ordinarily might seize upon some bad aspect of the cult leader. “On the surface, he’s telling you how to be a good person, but in fact he’s leading you toward a more self-centered, autocratic, and lawless realm in which you separate yourself from the government and society.” Then, you look for weak points in specific scriptural passages to back up your point. This is the way you collapse a follower’s “sacred beliefs” and get double the results with half of the effort.

But it’s hard to avoid unexpected situations, and Cheng Dongxiao and his colleagues have their own methods for responding to such things. For example, one day when he is trying to break a cult member, he might forget a passage of scripture or get stumped. “I’ll just switch the subject to something else,” he said. “But I’ll remember to go back to that issue and immediately go look it up. You have to understand everything.”

“It’s hard to change people’s beliefs or their souls,” admits Cheng Dongxiao. “Closed classes are what we’ve found to work the best.” To this date, they’re still in use.

When they first started the study classes, many government officials looked down on cult members. But once they were sent to classes, these cult members would begin talking non-stop and even tried to “turn” some of the personnel assigned to them. Some of the cult members were intellectuals and could quote from the classics. “Occasionally, we couldn’t out-talk them,” Cheng laughs, “so they forced us to study.”

As for those cult scriptures and theoretical books, Cheng says: “Once you feel it’s necessary to read these things to do your work, reading them won’t be too much of a headache.” But some personnel found it very difficult. “Once I had a deputy who said he really couldn’t keep reading—every time he tried, he’d doze off,” [recalls Cheng]. “I told him he wasn’t suited for this kind of work and was better off working for the neighborhood committee. Soon afterwards, he was transferred there.”

“There’s not a lot of novelty in this kind of work,” says Cheng Dongxiao. “It’s not like you reporters, who get a new subject to work on every day. For us, it’s repetitive.”

“Consolidated Reentry, Coordinated Education”

The Loving Heart Home and the Care and Concern Association are both located in the same courtyard. There, 55 volunteers work hard together with Cheng Dongxiao to convert “cult members.” Photo credit: An Shu

Once they leave the study classes, many cult members have nothing to do. They’re basically all theists who see gods and ghosts behind everything. If they get sick or have some complications in their lives, they will turn again to the cult. “It’s easy to relapse,” admits Cheng. The relapse rate among cult members is quite high, basically the same as with drug addicts at 70 to 80 percent.

Some start reading books on Buddhism or Christianity. Sometimes they’ll get some of their former classmates to read along with them and discuss the books. But if they gather together for too long, outsiders will start to get nervous and report them. Then the neighborhood committee and police come to prevent them from meeting. This leads these former cult members to fall into a new trap of emptiness and depression.

Cheng Dongxiao and his colleagues thought there had to be a better way than simply dispersing them. As the saying goes, “Damming the flow is not as good as dredging a new channel.” So, they planned to find a place where they could let former cult members openly and freely gather to chat. In the end, that’s why they set up the “Loving Heart Home,” a place inseparable from Zhang Jing’s research project.

Zhang Jing was one of those “classic cases.” Zhang, 58, is a researcher in sociology at the local academy of social sciences. Around 2000, she lost herself in a cult. Like many other cult members, she went to Beijing to petition and was sent to RTL and study classes. Finally, under Cheng Dongxiao’s efforts to “undermine cult teachings with cult teachings,” she was successfully converted in 2002. After leaving the study class, she made cults the subject of her own research. In 2007, she received support from the Jiangsu 610 Office and the provincial academy of social science to work on a project titled “Present Situation and Countermeasures for Education and Conversion of Cult Members in Jiangsu.”

Using the methods of sociology, she launched a study of 13 counties and cities in the province, ultimately producing a 50,000-character report of statistics and analysis and identifying several issues. Zhang Jing told Southern Weekly how government officials at all levels use follow-up strategies in which three or four officials take responsibility for individuals who complete study classes and, during major holidays or sensitive periods, go to their homes to follow up or “check in.” These methods make people who have already been “converted” feel uncomfortable. Zhang Jing describes these tactics as “pressure follow-ups” and “charitable check-ins.”

Besides this, another clear problem is the way that units at all levels pay attention only to the “conversion rate” when it comes to cult members, “which is just like paying attention only to GDP figures in thinking about economic development.” This leads to false reporting and exaggeration of success. Zhang Jing suggests that instead of the “conversion rate,” we should be considering the “reentry rate” which would give a truer measure of effectiveness.

The “Loving Heart Home,” set up by the Gulou District 610 Office in 2009, is a local experiment by Chen Dongxiao and his colleagues to try to raise the “reentry rate.”

The Loving Heart Home is located in an abandoned school in Xiaguan District. Passing an alleyway piled high with discarded junk and stepping through a set of large metal double doors, you enter this spacious area, quiet and filled with tall, luxuriant parasol trees.

Cheng Dongxiao says, “We’re like a doctor treating a patient, a teacher treating a student, a parent treating a child.”

“Enrich Their Minds So They Won’t Go Back to the Cult”

When the Loving Heart Home was first set up, Cheng Dongxiao and his colleagues still had their doubts.

To that point, throughout the country the conversion of cult members had always taken place in closed classes, because the thinking was it was better to keep people separate rather than gather them together. But at the Loving Heart Home, they were actually all gathered together. At the time, some senior officials worried: “What if they repeatedly collude with each other and revolt en masse? What then?”

Cheng Dongxiao firmly insisted that this would not happen. His confidence came from the “troops under his control,” a group of 22 former cult members whom he had successfully converted.

“When I started running study classes and converting people in 2002,” [says Cheng,] “these people gradually joined me and started to help.” Back then, they were not called volunteers; instead, they were considered “model converts.”

“The idea was to have them use their own experiences to illustrate the law,” says Cheng. “You needed to treat them like friends. Most of them were older then me, so I addressed them as ‘Big Sister.’”

The Loving Heart Home practices “self-education and self-management.” Among the volunteers, a group of seven to nine forms an organization committee responsible for routine daily matters. “General matters are decided on their own, following discussion by the organization committee, while for important matters, they seek guidiance from the relevant government agencies.” Every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, a certain number of volunteers remain on duty. Each year, there is a meeting of volunteers and every two to three years there is an election of a new organization committee and revision of the Loving Heart Home charter.

Li Zhonglan chairs the organization committee. Slightly plump, Li fell into a cult back in 1995 and once was a major figure in the local Nanjing cult organization who traveled widely “propagating the teachings.” When China outlawed the cult in 1999, she had a complete breakdown. Li Zhonglan told Southern Weekly that it was not until 2002, after study classes and “using cult teachings to undermine cult teachings,” that she was finally converted. “Now, at the Loving Heart Home, I can help others to clear up their confusion and help myself as well,” she said.

Besides the organization committee, ther are three others that Cheng Dongxiao has selected to be permanently stationed at the Loving Heart Home to serve as liaisons between the home and the 610 office. In Cheng Dongxiao’s words, they’re there to “pour some sand in the mix” [that is, to ensure a bit of variety –Trans.].

Qiao Zhanyu is one of those three. He came to the Loving Heart Home after retiring as principal and party-committee secretary at a middle school. He told Southern Weekly that, back when he was still a principal, there was an art teacher at his school who became mixed up with a cult. He decided to “take charge of his own children” and had teachers at the school rotate in shifts every day, two attendants per shift, to help the teacher convert. It was this experience that made Qiao the most successful candidate for this current work. But he says, “This is harder than managing a school, you know. You can’t rely on issuing compulsory orders or administrative sanctions. You have to put on a kind face and make people see the light through reasoning with them.” He says when he first arrived at the Loving Heart Home, the volunteers there considered him to be a government “mole” or “spy” and they didn’t want to have anything to do with him. But after a while, “I treated people with sincerity and people began to respond to that. Now, they often don’t call me ‘Secretary Qiao,” but call me ‘Brother Qiao’ instead.”

Often, Loving Heart Home will show movies and programs on traditional culture. “We generally choose sentimental movies, like the Taiwanese movie My Beloved or Jane Eyre,” says Cheng Dongxiao with a laugh. “The cult took them away from ordinary human emotions, so we want to strengthen their sense of ethical sentiment and sympathy.”

Sometimes they invite experts on religon and Confucianism to give lectures. They also run a quarterly magazine called Spirit Station. Cheng says, “We want to enrich their minds so that they won’t return to the cult.”

“610 Office Needs to Gradually Recede into the Background”

All sorts of people become members of cults. There are former senior police officers, a head of a university organization department, civil servants from government departments, and others. At Loving Heart Home, people generally stay for around three months. Once they’re educated and stable, they don’t need to return. Of course, some of those former believers who have been stabilized apply to become volunteers and continue participating in activities at the home.

To date, the number of volunteers at the Loving Heart Home has grown from 22 to 55. Some of them are not former cult members but university students or concerned members of the public who have come purely to volunteer.

“Each year we recruit a little, but we don’t dare recruit too much,” says Cheng. “Those who want to be volunteers must be reliable.” Recently, their work has received recognition from senior levels of the national 610 office. At the recent Loving Heart Home fifth anniversary meeting, a central official came to attend. Some of the local officials in attendance were even moved to tears.

Volunteers don’t receive much remuneration, Cheng says. “Actually, no one is here for money. They’re here to educate and rescue people.”

“But the current situation remains as serious as ever,” says Cheng. “Besides Falun Gong, Almighty God has become a main force. It is based on Christian scriptures so those doing conversion work must study new material.” Currently, his colleagues and the volunteers need to read the Bible and Almighty God doctrine. “[As Sun Tzu said:] If you know yourself and your enemy, you can win the battle every time.”

When Cheng Dongxiao says “the current situation remains serious,” he also means “the state needs to standardize its anti-cult work. Currently, each locality has its own way of doing things and it’s all messed up.”

“For example personnel is complicated, in some places the 610 office operates independently, rather than as part of the local government like we do here,” [he explains]. “In some places, it falls under the politico-legal committee, in others it falls under the public security bureau, and in others still it falls under the domestic security protection unit.” Not long ago, the relevant state authorities gathered directors of local 610 offices for a conference. Cheng Dongxiao was one of them. He said very straightforwardly that China’s current anti-cult efforts need to be regulated through legislation that clarifies the screening criteria for cults and the responsibilities of the governing authorities. “For example,” he asks, “should the the National People’s Congress Standing Committee authorize the Ministry of Public Security to take responsibility?”

There’s also the problem of funding. “Our anti-cult work in Gulou District is part of the government budget,” he explains. “But many locations lack funding. How can they carry out cult conversion work?” Cheng said the problem is especially serious in northeast China. Once, at a meeting, he shared a room with a prefecture-level 610 Office director from somewhere in the northeast. As they chatted, that director began complaining about how he only had four people working for him in a city where there were more than 60,000 cult members. “In Nanjing,” Cheng notes for comparison “we only have just over 4,000 cult members in the entire city.”

“The bottom line is [that anti-cult work needs] to be more public, brought out into the community, and turned into a public interest,” [says Cheng.] “As the government pays for more social services, the 610 Office needs to gradually recede into the background.”

(Li He, Zhang Jing, Li Zhonglan are all pseudonyms)