"A Reactionary Secret Society", a communist propaganda film produced in 1952 that depicts the harmful acts committed by Yi Guan Dao members prior to the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Image credit: Baidu.cn
At the end of China’s civil war nearly seven decades ago, Yi Guan Dao (一贯道) was proscribed by the Chinese government as an “illegal secret society” and a “heretical sect.” Yi Guan Dao (YGD), which translates to “the Way of Pervading Unity” in English, is a religious group that combines elements of Daoism, Buddhism, and folklore. It first gained popularity in northeast China during World War II – at one point the group had more than ten million followers in the Japanese-occupied regions. While its apocalyptic teachings appealed to those living under Japanese occupation, YGD has long been at odds with the Chinese government.
As with many Qigong, Buddhist, and Christian groups labelled as “cults” by the Chinese government, YGD is banned largely due to the government’s fear of the popularity of a mass spiritual movement. As such YGD continues to be stigmatized in official narratives as “anti-science, anti-humanity, anti-society.” YGD followers are active in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and among diaspora Chinese communities in Southeast Asia, Australia, North America, and Europe. In Taiwan, YGD had more than 1.2 million followers by a 2010 estimate and the group has been lauded by the Executive Yuan for its charity work on behalf of disadvantaged communities.
Crackdown in 1950
In December 1950, a nationwide crackdown on YGD began after a People’s Daily editorial branded YGD as a “counterrevolutionary tool… utilized by the bandit gangs of imperialism and Kuomintang” and a “retroactive, feudalistic and superstitious” organization deceiving the masses who “do not know the truth.” The editorial labelled YGD followers as “traitors” and accused them of serving as secret agents of Japanese forces. In 1951, tens of thousands of YGD leaders were either executed or imprisoned and an even greater number of followers were forced to undergo intense thought reform in carceral facilities.
YGD has largely been driven underground since the crackdown in 1950, with some branches operating clandestinely under different names including Tian Dao (i.e. Way of Heaven). The sect attempted to re-establish itself in the late 1970s towards the end of the Cultural Revolution, but it quickly became a target of China’s first strike hard campaign in 1983. Many followers were sentenced to death for “organizing/using a sect or feudal superstition to carry out counterrevolutionary activities” in Yunnan and the northern provinces of Gansu, Shaanxi, and Shanxi. Dui Hua’s Political Prisoner Database has information on over 300 YGD followers. Of them, over 80 percent are known or believed to have been incarcerated in the 1980s.
Testimony gathered from former YGD prisoners in the 1990s exposed the harsh prison conditions, the abuse YGD prisoners faced by guards and other inmates, and the fact that several hundred YGD members imprisoned in the 1950s remained locked up in Shaanxi’s Fuping Prison or have perished due to old age or ill-treatment.
Underground Reestablishment - Signs of Tolerance?
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen delivers a speech at a YGD prayer ceremony joined by 15,000 followers at the National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, Taipei, on March 5, 2017, expressing gratitude to the sect and commending religion for stabilizing society. Image credit: Baidu.cn
Although YGD has been dubbed a “universal villain” in official media and is often cited by human rights groups and governments concerned about religious freedom in China, the lack of recent reporting on YGD in China has led some experts to believe that the religion has gained tacit acceptance by authorities. Some are skeptical about the extent of the group’s persecution or even its existence in China today, claiming that “it is unlikely that [the sect] still exist[s].” Others speculate that even if YGD still has followers in China they are likely concentrated in Guangdong and Fujian where there are more practicing Taiwanese YGD members, following the religion’s legalization in Taiwan in 1987.
In May 2009, an official from China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs visited a YGD monastery in Taipei. The Chinese Religious Studies Yearbook also stated that China Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) researchers have attended academic conferences organized by Taiwanese YGD groups beginning in 2009. In 2017, CASS researchers joined overseas YGD leaders on a visit to the Zu Lai Temple in Brazil.
A district government in Shantou, Guangdong, issued a public notice concerning the ban on YGD activities on May 30, 2018.Image credit: Baidu.cn
Dui Hua continues to find evidence of a crackdown on YGD activities as recently as 2018. On February 9, 2018, a couple from Jiangsu was given suspended sentences for printing illegal religious books, including over 3,000 copies used by YGD adherents at a private gathering. A year earlier, police had detained the couple for printing nearly 8,000 copies of unlicensed Buddhist titles. The couple was convicted of illegal business activity, a charge frequently used against religious groups and private individuals operating outside the state’s control.
More recently, the Chenghai District government in Shantou, Guangdong, issued a notice on May 30, 2018, concerning the ban of YGD. Labelling it a “superstitious secret society”, the ban states that YGD carries out “infiltration and sabotage” in the name of “prostrating to Buddha” and “doing good deeds” when in fact they are “seriously and adversely affecting the socialist construction of spiritual civilization… and normal life of the people.” YGD followers were called to register with local police, write a statement of repentance, and vow not to re-join YGD.
Dui Hua has found instances of cracking down on YGD followers in local government gazettes and annals.
In most cases, it is unclear whether YGD members were criminally charged. Dui Hua has discovered a case in 2000 in Hongta District, Yunnan where two leaders were sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for “organizing a cult to undermine implementation of the law.” Miao Huimin (缪惠民) and Zhang Laixian (张来仙) shared the teachings of YGD at Zhang’s home with around twenty villagers. At the time of sentencing, Miao was aged 75. The same government record revealed that two public sentencing rallies were held in October in Hongta District to condemn followers of YGD and the Full Scope Church, a Christian sect. Three people were given fixed-term sentences, four were sent to re-education through labor camps and twenty received administrative punishments.
Since 2000, both the Canadian and Australian governments have reported receiving asylum applications from Chinese nationals on the grounds of religious persecution of YGD. In 2003, an applicant surnamed Li from Fujian sought asylum based on fear of persecution for his perceived affiliation with YGD. Li left China for Toronto with the help of smugglers. Although not a YGD follower himself, he was perceived as one because his fishing farm had been used for YGD religious purposes by two of his business partners, who were each sentenced to five years’ imprisonment.
In Australia, the Refugee Review Tribunal determined that two Chinese nationals had well-founded fear of persecution for returning to China due to their affiliation with YGD. The first applicant was a business owner in China and learned about YGD through a neighbour. He was converted to YGD and believed the religion could save China from the prevalence of corruption. He distributed leaflets and provided a secret place of worship for YGD followers. After escaping a police raid on YGD followers, he left China for Australia using a fake passport. He was initially denied a protection visa by the Australian immigration authorities but in November 2007, the Tribunal declared itself satisfied that he would be at risk if he returned to China.
The second applicant was also from Fujian. He converted to YGD two years after he arrived in Australia. In 2012, his brother-in-law invited a Taiwanese YGD preacher to the family shrine in Fujian to deliver lectures. The shrine hosted exchanges and visitors from YGD organizations based in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau on a regular basis. Chinese authorities in the applicant’s hometown began to take an interest as the family shrine grew. The applicant obtained a video showing a violent clash in September 2013 between police officers and YGD followers, including the applicant’s wife and two children. The applicant’s mother, wife, and son suffered injuries by police and the son eventually went into hiding. The applicant’s brother-in-law, sister-in-law, and other YGD followers were all charged, with some receiving suspended sentences. The police continued to harass the applicant’s wife in order to coerce her husband to return to China. In August 2015, the Tribunal held that despite a “distinct lack of information regarding the Chinese authorities’ current attitude towards YGD practice,” there were substantial grounds for believing that the applicant faced a real risk of significant harm if he was to return to China.
Overseas Yi Guan Dao Groups
Official narratives have labelled Myanmar and Hong Kong YGD groups as “overseas hostile forces” and accused them of “infiltrating” and “sabotaging.” In 2016, Hangzhou police lauded the success of “preventing infiltration in a timely manner” from a Hong Kong YGD group, which had set up a Buddhist shrine in Beixin Village, Puyang Township. In 2007, another YGD crackdown connected to Myanmar took place. Sichuan’s Binchuan County public security stopped a group of YGD members from attending a training course in Burma, destroying 475 volumes of publications and 159 items.
A government record Dui Hua uncovered provided a detailed account about the government crackdown in 1992 against YGD in multiple border townships in Yunnan’s Dehong Prefecture. A YGD elder who resided in Myanmar after escaping persecution in the 1950s was accused of inciting members in the prefecture to take up “reactionary” tasks and “spying” missions in China. They were invited to attend a religious ceremony in the newly built Wangfo Palace (i.e. Palace of Ten Thousand Buddha) in the Myanmar township of Namhkan as well as the elder’s birthday celebration. In order to halt the more than one hundred Chinese nationals from traveling to Myanmar, a two-day military blockade was imposed at the immigration port requiring nearly two hundred police officers' presence. Anti-YGD materials were broadcasted and distributed in the neighbouring Ruli City to expose the “evil deeds” of YGD members.
YGD continues to face suppression by the government and police. The cases Dui Hua has uncovered show continuity in the official narratives about YGD and the tactics used by authorities to suppress the group’s activities. With the increasing restrictions placed on religious groups in China today, followers of YGD and their family members will continue to face restrictions and persecution.