Thursday, April 8, 2021

The Ongoing Crackdown on Yi Guan Dao

Members of a Yi Guan Dao organization offer incense in an apartment believed to be in mainland China at an unknown date. Image credit: Jin De Fo Tang’s Facebook account

Yi Guan Dao (YGD) has not been rendered extinct in mainland China, despite a lack of recent reporting which has led some experts to express doubt on the sect’s persecution or even existence in the mainland (read “The Resurgence of Yi Guan Dao” for a detailed analysis). Combining elements of Daoism, Buddhism, and folklore, YGD has been banned for over seven decades. During the early years of repression beginning in 1950, scores of YGD members were tortured, imprisoned, and executed.

Dui Hua recently uncovered three court judgments online that corroborate its observation that YGD practitioners continue to be at risk of imprisonment. The sect continues to gain traction among the middle-aged rural population in Shantou, Guangdong, where prosecutors accuse YGD of conducting “reactionary” activities.

YGD's beliefs, with elements of feudalism, include apocalyptic teachings and salvationist doctrines that say that only converts will go to heaven. China’s pre-1997 Criminal Law classified YGD as a “reactionary secret society” or fandong huidaomen (反动会道门). The term is considered pejorative, denoting people or ideas that embrace views considered to be superstitious and outdated. However, the term has largely fallen into disuse after the amended Criminal Law, issued in 1997, removed “reactionary secret society” and replaced it with “organizing or using a cult to undermine implementation of the law (Article 300).”

Chenghai District

On May 30, 2018, the government of Chenghai District in Shantou, Guangdong, issued a public notice concerning the ban on YGD activities. 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.”  

Seven months after the ban was made public, a group of seven YGD leaders in Chenghai District were given prison sentences of eight to 18 months for “organizing or using a cult to undermine implementation of the law” on December 20, 2018.

Table 1: 7 YGD leaders sentenced on December 20, 2018

Source: Chenghai District People's Court

Du Liqun (杜丽群), considered the principal offender in the case, had been secretly proselytizing across several villages in the district since learning the faith from two YGD masters from Taiwan in 1995. She founded several temples and provided worshippers with access to YGD books, videotapes, and CDs. Worship was held on every first and 15th day of the lunar calendar, coinciding with the lectures on YGD teachings. Worshippers learned about YGD standards of decency and morality in the lectures, but prosecutors alleged that the teachings “wantonly spread reactionary thought” and “fetter the freedom of thinking.”

The judgment cited a witness as saying that there were four to five hundred worshippers at one of the temples on one occasion. Most members joined YGD to pray for family safety. While some were drawn by YGD’s promotion of traditional Chinese values such as filial piety, they also believed that YGD represented good deeds and could bring good karma. Among the new converts were an unspecified number of minors. Du and other leaders were also accused of soliciting donations and membership fees from worshippers. 

The court found that the seven YGD leaders had inflicted great social harm for influencing a large number of members. However, the circumstances of the case were mitigated by their willingness to confess and recant their beliefs. All defendants in this case have completed their prison sentences at the time of writing.

Shantou Chaoyang District

While the 2018 ban appears to have ended YGD activities in Shantou, Dui Hua found two more “cult” cases in Shantou Chaoyang District involving YGD leaders. On November 27, 2019, another group of 15 defendants were sentenced for Article 300, with punishments ranging from suspended sentences to three years in prison. Lin Qinmao (林钦茂) is the only defendant who remains imprisoned. He is expected to complete his three-year prison sentence in 2022.

A case posted on Guangdong Anti-Cult Website stated that most of the defendants were either illiterate or did not receive education past the primary school level. In this case, 13 defendants were women.

Table 2: 15 YGD leaders sentenced on November 27, 2019

Source: Guangdong Anti-Cult Website

Another court judgment shows that YGD has made inroads with members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), despite party membership rules that applicants must be “unyielding Marxist atheists.” Convicted separately in May 2020, CCP member Li Hesheng (李和胜) received a prison sentence of eight months suspended for one year. Li recruited 70 members for his self-funded temple before being criminally detained in December 2019.

Li Hesheng and the 15 defendants belonged to the same jing de fo tang (进德佛堂), a branch of YGD, in Shantou Chaoyang District. The court found that they were subordinate to another YGD group in Hong Kong, where members of spiritual groups outlawed in China can still practice freely. Since 2009, the group had recruited over 200 members in Shantou Chaoyang District. Some of them travelled to Hong Kong to take part in worship. The Hong Kong-based YGD group is also found to have shipped promotional materials to the mainland.

YGD typically gathers financial support through the performance of “rituals of salvation of the ancestors.” Its activities are also sustained by donations from ordinary members. In the case of the 15 defendants, the court confiscated a total of RMB600,000. 

The prison sentences meted out to the YGD leaders are noticeably shorter than many adherents of Falun Gong and Almighty God who are also convicted of violating Article 300. Unofficial news sources reported that a leader of Almighty God in Xinjiang received a hefty sentence of 15 years in prison in July 2020. The difference in treatment likely reflects YGD’s status as a lesser political threat to the regime. While its popularity and influence have diminished considerably compared to its heyday prior to the Communist takeover in 1949, the activities YGD conducted in Shantou show that the sect has survived seven decades of state repression.

The cases discussed in this post do not only show continuity in YGD’s connections with Taiwan and Hong Kong, but also the official narrative and tactics used by authorities to suppress the sect. In addition to conducting localized activities in Guangdong, YGD is also known to be active in Fujian, where Taiwanese preachers and followers remain active. YGD members from Fujian have also made asylum claims in Canada and Australia since 2000, citing their fear of religious persecution in mainland China.