Chinese propaganda still claims The Church of Almighty God was responsible for the murder of a woman in a McDonald’s diner in Zhaoyuan in 2014. Scholarly studies have demonstrated that the crime was committed by a different religious movement and The Church of Almighty God had nothing to do with it.
by Massimo Introvigne
Totalitarian regimes always blame the victims they persecute, and the Chinese regime is no exception. The Church of Almighty God (CAG), a Chinese Christian new religious movement, is the victim of massive persecution in China. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has launched a massive campaign of fake news to justify the persecution. The most infamous fake news against the CAG concerns the murder of a saleswoman, Wu Shuoyan (1977–2014), in a McDonald’s diner in Zhaoyuan on May 28, 2014. That the murder occurred was unfortunately very much real. The fake news part is that it was perpetrated by CAG.
I was among the Western experts invited by the Chinese Anti-xie-jiao Association to two 2017 conferences in Zhengzhou and Hong Kong to discuss the notion of xie jiao and The Church of Almighty God. I went there with an open mind, as recognized by local governmental media. However, based on documents either supplied to me or published by the same Chinese authorities, I (and others) concluded that the McDonald’s murder was perpetrated by a different religious movement, which was not related to CAG. It venerated a different living Almighty God, one God in two persons, its two female leaders Lü Yingchun and Zhang Fan (1984–2015).
Lü Yingchun stated at trial: “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 [the administrative leader of the CAG] believes in, not the ‘Almighty God’ we mention. They are fake ‘Almighty God,’ while we are the real ‘Almighty God.’” Australian scholar Emily Dunn argued in 2015 that the McDonald’s assassins, although not part of the CAG at the time of the crime, might have been former members of the CAG. However, Zhang Fan, who was later executed together with her father Zhang Lidong 1959–2015) said in an interview to government-controlled Phoenix TV that, “I never had contacts with The Church of Almighty God.”
A few days after the incident, Chinese media falsely attributed it to CAG. Some Western media, including BBC and The Telegraph, picked up the story through their correspondents in Beijing. By my own count, by 2017 some 20,000 Western media had attributed the homicide to CAG and different voices had been suppressed. Only in 2017, in part as a by-product of the anti-cult conferences organized in China, articles by Western scholars clarifying that the CAG was not responsible for the McDonald’s murder (and indeed for other crimes also attributed to it by Chinese propaganda) started to appear. I published a detailed study, reconstructing the history of the Lü Yingchun-Zhang Fan movement, an interesting (if deadly) small group that had nothing to do with the CAG.
The scholarly articles published in 2017 did not completely change the situation with respect to the success of Chinese propaganda, as some media, when dealing with the CAG, continued to refer to it as the group responsible for the McDonald’s murder. Other media, however, quoted the academic studies, which had concluded that such was not the case.
The CCP has not completely abandoned its efforts at spreading fake news. The excerpts from the transcripts of the trial were published by Beijing News in 2014, but they disappeared from the Internet after the publication of the 2017 scholarly studies. However, they were archived in the Web Archive and other repositories of disappeared Internet pages, which are not controlled by the Chinese authorities and where they are still available.
Periodically, the CCP tries to revive the dead horse of the McDonald’s case. Zhang Fan and Zhang Lidong had been executed in 2015 but Lü Yingchun was in jail, and so were Zhang Fan’s younger sister, Zhang Hang and the lover of Zhang Lidong, Zhang Qiaolian, who had also been convicted for their complicity in the murder. Zhang Hang had stated during the trial that she “did not believe very devoutly” and was never particularly interested in religion in general, and, as mentioned earlier, Lü Yingchun had vehemently denied any association with the CAG. Chinese media reported that they were successfully “re-educated” in jail, participated in competitions for the best criticism of the xie jiao, and were rewarded with sentence reductions. One article reported that Zhang Qiaolian was also involved in the “reeducation” process, but apparently, she had not much to say to the media. After all, she had converted to the movement only eight days before the McDonald’s murder.
The long articles published by the Chinese media, illustrated by pictures of Lü Yingchun and Zhang Hang denouncing the xie jiao before their fellow inmates, and participating in jail competitions and performances, are interesting in their own way. They mirror the Western language of deprogramming, yet even after the successful “reeducation” the two women still did not state that they had been members of the CAG.
The name “Almighty God” is repeated obsessively in the articles telling the story of the assassins’ “reeducation,” with a clear intent of reiterating the association between the McDonald’s murder and the CAG. Yet, the maximum the authorities could extract from Lü Yingchun and Zhang Hang after years of intensive deprogramming was that both Lü Yingchun and the late Zhang Fan had read the CAG book The Word Appears in the Flesh. Lü Yingchun did not mention the book by name, but implied she had encountered CAG literature in 1998. Zhang Hang reported that her sister one day in 2008 came home with a copy of The Word Appears in the Flesh, and later was also in possession of another CAG book, The Hidden Work Done by God. Later, according to Zhang Hang, Zhang Fan met Lü Yingchun, in an Internet forum on Almighty God which was the crucial encounter for the formation of their group.
Obviously, the fake news dynamic is still at work, and the name and books of the CAG are emphasized, but by reading carefully the confessions of the two women it can be noticed that they do not really deny what they and Zhang Fan had said before and during the trial.
Zhang Fan had confessed that in 2007, she “picked up a copy of the book of ‘Almighty God’ at our doorstep” and found it persuasive. In an interview, she also mentioned a book she called God’s Hidden Work, possibly a pirated or imitated version of The Hidden Work Done by God published by the CAG, unless she simply misquoted the title.
We can suspect that the two women now emphasize the importance of CAG literature to please the prison authorities, but the question is not crucial. Millions of pieces of CAG literature have been distributed in China, some of them, according to Emily Dunn, even left “in public locations such as train stations for passers-by to discover.” Possession of this literature, thus, hardly indicates that somebody is a member of the CAG. In the same interview, Zhang Fan stated that she developed an interest in the CAG after reading about it, but never managed to contact the organization. “I never had contact with The Church of Almighty God because they were very secretive, and I could not find them,” she explained.
As for Lü Yingchun, the same question can be asked, whether the emphasis about how important her encounter with CAG literature was, was simply a wise jail strategy to have their life sentence reduced. However, if she was ever persuaded by CAG literature, this should have lasted for a very short period. In her jail interview, she reports to have encountered information about CAG in 1998, yet she maintains that in the same year 1998 she was already claiming that she was the “firstborn son of God.” She also stated that from a “very young age” she realized “she was as perfect as God.”
At trial, she had declared, “I grew up knowing that I was ‘God Himself.’ In 1998, I read the word ‘firstborn son’ in a book concerning ‘Almighty God.’ I was convinced that I was the ‘firstborn son’ myself. (…) Finally, I discovered that I was ‘God Himself.’” “Firstborn son” is a title used in the New Testament for Jesus Christ (see Hebrews 1:6; Revelation 1:5). The book mentioned may or may not have emanated from the CAG, but certainly in that Church there is no God living today on Earth other than the only one they identify as such, nor are they any “firstborn sons of God.” Certainly, these grandiose beliefs about herself would not have allowed Lü Yingchun to become a member of the CAG and indeed would have been regarded as blasphemous by any CAG member in good standing.
As for the “Internet forum on Almighty God”, we know from Zhang Fan’s trial testimony and interviews that it was a group where Lü Yingchun spread her own messianic claims, which again were clearly incompatible with CAG theology. This means that the “Internet forum on Almighty God” was not related to the CAG. This is not really denied by Lü Yingchun in her jail interview, nor is it denied by Zhang Hang. The latter stated that the belief her family was converted to was that “Lü Yingchun was ‘the firstborn son’” and later that she “was God.” In the same article, jail personnel recall that, when she arrived in the prison, Lü Yingchun expressed her religious beliefs in these terms, “I and Zhang Fan, we have the attributes of God, we are God itself…”
The article explains that the “reeducation” of Lü Yingchun was by no means easy, but she collapsed when she learned that Zhang Fan had been executed. The group believed that neither Lü Yingchun nor Zhang Fan would die. It was crucial to their faith that, just as Lü Yingchun, “Zhang Fan, who was ‘the firstborn son,’ would not die and would enter the spiritual world from the flesh.” Once again, the belief in the exalted spiritual role of Zhang Fan was not compatible with CAG theology. Zhang Hang had it right, when she stated that Lü Yingchun had “her own theory of ‘Almighty God’” (meaning, obviously, one different from the CAG’s). She believed from the very beginning to be “the eldest son of God,” “the Imperial Son” with absolute authority (although later she became willing to share her divine privileges with Zhang Fan), and ended up building a small “self-contained group” with the few who believed in her claims to divinity.
All this notwithstanding, as late as 2018, while the persecution of the CAG intensified with a massive wave of arrests, the CCP was still trying to attribute the homicide to the CAG by quoting as reliable sources the BBC and other Western media, conveniently forgetting that it had fed the news to them in the first place. It was an interesting case of “fake news about fake news,” showing once again that, after several years, the CCP still felt the need to refer to the McDonald’s murder to justify the persecution of the CAG.