The beating death of a woman in a McDonald’s restaurant in eastern China has triggered widespread anger over the slow response of witnesses and condemnation of a fringe religious group that the police say influenced the attackers.
The authorities in Zhaoyuan, a city in Shandong province known for its gold mines, arrested six people in the killing of the woman. The police said the six were members of a religious group known as the Church of Almighty God. They had been soliciting new members at the restaurant on Wednesday evening. One of the members, a man named Zhang Lidong, is accused of beating the victim after she refused to give her phone number when asked by his daughter.
State television broadcast an interview with Zhang in which he confessed to the killing and showed no remorse. “She was a demon. She was an evil spirit,’’ Zhang said while sitting handcuffed behind bars. An online post of the interview on a popular Chinese news site triggered more than 10,000 comments, many of them expressing anger at the accused.
Cellphone video of the attack was posted on a Chinese website. It showed several people watching the attack, raising questions about why bystanders did not try to intervene and whether the police could have responded more quickly.
“Watching the video, I think the thing that is most frightening about the Zhaoyuan case is not that someone died, but the indifference of the bystanders,’’ Cairang Duoji, a Beijing-based humanitarian activist, said in an op-ed in The Beijing News. “Of course there are some special circumstances, for example, it happened suddenly, so bystanders may have not had time to respond or recover from their alarm. But from the eyewitness’ video you can see more than five strong young men walking about as if nothing happened, hiding by the doorway and craning their necks to watch the bloody slaughter.’’
Zhang acknowledged in the interview that he had been a follower of the Church of the Almighty God for seven years. The sect, which was founded in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang in 1989, is loosely related to Christianity. Its teachings include the belief that God has returned to Earth as a woman born in China. The group has been banned as a cult by the Chinese government and criticized by mainstream churches for its heterodox beliefs and its methods of recruitment, which critics consider violent.
The group directly opposes China’s ruling Communist Party, which it calls the “Great Red Dragon.’’ The authorities, who have tried to suppress the sect, also known as Eastern Lightening, for more than a decade, arrested nearly 1,000 adherents across China in 2012, when it was actively promoting doomsday prophesies connected with the Mayan calendar. A lawyer, Teng Biao, was one of the few to defend the group’s right to its beliefs in 2012, writing on Twitter that, “The government has no power to determine what is a cult; the law can punish only actions, not thoughts.’’
China has a long history of heterodox Christian and Buddhist sects, some of which have clashed with the state. In the mid-19th century the followers of Hong Xiuquan, who claimed he was the younger brother of Jesus, set up the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, which controlled a large section of southern China from its self-proclaimed capital in Nanjing.