The Black-Lists: The Evolution of China’s List of “Illegal and Evil Cults”
Edward A. Irons
The Hong Kong Institute for Culture, Commerce and Religion
Bublished by CESNUR:
ABSTRACT: In China, departments under the central government have published lists of banned and illegal religious groups since 1995. This practice can be seen as an extension of traditional ways of categorizing heterodox associations dating back to imperial times. Groups on the current list are often identified as xie jiao—normally translated as “evil cults.” The list is thus directly connected to questions of the categorization of religion in China. The study of the lists provides insight into the government’s evolving policy on religion, as well as the legal environment for religious activity.
Over the past quarter century, China has sporadically published lists of banned religious groups. These lists as they have been consolidated and published reflect the government’s evolved thinking on religious policy, and illuminate significant aspects of the contemporary religious scene in China while offering insights into the government’s official policy toward religion. The consolidated lists were published in 1995, 2000, again in 2014, and most recently in September of 2017. These published announcements constitute the “lists” proper. They are supplemented by a number of individual circulars that speak to a more limited number of the banned groups, which provide content that would be subsequently compiled into the longer lists.
A range of agencies are involved in these circulars, but the major lists are published by Public Safety, the State Council, both government agencies, and the General Office of the Central Committee, a department of the party. Recent lists appear under the aegis of the recently-established agency established to counter xie jiao groups, the Anti-Cult Association.
Xie Jiao (邪教)
Nearly all of the lists place the individual groups in the category of xie jiao. This term is widely translated inside and outside China to mean “cult.” While convenient for translators, this usage is a misleading simplification. Xie jiao in fact has a long history of its own (Wu 2016). It was used as early as the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) to mean heterodox, harmful sects. In the 1990s, xie jiaowas applied as a convenient, well-known term for translating a foreign word, “cult,” that had its own separate and complex background. Like current usage of “cult” in many countries, xie jiao has become a term in common usage. Clearly, the two terms come from different backgrounds. Yet, for better or worse, cult and xie jiao are two concepts whose fates remain intermingled.
The 2000 circular gives a useful official definition of xie jiao. A xie jiao is any group that:
a. establishes an illegal organization in the name of religion, qigong, etc.;
b. deifies its leaders;
c. initiates and spreads superstitions and heterodox beliefs;
d. utilizes various means to fabricate and spread superstitions and heterodox [or cultic] beliefs to excite doubts and deceive the people, and recruit and control its members by various means;
e. engages in disturbing social order in an organized manner that brings injury to the lives and properties of the citizens (危害公民生命財產安全等活動).
Each of the lists discussed below are xie jiao lists. The individual groups are banned because they are xie jiao, are harmful, and are hence illegal. Xie jiao, an existing concept in the Chinese political lexicon, has been applied to a contemporary religious landscape. This alerts us to the importance of the pre- Communist period in understanding how illegal religious groups are viewed. So, before listing the contemporary groups, I will discuss how such groups were seen in the past.