Wu Shuoyan was waiting for her husband and their 7-year-old son at a McDonald's when she posted a note on a social media site: "I met some crazy people."
Twenty minutes later, she lay dead on the floor, beaten to death with a metal pole. Authorities say the perpetrators were six members of a religious cult, including a middle-aged man, his two grown daughters and his 12-year-old son, who became angry when Wu refused to give them her phone number.
A bystander recorded the horror with a cellphone camera; in the footage, uploaded to the Internet, Wu's main attacker can be heard bellowing, "Go die! Evil spirit!" as he pummels her. A female accomplice screeches at onlookers: "Whoever interferes will die!"
Religious belief is on the upswing across China, with underground and fringe groups as well as mainstream, state-approved congregations attracting many new members. The savage, apparently random attack last week in the eastern city of Zhaoyuan has prompted calls in the state-run press for a crackdown on "evil" religious organizations. It also has sparked questions about whether the government's longtime controls on belief groups of all sorts may inadvertently be hampering efforts to combat possibly violent sects.
"That cults … have so easily established themselves and expanded in rural China is a loud slap in the face for the education authorities and their proud indices of success," the China Daily newspaper said in an editorial.
In a jailhouse interview broadcast on state-run CCTV, the suspected ringleader of the McDonald's slaying, Zhang Lidong, said he had been a member of the Almighty God organization for seven years; the group has been banned by Chinese authorities since 1995.
Zhang calmly admitted to killing Wu, calling her a "monster" and a "demon," and expressed no remorse. "We are not afraid of the law. We have faith in God," said Zhang, who was identified as an unemployed former businessman. Asked how he felt, he said, "Great."
The Almighty God group began about a quarter of a century ago in northeastern Heilongjiang province; the group is sometimes also called Eastern Lightning and has connections to earlier sects, including a 1980s movement called the Shouters.
Founder Zhao Weishan preached that Jesus had come back to Earth in the form of a local woman named Yang Xiangbin, also known as Lightning Deng. Both Yang and Zhao subsequently immigrated to the United States. The sect claims to have up to 5 million members worldwide and opposes China's Communist Party, calling it the "Great Red Dragon."
China cracked down in late 2012, when members prophesied that the world would end Dec. 21. Nearly 1,000 Almighty God adherents were detained for handing out leaflets about the apocalypse and "spreading rumors." It was one of the biggest operations against a religious group since the 1999 ban on Falun Gong, which draws its beliefs from Eastern traditions including qigong and Buddhism.
The communist government officially permits Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, and Catholic and Protestant Christianity; the religious groups are supposed to be affiliated with a government-approved umbrella organization. Tens of millions of Chinese, however, have joined "house churches" and other unsanctioned groups.
Such unregistered organizations make Chinese authorities nervous, in part because large uprisings have sprung from Christian sects in the past. The Taiping Rebellion of the 1800s, started by a man who said he was Jesus Christ's brother, led to civil war and contributed to the downfall of China's last dynasty.
Some observers sense a newly intensified effort to counter unpermitted belief groups. Red-and-white banners with messages such as "Believe in science, create culture, make great efforts against evil cults," can be seen in parks and many other public spaces across the country.
"I think it's more visible. After the Falun Gong [crackdown], there was a wave of this kind of propaganda," said Nanlai Cao, associate professor in religious studies at the People's University in Beijing. "The past five years, I don't think it was very visible, but now I think it's a big issue, and has become a top priority for government officials."
In the wake of the McDonald's slaying, state-run media have linked the Almighty God organization to riots in Henan in 1998, the killing of an elementary school student in 2010 and a mass stabbing of schoolchildren in 2012.
"Maybe in the past, they choose not to report it, but in the current context there may be more coverage," Cao said. "It's a reconstruction of the story in a new framework, an anti-cult framework."
Liu Ling, a Peking University graduate student who has been studying the Almighty God group for two years as part of her thesis work, said she had read numerous media reports about the group's violent acts but had been unable to verify most of them.
She was able to substantiate one incident in which sect members abducted 34 members of a house church and tried to indoctrinate them, and more recently occasions of Almighty God believers invading house church services, pushing pastors offstage and trumpeting their own teachings.
Because house churches are not legal, their members would be reluctant to report harassment. "When they're raided and attacked by Almighty God, they would just warn other home churches, not tell police," she said.
Liu said she interviewed relatives of Almighty God believers who said members of the sect had broken their windows or set small fires in their yards to intimidate them into joining the group. However, she added, the slaying of Wu, apparently a total stranger, did not fit any known pattern of the group's behavior.
Other details of Wu's slaying as reported in state-run media have raised eyebrows, including witness reports that the unemployed Zhang and his group arrived in a Porsche Cayenne and that they carried out such an attack at a restaurant near a police station.
Pastor Wu Chi-wai, general secretary of the resource group Hong Kong Church Renewal Movement, says the Almighty God group is "quite rich" and has bought full-page ads in local newspapers to trumpet its beliefs. He says his organization has heard reports that the sect has kidnapped and bullied people and tried to blackmail others with accusations of sexual improprieties, but that the McDonald's killing seems out of the ordinary.
"Some people are not certain that this is linked" to the sect, he said. "It's quite difficult to get true information from Mainland China … and some say maybe the government uses the same kind of tactics as Almighty God."
Nicole Liu in The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times