BEIJING — For members of a doomsday cult in China, the end may indeed be near.
Authorities have in recent weeks arrested more than 100 members of a fringe Christian-inspired group known as Almighty God that is prophesying the world will end Dec. 21, according to state media.
Members of the group had been distributing apocalyptic literature and sending text messages throughout China when the government began detaining them this month. On Dec. 8, police arrested 34 members in Fujian province, which lies on China's southeastern coast. On Thursday, they arrested 37 members, including seven leaders in Xining, a city in the west-central province of Qinghai. There have also been arrests in Sichuan and Hubei provinces and elsewhere.
"Dec. 21 is approaching, and on that day half of the world's good people will die, and all evil people will die out — only if you join the Almighty God movement can you avoid death and be saved," warned a pamphlet confiscated by police in Shaoxing city, in the eastern province of Zhejiang, and quoted by state media. A text message predicted, "Great tsunamis and earthquakes are about to happen around the world."
Perhaps more threatening to the Chinese government, the group also urged followers to wage war on what it called the "big red dragon," referring to the Communist Party.
In Henan province, authorities said that the suspect held in a slashing attack that injured 23 schoolchildren Friday had acted "under the influence of doomsday beliefs." It was unclear, however, whether the authorities were linking the man to the same group.
The suspect, Min Yongjun, had believed a local woman who had been telling villagers that “the end of the world is coming and the Earth will explode,” Ouyang Mingxing, a deputy director of Guangshan’s public security bureau, told the state-run Global Times. The official added that police found more than 70 pamphlets in the woman's home.
Unmonitored religious sects are regarded as a serious threat by the Chinese Communist Party. Falun Gong, an indigenous religious group that began agitating against the government in the 1990s, likewise calls for the party's downfall.
The government's wariness stems in part from the powerful influence such groups can exert in a land largely devoid of organized religion but riddled with a lack of trust, said sociologist Zhou Xiaozheng of People's University.
"Because China has no established religion, people looking for a way to set their minds at ease may turn to cults," said Zhou. "People don't believe in what the government says, so they may wind up believing in wild rumors."
Major rebellions against Chinese authority have sprung from Christian sects in the past. The Taiping Rebellion in the 19th century, started by a man who claimed to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ, led to civil war and contributed to the fall of the last Chinese dynasty.
Several Protestant groups currently active in China have published accounts of their dealings with the Almighty God movement, also known as Eastern Lightning. According to the Christian Research Journal, a man named Zhao Weishan founded the movement in Heilongjiang province in 1989. Zhao later moved to Henan province, where he began to teach that Jesus Christ had returned to Earth in the form of a Henan woman named Deng. Zhao reportedly immigrated to America in 2000.
The Almighty God movement has given other religious groups and the government cause for concern. Some Protestant groups say the sect — which one group, China for Jesus, estimates is 1 million strong — has engaged in kidnapping, coercion and blackmail directed against other churches.
Doomsday theories have proved popular in China in recent years. The film "2012," which describes a set of catastrophic geological events, set box-office records when it was released in China in 2009. Columbia Pictures released a 3-D version for the Chinese audience late this year.
Chinese authorities are trying to keep people from taking the latest apocalyptic scenario too seriously, warning that the rumors are causing "unrest and panic buying … undermining social order and cheating people out of their money," as the official China Daily newspaper put it.
Stores in some areas were reported to be out of candles because of predictions of three days of darkness.
Scientists have been urged to speak out in public about the fallacy of the predictions.
"Dec. 21 is the winter solstice and it's just the change of seasons.... The day is short and the night is long, but it's a normal, natural event," Yang Guang, an astronomer at the National Astronomical Observatories satellite observation station in Changchun, was quoted as telling the China Daily.
At least one company in the southern city of Kunming was reported by state media to be offering its employees a day off work and survival kits — partly as a joke.
Fears of a fast-approaching day of reckoning have also provided inspiration to Chinese inventors. A farmer in Hebei province and a businessman in Yiwu, a town south of Shanghai, separately developed large survival pods for use in case of calamity. The Yiwu entrepreneur said customers had ordered 28 pods for delivery before Dec. 21.
Hannon is an intern in The Times' Beijing bureau. Times staff writer Barbara Demick contributed to this report.