China's excess men and the fear of cults
As the trial of members of the Church of Almighty God gets under way this week over the killing of a woman at a McDonald's restaurant, the spotlight will shift back to one of Beijing's persistent phobias - cults.
The fear of quasi-religious groups is rooted in history. The Taiping rebellion in the mid-19th century, in which over 20 million lives were lost, was started by a man who claimed to be Jesus' brother. But the government's real fear more likely stems from the demographic triggers that cause such unrest.
China's current gender imbalance is similar to that in its turbulent past. The one-child policy, coupled with the preference for boys and advanced techniques of sex determination, has led to an unbalanced sex ratio quite similar to India's. China and India each have around 37 million excess men, with dire implications for social order from resentful, sexually deprived men of low economic status.
Such men - called "bare branches" in China as they won't add to the family tree - tend to band together, transforming harmless individual behaviour into disruptive group action.
This has been the case in some of China's most violent phases, when female infanticide and high fertility rates created similar situations. In the past, when poverty-stricken Chinese men migrated away from familial support systems in search of livelihood, the number of secret societies, brotherhood associations and bandit groups increased rapidly as they offered migrants new social networks, income and sex. The implicit promise of many bandit groups and warlords was the prospect of female captives.
The perpetrators in the McDonald's murder case were mostly members of the same family, including two sisters. So the bare-branch grouping may not be the only explanation here. But there is also evidence that such groups are now mobilising other demographics in China's spiritual void. That might explain the rare concession which allowed the pope to fly over China as the government seeks to separate mainstream religions from their subversive offshoots. A bit of divine intervention wouldn't hurt, as long as it has Beijing's approval.