A utopian community has become the target of harassment by local authorities in China’s remote southwest after years of living secluded from the outside world.
For 12 hours every day, village authorities in Lincang in western Yunnan province blast orders to disperse to the New Oasis for Life community of 63 people, accusing them of violating laws on marriage, forestation and child care.
Last month, the group was cut off from electricity and water. Members say they have been questioned if they attempt to venture outside their tiny settlement and roadblocks have prevented outsiders from visiting them.
The group of some 130 like-minded utopians currently living in two settlements in Yunnan faces harassment as groups without state sponsorship have long been viewed with suspicion in China.
“Even though the Chinese constitution guarantees freedom of religion, it tightly restricts spiritual practices to only five officially recognised religious organizations,” said Maya Wang, a Hong Kong-based researcher with Human Rights Watch. “The government considers any other spiritual group as unlawful and subjects them to raids, closures and detentions.”
Yet, members of the group insist they are not members of a religious cult. New Oasis’ teachings, prescribed in the 800 Values for New Era Human Being written by founder Xue Feng, aim to transcend the teachings of Plato, Confucius and Marx to achieve a global community without class or property, members say.
The utopian community is one of “no leaders, no dharma, almost no punishments”, according to a video the group made in 2012.
“There is no family, no marriage, no private property, no currency in our second home,” 57-year-old Xue said in the video aimed at attracting new members, or "celestials". “Everyone can enjoy life and can have anything freely.”
Wong Sam quit his job at a five-star hotel in the Hong Kong to join the community four years ago. He is adamant that he doesn’t want to return to the SAR. “We have such a peaceful life here and we are trying to be role models for all of humanity,” the 71-year-old said. “We can’t leave.”
Xi Dai, 24, she said she has no regrets over quitting her job in export sales in Jiangsu Province in 2011 and wants to stay in Lincang. "This group is more important than my life,” she said. “They can only make me leave by force.”
Both Xi and Wong said they discovered founder Xue’s thoughts online.
He created his utopian vision of the world in the Zimbabwean capital Harare in 2002, where he was selling daily goods and clothes imported from China, he said.
Two years later, he started spreading his message online. Early messages included the call for abolition of all political parties, including the Communist Party, and the creation of a global community of equals.
By 2009, Xue and some 25 others set up a first settlement in Anning in Yunnan. The settlement still exists and is largely left alone by authorities. Two more, the one in Lincang and another in Chuxiong followed.
“We will build 256 branches all over the world in the near future,” Xue said in a video. But his plans expansion plans have been cut short and members have conflicting theories over why they are facing the unprecedented harassment.
The group’s luck turned with a visit of the provincial deputy governor Ding Shaoxiang to their Chuxiong settlement last year, said Xi.
Shortly after, water and electricity was cut. They had to leave two months ago. Some residents moved to the remaining settlements, others left temporarily to work outside the community. Wong thought a real estate developer wanted their land and had lobbied with authorities to evict the group.
“They try to frame us as an illegal organisation or a religious cult,” said founder Xue. “But we have done nothing illegal. We bought the land. We haven’t harmed anyone and have always gotten along well with the local residents.” He said he has no plans to leave.
His wife has also joined him in the community. His son hasn’t. Xue said the North Carolina State University graduate chose to live in the US and work as an accountant. “We respect his choice, but he also respects ours,” said Xue.