BEIJING – Five people stood trial Thursday in the beating death of a woman at a McDonald's restaurant in eastern China who reportedly refused to join their anti-Communist Christian sect — a high-profile crime that led to a wave of arrests of cult suspects.
The five members of the "All-powerful Spirit" group, including a man and his two daughters, were accused of hitting the woman with chairs and a metal pole after she refused to give them her phone number, in violence captured on cellphone video that was later broadcast on state TV.
The "All-powerful Spirit," also known as "Eastern Lightning," believes that Jesus was resurrected as a Chinese woman and sees itself in a struggle against the "Red Dragon," or the Chinese Communist Party. It is one of 14 cults that China has listed as illegal, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.
The crime took place on May 28 in Zhaoyuan city in Shandong province, a traditional hotbed for religious sects. The region gave birth to the violent anti-Christian Boxer movement that laid siege to Western interests in Beijing and elsewhere during the waning years of the Qing dynasty in 1900.
The five defendants were accused of murder and three also faced cult-related charges in the one-day trial at Yantai Intermediate People's Court. The court posted photos of what it said were the proceedings on its microblog, and said the judge would give a verdict at an unspecified later date.
State broadcaster CCTV said the five defendants had eaten at the McDonald's on the night of the beating, and that the only male member of the group, Zhang Lidong, asked the victim, Wu Shuoyan, for her telephone number, and she refused. The four women then approached her and asked her. Again, she refused, and the group decided that she was the devil, CCTV reported.
They used chairs and other items to beat Wu while threatening to kill any bystanders who might intervene, according to CCTV.
Video from a security camera in a corner of the McDonald's showed one staff member calling police from a phone on the wall behind the counter. Two of the group members then threw a motorbike helmet at the employee to stop her.
The group continued to beat Wu even when police arrived. Officers managed to subdue the group with the help of others in the restaurant, CCTV said. Wu had severe head injuries and was already dead by the time paramedics arrived.
Zhang was interviewed by CCTV in May and identified himself as unemployed. When asked why he assaulted the victim, he replied, "Because she is a demon, she is evil."
The four female defendants are Zhang Fan, Zhang Hang, Lyu Yingchun and Zhang Qiaolian. The first two are Zhang Lidong's daughters.
Police said the five defendants organized cult activities and used the Internet to preach and spread information.
The five were shown standing calmly in court. Relatives of the defendants and of the victim were present, CCTV said.
The "All-powerful Spirit" organization was reportedly founded around 1990 by a physics teacher named Zhao Weishan who then fled to the United States, and draws on an unorthodox reading of Christian scripture.
In December 2012, police in China targeted the group and detained 16 people in Zhejiang province for spreading false and illegal information. At the same time, 58 people were arrested in Guangdong, the oldest aged 85 and the youngest 18, CCTV reported.
After the McDonald's beating, police again targeted the group. Since June, police have caught nearly 1,000 criminal suspects, the Ministry of Public Security said on its microblog Wednesday.
The "All-powerful Spirit" group's websites includes denunciations of the Communist Party by some of the group's members. For example, a man identified as Guo Jian from Sichuan, says the party "distorts facts" and calls it "the real evil cult" and "a modern-day Satan."
China has struggled at times to control grassroots religious movements based on Christian or Buddhist ideology, most notably the Falungong meditation movement that attracted millions of adherents before being brutally repressed in 1999.