BEIJING — Last month, as she waited for her husband and 7-year-old son at a McDonald’s in the eastern Chinese province of Shandong, Wu Shuoyan was approached by members of a Christian sect who were on an aggressive recruitment drive.
After Wu refused to give them her number, several in the group beat and kicked her to death, an act of brutality captured by cellphone and widely shared on the Internet.
Although the Chinese public’s outrage initially focused on the many bystanders who failed to intervene, the national news media has sought to shift the indignation toward what the government calls “evil cults” — the roughly two dozen outlawed religious sects often demonized by authorities as coercive and dangerous.
In the two weeks since the killing, state-run publications have produced a steady drumbeat of alarming articles detailing what they say are the predations of the Church of Almighty God, the group blamed for the attack. On Tuesday, the Xinhua news agency said authorities had rounded up some 1,500 cult members, although it appears many of those were arrested as early as 2012.
“Religious cults recruit and control adherents by fabricating and spreading superstitions and heresies,” the Ministry of Public Security said in a statement carried by state-run media last Wednesday.
Decades of blistering propaganda attacks against such groups have convinced much of the Chinese public that adherents of so-called cults deserve little sympathy. In the case of Falun Gong, the quasi-spiritual movement whose members once numbered in the millions and included high-ranking officials, even possessing a piece of literature for the group can lead to brutal treatment by the police and jail time.
Although their voices are muted by the censors, human rights advocates and some mainstream religious leaders in China say that the latest anti-cult campaign is misguided and that it frequently violates Chinese law.
Teng Biao, a defense lawyer who has represented Falun Gong members in the past, said the most recent roundups were politically motivated by the government’s deeply rooted fear of organized religion, especially groups it cannot control.
“This is an effort to eradicate an entire group of believers, not just the ones who committed crimes,” he said.
In addition to adherents of the Church of Almighty God, the news agency said, those arrested included members of another Christian group known as Disciples Sect. But other news accounts said that many of the 1,500 arrests took place in 2012, during a previous drive against Almighty God.
Despite its reputation for coercive proselytizing that critics describe as brainwashing, the group is not known for violence, and experts suggested the McDonald’s slaying was the work of a deranged individual.
During a jailhouse confession shown last week by the national broadcaster CCTV, the man described as the ringleader of the attack was emotionless and unrepentant.