TAIPEI, Taiwan — The 500-odd people arrested in China for spreading rumors about the impending apocalypse won't be locked up for long if their predictions are true.
If however, they are wrong and the days keep comning after Dec. 21, those imprisoned in China this week will likely have a lot of time while in one of the world's most brutal prison systems to consider where they went wrong — and why they decided to go up against the Chinese Communist Party and its fixation with maintaining social stability.
State-run media reported that more than 400 members of the Church of the Almighty God were detained in western Qinghai province for spreading word about the coming end of the world.
Devotees of the church believe Jesus has returned to earth in the guise of a 40-something Chinese woman, who has supposedly never been photographed and has penned a third testament to the Bible.
Also known as Eastern Lightening, the group says only the woman's followers will join her in heaven following the apocalypse. They also claim to be engaged in a death struggle with the "Big Red Dragon," or China Communist Party.
Beijing has labeled the group an "evil cult" and said it uses promises of money, sex and drugs to convert people. When that doesn't work, it says, the church kidnaps, brainwashes and tortures people into forcible conversions.
China's state-owned news source, The Global Times, reported on Monday that 37 "cult" members were detained for "brainwashing" people "into believing the end of the world is near." The newspaper wrote that Eastern Lightening was sending out mass text messages, distributing leaflets and handing out CDs on buses, parks and other public areas foretelling the end of days.
"Great tsunamis and earthquakes are about to happen around the world," read an alleged line of an Eastern Lightening text message, wrote the Beijing-based daily.
Hundreds of members of the group, which is estimated to have up to a million followers, clashed with security officers in three provinces over the past week, The Guardian reported.
"While there does seem to a very real public safety risk posed by this group and others like it in China, it also doesn't hurt the Party to let everybody know it's still in charge and that it doesn't pay to spit at the throne," said George Chang, a sociologist as National Taiwan University.
Spit at the throne indeed.
State-run Xinhua reported that: "Police said local residents should abide by the law and refrain from spreading doomsday rumours. Punishments will be given to those who disseminate rumors in order to cause trouble, defraud others or disturb social order."
Somewhat counterintuitively, Beijing's strict controls over religion make it easier for groups such as Eastern Lightening to take root in China, according to Chang.
"Most people don't realize that rural China in particular has much more demand for priests and churches than it has supply. It allows these underground and seemingly bizarre splinter religions to flourish," he said.
Bizarre splinter group or not, fascination with Dec. 21, the date the Mayan calendar says the world will end, has long gripped the country.
The Hollywood movie "2012," which starred John Cusak and depicted the Mayan apocalypse, was a box-office smash in China. In "2012," humanity is given another shot at survival when the Chinese government comes through by building massive arks.
In real life, the Chinese public doesn't seem assured the government will be there for them. Media have reported unrest, hoarding and panic-buying as anxiety heightens before the looming date. Entrepreneurs are offering buoyant survival pods equipped with food, water, oxygen, medical kits and petrol.
According to the Daily Telegraph, a farmer in Hebei province built seven 14-person pods in his garage, which he's hoping to sell for about $50,000 each. The paper wrote that another Doomsday entrepreneur in Zhejiang "received 21 orders for his high-quality, custom-made arks," and one "sold for almost £500,000."
But while the Church of the Almighty God faces another crackdown and state-run media lampoons the survivalists, Beijing, some critics say, has been quick to capitalize on the date for its own ends.
Xinhua reported Monday that the suspect in Friday's attack at an elementary school in central Henan was "driven to commit the crime by predictions of the end of the world."