Chinese state media has rushed to debunk fears that the world will end on Friday based on predictions by believers of the Mayan calendar as police launched a "nationwide campaign" against a religious sect for handing out leaflets and making doomsday prophecies in the streets.
In a special online feature dedicated to the doomsday predictions, the official Global Times newspaper headed up one section with the words "Experts' opinions: World not to end."
And in a story about the panic-buying of candles in the southwestern province of Sichuan, the China Daily newspaper quoted an astronomer as saying there was "no scientific reason" to believe the prediction.
Following violent clashes between police and the Quanneng Shen ("Almighty God") sect in central China last week, police have detained more than than 400 sect members in northwestern Qinghai province, police said in a widely reported statement.
The move follows a nationwide campaign to root out the pseudo-religious group that authorities believe advocates doomsday theories and confrontation with the ruling party and government, the China Daily said.
The sect, which has been designated an "evil cult" by the authorities, "uses the name of Christianity to recruit members, expands its influence through illicit means, and carries out illegal underground activities and crimes," it said.
It said the sect members had "stirred up panic and unrest" in society, basing their fears on the Mayan doomsday scenario, and predicting the sun will not shine and electricity will not work for three days beginning on Dec. 21.
Police said the sect was cheating followers out of their property, and called it "an evil force which is against science, society, humanity and the government."
The movement had begun in Henan in 1990 and spread across poorer, rural areas of China, official media said.
The Quanneng Shen sect, which believes that the world will end on Dec. 21, was designated an "evil cult" by the authorities recently after they started distributing leaflets warning of the end of the world.
“Evil cult” is a term used by Beijing in its campaign against the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, which shook China's leadership with unexpected mass protests of mostly elderly people in the Chinese capital in 1999.
However, the term has also been used in campaigns to outlaw evangelical and charismatic church movements in China.
Beijing-based rights activist Liu Dejun said the group's ideology was less worrying to Beijing than its unwillingness to accept official controls.
"Any organization [in China] that won't be told what to do will not be allowed to exist," Liu said. "These are all adults, and they're not telling people to commit suicide; they should be allowed to exist."
Protestant activist Xiao Guang told RFA that the concept of doomsday wasn't simple, and that the sect's views weren't widely shared by China's population of Christian believers, although they did believe in a day of judgement.
"The propaganda about doomsday has got to a point where it can't be denied, but from a Christian point of view ... no one knows when doomsday will fall," he said.
The Chinese words for "End of the world" and "Mayans" remained uncensored on China's hugely popular Twitter-like service, Sina Weibo on Wednesday.
While the topic was trending with more than 21,000 posts on Wednesday, few netizens—who are often younger, well-educated Chinese—appeared to take the predictions seriously.
"I have an exam on the 22nd, so I really hope the 22nd never comes, there's no way I'm going to finish revising in time!" wrote user @chiwanmamazui.
User @tangxinzhimashaobing added: "If the world's about to end, and I'm going out to save humanity, I'd better eat a bit more in the next few days. I'll worry about dieting afterwards. Now I feel much better!"
"The apocalypse, the winter solstice, Christmas, bring 'em on," wrote user @mama-Constense. "I'm not in the mood for any of it."
Reported by Ho Shan for RFA's Cantonese service, and by Xi Wang for the Mandarin service. Translation and additional reporting by Luisetta Mudie.