Comments from those in basic agreement with the thesis of the article (that house church Christians in china face pressure, discrimination, and restrictions, but little or no outright persecution) are indicated by “YES”; those who disagreed or wanted to qualify in some way, by “BUT.” Careful readers will notice that much of what follows appears in the original article in some form or another.
YES: There is little or no active persecution of house church Christians now; thank you for making this clear.
BUT: On the other hand, though Christians may be suffering less, the human rights situation in general is worse, with political dissidents, critical reporters, and human rights activists singled out for particularly harsh treatment.
YES: Christians have greater freedom to meet and to express their views, compared with five years ago.
BUT: If you are too clear about your allegiance to Christ, you may lose your job and, since most large companies are state owned, most Christian employees have a justified fear of being fired or demoted if they openly declare their faith.
YES: Christian organizations, and organizations run by Christians, have been prominent in social services, and have sometimes received positive recognition from government officials for their contribution to society.
BUT: Christians NGOs which rushed to the scene of the devastating earthquake in Sichuan, though generally welcomed and given free rein at first, have mostly been forced to leave the area.
YES: Christians enjoy more freedoms now, and there is obviously an influential faction within the government that would like to see them have even fewer restrictions.
BUT: There is also another, and very powerful, faction within the government that fears and distrusts the growing house church movement, as the opposition to three large congregations in the past year has demonstrated. Chinese religious policy can change faster than a cobra can strike, so we cannot be complacent or think that the current relatively positive trend will continue. As history has clearly shown, either internal or external challenges to the government’s position could quickly trigger a harsh crackdown.
YES: Most respondents agree that the aggressive and sometimes dramatic recitation of alleged persecution of Christians in China by China Aid and other similar organizations does not help the position of believers in house churches.
BUT: Some house church leaders have expressed appreciation, since they think that such publicizing of their plight has lessened pressure on them.
YES: Calling harsh treatment against human rights lawyers “persecution” confuses the distinction between suffering for one’s faith and suffering for legal and sometimes political activity. Yu Jie, who recently authored a book critical of the Premier, is a notorious example.
BUT: A number of these lawyers are Christians who believe they are merely acting within the law and calling the government to abide by its own laws; furthermore, they are sometimes defending Christians who are suffering police repression because of religious activities. It’s not always easy, therefore, to distinguish between “religious” and “political” cases.
YES: Those who speak out in support of Falun Gong are especially misguided, since this organization is virulently anti-communist, and wages a relentless attack on the Chinese Communist Party and its regime.
BUT: Before 1999 the movement was not at all political. Furthermore, the brutal treatment meted out to Falung Gong adherents, including harmless old women, is a reminder of what could happen to Christians should they be placed on the list of “evil cults.”
YES: Christians outside of China have often used stories, or an overall narrative, of persecution of Chinese Christians as a means of drawing attention to themselves and thus gaining emotional and even financial support.
BUT: If no one told these stories, for which there is some basis, then the world would not know, and the Chinese government would be able to get away with their actions without any adverse publicity. They would only be encouraged to continue suppressing people’s rights.
YES: Several large churches which have recently been shut down, or otherwise harassed, are technically illegal; they are merely reaping the consequences of their own law-breaking.
BUT: The regulations (there is no actual “law”) themselves contravene international conventions and agreements which the Chinese government has signed, and which it sometimes uses to criticize other nations, such as Israel, for violating. These regulations, therefore, are themselves “illegal”!
YES: By far, most respondents were highly critical, even angry, towards the Shouwang church leaders for persisting in an unnecessary confrontation with the government; they feel that it puts the entire house church movement in jeopardy. They say that almost all house church Christians share this view.
BUT: A few house church leaders have expressed approval of what Shouwang is doing, and some even say that it deflects government attention from them. Shouwang supporters also claim that this confrontation is necessary to create a greater public “space” for Chinese Christianity in general.
YES: What the Chinese government fears most is any group that is (1) large; (2) organized; and (3) connected with outside, especially American, organizations.
Evangelicals in America are known (notorious?) for their anti-communist stance and their advocacy of strong American government action against China’s human rights violations. Therefore, any “support” of house churches by American evangelicals jeopardizes the integrity and therefore the safety of house church Christians. Thus the recent trip to the U.S. by a group of prominent house church leaders for training was extremely ill-advised, and only validates Chinese government suspicions of American involvement in the house church movement. It will likely lead to further surveillance and possibly even restrictions, or worse.
BUT: These leaders chose to take this risk; they wanted the training, which was entirely theological and not at all political; their association with each other is purely for information and encouragement; they have no formal “organization”; and they certainly have no political intentions.
Though not addressed at length in the original article, the question of the role of the U.S. Government has also been raised in the correspondence.
Most seem to believe that repeated hectoring and criticisms by America merely enrage the Chinese and remind them of the humiliation of foreign intervention, even invasion, in the past. Any support of Chinese Christians by foreign governments, especially the United States, merely confirms the suspicions of the Chinese leaders that Chinese Christians are tools of Western imperialists.
On the other hand, some believe that America’s consistent advocacy of human rights worldwide, including its mention of China in the annual State Department report (which is legally mandated), provides a necessary check on the tendency (to use a mild word) of totalitarian governments to suppress rights which are affirmed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international statements, not to mention the conscience of people around the world. Silencing, or even muting, this voice would leave weaker members of society without an advocate and allow bullies to dominate the neighborhood without criticism.
These comments reflect some of the complexity of the situation of house church Christians in China, as well as the lack of agreement among them and among their friends overseas. No one denies the fact that Christians face pressure, discrimination, limitations on their activities, and a generally unfriendly attitude towards them by the government, even as they agree that in many places relations between officials and church leaders may be quite amicable.