G. Wright Doyle
May 31, 2010
The high-level talks on human rights between the United States and China this week provide a good occasion for us to re-consider the question: Are Chinese Christians still being persecuted?
If you are an average American, you will say, “Of course!” Evangelical Christians will agree even more emphatically. After all, didn’t, The Heavenly Man demonstrate conclusively that Chinese house church leaders are routinely hounded, hunted, and brutally treated by the police? Books about Wang Mingdao, Watchman Nee, Samuel Lamb, Allen Yuen and others have implanted images of fearless pastors facing baseless accusations and being thrown into jail simply because they would not join the state-sponsored Three Self Patriotic Movement church (TSPM).
More recently, regular reports of fierce persecution of house church Christians published by Bob Fu of China Aid, supported by vivid pictures and stories in the other magazines, carry the familiar story up to the present, “proving” that the Chinese government still seeks aggressively to crush the growing Christian movement in their nation.
On the other hand…
These claims of widespread persecution do not go unchallenged, however. Not only are they predictably denied by the Chinese government and the Three Self Patriotic Movement leaders, as well as by spokesmen from liberal mainline denominations in the West, but some evangelicals also dispute the accuracy of the usual story.
Werner Burklin, for example, vigorously objects to the notion that any persecution takes place. Instead, in Jesus Never Left China, he points to the complete freedom which his organization enjoys in working with the TSPM churches and seminaries, and attributes any imprisonments or fines inflicted upon house church leaders to their refusal to obey the laws of the land.
In Chinese Puzzle, Mike Falkenstine doesn’t go that far, but he, too, points out the considerable liberty that registered churches have to engage in all forms of Christian ministry, and gives examples of how open cooperation with the authorities has gained him opportunities to contribute to the growth of the Chinese church. Instead of smuggling Bibles, he just buys them from the state-run Amity Press and transports them to rural churches!
Falkenstine notes Bob Fu’s claims of persecution, but then subjects them to more careful scrutiny. Using Fu’s own numbers, he points out that the documented cases of house church Christians being punished represent a minuscule minority, compared to the sixty (or more) million believers who practice their faith with no let or hindrance. Read a review of his book, to learn more.
Even many Chinese Christians themselves would disagree with the notion that they are being routinely attacked for their faith. In the fall of 2009, one researcher working for a human rights advocacy group, after a three-month national survey, flatly stated, “Persecution of Christians in China has ceased. Our problem now is materialism” - referring to the mad rush for money that has gripped the country, engulfing many believers as well. Several scholars of Chinese Christianity at a prestigious university in a major city recently corroborated that assessment. Many foreign Christians working in China would give their hearty assent, for they are operating with relative freedom and can tell one story after another of open Christian activity carried on by house church believers.
The true picture
What, then, are we to believe? Who is right? Do Chinese Christians enjoy complete religious liberty? Or are they constantly on the run, trying to keep one step ahead of security agents who are egged on by envious TSPM informers?
Much depends on what you mean by “persecution.” If you are thinking of Paul’s ruthless campaign to stamp out the fledgling church, or of previous periods in modern Chinese history when believers had to hide their Bibles for fear of brutal punishment, then we must say that no such “persecution” takes place in today’s China. At the very least, such cases are extremely rare. In other words, The Heavenly Man or Randy Alcorn’s Safely Home must no longer shape our paradigm.
To some degree, Burklin and Falkenstine are correct: Members and leaders of registered TSPM churches may meet for worship; publish and sell Christian literature; and carry on a wide variety of ordinary Christian ministry with no intervention by the police. Those foreigners who collaborate with the TSPM enjoy similar freedoms.
Furthermore, millions of house church Christians all over the country gather for Sunday services without fear of being arrested. Their meetings, in that sense, are “open” and not “underground.” Everyone, including the police, knows who they are and what they are doing, and no one bothers them. Such groups may number twenty, two hundred, or even more. Many unregistered congregations even a thousand in attendance meet weekly in large cities. Web sites announce the time and place, and much more about the church – and all without interference.
Christians operate kindergartens, medical clinics, schools, and orphanages. They organize relief work for victims of earthquakes. Several dozen bookstores carry popular Christian books, attractively displayed and even legally published in China. The first volume of Salt & Light: Lives of Faith that Shaped Modern China is selling well in Christian and even secular bookstores.
Even foreign Christians who work somewhat clandestinely will acknowledge that the government, which surely knows who they are and what they are doing, has chosen to burn a blind eye. They try to be careful, of course, avoiding unnecessary provocation, but there is no way that they can escape detection. No one really knows why they are allowed to continue sharing the gospel and teaching Chinese believers, but it’s a fact.
Chinese regulations prohibit foreigners from teaching or preaching to Chinese, and some foreigners have been expelled in recent years for violating this rule. On the other hand, there are reports of congregations of a thousand people listening to a speaker from overseas. When the police came, several brothers from the group said, “We are listening to the truth; why bother us? Why don’t you go after those who propagate falsehood?” Apparently, such reasoning saved the day. The Chinese Public Security people can be very reasonable and courteous, as leaders of the Shouwang Church in Beijing have discovered. Although they are “visited” almost daily, the more they explain who they are and what they are doing, the friendlier the authorities become, for they realize that the Christians are not doing anything harmful to society.
Indeed, the Shouwang Church’s very existence testifies to the changing situation. Though their previous landlords had been pressured by the government to rescind their leases, forcing them first to worship in a public park and then to try to purchase property, they are still meeting in three different services totaling almost a thousand congregants. Why have they not been totally shut down?
You have doubtless heard of the Great Chinese Firewall. Google’s recent decision to re-locate its Chinese operations to Hong Kong is not the only result of China’s strict surveillance and control of its people’s access to the Internet. But you may not have heard that hundreds of overseas and domestic Christian web sites are not blocked, or that Chinese have more material available to them than they can possibly read.
Even those reports by China Aid of innocent Christian lawyers and church leaders being detained have to be examined further. It turns out that some of them are involved in some sort of activity that could be considered “political.” In particular, several of them are vocal advocates of civil rights in China, and one or two have defended the Falun Gong, whom the government considers to be a subsersive organization. While we can admire their courage, we have to admit that going to jail for opposing the government in court is different from being persecuted for explicit Christian ministry.
Around the country, there are about thirty different centers for the study of Christianity. Most are attached to universities, though some have an independent status. All are openly discussing the Bible and the Christian faith. They convene conferences, present papers, and publish journals. Foreign scholars receive invitations to lecture at prestigious universities on various aspects of religion, including Christianity, and enjoy cordial relations with non-Christian faculty and administrators.
Even so-called “underground” groups operate with at least some government awareness. At one campus, a student told a visiting lecturer that more than 200 students met in twenty groups. “We are all very underground here, however, because this school is especially strict.” The next day, the foreigner was told by a faculty member that two Christians had attended his lecture, including the student who had spoken to him. We must assume that the authorities know almost everything, and choose not to interfere.
So much for widespread persecution.
On the other hand… Lest we imagine that Christians in China face no opposition, however, we must take other facts into account.
Some “Christian” study centers do not dare to speak of God, or Christ, or faith, or the Bible. The Shouwang church has yet to take delivery of the keys to the property for which they have already paid; something is holding up the transaction, though the owner can’t say what it is. Members have been “visited” six times by various security officers, and several have lost their jobs. Two large churches were totally closed down last fall, with the pastors and people locked out of their church building. One pastor is under criminal investigation.
Some leaders have gone to jail, even recently. A Christian bookseller has been detained for more than a year, without access to medicine for his diabetes, because he is charged with conducting an illegal business – an accusation which many believe is not fair.
After a time of flourishing, NGOs of all sorts, and especially Christian groups, have been subjected to a severe new turn of policy. Registering as a non-profit has become almost impossible, and those that exist are being strictly questioned about the sources of their income. Foreign funding, in particular, has come under scrutiny. It really doesn’t make sense, since China’s society desperately needs the kind of help that charity organizations can provide, and which the government can’t supply. The authorities must be nervous about a growing civil society, for which both Chinese history and communist theory have no precedent. They are mindful, too, of the role of NGOs in the so-called “color revolutions” in the former Soviet Union.
Though Buddhists and Daoists practice their religions openly, and sometimes with government sponsorship, Christians must submit to close supervision and severe restrictions. You can’t just publish any Christian book; the censors still have the determining voice in the issuance of a Chinese ISBN. Some topics are still just too “sensitive.”
Being too open about your Christian faith could stunt your career. Discrimination against believers is still widespread. Party members and government officials are not allowed to profess faith in Christ, though many do privately. Everyone knows that Chinese politics are variable, and that a return to sterner policies could come in a moment. One can’t ignore the government’s recent emphasis upon Communist orthodoxy, or the very obvious crackdown on political dissent and public criticism that has snared a number of prominent intellectuals in the past couple of years.
What is going on here?
Actually, nobody knows. Clearly, the government is vexed about the question of what to do with these pesky house church Christians, and divided about the best policy. We do know that the prestigious Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has conducted annual high-level conferences on the role of Christianity in society; that the English-language China Daily, an official organ, has published several positive stories about house church Christians in the past month; and that scholars like Liu Peng are allowed to speak freely on the subject of the need for reform in China’s religious policy.
The leaders of the nation know now that house church Christians are good citizens; that they are not organized into a national group which could rival government authority; and that they are mostly a-political. At least some of them would like to remove restrictions and allow these Christians to register as congregations without also joining the Three Self Patriotic Movement.
Other considerations impose limits on their choices, however. What happens to the TSPM if house churches can register? More importantly, what freedoms would they have to grant to Muslims, who – in the eyes of the government - do pose a threat to stability, if public Christian activity becomes legal?
The Obama administration has backed off from the confrontational approach of George Bush, who went so far as to receive prominent Chinese Christian lawyers in the White House (though not in the Oval Office, but in his private quarters – one wonders whether such fine distinctions were fully appreciated by the hyper-sensitive Chinese government). President Obama seems more response to those who sympathize with the Dalai Lama, who is considered by the government to represent an even more direct threat to Chinese national sovereignty. Perhaps the leaders in Beijing realize that Chinese Christians no longer have direct ties to the American government, and are thus not tools of foreigners who wish to overthrow their regime.
Still, they must be cautious. They know their history, and are aware that a self-styled “Christian” almost toppled the Manchu Dynasty in the mid-1800s; that Sun Yat-sen professed to be a Christian; and that Chiang Kai-shek and other prominent members of his government were known to be Christians. They are also acutely aware of the fundamental conflict between communist doctrine and Christian beliefs, and remember the part played by Christians in the downfall of communist regimes in Germany, Poland, and Romania.
With Muslims restive in Xinjiang, Tibetans unhappy in their homelands, almost one hundred thousand violent demonstrations over local corruption taking place each year, and a dicey economy, the government has plenty of worries. They might be asking the question, “What if the Christians finally got organized and then entered into politics?” Though their numbers are relatively small, the new urban churches have some of China’s “best and brightest” citizens, who could cause trouble should they choose to do so.
The rulers in Beijing are very savvy men. They don’t want to make unnecessary enemies, and they know that for now the Christians in unregistered churches are no threat. But they can’t afford to take too many risks, either. For now, it seems to be a time of wait and see.
Meanwhile, house churches continue to grow, mostly without serious opposition from the government, thoughsome instances of real persecution, occasionally brutal, still take place.