Mobilized Merchants-Patriotic Martyrs: China’s House-Church Protestants and the Politics of Cooperative Resistance
Timothy Conkling wants to shed light on “the crucial questions of whether the PRC Protestant house-church movement is motivated or capable of bringing about political change or inciting revolt on the one hand, or significantly contributing to the development of civil society, democratic rule or political pluralism on the other.” (1)
“House-church” (HC) “refers to private, or sometimes public, gatherings of (Protestant) Christians who choose to meet in non-registered venues for Bible study, prayer, and/or corporate Protestant worship.” (8) They do not register for reasons which “range from theological to practical.” Some believe that since Christ is Lord of the church, it should not put itself under the full authority of any political organization. Others do not want to submit to the regulations which prohibit meetings outside of designated places, at designated times, and under designated personnel and the religious instruction of children and youth. Many don’t like the traditional worship services of official churches; others believe that meetings should take place in homes, not church buildings. Some worship in house churches for “reasons of practicality and expediency”: they want the flexibility, freedom from police monitoring, and more intimate atmosphere of home gatherings. (9-10)
Conkling notes that “developments over the past decade [before 2012] have either lessened the animosity between house-church believers and TPSM [Three-Self Patriotic Movement] members or opened up more doors of association between the two movements,” especially among younger leaders and believers. (10)
In any case, because unregistered gatherings are prohibited by government policy, "individual house-churches are a form of resistance, and when organized into house-church networks that function as de-facto denominations…their organizational structure functions as an organized, multi-faceted form of resistance." (12) He emphasizes that these HCs and their people do not see their activities as a form of resistance, but as “simply trying to do what Christians should do without state interference.” (13)
Careful definition of terms is essential in a study like this, and Conkling provides them. “Persecution…takes many forms. Religious believers are labeled as ‘evil-cultists,’ forbidden to worship or evangelize, arrested, sent for reeducation, fined placed under house-arrest, threatened, beaten, tortured, and in some cases even killed.” (4) Defined in this way, declaring all unregistered meetings as illegal, and subjecting Christians of all sorts to restrictions does not count as “persecution,” though Conkling sometimes seems to blur these boundaries.
“Cooperative resistance,” another key term, has three distinguishing characteristics:
It “actively asserts submission to and recognition of the government and its rightful authority while imploring a reversal of the presenting grievance, policy, or persecution.”
It “threatens the mobilization of non-violent means of incapacitating the (local) government responsible for specific prohibitions of religious activity or persecution of house-church Protestants, through the mobilization and cooperation of international activists.”
It “brings together international activists, human-rights organizations (specifically ChinaAid Association of Midland, Texas), political leaders, and governments to pressure the PRC Central government to stop the policies and practices which lead to the persecution of religious believers.” (27)
China’s HC Christians do not oppose the CCP or the government. On the contrary, they assume that the government will respond to appeals to honor its constitution and the international agreements on religious freedom that it has signed.
Conkling began his research with the assumption that, at some point, when pressed too far and oppressed too brutally by the government, HC believers would eventually “mobilize within their networks for some form of direct resistance or revolutionary activity against the PRC government.” (37) However, despite increased persecution of Christians since he began his research, he discovered that his original assumption was incorrect: “The ability to mobilize and the prevalence of persecution did not and does not inevitably lead house-church Protestants in the PRC to pursue a strategy of public demonstration of opposition to the government or the CCP, but rather leads to a theologically nuanced, yet politically influential strategy of cooperative resistance.” (38)
Chapter 1: Patriotic Martyrs and the Politics of Christian Commitment
“The emergence of the Protestant house-church movement in the PRC occurred in the historical context of state control over religion, characteristic of China since the Tang Dynasty.” (1) For more than a thousand years, the Chinese government has seen itself as the final arbiter of truth and the only proper object of total allegiance. Religion is supposed to serve the interests of the state, and when it doesn’t it becomes an enemy of the state. The government establishes religious organizations in order to control religious activity and conform it to the purposes of the state. Any religious believers who do not join the state-approved organization, in the eyes of the government, ipso facto declare themselves to be opposed to the state, no matter what they say to the contrary.
The state guarantees freedom of religious belief, but allows only “normal” religious activity. Anything else is branded illegal. Conkling quotes and analyzes various documents that have outlined religious policy in China, noting that these have the force of law.
Further, those who belong to non-registered religious groups are labeled “evil cultists,” agents of de-stabilization, enemies of social order, and therefore criminals. Accordingly, they must be punished, not for being religious, but for being unpatriotic and even dangerous. Cruel measures then become warranted. Since Christianity in particular has been associated with foreign imperialism since the nineteenth century, and foreign Christians are seen as “hostile” agents who are “attempting to use every opportunity to infiltrate in order to ‘return to the China mainland,’” any unauthorized contact with foreign Christians is strictly forbidden. (55)
HC believers in China have hitherto been willing to suffer any persecution for the sake of Christ, without resentment or rancor, and with a sincere belief that they are patriotic citizens. They only disobey when they think that the state is ordering them to violate God’s clearly revealed command, such as to meet in homes or otherwise, evangelize, teach their children, and pray for healing and deliverance from demons. Otherwise, they seek to be good citizens who fully submit to government authority.
In response to harsh government crackdowns in the past, a “martyrdom mentality” based on a theology of martyrdom has taken firm root among HC believers. Conkling considers their willingness to suffer as one of the main reasons for the rapid growth of HC Protestantism in China.
Chapter 2: White Magic and Ghost Busting: Charismatic Protestants and the Politics of Healing and Exorcism
This chapter demonstrates in detail the “affinity between traditional Chinese popular religion and rural house-church Protestant charismatic theology,” and identifies this as “one of the primary factors explaining rapid Protestant house-church growth in the PRC.” Indeed, about ninety percent of all Christians attribute their conversion to an experience of healing through the prayers of believers. (22) Since most HC Christians incline towards a charismatic theology, and almost all believe in prayer for healing and in exorcism, they are automatically considered “evil-cultists” by the government, which prohibits these activities as a form of socially-destabilizing superstition. Since the state sees itself as the source of all social benefits, the rise of popular religion in general and of HC Protestantism in particular “cuts right to the heart of the Chinese state’s own logic of legitimization” (120), and has thus prompted fierce persecution at times.
Chapter 3: Silencing the Lambs: The South China Church and the Politics of Heretical Cults
This chapter tells the story of the South China Church (SCC) and shows how, in fact, its leaders did violate the definition of a cult, including “setting up illegal organizations in the name of religion; deifying core leaders; initiating and spreading superstitions and evil teachings; confusing and deceiving people; engaging in disturbing the social order in an organized manner, and harming people’s lives and properties.” (136) More specifically, the top leader of the SCC engaged in repeated rape, and other leaders and teachers used violence to coerce their students into total allegiance to the “Teacher,” Gong Shengliang.
When Gong and several others were sentenced to death by a Chinese court, international support for them was mobilized, with the result that President George W. Bush appealed personally to Chinese President Jiang Zemin for their release. This pressure resulted in commutation of the death penalty and reduced prison sentences.
Alas, Conkling describes in detail how later investigation of the actions of Gong and his cohorts by qualified representatives of China Ministries International found that they were indeed guilty as charged. Thus, what at first seemed like a justified and successful intervention by American Christians, including the president, turned out to have been based on false information, to the great embarrassment of advocates of the SCC. In fact, Conkling concludes, the South China Church members worshipped their exalted teacher…tolerated his sexual abuse, lied on his behalf, and committed acts of violence to protect his person…The homage rendered to Gong by his devoted followers, combined with their millenarian convictions and violent propensities rendered members of the SCC culpable as cultists according to the PRC’s definition.” (169)
The SCC illustrated a much larger problem, which is that “house-church networks usually have a leadership structure which mirrors a Chinese imperial dynasty,” so that even when members are aware of their leader’s wrongdoing, “disclosure of a leader’s misdeeds does not lead directly to discipline.” (190)
Given the history of violent revolts in China by millenarian religious sects led by egotistical men, the government’s suspicion of such movements is justified. The violent Eastern Lightning Cult also fits this pattern. That is why HC Protestants have done their best to explain to the government their own orthodox beliefs and firm commitment to civil obedience.
Chapter 4: Mobilized Merchants: Wenzhou Christians and the Politics of Cooperative Resistance
This chapter vividly describes the rise of so-called “boss Christians” in Wenzhou, their establishment of rich congregations meeting in large and expensive buildings, and their cozy relationship with the local government. When the city sought to enforce the policy against religious education of children, these bosses mobilized resistance, including appeals from overseas, and finally the threat of virtually shutting down the governing apparatus by a blitz of faxes, telephone calls, and emails. The city backed down and the cozy relationship between “boss Christians” and local officials returned.
The “boss Christians” based their resistance upon the constitution of the PRC and also upon the international Covenant on Civil and Political Rights signed by the PRC in 1988, and assumed that the central government would abide by the treaty it had signed and support their appeal.
Conkling cites this as a prime example of “cooperative resistance,” in which Christians affirm their desire to cooperate with the government, but refuse to desist from practices which, though strictly illegal, they consider to be essential to their identity as Christians and necessary to their obedience to Christ.
Chapter 5: Dissident Voices: Bob Fu, ChinaAid, and the Politics of International Appeal
Since Bob Fu and ChinaAid played a prominent role in generating international support for the SCC, this chapter traces “the development of ChinaAid through the biography of its founder, Bob (Xiqiu) Fu”; outlines “the extent of persecutions against house-church believers form 2005-2012 as detailed in ChinaAid’s annual Persecution Reports”; examines “the effectiveness of ChinaAid to create transnational alliances between persecuted” HC Christians and “human rights agencies, media sources, governmental organizations in the US, United Nations, and European Union to...bring relief to victims of persecution”; and assesses “the tactics and effectiveness of ChinaAid to mobilize international appeal” in several high-profile cases.
Two things stand out. First, in violation of international treaties which the PRC has signed, and with the knowledge of high officials, Chinese police often use unspeakably cruel torture to force people to confess their “crimes” or to change their ways. One wonders how the leaders of the PRC can tolerate this sort of barbaric behavior.
Second, though international appeals and pressure from foreign governments has lessened the severity of punishment for people detained by the authorities, it has not stopped either the persecution or the state-sponsored torture. On the contrary, such international intervention has convinced China’s rulers that Chinese Christians are, at the very least, in close cooperation with hostile foreign powers, if not actually agents of those powers.
Chapter 6: Conclusion: House Church Protestants and the Futures of Cooperative Resistance
Conkling sees several possible futures for the house-churches’ relationship with the government in China:
“If the PRC government continues to attempt to control and suppress the house-church movement, particularly in rural areas, along the same lines as it has in the prior decade, then due to the theology of patriotic martyrdom and submission to government…the house-churches will continue to grow under persecution, but not as a movement intent on destabilizing society or overthrowing the present government.”
“If the cooperative element of cooperative resistance becomes a two-sided overture of cooperation, one where the government initiates a deeper and more respectful cooperation with the house-churches, then the house-churches are positioned to grow while experiencing less persecution.”
“However, if the resistance element of cooperative resistance becomes, for the house-church members, a self-consciously adopted strategy of intent against the government … then the future outcome is more uncertain. A greater resistance on the part of house-church Protestants could lead the government to a greater repression."
In any case, “the missiological strategy of the house-church movement . . . …will attempt to continue to grow the church of Jesus Christ peacefully in the world’s most populated nation.” (255-256)
In short, the house church movement in China will continue to grow, no matter what the government does. The questions are:
Will the government acknowledge the sincerity of the HC Christian’s protestations of patriotism, their total lack of any desire to oppose, much less overthrow, the government, and their desire for a truly cooperative relationship with the government?
Or will China’s rulers continue to regard any and all disagreement on any policy as global, total opposition to the government, fueled by an intent to destabilize the regime, and thus continue to pursue a path of suppression or even persecution?
If so, will HC Protestants forsake their commitment to theological orthodoxy, their willingness to suffer martyrdom for the sake of Christ, and their resolute refusal to disobey the government except when they think they must do so in order to be faithful to Christ? If that happens, will they resort to force in order to protect themselves, their church buildings, and their religious rights?
Sadly, and rather pathetically, the communist leaders of China cannot seem to discern the distinction between disagreement and rebellion, for they regard all disagreement as treason. The policy of cooperative resistance described in this book “is misinterpreted by the PRC government to be a counter-revolutionary, volatile force which could potentially destabilize Chinese society.” They are in bondage to “psychological paranoia” that assumes that “limited resistance must be evil in motivation, revolutionary in intent, and destabilizing in its result.” (254)
“The research which led to this dissertation does not justify that political paranoia. Protestant house-church Christians are non-violent.” (254) Ironically, the very misguided attempt to eliminate all supposed (and non-existent) rebels could possibly turn pacifists into protesters, and then into political activists.
Recent events in Wenzhou, which occurred after this dissertation was written, illustrate the determination of the government to limit public expressions of Christianity, control the church in a variety of ways, and crush all opposition. Christians in Wenzhou have not all sat passively watching the removal of crosses and demolition of church buildings. They have interposed their bodies and even resisted wreckers physically. There have been a few incidents of violence. A situation that was described in this chapter as a cooperative relationship between HC Christians and the local government has been replaced by confrontation, contention, and complete control.
The government will win in the short term, of course. Whether it will succeed in the long run remains to be seen. Unnecessary use of force may eventually provoke unnecessary violence, unless Christians can retain their current fundamentally submissive and cooperative attitude towards the state.
Conkling believes that the HC Christians are in no position to rise up against the state. They just don’t want to; they don’t think it’s right to disobey civil powers; they would rather suffer martyrdom; and they believe they can best glorify God through evangelism, prayer, and a pacific response to unwarranted persecution. Let us hope they continue in those convictions.
Timothy Conkling has written an extremely important book. Based on exhaustive research over many years and drawing upon a wide variety of unimpeachable sources, he has given us a definitive analysis of both HC Protestants and government religious policy and practice as they were at the time of writing.
The comprehensive and severe crackdown on all dissent in China since 2013 highlights the inability of the nation’s leaders to tolerate any alternate voices, and heightens the immediacy of the questions Conkling poses.
One major caveat: we should not conclude that HC Protestants in China are being persecuted on a wide scale – yet. Yes, large church buildings have been demolished, and crosses removed; pastors who have objected to these actions have been removed from their pulpits and some have been arrested; Christian leaders across the nation say that conditions are far tighter and tougher than they were not long ago; and the new law on NGOs will drastically affect how both Chinese and foreign Christians operate in coming years.
Still, the vast majority of Christians in China meet for worship without hindrance; the Christian message continues to go out to millions through a multitude of media; and persecution is rare and localized, and restricted to situations where Christian activity is large-scale and blatant.
Despite those encouraging facts, however, Timothy Conkling’s book is essential reading for all who want to understand the situation of HC believers in China, and especially those who want to be of use to Christians in China. Though not agreeing completely with everything in this dissertation, I highly recommend it.
For some thoughts on implications of this book for Christian ministry among Chinese, go to “What We Can Learn from China’s House-Church Christians” at Reaching Chinese Worldwide.