By Pastor L, published: January 30, 2016
[Update at the end, January 31]
About a fortnight ago, the two government-controlled Christian organizations in Hangzhou—the Three-Self Patriotic Movement and the Christian Council—removed the lead pastor of the Hangzhou-based mega church “Chong-yi Church” (崇一堂), acting at the behest of the government and exceeding their jurisdiction. On January 27, Pastor Gu Yuese (顾约瑟, or Joseph Gu) was taken away by police and has since been placed under the notorious “residential surveillance at a designated place,” the Chinese government’s euphemism for secret detention. His wife Zhou Lianmei (周莲美) was taken away with him, but she is believed to have since been released. Their house was also searched, an indication that the authorities are intent on bringing criminal charges against the pastor. The incident has sparked significant uproar in the Christian community in China.
Last July, the Zhejiang Christian Council, which was headed by Pastor Gu, published a strongly-worded open letter opposing the campaign in the province to tear down church crosses. His disappearance is believed to be retaliation for his refusal to cooperate with the authorities.
Gu Yuese hails from Shangyu in Zhejiang (浙江上虞) ; he grew up in a Christian household, and in the late 1980s and 1990s received his theological training at the Zhejiang Theological Seminary (浙江神学院) and the Nanjing Union Theological Seminary (南京金陵神学院).
The Chong-yi Church was the first established in the country by the China Inland Mission, the largest missionary society in China during the later years of the Qing dynasty. It was built in 1902 at 77 Qingtai Street in Hangzhou by the Mission’s founder, James Hudson Taylor (1832-1905). After the Chinese Communist Party took power it enforced a policy of consolidating congregations, in order to lessen church assemblies, and in 1958 the Chong-yi Church was forced to hold combined religious services with other Christian denominations. The church building was put to use as a warehouse for railroad materials and a hospital run by the railway.
Following the rapid growth of Christianity in China, in 2000 the Hangzhou municipal government agreed to rebuild the church at a different location. In 2003, through to the great efforts of Pastor Gu and the donation of 40 million yuan (about $6 million) by congregants, after two years of construction work the new church was built and opened. Under the careful guidance and work of Gu, his wife, and their team, in just ten years the church had grown to be the largest evangelical congregation in China, holding up to 5,000 worshipers for a typical Sunday service. It is still the largest Chinese church in the world.
For the last decade, the Chong-yi Church has been used by Party propagandists as the poster child to show the world that China has religious freedom. Gu maintained active engagements both inside and outside China, often accompanying officials from the Communist Party’s Department of United Front Work and Administration for Religious Affairs to receive foreign guests, and maintaining contact with the North American Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
Pastor Gu was himself an exemplar of an evangelical believer in the official Chinese church system. Those close to him knew that although he was in the two government-controlled Christian bodies, (the Three-Self Patriotic Movement and the Christian Council), he devoted his chief efforts to his work as a pastor. Members of the clergy in China often cannot avoid being trapped in the space between politics, repressive by nature, and religion—but it seemed that Gu was able to effectively balance the two. As is typical of Zhejiang preachers, his sermons would pick a topic and then break it down into component parts, making it easy to understand and gaining a welcome reception from the congregation. And now and then, he would have about him the excited, passionate manner of a Pentecostalist.
Pastor Gu’s beliefs also drew on elements of Pietism: his demands for fellow clergy were strict, and he refused to tolerate, for instance, even the dying of hair among them. This may have something to do with the spiritual traditions that have been passed down for generations in Zhejiang, which believes that dying the hair is an overly secular display that should be avoided.
Precisely because of all this, compared to his fellow bureaucrats in the semi-official Christian Two Organizations, Gu was much more popular with the local churches around Zhejiang. All year long he received invitations from churches across the province to conduct services, and to lead ceremonies ordaining new pastors. His stance on matters also held significant sway in the official church system, and this inspired the envy of the colleagues who have taken part in the current persecution of Gu.
Pastor Gu and the Christian Council he led always played the role of harmonizing tensions between the government and the church. Gu was happy to be the mediator, reporting to the government’s religious agencies the thoughts of congregants. This has been the default channel of cooperation and interaction between the government and the churches for successive Party administrations, despite the gulf in power between them. The current government has severed this relationship, and in turn substituted it for people who simply follow orders from the Party-state. This means that all channels for constructive communication have completely dried up.
The most direct reason for the sudden expulsion and arrest of this pastor—who had won the respect of both grassroots Christians and officials, and had even gained a good reputation among international Christian groups—was because he had for the last two years resisted the wishes of the Communist Party leadership in Zhejiang. In the two-year campaign to remove crosses led by Zhejiang Party Secretary Xia Baolong (夏宝龙), about 1,500 crosses have been pulled down.
Not long after he registered his disapproval, Gu’s personal affairs were subject to investigation. The authorities were unable to find anything out of order. But they were evidently not content to let the matter rest. In January 2016, authorities in Wenzhou, Zhejiang, began a new mobilization campaign to remove church crosses, which so far has taken down 20. As the new campaign got underway, the government didn’t bother with any due process—they peremptorily relieved Gu of his position and put him under secret arrest, in order to send a warning and intimidate pastors across the province.
The counterpart to the Christian Council led by Gu, the Zhejiang Three-Self Patriotic Movement, is under the control of one man who much earlier declared his total allegiance to the government’s campaign. The difference in stance between the two leaders had thus become stark. For his part, Pastor Gu said that he’d rather risk his life than compromise with the government on the demolition of crosses, and that on this matter he would stand his ground to the last.
Under the reign of Xi Jinping, Chinese society is undergoing the most severe political repression in the post-Mao era. The authorities’ arbitrary detentions and attacks, and their willful use of Cultural Revolution-style “televised confessions,” have shocked the world. In Zhejiang, to this day there are four Christians who have been under detention for over five months—three pastors, one lawyer. In this high-pressure environment, Pastor Gu’s refusal to collaborate with the cross demolition campaign, and his expulsion, the search of his home, and his detention, are not altogether unexpected.
When the news that Gu had been fired came out, the Chong-yi Church, and Gu and his wife, hadn’t properly prepared. They put out a short response, the general meaning of which was that they were seeking guidance from God, and that if possible they would continue to serve the Chong-yi Church under some other aegis. A few days later Pastor Gu was locked up.
On January 29, the two officially-controlled Christian organizations in Zhejiang and Hangzhou published an official notice, declaring that Gu Yuese, “due to suspicions of embezzlement and other financial problems, is currently assisting the relevant departments with an investigation.” It seems that the Chinese authorities had planned to frame-up Gu well in advance.
Upon hearing the news of Gu’s arrest and expulsion his friend, Pastor Chen Yilu (陈逸鲁), the president of the Nanjing Union Theological Seminary, made known his own frustration and sense of injustice, and raised questions about the structure of the church in China. He said: “If the president of the Christian Council in a province can so easily be dismissed of his post and lose his position as senior pastor, what sort of church system do we have in China? Does the church in China really have any ‘self’? What will be the fate of the Two Organizations?”
Gu’s dismissal also provoked the strong reproach of Pastor Chen Zhi (陈郅), the chairman of the two church organizations in Hunan Province. In an article titled “Who is the Judas of the Hangzhou Church?” he questioned whether the dismissal of Gu violated “the regulations pertaining to Christianity in China,” and said that the two church organizations in Hangzhou had colluded with forces outside of the church, and betrayed Pastor Gu, likening it to a modern version of Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of Jesus 2,000 years ago.
Pastors and lay Christians in Zhejiang expressed deep sympathy with the plight of Pastor Gu, and were disappointed and resentful. They said that the manner in which the authorities peremptorily manipulated the Two Organizations violated the principles and regulations governing religion in China, and urgently hoped to sever their ties with these organizations, as well as the Party’s United Front.
The Chong-yi Church that Pastor Gu led withstood enormous pressure from all sides, temporizing and rejecting the notice of dismissal by the Hangzhou Two Organizations. They hoped the church community in China would not pass around the notice, because it didn’t go through the proper legal process, was not agreed upon or discussed by the council of the Chong-yi Church, and because the entire council refused to accept the ruling. But the relevant department hurriedly sent it out in order to create a fait accompli.
If even Gu Yuese, a clean and upright pastor, can become a thorn in the eye of the Party simply for opposing the tearing down of crosses, such that the Party would only content itself with being rid of him, then the grim trial that Zhejiang churches and Christians face in the near future is all too clear. The assistance that the church can provide Pastor Gu is limited, and the price that he and his family will pay for their resistance will be great indeed.
In a totalitarian country like China, the existence of pastors with official backing is bound to be awkward: if they obey the Party, they might end up betraying their faith; if they follow their faith, they might deviate from the Party line. Given that the Party’s standard means of crushing dissent is to blacken the reputation of those they target, we should expect they’ll do just that to Pastor Gu. In a country with no independent media, the propaganda juggernaut of the state has no shortage of ways to criminalize a citizen.
Update from Pastor L on January 31:
1. The government has broken up the clergy and the administration team at Chong-yi Church, assigning Pastor Zhang Guoyong (章国永牧师) to Gulou Church (鼓楼堂), Pastor Luo Qiankun (罗乾坤牧师) to Chengbei Church (城北堂), and Pastor Gu’s wife Zhou Meilian to Sicheng Church (思澄堂);
2. Pastor Gu is accused of misusing 10 million RMB, and it seems that the government has long decided on charges against him;
3. The government ordered to hang Chinese flag on churches along the Pu River (浦江);
4. A lot of plainclothes police have been seen in Chong-yi Church in recent days, watching everything office workers do; and
5. The new pastor, sent by the Party, held a service yesterday to few congregants, while strangers occupying the front row applauded.
The author is a pastor in Wenzhou.