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Leader of Government-Sanctioned Mega Church in Hangzhou Held in Secret Detention for Opposing Cross Removal Campaign

By Pastor L, published: January 30, 2016

[Update at the end, January 31]

顾约瑟 (2)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.

顾约瑟_崇一堂历史

China Inland Mission. Photo: Chong-yi Church website.

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.

顾约瑟_崇一堂内2Pastor 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.

顾约瑟_浙江人大常委视察

Pastor Gu, second left, receiving a visit from a leader at the Provincial People’s Congress.

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.

顾约瑟_教堂内

Inside the Chong-yi Church. Photo: the Church’s website.

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?”

顾约瑟被解职

With total disregard for the church’s own procedure, the two government-controlled Christian organizations issued a notice, dismissing Pastor Gu.

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.

 

Related:

Christian Sentiment in Zhejiang Against Cross Removal: Three Statements, August 7, 2015.

Interview with a Wenzhou Pastor: The Chinese Government’s Large-Scale Destruction of Crosses in Zhejiang Province, July 29, 2015.

Second Interview With the Wenzhou Pastor: After the Demolition Comes the “Transformations”, December 15, 2015.

 

中文版 《世界最大华人教会杭州 “崇一堂”主任牧师顾约瑟因反对拆十字架而被秘密拘押

 

 

Living Stone: A Portrait of a House Church in China

By Yaxue Cao, published: December 21, 2015

The Living Stone house church sits in the highlands of China’s southwest Guizhou Province, in the capital, Guiyang. Protestant and non-denominational, it is the largest house church in the area. Over the past year the church has been subject to all manner of government repression, and since the beginning of this month a number of its pastors and parishioners have been arrested. The treatment of the Living Stone house church isn’t random, nor an isolated case—it’s representative of what is taking place across China. This article is based on interviews with Living Stone members, who were granted anonymity for obvious reasons of safety, and Chinese media reports. — The Editors

 

A recent photograph of church service at Living Stone, with Pastor Yang Hua preaching. The number of attendants at service has decreased significantly of late.

A recent photograph of church service at Living Stone, with Pastor Yang Hua preaching. The number of attendants at service has decreased significantly of late.

When the Living Stone church (活石教会) was founded in Guiyang in 2009, about 20 members rented a single apartment and gathered there to worship. The four founders of the church were born in the 1970s—all in their 30s who had been ministering full time for years already. Three of them came from the countryside and boasted no more than a high-school education. The current head pastor, Su Tianfu (苏天富), was a rural teacher before resigning from that job, while Pastor Yang Hua (仰华) was a third-generation young pastor from a village. He was born Li Guozhi (李国志) but later changed his name to Yang Hua, which in Chinese means “looking up to Jehovah.” Before founding Living Stone both Su and Yang Hua had preached in the countryside for over a decade, until they felt an obligation to found a church. The first 20 or so participants were people the pastors had known over years of preaching—folk who were originally from the countryside and had come and settled down in the provincial capital.   

The three blue glass buildings compose the Guiyang International Centre. Living Stone’s church is located on the 24th floor of the rightmost building. Photo: online.

The three blue glass buildings compose the Guiyang International Centre. Living Stone’s church is located on the 24th floor of the rightmost building. Photo: online.

Because of its small scale, the church didn’t attract much attention. But it grew fast, doubling parishioners each year. By 2013 it already claimed 400 members, and had become a well-known house church in Guizhou. Parishioners were of all ages and professions. Its rapid development, according to those interviewed by China Change, was not due to anything special about the church itself, but mainly because of the vacuum of faith in Chinese society. Living Stone is a pure and unadorned church, and provides parishioners a tight-knit group in which members can help one another, experience a sense of belonging, and receive spiritual and moral guidance.

As the membership increased the church began meeting in three different locations and held multiple sessions every Sunday to accommodate the crowd.

In 2013, they began discussing buying a bigger venue in which to meet. They looked around, prayed, and contributed. They bought a 648 square meter space (nearly 7,000 square feet) on the 24th floor of one of the three office buildings, known as Guiyang International Center (贵阳国际中心), in a new, mixed-use development downtown. The church paid for half of the cost—2 million yuan (about $300,000)—in cash up front. Because Living Stone has never been able to legally incorporate, the new location was registered in the names of three members: head pastor Su Tianfu; Zhang Xiuhong (张秀红), the accountant; and Liang Xuewu (梁学武), a bank employee. Liang, whose father was once a high-ranking official in Guizhou, is also a deacon at the church; Zhang was originally an obstetrician, but later resigned and became a small businesswoman.

In 2014 the church was in possession of its new premises, and was preparing to hold a ceremony to consecrate it on November 8, putting the new location into formal use.

It is important to note that, in Chinese cities and towns nowadays, most house churches are not “underground” even though they are outside of the government-controlled Three-Self Patriotic Movement (三自教会). In the case of Living Stone, they leased building space, and when they held large-scale activities, they would file with the government’s Administration for Religious Affairs and the public security department. Living Stone established internal elections for officiary positions, set up a managerial system, and handled their financial and church affairs openly and transparently.

After the slaying of four Catholics in 1861 (the case known as the Martyrs of Qingyanzhen), the Qingyan church was later rebuilt.

After the slaying of four Catholics in 1861 (the case known as the Martyrs of Qingyanzhen), the Qingyan church was later rebuilt.

However, the government has interfered in church events on multiple occasions, especially if they were large in scale, church members told China Change. When several hundred gathered for an evening service during Christmas, for instance, agents came and cut off the electricity and water. Two baptisms were also cut short due to interference. The two baptisms were held outdoors in a river in the southern outskirts of Guiyang, an area of some historical significance for China’s Christians. In 1861 four Catholics were killed there, later becoming known as the “Martyrs of Qingyanzhen,” the first Chinese saints canonized by the Vatican. Along with the roughly 100 people being baptised, there were a total of 300-400 present, including observers, friends and family. On both occasions the government mobilized double or triple that number of personnel, including police, politico-legal officials, Internal Security agents, and religious affairs officials.

As soon as Living Stone purchased its larger location, the church came under more severe pressure: Internal Security officers and officials with the State Administration for Religious Affairs would check in regularly for “talks.” In November last year, while the new chapel was still being prepared, Religious Affairs officials attached a highly visible notice to the building announcing that the Living Stone church was an unregistered, non-religious organization, and that the new center was “an unapproved non-religious center set up without permission. The responsible individuals, Li Guozhi [i.e. Pastor Yang Hua], Su Tianfu, and others, are not registered and are not religious instructors.” The notice further urged the public not to participate in Living Stone’s “illegal religious activities.” Radio Free Asia reported that the local Religious Affairs bureau and other departments engaged in a long negotiation with church personnel; at the same time, all the members of the church were called in for menacing “chats.” The authorities were of the view that the consecration ceremony for the new chapel was too large an event; they demanded that the number of participants be reduced, that the time be shortened, and that the religious ceremonies be watered down. The event had to take the form of a secular “get together” instead. On November 7, during these discussions, the officials made a clear threat: if the church doesn’t back down, and insists on holding its consecration ceremony, then the government will mobilize force.

Pastor Su Tianfu. Photo provided by a church member.

Pastor Su Tianfu. Photo provided by a church member.

The church made a number of concessions and the authorities allowed the event to proceed on Sunday, November 8. But the government mobilized several hundred policemen to surround the entire area, along with around 200 vehicles: police cruisers, ambulances, and emergency response vehicles—as though they were facing down a formidable foe. The provincial politico-legal secretary took up a command post on site, and it was rumored that there was even a member of the provincial Party Standing Committee giving orders also.   

Surrounded by the wary gaze of hundreds of riot police, special police, regular police, and government officials, the Christians of the Living Stone church held a consecration ceremony for their new place of worship.

After this, there was a period of quiet truce. But before long the authorities again began meeting church leaders for “talks” — not only the pastors, but key members of the church, in an attempt to force them to join the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. But as church members saw it, the Three-Self Movement is simply a church run by the Communist Party, an extension of the Party’s organizational apparatus—not genuine, unadulterated Christian belief, and not something that they could accede to.

Government officials made another explicit threat: failure to join the Three-Self Movement would, sooner or later, lead to the destruction of the Living Stone church. They then began choosing from a menu of coercion: the first tactic was simply to try to scare parishioners away, telling them they weren’t allowed to attend church. They threatened every single person, especially state employees. Many people—for instance, anyone who worked at a state company, the tax department, or in the banking sector—had to compromise.  

Pastor Yang Hua (left).

Pastor Yang Hua (left).

Pastor Su Tianfu told Radio Free Asia: “A huge number of believers received numerous visits at their houses for ‘chats.’ They were directly told that their Living Stone church is an illegal organization, that all of its activities are illegal, that it’s banned by the government, and that they absolutely could not continue attending. Then they had their photographs taken and were asked to sign statements promising to sever their connections with the church. Our church has several hundred people, and 99 percent had received telephone calls, or been called in for face-to-face meetings, or had their homes visited.”

Some indeed stopped coming. But the number of people coming to worship in the congregation did not diminish—instead, it kept growing.

A member of the congregation described Yang Hua as upstanding, honest and brave. Yang’s father spent time in jail during the Cultural Revolution because of his Christian faith. Yang not only looks after his own congregation, but often bounds around various house churches in Guizhou, helping to sort out problems as they crop up. There are quite a few lawyers among the Living Stone congregants also, all of whom dare to stand up and put their skills to rights defense work. Zhang Kai (张凯), the human rights lawyer currently under secret detention in Wenzhou, also came to Guizhou on a number of occasions, helping out with the legal defense work with the church. As soon as there was official suppression of a church—for instance, in Bijie (毕节), Liupanshui (六盘水), or elsewhere—Living Stone members would come out and help. All this made it seem as though Living Stone was some sort of umbrella organization, looking after small house churches that had only a dozen, or at most a few dozen members.

Apart from its role as a faith community, the Living Stone church provided a range of public services: for years, they helped with the adoption of abandoned infants, the fostering of children with developmental disabilities, teaching survival skills to children in orphanages, and other welfare services—they were on several occasions praised in the press for this work. Separately, a number of church members founded or participated in charitable social programs of their own outside of the church structure, helping disabled people, orphans, the elderly and more. The church thus became an interconnecting structure, linking the community with the wider society.

Church members interviewed by China Change were of the belief that the authorities found this series of social activities unsettling. They thus appointed government officials whose specific job it was to suppress Living Stone.

In May of this year the Bureau of Civil Affairs, in an official communication to the church, declared that Living Stone was an “illegal organization.” Congregants said that this definition was made without foundation: for years the church had submitted applications to the bureau, and did so even more proactively after the establishment of the new building. In China, house churches have no way to completely legalize, but they can apply to legalize the venue of assembly, which at least legalizes the use of the church space. The church all along submitted such applications, but the bureau never responded. Under such circumstances, how could it be said that the church was illegal? Church members are currently preparing a legal complaint against the bureau. Members told China Change that the church has all along followed China’s laws and regulations, and that it has always ensured that nothing it has done is out of compliance with the law or established procedures.

After that altercation in May, the government decided to simply put its cards on the table: You’ve got two choices, they said: the first is to continue your assemblies, but become part of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement; the other is to remain independent, in which case the church will be forcibly eliminated. The Internal Security (国保) division of the Public Security Bureau—the group set up especially to do the government’s dirty work—laid out this position.

In the beginning, church members didn’t believe the government could do much: with so many people, how are you going to use force against us? At that point, Living Stone had baptised around 700 people.

One afternoon in late July the presiding deacon of Living Stone, Zhang Xiuhong, was stopped and hauled from her white sedan as she was driving near the church building. One of the assailants climbed in and drove off. Later, her house was raided, her computers and hard drives confiscated, and her husband taken away, leaving an 80-year-old parent and a 3-year-old child alone. Two days later her husband was released, and Zhang was criminally detained and charged with “illegal business operations.” The charge was related to a beauty salon that she once ran, though hadn’t been involved in for a long time. In any case, the accusation—withdrawing cash from a credit card—wasn’t even illegal. Later, when Zhang Xiuhong told her lawyer during a prison visit that questions about her business were only asked at the beginning, and the interrogations thereafter focused on the church, revolving around information about the pastors and core members. It was clear that the police were trying to get a handle on the inside details of the operation.

Zhang Xiuhong has still not been indicted. After her arrest, the authorities also confiscated the accounting books of the church and froze its bank accounts. The 640,000 RMB in the bank was the money the church needed to pay for mortgage on the new space. The government’s intent seems clear: to sever the group’s finances.

In early November, a young Hong Kong resident who was studying in Taiwan came to visit, and the pastors took him around Guizhou to look at a number of house churches. Two days later, the pastors sent him off at the airport. As soon as they left, this young man was accosted by over 10 state security officers who took him to an apartment, began torturing him using sleep deprivation, and interrogated him as to the purpose of his trip, what his ties were with foreign organizations, and more. He was detained for 72 hours before being sent away, upon which time it was suggested to him that he could be a spy for them.

Days later when church congregants heard about this from the student, they were extremely shocked by the level of surveillance they were under.

In mid-November, pastor Su Tianfu applied for a Hong Kong-Macau entry-exit permit, but he was denied, and explicitly told his right to leave China had been rescinded.

On November 18, the church received a “Rectification Order” from the Nanming District City Urban Administrative and Law Enforcement Bureau, informing them that their usage of the commercial building as a place of church assembly was illegal. They cited the “People’s Republic of China Code for Classification of Urban Land Use and Planning Standards of Development Land” as well as the “Guizhou Province Urban Planning Ordinance.” The order said they had three days to rectify the problem, or begin incurring fines of 20 yuan per square meter per day. The total fine every day was over 13,000 yuan; as of now the church has accrued hundreds of thousands of yuan in fines.

On the same day, eight or nine agents from the Urban Administrative and Law Enforcement and neighborhood police station came to the house of head pastor Su Tianfu, demanding that everyone present produce their identification cards, and demanding that Su’s wife show her marriage certificate (Pastor Su was not present at the time).

In response, the church published an open letter, rebutting the accusations of the Urban Enforcement Bureau, enumerating the attacks against the church made by the government since 2013. The letter said: “This is the triad of coercion the government has subject us to: first, they threaten our parishioners not to attend service; second, they freeze our financial assets, preventing us from operating; third, they freeze our space, preventing us from congregating.”

As all this happened, the Guiyang Public Security Bureau’s internet surveillance branch threatened two pastors, demanding that they not expose to foreign media the recent actions by the Urban Enforcement Bureau.

The confidential document, issued by the “Guiyang Municipal Directorate for Dealing with the ‘Living Stone Church’ According to the Law,” that was leaked. (Page 1).

The confidential document, issued by the “Guiyang Municipal Directorate for Dealing with the ‘Living Stone Church’ According to the Law,” that was leaked. (Page 1). Click to enlarge.

In early December a secret document ( full translation) produced by the Guiyang municipal government was leaked. The agency that authored the document, dated December 3, was the “Guiyang Municipal Directorate for Dealing with the ‘Living Stone Church’ According to the Law”; the official stamp affixed to it was the “Office of the Guiyang Municipal Leading Group for Stability Maintenance Work.” The item said that “Dealing with the Living Stone church according to the law is a political task. A high level of attention must be placed on it, and the top leading cadres in various work units must personally take charge, following the comprehensive municipal plan, earnestly organizing and completing every work task.” The document included the name of every Living Stone church member, and asked each work unit to conduct an inspection on any of their employees whose name appeared on the list, and put each person under “stability control” (稳控) — a euphemism for surveillance.

Church members were again shocked: the suppression of their group had escalated so quickly that a special municipal command center had been established to carry it out. A Living Stone member told China Change that this was the same pattern used in 1999 when the authorities embarked on the persecution of Falun Gong. He worried that the next step would be more imprisonments of Living Stone members, the use of “study sessions,” and more coercion applied against believers.

Page 2 of the leaked document, stamped by the “Office of the Guiyang Municipal Leading Small Group for Stability Maintenance Work.”

Page 2 of the leaked document, stamped by the “Office of the Guiyang Municipal Leading Small Group for Stability Maintenance Work.”

More members were forced to withdraw from the church. Pastor Yang Hua told China Aid in an interview: “When the authorities find out that someone is coming to service, they go to their neighborhood committee, summon them, and then threaten them. We had a female church member who ran a store. The police showed up one day and threatened her, trying to make her sign a declaration that she would no longer attend the Living Stone church. If she still went, they’d make it very difficult for her to do business.” Yang Hua continued: “The government has sent agents into believers’ homes, sought out their parents, relatives, friends, siblings, telling them to stop their relative from going to the church. Some workplaces threatened employees with being fired; some parents were told that if they did quit the church, their children would not be denied schooling. They used whatever method they came up with. There was a 70-year-old retiree became very afraid after been threatened. So we went and told the police: You can’t bully old people any more.”

Pastor Yang Hua told Radio Free Asia that the Religious Affairs Administration demanded that the church voluntarily close its doors or else the government would declare it outlaw.

On December 9, a Sunday, the Guiyang Bureau of Civil Affairs as well as Nanming District Administration for Religious Affairs mobilized about 300 police and law enforcement personnel, divided them into three divisions, and separately closed down and sealed off all three of Living Stone’s church locations. Over two hundred church members were put under house arrest, and Pastor Yang Hua was administratively detained. On the same day, a female member of the church was also detained, because she had used “extreme” language in a WeChat group. Another individual detained was Yu Lei, a friend of the church, whose arrest is believed to be connected to the leak of the secret document.

Notices by the Guiyang Administration for Religious Affairs (L) and the Ministry of Civil Affairs (R).

Notices by the Guiyang Administration for Religious Affairs (L) and the Ministry of Civil Affairs (R).

Both dated December 9, 2015, an announcement by the Bureau of Civil Affairs banned the Living Stone church on the ground that the church is an illegal social group, and an announcement by the Nanming District Administration for Religious Affairs outlawed the church for setting up a religious venue without permission.

On December 14, Pastor Su Tianfu was taken from his home by police for “disrupting public peace.” On December 15 a female member of the congregation known by the Internet name “Yangdamei” (“洋大妹”) was detained for posting an article about the crackdown against the church. On December 16, Pastor Su was briefly released, but was explicitly told by the authorities that he would soon be arrested and prosecuted for the crime of leaking state secrets.

On December 21, after ten days of administration detention, Pastor Yang Hua was placed under criminal detention on charges of illegally possessing state secrets. Later, over ten police officers ransacked his home, confiscated his computer, a tablet device, USB drives, and more. When his wife, expecting his release, went to the detention center to pick him up, she saw him being led away by four men, with a black hood over his head, before being loaded into an van with no number plate and driven away. The same day, Chen Jiangang, a lawyer Pastor Yang had hired, was denied meeting with his client.

As of this writing there are between 6 and 7 people have been detained in connection with the Living Stone case: accountant Zhang Xiuhong, Pastor Yang Hua, two women congregation members, church friend Yu Lei, and one or two individuals accused of involvement in the leaking of the secret document.

Zhang Tan (张坦), a member of the church currently in Australia visiting family, was in the late 1980s the chief of the Christian division at the Administration for Religious Affairs in Guiyang. He recently penned an article online: “As a Christian, a congregant of the Living Stone church, a former mid-ranking cadre in Guiyang dealing with Christian matters, and a scholar who has researched religious policy for many years, I believe that the use of political methods, especially the model of a political rectification campaign, to deal with religious matters is inappropriate.”

A recent photograph taken at a gathering of the “Blessing of Autumn Rain” house church (秋雨之福) in Chengdu, showing the presence of a police officer monitoring the proceedings. The government is looking upon churches with increasing hostility, and its suppression of them seems likely only to deepen and expand.

A recent photograph taken at a gathering of the “Blessing of Autumn Rain” house church (秋雨之福) in Chengdu, showing the presence of a police officer monitoring the proceedings. The government is looking upon churches with increasing hostility, and its suppression of them seems likely only to deepen and expand.

A Living Stone member who has for years worked at NGOs in China said that around a decade ago when the idea of civil society was discussed, it was commonly thought that this meant that groups and organizations would be formed to represent a variety of social interests, that this would be civil society, and that slowly, over time, a social transformation would take effect and China would transition towards democracy. But he said he has realized, since becoming a Christian, that change in China isn’t simply a matter of whether people can participate in elections and cast votes—but whether a coherent set of social values can be formed and nurtured that will bind the society together. This individual believes that a Christian community provides just such a site for the fostering of values in Chinese society. In the same vein as the Wenzhou pastor I interviewed recently, he believes that religious organizations in general have greater vitality than regular civil society organizations. A NGO can be easily destroyed in China—and indeed, the authorities have over the last two years carried out a destructive campaign of suppression against them. But destroying a church isn’t as easy, he said, Living Stone members have indeed told the police: What you’re doing is pointless; we’ll just keep coming, stronger and stronger.

“These last two days I’ve been turning it over in my mind ceaselessly: when the freedom to believe is so severely suppressed and the freedom of the spirit cannot manifest, the soul becomes a prisoner of the body. Because we’re afraid—afraid of the body being detained,” wrote “Yangdamei” in her essay “Our Destination Is in Jail.” “If a government illegally locks up Christian believers and righteous people, then the proper home for Christians and righteous people is jail. At this time in China, the situation is precisely thus.”

It’s clear, upon reading her piece, that she is an ordinary Chinese woman and the mother of a young child. And she knows that as soon as she posts her reflections online, the police will be on the way.

 

[Update: A 4-minute video about Living Stone Church, produced in the spring of 2015. ]

 

Yaxue Cao edits this site. Follow her on Twitter @yaxuecao.

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Related:

Christians in China feel full force of authorities’ repression, Washington Post’s report on the Living Stone Church, December 23, 2015.

Chinese Communist Party’s Persecution of Churches: China Change’s Interviews with “Pastor L”, Jerome Cohen, December 18, 2015.

Interview with a Wenzhou Pastor: The Chinese Government’s Large-Scale Destruction of Crosses in Zhejiang Province, July 29, 2015.

Second Interview With the Wenzhou Pastor: After the Demolition Comes the “Transformations”, December 15, 2015.  

 

Chinese version 《活石:一个中国家庭教会的遭遇》

 

Second Interview With the Wenzhou Pastor: After the Demolition Comes the “Transformations”

By Yaxue Cao and Pastor L, published: December 15, 2015

This interview was conducted on November 23, 2015.

 

Yaxue Cao (YC): Paster L, I interviewed you in late July at the height of the Chinese government’s cross-removal campaign. The campaign of demolishing churches and removing crosses had lasted a year and half by then, and several large churches were destroyed. One estimate had it that up to 1,500 crosses were dismantled across Zhejiang Province. But since August and September, there hasn’t been much news about cross removals. Has it stopped?  

Pastor L:  It has for the time being, but the suppression has not, and is very much ongoing. Since August and September, the authorities have changed their strategies and methods. They are accusing journalists who simply reported facts of “divulging state secrets,” and charging pastors and evangelists with leaking intelligence. That is a first. In Wenzhou, at least twenty clergy members, church workers, and legal counsel have been placed under secret detention for over two months by now.

They are: in Wenzhou, elder Wang Yunxian (王运显), pastor Yan Xiaojie (严晓洁牧师), elder Zhou Aiping (周爱平); evangelists Zhou Jian (周剑), Wei Wenhai (魏文海), Cheng Congping (程从平), Huang Xiaoyuan (黄晓远); brother Zhang Zhi (张制); Pastor Zhang Chongzhu (张崇助), Huang Yizi (黄益梓), Cheng Chaohua (程超华). Three lawyers and law staffers from Beijing: Zhang Kai (张凯) Liu Peng (刘鹏),and Fang Xiangui (方县桂). In Jinhua region: Pastor Bao Guohua (包国华) and his wife Xing Wenxiang (邢文香), evangelist Bao Chenxing (包晨星), and several staffers of the Jinhua Chengguan Church. [Editor’s update: Wang Yunxian, Zhou Aiping (周爱平), Zhou Jian, Huang Xiaoyuan, Cheng Chaohua, Fang Xiangui, Liu Peng, and Kang Xiaoyou (康孝友) were released last week.]

It’s been confirmed that some of them have been placed under secret and solitary detention where detainees face high risk of torture and maltreatment. All of them could face severe jail terms.   

In early November, several of them in secret detention sent letters to their relatives almost simultaneously to dismiss their lawyers, including lawyer Zhang Kai who had been the counsel for several churches. This is rather strange: a lawyer who has been known for using legal tools to help church communities in Wenzhou would reject help from lawyers after being secretly detained. In his letter, Zhang Kai said nothing at all about his circumstances, inviting speculation that the letter was produced under duress. Such things are common in China.

Believers and SWAT clashed when the cross of this church in Wenzhou was removed on July 21, 2014. Time magazine has a video report. http://time.com/3382827/china-christians-christianity-salvation-church-wenzhou-zhejiang/

Believers and SWAT clashed when the cross of this church in Wenzhou was removed on July 21, 2014. Time magazine has a video report. http://time.com/3382827/china-christians-christianity-salvation-church-wenzhou-zhejiang/

On November 11, Lucheng District (鹿城区) authorities in Wenzhou posted three documents in Xialing Church (下岭教会), announcing the pending demolition of two church buildings, each four stories with a total area of 2,907 square meters (about 31,290 square feet), on November 16. This is the very church where lawyer Zhang Kai and his assistants had been stationed and were arrested. But as of today, the demolition team hasn’t shown up.  

Right now, church communities in Zhejiang Province are experiencing a sense of defeat not seen over the last 30 years or so. The churches have underestimated the cruelty of the government. They thought the crackdown would come to an end after the Sanjiang Cathedral was demolished. But that has proven to be wishful thinking.

YC: It all started as a campaign to demolish illegal buildings and clean up the city’s appearance, but what really happened looked more like a masked war against Christians. What’s the real motivation?

Pastor L: It was a carefully thought-out plan to legitimize their demolition of churches and crosses, in the name of regulating illegal buildings. The goal was to minimize negative reaction by the public. By treating religious issues with non-religious methods, the government hoped to conceal its intent to weaken Christianity.

It’s true that some churches in Wenzhou, and across the province, have built more than they were permitted to. That’s due to the flaws of religious policies and excessive administrative restrictions. Because the procedures for church construction approval are extremely cumbersome, local governments, out of tolerance for religious groups, have allowed churches to unofficially “construct more and report less,” and sometimes you can even see local officials giving speeches during a church’s inauguration ceremony. Take Sanjiang Cathedral for example. In 2013, the expansion of it was proposed, and promoted, by none other than the Wenzhou municipal government as an architectural landmark that would forge the image of a modern, pluralistic, and tolerant city.

But the cross removal campaign must be understood in the context of the Xi Jinping government’s tightening control of ideology. The authorities see Christianity as something outside their authoritarian sphere, and an imperialist legacy that identifies more with Western values. Indeed, it is one of five categories of citizens whom the government deems a threat to the security of the regime, along with rights lawyers, dissidents, Internet opinion leaders, and disadvantaged social groups.

The government sees Christianity as an independent political group. Indeed, its organization meets the definition of modern civil society, and is an autonomous society entity independent of the state. The Christian church is an intermediary for a self-governing, plural and open social space. The Holy Cross and the architecture of the church are expressions of the church’s physical presence in the public space, and symbols of social power.  

Suspicious of religious organizations, the government does not tolerate the scope and influence of the church and regards it as a threat to its security. An internal meeting in Zhejiang Province in early 2014 required that “cadres in charge of ethnic and religious affairs must grasp the political matter behind the cross and resolutely resist infiltration.”

In Wenzhou one rumor is that, while visiting Wenzhou in September 2013, the provincial CCP Secretary Xia Baolong (夏宝龙) was greatly displeased by what he saw: the large, brightly-lit cross of the Sanjiang Cathedral by the Ou River. “This is brazen! Whose domain is this, the Communist Party’s or the Christians’?”

A country church in Wenzhou.

A country church in Wenzhou.

As a matter of fact, the government has become impatient with its own pretext of “demolishing illegal construction” since May 2014, openly forcing churches to demolish crosses. When church leaders reasoned with the officials, the latter simply said, “There is no why; we just don’t allow crosses anymore.” In Zhejiang, crosses were removed even from churches who have all the documentation and where construction followed the procedures. Some churches have been converted into “Seniors’ Activity Centers” or “Cultural Auditoriums.” It all goes to show the demolition campaign is naked political persecution.  

YC: Again, why Wenzhou?

Pastor L: Because Christianity is thriving in the area, with 15% of the population Christian. That’s over one million people, according to official statistics. In towns and the countryside, churches are numerous and crosses conspicuous. Wenzhou has been called “China’s Jerusalem” and the authorities don’t like it. And more, Wenzhou has influenced, over the past 30 years, the expansion of churches in China.  

YC: Can you elaborate on the last point?

Pastor Pastor L:  Starting in the mid-1980s, troves of Wenzhouers left home to do business across the country. Christians among them would hold regular gatherings in the cities they lived. Volunteers and clergymen, mostly from house churches, began to establish, propagate, and sponsor house churches in large cities and rural areas, providing financial support, equipping their altars, and holding regular evangelical meetings. As churches in Wenzhou matured, they also organized Bible study groups to equip church leaders and staff across the country with biblical knowledge and church management skills.   

Wenzhou Christians inside and outside China worked together, evangelizing in the country. There are more than 10,000 volunteer evangelists in Wenzhou; there are several hundred of them in European countries and in the U.S.; several thousand evangelists serve churches in large cities in China; and there are many evangelists from Wenzhou in both officially sanctioned churches and house churches in Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Nanjing, and other cities. Since the 2000s, Wenzhou has gradually established two dozen or so bible and theology sessions, training hundreds of new grassroots evangelists each year.

YC: As a non-Christian who observes society and politics in China, two things struck me about the Chinese government’s behavior: one is that it challenges a very large sector of solid middle class people in the wealthiest province on the east coast; the other is that it treats the state-sanctioned churches no differently than the underground house churches. I feel that the state of Christianity in Wenzhou must have troubled the government a great deal for them to act with such reckless abandon.

Church members making crosses earlier this year for protest.

Church members making crosses earlier this year for protest.

Pastor L:  The state-sanctioned churches are not always obedient in Wenzhou. The church’s’ belief system is rather self-contained, impervious to government control. In this, any authoritarian government would perceive potential resistance to its control. In China, the central government has been increasingly unhappy about the ambiguous interaction between local governments and churches, convinced that its authority has been weakened and the manipulation through the so-called United Front Work hasn’t worked well. Indeed the UFW’s usefulness is so limited that the government doesn’t mind the loss by destroying its connection with state-sanctioned churches.  

YC: What loss? Can you elaborate on that?

Pastor L: The registered churches have always believed that their religious activities are approved by the government, and, because of it, they have done things almost free of concern. For example, they organized summer camps for college students. They held large-scale evangelist services. In townships and villages, sometimes they came out with Christmas programs on streets. The church workers didn’t limit their work to Wenzhou. In Wenzhou, many of these workers have been trained in registered churches, and they are doing excellent work.

But as this cross removal campaign unfolded, they suddenly realized that registration with the government does not guarantee that they’ll be spared, and a lot more crosses have been removed from government-sanctioned churches than from house churches. They realized that, as registered churches, they are retaliated against even worse when they refuse to adopt the government’s unreasonable policies. On the part of the government, they feel the registered churches have betrayed them and therefore should be suppressed even harder. The will of the Party must prevail. Consequently the government loses everyone. Disappointed church leaders have condemned the government. Grassroots Christians are angry but not surprised. They say, if the Communist Party showed tolerance, then it wouldn’t be the Communist Party.  

YC: While the cross demolition was taking place and over the following months, I regularly saw slogans like “sinicizing Christianity” and the “five entries and five transformations.” This month a purportedly international academic symposium was held in Beijing called “The Path to Sinicizing Christianity,” attended by representatives of the Party’s United Front Work Department, the State Administration for Religious Affairs, proxies like China Christian Council and the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, and a number of universities. What is the sinicization of Christianity? Is this is a new idea?

"Five-Virtue Christians" links Party propaganda with Christian teachings.

“Five-Virtue Christians” links Party propaganda with Christian teachings.

Pastor L:  The official-led and directed campaign of “sinicizing Christianity” is in essence the politicization of Christianity—it’s forcing Christianity to “go communist,” or undergo a “socialist transformation.” The intent is to reform and remold Christianity into a Party-dominated tool that can be used in its service. A proponent of the “sinicization of Christianity” theory, official scholar Zhuo Xinping (卓新平), laid it out straight: “Christianity in China needs to emphasize sinicization politically; it must acknowledge and endorse our basic political system and its policies.”

At this conference in Beijing, “sinicizing Christianity” might mean different things for different parties, but the core, tacit presupposition of the meeting was that Christianity is a latent, potential political competitor with the Party. This already warps Christians’ own understanding of their identity as God’s people. It has absolutely nothing to do with what went on during the late Qing and Republican eras, in which grassroots Christians, as an organic part of their missionary work, experimented with and developed various forms of localizing and adapting Christian teachings to China.

When Nestorian Christianity entered China during the Tang dynasty, it integrated too much into Chinese culture, to the extent that the transmission of Christian teachings was stopped, in the end going away entirely. If Christianity neglects its ecumenical and theological tradition, all sorts of “abnormal” variations fused with Chinese folk traditions are apt to proliferate. The example of Hong Xiuquan’s “Taiping heavenly kingdom” is a familiar example. If the Church, on the other hand, overly attaches itself to state power, emphasizing nationalistic will, then secular powers are apt to sweep in and try to commandeer it. Nazi Germany’s instrumentalization of Lutheranism led to great tragedy. Many clerics in the Orthodox Church in Eastern Europe were later found to have been recruited as informants for the Communist Party, and when the archives were opened they were too ashamed to show their faces in public. In China, Christianity should draw a lesson from these cases and on no account let itself become a mistress of the Communist Party.

The authorities are now engaged in a series of actions in churches. In Pingyang, Wenzhou, the local authorities are on Sundays sending administrative personnel to churches to monitor the activities, ensuring that churches don’t discuss the cross demolitions or talk negatively about government policies. Some places plan to set up offices inside churches, but they haven’t succeeded. In other places the government has set up their own propaganda noticeboards on church properties, and made a big fuss of them in state media. In 2015, Zhejiang officials started to roll out the “five entries and five transformations” (“五进五化”).

A propaganda noticeboard on a church's premise. Note the black handwriting "oppose demolition of crosses," and at the bottom right  are names of the government's contact persons.

A propaganda noticeboard on a church’s premise. Note the black handwriting “oppose demolition of crosses.” At the bottom right are names of the government’s contact persons.

The “five entries” consists of: “government policies and statutes enter the church; health care activities enter the church; popular science and culture enter the church, assisting and helping the poor enters the church, and harmonious construction enters the church.” It’s all about controlling the church’s social activities, ensuring that they’re toeing the Party’s line. The “five transformations” refers to “localizing religion, standardizing management, indigenizing theology, making finances public, and co-opting the Christian teachings.” With these, they intend to control the church by controlling the teaching, management, and finance.

But their scheme has not worked. The “five entries and five transformations” campaign hasn’t progressed smoothly at all, and church groups have been quite critical and put up very stiff resistance.

YC: Can you elaborate on how church communities have resisted these measures?

Pastor L:  The “five entries and five transformations” go against Christian belief. Parishioners have ripped down the propaganda posters the government has put up in churches, they’ve criticized the project online, and churches that have compromised have been strongly urged not to and criticized by other churches. Some churches have refused to be subject to having their finances investigated. There was a house church that decided to chant scripture together if the government sent someone to stand at the altar and spread propaganda, not let them do it. If the officials managed to gain control, they’d rather give up than cooperate with government demands. Some churches have, in response, begun quoting from Jonathan Chao, the late North American pastor who founded China Ministries International, and promoted the “Three-Fold Vision” the “Chinese Gospel,” “nationalizing the church,” and “Christianizing the culture.”

YC: What do you mean by “rather give up?”

Pastor L: Abandon the whole church and meet in small groups at their own homes.  

YC: We all know that, because its power is unchallenged and unchecked, the way the Communist Party uses power is brazen and brutal. Whether Christians resist or not, I predict that the Party will carry out its will – of that I have little doubt.

Pastor L:  In China, diktats are issued from the top straight down, and the apparatus moves following the will of the top leaders. Local officials, if they want to keep their job, have to join the competition to suppress Christians, and they are rewarded by the number of crosses they remove. There are local officials who say: We don’t want to be the Number One, but we don’t want to be the last one either. The Public Security Bureau chief in Wenzhou and the Party Secretary in Yongjia (永嘉) have been promoted for their hardline approaches during the cross-removal campaign.

In order to complete their objectives, secret police began threatening church leaders. They have arbitrarily detained people, showing no regard for proper legal procedures. In the Wenzhou area, hundreds have been summoned, detained, threatened, or criminally detained. In Pingyang (平阳), Wenzhou, 14 members of the Salvation Church (救恩堂) were beaten and injured. The government has also persecuted families and relatives, and targeted businesses owned by Christians. Wenzhou has become a testing ground for Party officials to fulfill their political ambitions and test their ideology and brinksmanship.  

Doubtless, Wenzhou is facing the same cataclysm it did in 1958. Back then, it was declared a “religion-free area,” it became an outpost in a projected war with Taiwan, and religion was suppressed. Today the government is once again targeting Wenzhou. Information about cross removal campaign online is censored immediately. Discriminatory measures are taken against Christian civil servants. The government has also investigated grassroots Party members to find out who the Christians are, and it has organized sessions to study the Party’s Mass Line rhetoric and Marxist religious views. All signs indicate that this is a determined political campaign and another catastrophe for Christians.  

YC: Wenzhou Christians’ criticism and resistance to the government will inevitably lead to a standoff, whether passively or otherwise. According to your observation and information, what are the options Christian communities in Zhejiang have to defend their rights and faith? Legal recourse, as represented by lawyer Zhang Kai, didn’t seem to help. Is it still an option? Now that so many have been placed under secret detention and perhaps torture, I feel it’s pointless to even ask this question.

Xialing Church, Christmas Eve, 2014.

Xialing Church, Christmas Eve, 2014.

Pastor L:   Through the last year and half, Wenzhou Christians have come to see themselves as a targeted community. The church is seeking a new social identity, moving closer to other suppressed groups. The younger generation, having grown up in relative comfort, has until now not shown particular sympathy and concern for those suffering from injustice, but now they’re increasingly attuned to the social injustice around them and are reflecting on their social responsibility.

During this crisis, church communities first sought to defend themselves through communication with the government. When that failed, they engaged lawyers and the media. They even made “human shields” in an orderly and limited manner, among other forms of resistance. But officials, arrogant in their power, saw the peaceful self-defense of Christian communities as a kind of rebellion—they don’t understand how Christian citizens, actively defending their rights according to the rule of law, are actually constructive for the country and society.

The government believes that it must above all continue its authoritarian rule, and to them Christian beliefs appear to be at odds with the heavily nationalist China Dream narrative. So they started demolishing crosses to deter and contain the growth of churches. But obviously they are not familiar with the history of churches in Wenzhou. The 1958 campaign drove the Christian communities underground, and 30 years later in the 1980s, they emerged like a miracle and have since experienced a spectacular renaissance. One thing is certain: Suppression will not destroy Christianity.    

YC: Speaking of human shields,  I recall this photo of the Xialing Church. This was  Christmas Eve last year. Tell us, what happened?

Pastor L:  In early December 2014, the Xialing Church was slated to be demolished by the authorities. Members guarded the church and foiled the government’s plans. Frustrated, officials ordered the demolition team to wreck the front steps. This is the church choir standing on the debris and singing; singing His glory amidst the ruins—this epitomizes the spirit of Chinese Christians right now. Christmas is again approaching, and particularly befitting to churches in Wenzhou, in Zhejiang province, or across China for that matter, is the ancient song in praise of God: “Glory to God in the highest, and on the earth peace among men with whom he is well pleased.” (Luke 2:14)

 

Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @YaxueCao.

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Related articles

Interview with a Wenzhou Pastor: The Chinese Government’s Large-Scale Destruction of Crosses in Zhejiang Province

The Work of Lawyer Zhang Kai: ‘I Have God as My Backer’

Christian Sentiment in Zhejiang Against Cross Removal: Three Statements

The Ongoing War Against Religion in China

 

中文原文 访谈温州牧师:对基督教的打压与改造

 

The Work of Lawyer Zhang Kai: ‘I Have God as My Backer’

A Report by the Initium Media, published: August 31, 2015

Zhang Kai (张凯), a prominent Chinese rights lawyer who has been living for a year among Christians in Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province, and assisting in their litigation against the government’s encroachments, disappeared with his assistant on Aug. 25. They are understood to have been taken into custody by the authorities in relation to Zhang’s legal work. On Aug. 27, Chinese lawyer Yang Xinquan (杨兴权), director of Beijing Xinqiao Law Firm and Zhang Kai’s employer, posted the following report of Zhang’s legal activities in Wenzhou. He also announced that he was establishing a legal group for Zhang’s defense, much like the many which Zhang established to defend Christians when he was free. — The Editors

  

Zhang Kai (张凯)

Zhang Kai (张凯)

Zhang Kai, a lawyer who organized a legal team of over 30 to litigate religious cases across Zhejiang Province, was taken away by police in Wenzhou on Aug. 25, and hasn’t been heard from since.

On Aug. 8, Zhang shared his thinking with his friends on WeChat: “I’ve made up my mind: the most they can do is jail me. But if I stay silent, I’ll regret it my whole life.”

Two weeks later he and his assistant Liu Peng (刘鹏) were taken away by Wenzhou police.

Zhang Kai, 37, is a lawyer with the Xinqiao Law Firm (新桥律师事务所) in Beijing, and a Christian. Amidst the campaign to demolish crosses in Zhejiang, of all human rights lawyers in China, Zhang has been the most active and become the most deeply involved. Beginning with his representation of Wenzhou Salvation Church (救恩堂) pastor Huang Yizi (黄益梓) in August last year, he’s lived in Wenzhou and been counsel in many cases involving cross demolition. He said “I’m perfectly clear” about the fact that he’s treading in extremely dangerous political territory. In July, a reporter with the Hong Kong-based Initium Media (端传媒) bumped in Zhang on the destroyed steps of the Xialing Church[1] (下岭教堂). He was smiling and said that he wasn’t concerned about his personal safety: “How many large scale removals of crosses have you come across in history?” he remarked.

Believers and SWAT clashed when the cross of this church in Wenzhou was removed on July 21, 2014. Time magazine has a video report. http://time.com/3382827/china-christians-christianity-salvation-church-wenzhou-zhejiang/

Believers and SWAT clashed when the cross of this church in Wenzhou was removed on July 21, 2014. Time magazine has a video report. http://time.com/3382827/china-christians-christianity-salvation-church-wenzhou-zhejiang/

On July 10, Zhang originally planned to begin a lecture series titled “Laws and Decrees.” “‘Decrees’ (律法) are called ‘law’ in Christianity; the rules that the Lord created,” Zhang said. “Christianity teaches us to submit, but what we ought to submit to is the constitution and morality, not to illegal people and conduct.” But late the same night, as part of a violent nationwide crackdown sweeping up hundreds of lawyers, Zhang Kai was taken away by Wenzhou state security police and interrogated the night through. Later, in an interview with the Initium reporter, he said that public security officials told him: “Don’t stir up the Zhou Shifeng [周世峰] case,”[2] “Don’t hold legal seminars in Wenzhou,” and “Don’t get involved in religious cases in Zhejiang.” Clearly, Zhang Kai did not submit.

He maintained his residence at the Xialing Church, every day seeing pastors and believers from all over Zhejiang, exhausting every possible legal method to safeguard their rights, determined to resist to the end through the storm of cross demolitions.

A year ago, the authorities encountered fierce resistance when attempting to remove the cross from the Salvation Church in Wenzhou. Many people were beaten bloody in the struggle. Pastor Huang Yizi was in the end designated the leader of that resistance and sent to a year in jail for “gathering a crowd to disturb social order.” Zhang Kai was counsel to Huang.

Zhang Kai was meticulous and earnest in his litigation: he broke the suit into four cases, and mobilized 11 lawyers to help. For example: state policy says that criminal suspects have a right to legal counsel within 48 hours, but over 70 hours passed in Huang Yizi’s case before he was able to see his lawyer. So Zhang sued for compensation. Another was that Huang Yizi was prevented from receiving a copy of The Bible while in custody, so Zhang’s legal group initiated another suit. Zhang called this “China’s first case about reading scriptures in custody” (“全国首起看守所读经案”).

In another incident, the Zhejiang provincial government’s website featured the response to a letter from one of Huang’s defenders, sent to the “governor’s mailbox,” saying that he was wrongly imprisoned. The official response included language referring to “Huang Yizi’s criminal conduct.” So Zhang’s legal group initiated yet another case, saying that this was a “convicting without trial” and constituted defamation of his client. Zhang and his lawyers also collected over 1,000 signatures after Huang was arrested, and submitted an application to the authorities to hold a protest march.

As Zhang Kai saw it, all this was “the process of gambit.” “Filing a case is one thing, and filing a case without the court taking it up is another.”

Pastor Huang Yizi (黄益梓牧师)

Pastor Huang Yizi (黄益梓牧师)

Zhang Peihong (张培鸿), a lawyer who worked with Zhang Kai on the Zhejiang cases, said that Zhang Kai had “hit on a new approach” in his chosen method of litigating the cases. “He did not let a single legal question lapse.” Zhang Peihong told Initium that lodging information requests with the government was part of citizens’ right to supervise state power. If the government has engaged in illegal conduct, it’s only natural to apply for an administrative explanation, and litigation can then be based on that. Demolishing crosses is illegal conduct, so correcting it would mean that the crosses are allowed to be erected. “All this is according to legal process. Just going by the book,” Zhang said.

This sort of endless legal game led the authorities to be both enraged and helpless—whether small or large, when government organs around Zhejiang ignored the law and acted at will, they’d be sued, and their conduct dealt with as “illegal acts” that must be resolved through a legal process.

Zhang Kai told Initium that three months later the Wenzhou authorities, frustrated beyond measure, proposed a deal: as long as Huang Yizi relieved Zhang Kai as his legal representative, he’d be free in a month. Zhang Kai was thus forced to recuse.

But the Wenzhou authorities went back on their word, and in March of this year sentenced Huang to a year in prison for gathering a crowd to disturb public order. Zhang, who was representing him again, said: “Originally they charged him with three crimes, with a minimum prison sentence of a decade.”

In Zhejiang, Zhang Kai organized a group of over 30 lawyers—Christians who hailed from all over China—to begin taking on church cases around the province. Up until July, Zhang told Initium, he represented four churches in Wenzhou. He organized a group of six lawyers to take on cases in Jinhua and Lishui in Zhejiang (浙江金华和丽水), and churches from around the province called on him to consult on matters of law one after another.

Establishing a rights defense league against the cross demolition campaign and taking on all manner of rights defense cases aren’t the only things Zhang did. During the same period he wrote a large number of articles, Weibo posts, and met with believers and the Christian “two organizations” (两会) (the China Christian Council and the Three-Self Patriotic Movement [基督教协会和三自爱国运动委员会]) , ensuring that when cross demolitions took place believers were aware of their legal rights.

“I calculated that there were roughly nine activities we could engage in: apply to hold marches, listen to testimony, impeach officials, write letters, bring suit, call for freedom of access to government information, and more,” Zhang Kai said. “Lawyers can’t necessarily prevent the crosses being removed, but at least they can expose the illegal nature of the exercise. Even if they were constructed against regulations, there should be a reasonable and legal process to remove them. Otherwise, where’s the legality?”

In November 2014, Zhang Kai became the legal representative for Wenzhou’s Xialing Church, using the methods he’d honed on the Huang Yizi case to bring a string of legal complaints against the authorities.

Catholic clergy protesting in front of the government. Photo from Weibo.

Catholic clergy protesting in front of the government. Photo from Weibo.

After the failed attempt to remove the crosses at Xialing Church last November, the authorities handed down an “official statement of punishment” (处罚决定书) saying that because the church’s documentation was incomplete, it was designated an illegal structure and was to be demolished entirely. Zhang first requested an administrative review of the decision, and then initiated legal action against the response. At the same time he initiated freedom of information proceedings against each government department. As with all the other churches that had their crosses removed, the authorities severed its water and electricity supply. So Zhang Kai also sued the state grid.

This July, the authorities passed new “Zhejiang Provincial Religious Construction Regulations” (浙江省宗教建筑条例). The Regulations strictly limit the appearance of crosses: “A cross that appears atop the main body of the church building cannot exceed a proportion of 1/10 to the main church body.” This means that the cross can’t be placed on the church’s peak, but only on the outer wall. Many analysts say that the regulations were initiated to pave the way for removing crosses around the whole province. With these rules, they can rip crosses down without proving that they were built “illegally.”

Immediately, Zhang Kai made a formal application for public information about the law on behalf of Xialing Church: he demanded that the government provide its legal basis for formulating the Regulations, the procedures under which they were drawn up, the research and investigation report produced by an expert committee, the religious affiliations of the committee members, and the procedures and official organs responsible for enforcing the law once it was passed. He demanded that the government respond within 15 days, according to law, or else he would sue them.

“The relationship between Church and the government has reached an extremely strained point. But this is our right.” This was what Zhang Kai told fellow Christians over and over again.

Zhang Kai remembered the night he was taken away on July 10. A female domestic security agent who “looked like Fan Bingbing” remonstrated with him: “Look, Zhou Shifeng had some connections, but you have none. If you take on Wenzhou religious cases, you’re just looking for trouble.” Zhang Kai then began teaching her Christian principles.

“You’re wrong,” he said. “I have God as my backer.”

 

[1] Zhou Shifeng is a veteran rights defense lawyer and is the head of the Fengrui Law Office in Beijing, known for its heavy involvement in rights defense work. Fengrui was one of the primary targets of mass arrests and slander in the state press beginning in July.

[2] The Xialing Church in Lucheng District, Wenzhou, was established in 1993 as a government-sanctioned church. Since the middle of last year, authorities have made repeated attempts to tear down its cross, efforts staunchly resisted by believers. In October last year security officials demolished the church’s outer wall and left its stairs a rubble.

————

Related:

Interview with a Wenzhou Pastor: The Chinese Government’s Large-Scale Destruction of Crosses in Zhejiang Province, China Change, July 29, 2015.

Christian Sentiment in Zhejiang Against Cross Removal: Three Statements, China Change, August 7, 2015.

The Ongoing War Against Religion in China, China Change, August 4, 2015.

 
中文原文: 张凯:政教關係到了非常緊張的時刻, translated by China Change.

 

 

Christian Sentiment in Zhejiang Against Cross Removal: Three Statements

By China Change, published: August 7, 2015

 

Believers and SWAT clashed when the cross of this church in Wenzhou was removed on July 21, 2014. Time magazine has a video report. http://time.com/3382827/china-christians-christianity-salvation-church-wenzhou-zhejiang/

Believers and SWAT clashed when the cross of this church in Wenzhou was removed on July 21, 2014. Time magazine has a video report. http://time.com/3382827/china-christians-christianity-salvation-church-wenzhou-zhejiang/

The ongoing forced demolition of crosses, and in some cases entire churches, taking place in Zhejiang is an extraordinary occurrence: the Chinese government appears determined to remove all traces of the symbol of Christianity in the public realm, with no regard to the antagonism it is provoking among at least two millions of Christians in one of China’s most prosperous provinces. All signs indicate that the attack on the cross is just the beginning of a plan to rein in the rapid-growing number of Christians across the country.

In response to the church demolition and cross removal, Bishop Zhu Weifang (朱维方) of the Wenzhou parish published a letter a year ago titled “Believe, and Fear Not – To All Priests and Catholics,” and the Catholic clergy (司铎团) also spoke against the actions of the government. Since the cross removal campaign escalated recently, there have been a flood of statements in protest, and warning. Here we sample three such statements to convey to our readers the feelings of Zhejiang Christians: they come from the government-sanctioned the Christian Council of Zhejiang Province (浙江省基督教协会), ordinary believers in Rui’an city (基督教瑞安市众教会), and the Catholic clergy of Wenzhou (天主教温州教区全体神职人员), respectively.

 

Open Letter to the Zhejiang Committee of Ethnic and Religious Affairs[1]

Zhe Ji Zi (2015) No. 44

To: Zhejiang Committee on Ethnic and Religious Affairs

Open letter from the Christian Council of Zhejiang. Click to enlarge.

Open letter from the Christian Council of Zhejiang. Click to enlarge.

In the nearly 18 months since the removal of the cross from the Huanghu Christian Church in Yuhang District, Hangzhou, more than 1,200 crosses have been torn down from places of religious activity in our province under the “Three Rectifications, One Demolition” campaign. (These include crosses belonging to fully permitted churches totally compliant with the regulations, such as the Dayuan Christian Church in Fuyang, the Xin’en Church in Yiwu, and the Panshi Church in Hangzhou.)

Such a large-scale, targeted campaign of administrative law enforcement (without consideration of its violations of both substantive and procedural law), with its incidents of bloodshed, has seriously hurt the feelings of Zhejiang’s more than 2 million Christians. At the same time, it has also had an extremely serious negative impact on the masses in the areas surrounding the churches whose crosses have been torn down, leading relations between the Party and the masses to become negative and even confrontational. This goes completely against the ideology and spirit of Party and state policy regarding “governing the country in accordance with law” and “governing the country in accordance with the constitution,” causing an unprecedented degree of damage to the image of the Party and government at home and abroad. These actions are a flagrant violation of the policy of religious freedom that the Party and government have been implementing and continuously perfecting for more than 60 years and a serious violation of the constitution.

As the organization representing our province’s Christian community, our council feels deeply saddened by these actions. Members of our council’s enlarged council-affairs conference (including chairmen, vice-chairmen, directors, and deputy directors) have unanimously decided via telephone conference to strongly urge the Zhejiang Committee on Ethnic and Religious Affairs to transmit this letter to the provincial Party committee and government and immediately order that the relevant authorities cease tearing down crosses.

Party and state guiding policy regarding religious work is: “Protect, Serve, Manage, Lead.” Only the “management” function has recently been on display within our province, however, and this “management” has been so unreasonable and violent that it makes it impossible for our council to fulfil its role as a “bridge.”

In view of this and considering that previous attempts by our officials to demand in person or by telephone that your committee cease all demolition, we now make this solemn appeal in writing: We hereby request that you observe the constitution and the law, consider the special and complex nature of religion, and immediately cease this mistaken policy of removing crosses that is tearing the Party and the masses apart.

Yours faithfully,

The Christian Council of Zhejiang Province

July 10, 2015

Also submitted to: National Committee of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches in China, China Christian Council, United Front Work Department, State Administration of Religious Affairs, Zhejiang Province United Front Work Department

cc: Regional Three-Self Patriotic Movement committees and Christian Councils

[1]  After publishing the open letter, the government confiscated the Council’s official seal. – The Editors

 

Joint Statement from the Rui’an Christian Community

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

Since February 2014, local enforcement agents have been illegally tearing down crosses from Christian churches in the name of “Three Rectifications, One Demolition.” In doing so, they have flagrantly violated the constitution, trampled on the dignity of the law, undermined social harmony, and infringed on citizens’ right to religious freedom. The situation is getting worse, repeatedly bullying good Christians and threatening to tear down the crosses from all churches in Rui’an. In order to defend the lawful rights and interests of all of our city’s believers and safeguard the dignity of national law, the entire Rui’an Christian community hereby issues the following solemn statement:

  1. The 203 Rui’an churches that have previously registered with the government are lawful places of religious activity, and these church buildings and the crosses on top of them are protected by law. We resolutely oppose any encroachment, damage, or destruction by any individual or work unit.
  1. If individuals or local authorities dare to risk universal condemnation and use force to tear down church crosses, we the churches of Rui’an will have to arm ourselves with the law and hire lawyers to defend our rights by filing suit against leading individuals and the work units who ordered the demolition, in order to safeguard the legitimate and lawful rights and interests of the religious people of our city.
  1. If local authorities ignore the lawful demands of our city’s religious people and oppose us with evil intentions, wasting money and manpower, and even illegally employing armed force to tear down the crosses from our churches, our churches will respond in a non-violent, non-cooperative manner. We shall absolutely refuse to accept this evil and shall never give in or cooperate. We shall never tear down our own crosses and shall refuse to undergo rectification.
  1. If local authorities do not obey the law and act in violation of the law, illegally tearing down church crosses through stealth attacks, or damaging church property, we shall re-erect the crosses.
  1. We shall remain in contact with churches in other counties and cities and communicate and look after each other.
  1. Churches that have had their crosses torn down will resolutely join together to petition the higher authorities.

Christian Churches of Rui’an

July 25, 2015

 

 

Cry Out! Be Silent No More! –  An open letter by Catholic clergy from the Wenzhou Diocese to all Chinese Christians and citizens

温州 天主教神父 呐喊吧

Click to enlarge.

Last year the Zhejiang provincial government began a “Three Rectifications and One Demolition” campaign; over time, it got worse and worse, and now, its nature has changed entirely. At present, the campaign is a naked attempt to rip down the crosses atop every single church. Across our parish, we have been neither servile nor cowed—we have forborne, we have ardently prayed, we have communicated rationally, and we have calmly observed, all the while waiting for the dark clouds to pass.

But certain people have not only not slowed down, but have become more aggressive, as though they were facing a mortal enemy in their targeting of a symbol of universal love—the Cross. They have defied the wishes of the masses and come up with the “Zhejiang 温州 天主教神父 呐喊吧p2Provincial Regulations on Religious Buildings” (《浙江省宗教建筑规范》), which fails even basic jurisprudence, cheating the people and recklessly attempting to carry out their campaign of tearing down every single cross.

Not only this, but our peaceful petitions, as well as rallying the support of parishioners, have been treated as illegal conduct. It’s truly like the ancient Chinese saying: “The official is allowed to set fires, but the ordinary folk can’t light their lamps.” But “trap water in a stream and there will be a disastrous flood; shut up the voices of the public, and a worse disaster awaits.” Is it really the case that a government which says it serves the people is going to take the country back to what Liang Qichao (梁启超) decried as “a government that excels in nothing but repressing its own citizens?”

The more they try to suppress the call for justice, they more they demonstrate the severity of the social crisis, the fragile confidence in their rule, and their inability to get to grips with the matter. If they want to strike out at the cross as a means of treating such an urgent disease, it will only plunge China—which, after making it through the Great Leap Forward and the disastrous Cultural Revolution, is only now finding peaceful development—into yet another calamity.

As individuals with human rights granted by God, every single person has freedom of belief. In order to safeguard the cross, and to preserve our most basic right to believe, we will keep watch and defend one another, and we will mount a rational and reasonable resistance.

As citizens of China, we yearn for comprehensive and deeper democracy and rule of law. As for those senior officials who force their subordinates to participate, issuing commands to make them carry out demolition work; and those who trample upon the constitution, who willfully defile the dignity of the law, who violate administrative procedure, who use their power to confuse the law, and who lead the way in undermining the rule of law, they must be resolutely exposed and resisted, and they must be brought to justice.

As the sons and daughters of China, we all yearn for an environment of long-term peace and stability. We absolutely can’t go back to where “the ordinary people suffer whether in a period of prosperity or decline;” we must absolutely not allow anything to go against the tide of harmonious development.

All Christians in China have all along carried a sense of mission with them, honoring the Lord and benefiting their fellow man. At the same time, we have longed for a fair and tolerant cultural, religious and social environment in which to adapt the Christian religion to Chinese culture. Zhejiang provincial authorities have been demolishing crosses with a vengeance. Is that your understanding of the sinification of religion recently called for by Chairman Xi Jinping?

At a juncture where “the wind is sweeping through the tower heralding a rising storm in the mountains,” we will even more so take as our great responsibility the rejuvenation of the Chinese people, and we will more firmly believe that we too are the backbone and the blessing of the Chinese nation. Watching one cross after another being torn down, we have cried out in anger and shed tears in sorrow. But we will wisely and carefully use every method available to re-erect the crosses. When one cross is removed, one million crosses will be erected: in every person’s heart, along the avenues and in the alleyways, and in the home of every family.

The Church has throughout its history grown and thrived under either persecution or the favor of the ruler. We earnestly beseech the Lord’s mercy, to grant us the courage to die for what is right, for the peace of the nation, for the true rise of the Chinese nation, to make whatever sacrifice is required.

As it is written in The Bible (Amos 5:24): “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” For the freedom to believe, for the dignity of the law, for the continuous development of China, for the long term welfare of the Chinese people, all believers across the whole of China, those tens of millions filled with a sense of justice—be silent no more! Let us all cry out!

The whole body of Christian clergy from the Wenzhou Diocese

July 28, 2015

 

—————

Related:

Severe crackdown in China on church crosses draws backlash, AP, August 5, 2015.

Interview with a Wenzhou Pastor: The Chinese Government’s Large-Scale Destruction of Crosses in Zhejiang Province, Yaxue Cao, China Change, July 29, 2015.

Church-State Clash in China Coalesces Around a Toppled Spire, Ian Johnson, the New York Times, May 30, 2014.

 

Interview with a Wenzhou Pastor: The Chinese Government’s Large-Scale Destruction of Crosses in Zhejiang Province

By Yaxue Cao, published: July 29, 2015

Yaxue spoke with Pastor L in Wenzhou on July 26.

 

Photo credit: online.

Photo credit: online.

YC: I began paying attention to the demolition of churches and tearing-down of crosses in Zhejiang last year after reading many international media reports on the demolition of the Sanjiang Church (三江教堂) in Wenzhou. Recently there’s been a resurgence of cross-removals, and the daily news items and images of this are quite shocking. It seems the Chinese government is determined to tear down every cross in Zhejiang!

I’ve also read the statements issued both this year and last year by clergy and believers in Zhejiang, including from churches that are acknowledged and even, to a certain degree, led by the Chinese government, such as the statement from the Christian Council of Zhejiang. It seems as if Christians in Zhejiang are at the point where they can no longer tolerate it any further.

Although there have been some foreign media coverage of these events, I feel that the outside world—including myself—doesn’t really understand very well how things got to this point. I hope that you can provide me and our readers with an “introductory 101 class” to help us gain a basic understanding of what’s going on.

Let’s start by talking about the demolition of the Sanjiang Church in April 2014. That was an extremely impressive church, and the images of its destruction are extremely shocking. Why did they want to tear down the Sanjiang Church?

L: The Sanjiang Church was an architectural landmark in Wenzhou. Situated in a good location opposite Wangjiang Road, it had just been built and was in the process of being fitted out but it was already being used for services. It was not the original plan to build such a large church, but the government gave encouragement for a larger building because Wenzhou has a lot of people living overseas and foreign tourists, and the authorities wanted it to become a tourist attraction.

At that point, Zhejiang Chinese Communist Party Secretary Xia Baolong (夏宝龙) came to Wenzhou. He’s the one who ordered that the church be torn down. The local government in Wenzhou has always been rather tolerant regarding religious buildings. Occasionally, there would be forced demolitions for redevelopment, but local officials would have never torn down such a large structure. So, we knew from the beginning that this was not the work of the local government in Wenzhou and had to have come from higher up.

Some online have said that Xia Baolong gave the order because he felt uncomfortable when he saw the size of the Sanjiang Church. But I think the more reliable explanation is that Xia had in fact already planned to tear down crosses all over Zhejiang. Even before the Sanjiang Church was demolished, there had already been cross removals elsewhere in Zhejiang since perhaps February. There was a great deal of discussion about this among Christians, a lot of it expressing surprise: “Why tear down crosses?” So the destruction of the Sanjiang Church was actually only the climax of this campaign.

Opposition to the demolition of the Sanjiang Church lasted about a week as groups of Christians began spontaneously arriving to defend the church. Several thousands camped out there inside the church to try to defend it, day and night. But we voluntarily withdrew late at night on April 26. There were several reasons for this. First, armed police had arrived and there would definitely be bloodshed if we continued to resist. Normally, they would send SWAT police, and they came so regularly we didn’t fear them. That day, the entire hillside was surrounded by SWAT vehicles and armed-police vehicles, and armed police were hiding out in the surrounding greenbelt areas. They’d already shut down all roads and entrances within a radius of miles. The government was very nervous, as they’d never encountered this kind of resistance and solidarity before. The church itself came under too much pressure from the government, who said that there were Xinjiang terrorists mixed among us. We could have actually continued to hold out, but it definitely would have resulted in big trouble.

On April 28, Sanjiang Church came tumbling down. From that point on, the dam burst. Wenzhou began to tear down crosses on a grand scale. All along the way, there has been resistance. The most serious was on July 21, 2014, in Pingyang County (平阳水头救恩堂), when SWAT police rushed protesters and started beating them. Fourteen people were injured, two or three of them quite seriously. The foreign media reported on this, using hidden-camera footage of the violence. But the churches have always exercised restraint. They could have mobilized a great number of people to oppose the demolitions, but that would lead to casualties on both sides.

After the incident on July 21, Christians went to the government seeking accountability for the police action and emotions were running high. Pastor Huang Yizi (黄益梓) held prayers at the scene of the protest and was subsequently sentenced to a year in prison.

YC: Was the July 21 incident about demolishing a church or tearing down a cross?

L: It was about tearing down a cross. The authorities claimed to be tearing down an illegal structure, but they only tore down the cross, not the part of the construction that was actually in violation.

After the July 21 incident, there was a great decrease in incidents of cross-removal and things quieted down for several months. But at the end of June and beginning of July 2015, we began receiving a large number of verbal notices that crosses needed to be torn down. And unlike the previous times, this time they wanted to tear them all down.

For example, all 135 crosses in Pingyang County must be torn down. There were more than 50 crosses in Lucheng District (鹿城区) – all must be taken down. East of here, in Yuhuan County (玉环县), they also wanted to tear down more than 50 crosses. In the area around Wenling City (温岭), they’re planning to remove all 168 crosses. [NOTE: Yuhuan and Wenling are both part of Taizhou (台州), northeast of Wenzhou.] To this point they’ve already torn down around 1,500 crosses. This is obviously a campaign specifically targeted at taking down crosses.

Actually, around the time that the Sanjiang Church was demolished we saw a leaked internal document that talked about things like the “political meaning behind the crosses” and “infiltration by foreign forces.” Since this document was leaked, they no longer circulate these sorts of written documents.

Open letter from the Christian Council of Zhejiang. Click to enlarge.

Open letter from the Christian Council of Zhejiang. Click to enlarge.

YC: What’s the current situation like?

L: Things are very different now from before. Resistance is much more widespread and difficult to suppress. Resistance used to be isolated and focused on a particular church. Now, with this campaign of total demolition, everyone feels like this is no longer simply about tearing down crosses. It’s not merely about symbols—they want to attack your beliefs. Everyone feels like this is the beginning of a deeper repression, where they first do away with your symbols and then attack at a deeper level, destroying your internal organization, your doctrine, your church finances, even your pulpits.

For example, no matter whether you’re a “Three-Self Patriotic Church” (church sanctioned by the government) or a “house church,” no one discusses government policies or regulations on Sundays. Now, they want us to take time during our Sunday worship to let religious-affairs officials talk about religious policies and regulations from the pulpit. This has led to extremely fierce opposition—no one’s willing to allow this.

It wasn’t like this before. At worst, you’d see the Chinese government cultivate a group of people within the church to act as its proxies, and the things they wanted publicized tended to be some government policies, like aligning moral education with official ideology. But you cannot tamper with doctrine or turn pulpits over to religious-affairs cadres. There’s even resistance to this from inside the “Three-Self churches.”

YC: Over the last few days I’ve seen an open letter from the Christian Council of Zhejiang (浙江省基督教协会). They seem extremely upset. What do you think of their announcement?

L: There are a few different reasons behind this. The vast majority of crosses torn down are from “Three-Self” churches. The government set up these “Three-Self” churches to bring churchgoers into their “United Front.” But the authorities have stopped using the relatively flexible methods they’d always used in the past, so the official churches feel they’ve gone too far. For one thing, the authorities’ actions aren’t in line with the Communist Party’s own religious policies. For another, many Christians complain about the official churches, which makes the official churches feel that they’ve lost their ability to function as a “bridge” between the faithful and the government. It’s become impossible for them to convince church members. They feel that if they don’t speak out, they’ll lose all credibility.

YC: I saw one report that after the Zhejiang Christian Council published its open letter, the government confiscated its official seal. I find the government’s arrogant and insulting behavior simply hard to believe. They treat churches with absolutely no respect, like a violent master towards a lowly slave. So it’s little surprise that they act in this barbaric manner, tearing down crosses and violating the religious rights of Christians.

You said a moment ago that the resistance of Christians is now more difficult to suppress. What form is their opposition taking and how is it being expressed?

L: It takes many forms. Many churches have people join hands to form a “human wall.” We also call this the “snail strategy,” where we stick to a place just like a snail. There’s also the “honeybee strategy,” where a bunch of people gather together and pester them. They typically come at night to carry out the demolition, so if you pester them for several hours they get tired and leave. Those churches that have been able to protect their crosses have done so through these methods.

YC: Oh, some have succeeded in defending their crosses?

L: Yes, quite a few have been protected.

There’s also the strategy of piling up stones to block the road leading to the church. This is used quite often in rural areas. The more rural a place, the stronger the resistance. I saw a photo of one 温州十字架_石头location where they even demolished a bridge to block the demolition. There’s also a lot of banners and loudspeakers. Many places in the Cangnan plains (苍南平原) have been broadcasting legal-education recordings from loudspeakers toward the people who come to tear down the crosses—things like: “Article 36 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China guarantees its citizens freedom of religious belief. There is no legal basis for what you police are doing.”

YC: Are you seeing armed police or SWAT teams these days?

L: Yes, especially SWAT police. Armed police were deployed at Sanjiang, but now you don’t see them much. When the resistance is not so fierce, they use private security guards.

Churches don’t have protest experience, so their organizational capacity is rather weak. This is because for several decades, churches have responded to various threats through avoidance, non-resistance, and passive retreat. Now, they’re defending their crosses and there’s no way to escape. Several hundred churches have hired lawyers to sue local officials. Some are calling for the removal of Xia Baolong. Someone proposed that an image of Xia Baolong be made with a cross drawn over his face. Pastors and believers also use social media to broadcast latest development and photos of the scenes. A single post can get reposted tens of thousands of times in a single day if it doesn’t get censored immediately. As soon as it gets censored, another gets put up again and reposted tens of thousands more times. There are many ways of protesting. We’re mobilizing the imaginations of our fellow believers.

YC: Are any churches that had their crosses torn down putting up new ones in their place?

L: Lots of them. They put up new crosses right after they’re torn down.

YC: What do you anticipate will happen next?

温州十字架_举着小十字架的阿公阿婆

Photo from Weibo.

L: Believers are manufacturing a large number of crosses out of both wood and acrylic glass. They say, “Go ahead and tear down the crosses. We can’t fight you, so we’ll put crosses on our cars and hang them from our homes. We’ll put them up on the side of the road or on a mountaintop. We’ll put up crosses all over.” It’s not easy to put a large cross back up on the roof of a church. You need to hire many experts and spend tens of thousands.

YC: In its open letter, the Zhejiang Christian Council says that there are more than 2 million Christians in Zhejiang.

L: That’s a very conservative estimate. There are over a million in Wenzhou alone. Wenzhou is unlike large cities like Beijing or Shanghai. It’s mostly made up of small towns, and there are churches everywhere. Each of these places of worship has hundreds of people. Even churches in remote areas have over a hundred people. It’s rare to see churches with fewer than a hundred people.

YC: Can you tell me about the social background of Christians in Wenzhou? For example, what sort of people join your own church? What’s their level of education, occupational background, and so on?

L: There are all sorts of people and people of all ages. There are many who are in business and many are intellectuals. We also have a lot of elderly people. There are also many Christians among the ranks of civil servants.

YC: Do they come to church openly?

L: Of course they do! But now they’re encountering great difficulties. I have a friend—a university professor—who resigned because of unbearable pressure. They used all sorts of different means to threaten him. Many of the doctors and nurses at the Wenzhou Medical College and its affiliated hospitals are Christians, and they too have come under pressure. There are also many Christians among middle-school- and primary-school teachers. They’re also well represented in early-childhood education, where Christians have an advantage because they learn to dance and play the piano in their churches from an early age. Now, however, kindergartens are refusing to hire Christians. It wasn’t like this before.

温州十字架_young woman

Photo from Weibo.

There are also a lot of young people who are Christians, and each church will have a youth fellowship organization. There are also summer fellowship camps for students, attended by dozens from a single church and several hundreds from a parish—all young people.

YC: I have another question. Given that this campaign to tear down crosses has become a focus of international attention, do you think the campaign is the work of the provincial government? I don’t see how it can be.

L: We’ve been having quite a heated debate on this point recently. There are two opinions. The first—mainly made up of people from the south—believes that this is the work of the central government, something either being led or condoned by Xi Jinping. The second view is held primarily by northerners, who believe this is a local action. This includes people overseas in Hong Kong and North America—those who study religion and research government-church relations mainly think this is a local action. But here in the south, people inside the church have a hunch that this is the work of the central government.

YC: This north-south division you describe is within the clergy, right?

L: It also includes people within institutions, university researchers, and public intellectuals.

YC: When it comes to tearing down crosses, is any distinction being made between Catholic churches and Protestant churches?

L: No. All are seeing their crosses torn down.

YC: Which is more predominant in Wenzhou, Catholicism or Protestantism?

L: There are more Protestants, but Catholicism is quite strong, too. There are two main streams of Protestant Christians in Wenzhou. The two earliest originated with the United Methodist Free Church and the China Inland Mission, now known as the Overseas Missionary Fellowship (OMF). Both came originally from Britain. These account for the two main denominations of Protestant Christianity in Wenzhou. There is also the Church of Seventh-Day Adventists, as well as the Christian assembly churches, similar to the Church of the Brethren. All four of these denominations are seeing their crosses torn down, without any distinction.

Catholic clergy protesting in front of the government. Photo from Weibo.

Catholic clergy, led by Bishop Zhu Weifang (朱维方), protesting in front of the government. Photo from Weibo.

YC: Can you say a few words to explain a bit about the differences between “Three-Self” churches and “house churches”?

L: There isn’t too much difference in terms of doctrine. The government once wanted to change a core doctrine of the “Three-Self” church, namely the “doctrine of sola fide” (or “justification based solely on faith”). House churches and “Three-Self” churches all insist on this doctrine.

K.H. Ting (丁光训), a bishop recognized by the government, once proposed a doctrine of justification based on love. They wanted to change the doctrine in this way but were unsuccessful. Also, house churches don’t tailor their ethical guidance to official ideology. The second difference is that clergy in the “Three-Self” church are appointed and approved through official channels, while those in the house churches are not.

YC: Aren’t all of the churches that had their crosses torn down “Three-Self” churches? Can “house churches” be so large?

L: In Zhejiang, many house churches employ roundabout ways to build similarly large church buildings.

YC: I’ve heard people call Wenzhou “China’s Jerusalem.” I’ve seen so many extravagant church buildings in photos. Can you explain briefly why Christianity is so flourishing in Wenzhou and in Zhejiang? First, am I correct in this judgment? Is Christianity particularly flourishing in Zhejiang?

L: It’s true. Missionaries from countries like Great Britain, the United States, and other countries began proselytizing in Ningbo (宁波), Hangzhou (杭州), Wenzhou, Taizhou (台州) back in the 1880s and became long-term settlers here. So, there’s a historical source for Christianity in Wenzhou. From early on, Wenzhou’s trade with the outside world was very developed, and this is another important reason.

There is a strong practical and utilitarian flavor to the religious belief of people in Wenzhou. If I’m engaged in business or any other enterprise, I want to seek the blessings of God. If someone goes into business, he seeks the prayers and blessings of people in his church. After giving birth, you seek the prayers and blessings of the church so that your child may do well in school.

So, when Wenzhou merchants go to do business in Beijing, Shanghai, or other large cities, they immediately set up their own places of worship and devote at least one night a week to worship. As long as there are people from Wenzhou, there will definitely be a church for them. There are also a large number of Wenzhou Christians living overseas in places like Paris, Rome, New York and Los Angeles.

When people from Wenzhou make money and become prosperous, they voluntarily donate fund to build big churches. Once people rode bicycles; now they all drive cars. When they come to church they need places to park, so of course churches need to expand. In the past, when it was hot people fanned themselves to keep cool or installed electric fans; now you definitely need air-conditioning. People’s standard of living has improved, and church buildings also need upgrading. Why should churches be any different from government buildings in that respect?

YC: I notice that nearly all the crosses that have been torn down from churches in Wenzhou are red. Why is that?

L: This is a meaning being expressed there. Christianity has encountered several decades of repression in China. In the 20 years from 1958 to 1978, China banned Christian worship and Christians were all forced underground. Life was extremely difficult for Christians during those years. They had to gather secretly, hiding in the mountains or in other places where nobody went. There were no place to purchase the Bible, so they hand-copied it and shared with each other. If you got caught, they would confiscate your Bible.

Everyone was very happy when Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦) lifted the ban on religious belief in 1978. Older Christians shed so much blood and so many tears for their faith. They didn’t care much about or have a deep understanding of theology, but when they built churches they insisted that the churches be taller than their houses and that the crosses should stand up tall. What they were expressing is this: In the past, we weren’t free; now we want to show that our churches exist. So the crosses were built very tall and kept illuminated at night with a red light. The church is a city upon a hill. Christians are the light of the world. We want to shine in all directions.

 

Yaxue Cao (曹雅学) edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @YaxueCao.

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Related:

The Ongoing War Against Religion in China, by Zhao Chu, China Change, August 4, 2015.

 

Source  《与一位温州牧师的访谈:中国在浙江省大规模强拆十字架》, translated by China Change.

More photo are available here.