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China Change, March 25, 2017
When one of the two defense lawyers for Pastor Yang Hua (仰华) of the Living Stone house church in Guiyang traveled to the Nanming District Detention Center (贵阳市南明区看守所) to meet their client on March 20, he was surprised to see Yang almost carried into the meeting room by three sturdy cellmates. Yang Hua’s face showed he was full of pain, seemingly on the verge of paralysis. The lawyer discovered that, three days previously, Yang’s legs suddenly became inflamed and ulcerated, and the festering was spreading fast, with the burning pain keeping him up at night. The physician on duty at the detention center treated it as nothing more than a superficial skin infection and administered painkillers. Yang’s condition has been rapidly deteriorating since.
On March 24, the lawyer again met with Yang Hua and found that earlier in the day he had been given a physical examination at the Guizhou Provincial People’s Hospital. Yang Hua also explained the following about his condition. In his words:
“On March 17, 2017, ulcers began to appear on my legs. I reported it to the detention center, but the staff said they had seen this many times before, and that it was nothing more than ‘impetigo’ [an infectious, superficial bacterial skin infection]. On March 18 the resident doctor gave me some medication. By March 19, after the festering had spread, I again requested that the detention center provide proper treatment, such as injections or an IV. On March 20 and 21, the physician on duty put me on an IV drip. The burning pain was so much at this point, however, that I couldn’t sleep for several nights. From around 3:30 to 4:00 a.m. on the 22nd, the agony was truly unbearable. I rang the alarm to report to the cadres on duty. Officer Luo, on watch that night, was furious at being disturbed and screamed some truly awful obscenities at me. No one else in the cell was able to sleep, so in the end the physician on duty gave me two painkillers. I haven’t been able to walk or go to the toilet by myself during this period.
“On the morning of March 22, the detention center brought me to the department of dermatology at the Guiyang Sixth Municipal Hospital for a physical inspection. The doctor diagnosed me with a form of allergic vasculitis [an inflammation of the blood vessels], and said that if no treatment could be found one outcome might be high-level amputation [i.e. above the knee]. He recommended high doses of penicillin for a fortnight. The detention center clinic, however, does not have penicillin.
“At 2:30 p.m. on March 22, the detention center gave me a blood test for HIV/AIDS. On March 23, I was again brought to a hospital designated by the authorities, this time the No. 368 People’s Armed Police Hospital, for a physical inspection. Five physicians were involved but couldn’t come to a final diagnosis. They did, however, recommend that I be taken to a regular hospital for treatment. They also indicated that the cost of treatment might be extremely high.
“That day I submitted a written request for hospital treatment, asking the detention center authorities to quickly arrange it. On the morning of March 24 I was brought to the Guizhou Provincial People’s Hospital to have a blood and urine test. Though they had the results that morning, the guards refused to inform me of them except to say that the HIV/AIDS test had come back negative.”
Yang Hua’s lawyers wrote to the Guiyang Procuratorate asking for a review of the continued necessity of detaining their client. Two prosecutors told one of the lawyers that Yang Hua’s case is highly “sensitive,” and they could only make a decision in consultation with the judge handling the case, as well as the Politico-legal Commission.
The lawyers believe that Yang Hua’s condition is urgent and serious and that he needs to be admitted to a hospital qualified to deliver appropriate treatment as soon as possible. Failing that, the relevant departments will have to assume responsibility for delaying treatment and thus exacerbating Yang Hua’s condition.
On March 24, Yang Hua’s wife Wang Hongwu (王洪雾) accompanied a lawyer for a visit, and happened to arrive just as Yang Hua was coming back from a test at the provincial hospital. It was the first time that husband and wife had seen each other one year and three months, after Yang Hua was detained in December, 2015. They were only able to exchange a few words before the police officers intervened. After Yang Hua and his lawyer met, the police asked the Pastor’s wife to accompany them to the No. 368 People’s Armed Police Hospital.
Yang Hua’s wife, in a letter to fellow parishioners calling for prayers on Yang Hua’s behalf, summarized what the chief physician told her: “The provincial hospital diagnosed it as ‘anaphylactoid purpura’ [a kind of blood vessel inflammation]. I saw that both of Yang Hua’s legs were covered in rashes and spots of necrosis. Around the shins on both legs, in particular, there’s a large area of necrosis and seeping wounds. The feet are swollen up to the ankles. The doctor said they’d use large doses of hormones and anti-inflammatory drugs to treat it. Because the illness came on so ferociously and rapidly — around a week — the hospital gave me a notice of severe illness and told me that Yang Hua might develop a range of other symptoms, including septicemia, hemorrhaging of the digestive tract, kidney damage, and more.”
Pastor Yang Hua (birth name Li Guozhi 李国志), who just turned 41 years old, was arrested on December 9, 2015, and was tried on December 26, 2016 on charges of “deliberately divulging state secrets” (故意泄露国家机密罪). The so-called “state secrets” in question referred to a circular about the establishment of the “Municipal Command Center for Dealing With the Living Stone Church According to the Law” (贵阳市依法处置贵阳活石教会指挥部). The notice said: “Dealing with the Living Stone church according to the law is a high-priority political task. Work unit leaders must personally grasp the issue, join the city’s overall deployments, and earnestly mobilize to carry the work out to completion.” Yang Hua was sentenced to 2.5 years imprisonment in January this year.
The Living Stone church of Guiyang is an emerging urban house church that grew rapidly beginning in 2008. It has been subject to constant suppression and surveillance by the authorities. Zhang Xiuhong (张秀红), the chairman of the Board of Deacons and church accountant, was arrested in July 2015 and, after being detained for an extended period without trial, was sentenced to five years imprisonment in February 2017. The charges against her, of supposedly “illegal business operations,” were completely absent any criminal conduct.
At the same time Yang Hua was arrested, the authorities announced that the Living Stone church was banned. The 600 square meter office space, on the 24th floor of a new office building in downtown Guiyang, that it used as its place of congregation was sealed and guarded by security personnel hired by the local authorities.
The authorities persist in their claim that the suppression of the church is nothing more than a criminal matter and is thus not a case of religious persecution. But as the Procuratorate revealed to the lawyers, the Living Stone case is “sensitive,” and they would need to consult the Communist Party’s Politico-legal Commission about how they handled it.
The Shepherds of Living Stone Church, Yaxue Cao, December 25, 2017
Living Stone: A Portrait of a House Church in China, Yaxue Cao, December 21, 2015
Yaxue Cao, December 25, 2016
On December 9, 2015, after dropping their two sons off at school, Pastor Yang Hua (仰华) and his wife Wang Hongwu (王洪雾) of the Living Stone house church (活石教会) in Guiyang, made their way to the 24th story of Guiyang International Center, which hosts the main hall of their congregation. At the same time every Wednesday, at three different church locations, Living Stone congregants hold a prayer service. A few days prior, government Neighborhood Committees and police stations dispatched personnel to go door-by-door to the homes of hundreds of Living Stone church members, warning them against attending the Wednesday service. “We’ll arrest whoever goes,” they were told. Needless to say, the authorities had the home addresses, workplaces, telephone numbers, and other personal information of every churchgoer. The few who were determined to attend that morning were intercepted by government agents, who deliberately collided with their car and then dragged them off to the local police station to settle the “accident.”
The prayer service was set to start at 9:30 a.m., but at 9:00 well over 100 “integrated law enforcement” agents swept in. There were personnel from the Bureau of Civil Affairs and the Bureau of Religious Administration, public security bureau agents, and a squad of SWAT police in full armed regalia. They demanded that Pastor Yang open all the doors. After he refused, they called over their locksmith. When the “law enforcement personnel” attempted to enter the office and the sound control room next to it, to take the computer hard drives, Pastor Yang stood blocking the doorway. He demanded that the technical personnel present their work identification cards. When they said they didn’t have any, he announced that they wouldn’t be allowed in. At that point, one of the commanders of the operation yelled out “SWAT police, come over here!” A few burly members of the SWAT team ran over, lifted Yang Hua off his feet, and carried him away to a corner next to the elevator, pinning him there.
Pastor Su Tianfu (苏天富), who had just finished his errands in the morning and arrived at the church, attempted, abortively, to reason with the agents. They began confiscating the church’s computers, equipment, and anything else they thought useful. They said they would provide a list of the items confiscated, but over a year later no such list has been forthcoming. They also confiscated the cellphones of Yang Hua, Hongwu, Pastor Su, and a number of couples who arrived for the service, deleting all photographs on them.
When the raid was over they posted two notices sealing the church doors, one saying that the church was an illegal civil organization, the other that it had set up a center of religious activity without authorization. Yang Hua and Hongwu were taken to the police station. Living Stone’s two branch locations were dealt with in a similar manner.
On December 14 Pastor Su was taken into custody at his home by police. Two days later when he was released, they warned him that he would be charged with “divulging state secrets” later. A year on, he is still technically “on bail pending further trial,” which means that his freedom of movement is restricted.
A few days after Yang Hua was arrested the authorities raided his home and took away his computer and everything else that they thought would be useful for their investigation.
On December 26, 2016, Yang Hua will be on trial for “deliberately divulging state secrets” (故意泄露国家机密罪). The Chinese government seems to deliberately time cases of political persecution around the Thanksgiving and Christmas vacations, as a means of avoiding international attention.
The “state secrets” in question is a document issued by an ad hoc office set up to eliminate the Living Stone Church, which goes by the title of the “Guiyang Municipal Command Center for Legally Dealing With the Living Stone Church” (贵阳市依法处置贵阳活石教会指挥部). Dated December 3, 2015, the document bore the official seal of the Office of the Guiyang Municipal Stability Maintenance Work Leading Small Group (贵阳市维护稳定工作领导小组办公室). It said that “Dealing with the Living Stone church according to the law is a political task that must be given a high level of priority. Leaders of work units must be personally on task, fall in line with the entire city’s overall deployments, and earnestly mobilize to complete all the work.” Attached to it was a list of names of every Living Stone member, which was forwarded to each of their workplaces, demanding that those employees be investigated and placed under “stability control” (稳控).
The letter came to the attention of a young woman named Wang Yao (王瑶), who worked in the office of the Party Committee of the Maternal and Child Healthcare Hospital of Guiyang City. She knew a friend, Yu Lei (余雷), who attended Living Stone bible study sessions. So she gave Yu photographs of the document. Now, Wang and Yu have been tried for “illegally acquiring state secrets” (非法获取国家机密罪) and “illegally disseminating state secrets” (非法传播国家机密) respectively. Their judgements have not yet been handed down.
Two Young Preachers from Poverty
The two descriptions I kept hearing about the two pastors of the Living Stone church were, firstly, that they were from the poorest parts of Guizhou (Guizhou itself is one of the poorest provinces in China), and secondly that they were both very young. Pastor Su Tianfu was born in 1975, while Pastor Yang Hua was born in 1976; they come from the neighbouring counties of Qianxi (黔西) and Nayong (纳雍) respectively.
Zhang Tan (张坦), a member of the Living Stone church and an independent scholar of Christianity in China, explained that Guizhou was one of the 12 centers of missionary activity established by the China Inland Mission, the protestant organization founded by 19th century English missionary Hudson Taylor (戴德生). Yang Hua and Su Tianfu grew up in an area in which the China Inland Mission had once preached the Gospel, until early 1950s when missionaries were expelled by the Communist Party. Most Christians at that point were forcibly integrated into the Party-controlled “Three-Self” church movement. After the Cultural Revolution, Zhang Tan says, Christians in Guizhou began to embrace their faith ardently. In the poverty-stricken far-off reaches of mountainous Guizhou, he added, neither the Three-Self church nor house churches had much purchase.
Yang Hua was born Li Guozhi (李国志), the fourth sibling in a third-generation Christian family. When he was young, though, he not only refused to believe, but found the idea embarrassing. His father was an elder in a house church. He spent most of his time dealing with church affairs and relatively less on looking after his family. He also struck his kids at the slightest provocation. Nevertheless, after suffering a sudden accident in the family, and personally experiencing the transformative effect of prayer, Yang Hua became a Christian.
At around that time there were Christian workers offering in his hometown Bible study sessions, which he joined. Before long he felt the desire to spread the Gospel himself. At age 13 in 1989 (he probably had little idea what was taking place in Beijing that year), he cut short his studies and became a roaming preacher. First he followed a group in his hometown, then went onto Yunnan, Guangxi, Henan, Zhejiang, and other provinces to preach. Christians in Zhejiang wanted him to put down roots there, but he felt the urge to return to Guizhou.
In 1997 Yang Hua, then 21, moved from Zhejiang back to Guiyang.
Su Tianfu grew up in abject poverty. In 2011, in an interview with the Christian author Yu Jie (余杰), he mentioned that the only clothes he wore when growing up were hand-me-downs from relatives. In winter, he said, there was often hardly any food at home, so he only ate once a day. His father was a drunk who beat him. When he was unable to pay the miscellaneous expenses for junior high school, one of the teachers pitied him and only made him pay half up front. The rest he earned over summer, collecting trash, hauling sandbags at a construction site, and laboring as a road builder. When he finished middle-school he applied for junior teachers’ college (师专) because it was free. In his own words, he was a cynical and hopeless youth who was convinced that life had no meaning.
But he began to join a Bible study class at the teachers’ college. There was no pastor and no preacher; sometimes a fine arts teacher at the school, who was a Christian, would lead them in Bible study, or play hymns on tape that everyone would sing to. “Though I didn’t understand a great deal about the truth of it, I participated in the meetings regularly, and I felt in my soul a great sense of contentment,” Su said. “I felt joy.”
On Christmas 1993 Su Tianfu was baptized as a Christian — the first in his family. In 1997 at the age of 22 he quit his job teaching elementary school and went to Guiyang.
1997-2000: Each Their Own Ministry
The two young men first met while serving the “Dandelion” Christian Fellowship at Guizhou University of Technology. It was established in 1980 by two foreign missionaries who were teaching there.
In June of 1997, Su Tianfu went to Guangzhou to be further trained in pastoral care. In Guangdong he began to regularly participate in church meetings led by the renowned pastor Lin Xiangao (林献羔) of the Damazhan house church. He studied Cantonese and traveled with other disciples to found churches and spread the Gospel around Guangdong. In 2000 he married Ouyang Manping (欧阳满平), a young lady he’d gotten to know in their Bible training classes.
Back in Guiyang, Yang Hua joined a house church group of a few dozen members. It was there that he got to know Wang Hongwu, at the time a nurse at the charity clinic run by the church. When he revealed that he took an interest in her, however, he was curtly rebuffed. As Hongwu put it: “He didn’t fit my criteria. All the things a girl wanted, he didn’t have: a diploma, money, good looks — he didn’t measure up in any area.”
Yang Hua was deeply hurt, and for a while fell into terrible health. He had nosebleeds and high fever, and came to the clinic for treatment. This went on for a while until he decided he had to pull himself out of it. At a workers’ meeting one day, Yang Hua told a Ms. Li that “Next week I’m going out to the Yachi River” (鸭池河). He’d been planning and hoping to establish a church there for a long time, but had put it off because of the emotional turmoil of being rejected. Hongwu overheard the conversation. “My heart thumped,” she said. “It was like a shut door being suddenly flung open.”
Yachi River at the time was the headquarters to the Ninth Engineering Bureau of the Sinohydro (中国水利水电第九工程局有限公司), inhabited by thousands of construction workers and their families. Over the next two years, Yang Hua went door to door spreading the Gospel. There had been only one or two believers when he started, and number quickly mushroomed to over a hundred over the next two years. In 2000 he went back to Guiyang, and in 2001 he and Hongwu married.
Preaching and Training in Guizhou from 2000 to 2008
“Even though I’d lived in Guangzhou for quite a few years, had learnt Cantonese, and was gradually getting used to life there, there was always a voice in my heart telling me: ‘You have to return to your home province and begin a new phase of your Ministry.’ Though Guizhou was poor and behind-the-times, it was a much bigger canvas,” Su Tianfu said.
On the day that Su and his wife arrived in Guiyang, Yang Hua and another friend met them at the train station. Their journey together had begun.
In his interview with Yu Jie, Pastor Su explained what happened over those years. First, the two young men each led their own small-scale house church assemblies. They also returned to serve a mission in their hometowns in the Bijie (毕节) and Liupanshui (六盘水) prefectures, southwest Guizhou, populated by the Miao and Yi ethnic groups. As a way of alleviating the reliance on preachers coming out to the countryside, from 2003 to 2008 they held training sessions in Guiyang every year for ethnic Christian workers, and each session lasted three months, training 20 students each time.
Beginning in 2003 they arranged for Christian workers to travel around Guizhou, focusing on regions without churches, to conduct short- and long-term missionary work. They’ve relied on the donations of congregants for their livelihoods, though their wives have also worked to help support the family.
Their activities have alwasys been a matter of close attention for the authorities. In 2003 they got a tip off that the secret police were investigating them, and were likely going to make arrests. They prepared travel bags and were ready to flee at short notice, but in the end they didn’t flee. In the years followed, similar threats stalked them, until police interrogations and menace became a part of life.
A City on the Hill
By 2008 Yang Hua and Su Tianfu were being harassed and attacked wherever they went in Guizhou. They were increasingly running short of resources, until they were unable to pay the rent on their training venue.
It bothered them that the house churches they led in Guiyang had been underground. “Even though it was just a small meeting of a dozen or so people, we had to act like the underground [revolutionary-era] Communist Party you see on television dramas — using codewords, acting secretively as though we were doing something terrible,” Su said.
But at that point, as Su judged it in the 2011 interview, Guiyang had only one Three-Self church for a population of five or six million, plus a seminary and another small church on the outskirts of town. “On the one hand, a lot of people had never ever heard the Gospel, but on the other, the existing Christians had nowhere to meet.”
Through prayer and careful consideration together, their small church groups started to think clearly on what they wanted to achieve: they wanted their fellowship to grow and thrive in the open, and they wanted to make an impact on the city of Guiyang.
“Given that Christians are the light of the world, the church is the city on the hill. So it can’t be hidden. It’s got to be public,” Su Tianfu said.
The new church they opened would be the “Living Stone” church, a name that Yang Hua picked. It was drawn from Peter 2:4-5: “To whom coming, as unto a living stone, disallowed indeed of men, but chosen of God, and precious, Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.”
After spring in 2008 they began drawing up plans to rent an office space for worship. In Easter they held a dedication ceremony for a new church with about 50 members. Apart from regular services, the church held Christmas celebrations, hosted weddings, and organized excursions, all of which attracted more members.
Beginning in 2009 the Living Stone church each year baptized between a few dozen and over 100 new believers. Their Christmas celebrations attracted over 1,000, either participants or onlookers. The government was apprised of every large-scale activity in advance. When the authorities tried to interfere, the churchmen, often led by Pastor Yang Hua, argued their case strongly and never gave ground. In 2011, in a river on the southern outskirts of Guiyang, they held a baptism ceremony for 120 new Christians. With friends and family included there were probably between 300 to 400 people there. The government then mobilized at least twice as many security personnel to watch them.
As part of the church’s pastoral program with congregants, they encouraged all believers to also participate in small-scale house church meetings. Last year when the church was formally banned by the Guiyang authorities, there were over 20 of these small house church congregations, each with between one and a few dozen members. The effect of the small groups was to give believers a sense of family, return, and belonging, where spreading the Gospel, caring for one another, and caring for society became part of their way of life.
Most of the congregants were between 20 and 40, from all walks of life: businessmen, teachers, doctors, professionals, public servants, homemakers, students, and more.
For years they facilitated adoption of abandoned infants, fostered children with developmental disabilities, taught survival skills to children in orphanages, and performed other welfare services — all of which they were praised for in the local press. Separately, a number of church members founded or participated in charitable social programs of their own, helping disabled people, orphans, the elderly, and others. The church became an interconnecting structure, linking the community with the wider society.
Church management was handled by a 12-member board of directors elected by the congregation, which held meetings to discuss and make decisions on church affairs both large and small. When there were items of serious disagreement, they put the matter aside rather than have the majority overrule a minority. The goal was to eventually reach a consensus.
As the number of congregants continued to grow, the church bought three residential units on the 24th floor of the Guiyang International Center with a total 600 square meters. After they bought the units, the church began coming under more intense pressure from the authorities. Before they began using them, the government posted notices inside and outside the building stating that the newly established church was “an unapproved non-religious site established without permission,” and that pastors Su Tianfu and Yang Hua were unapproved, unregistered ministers.
On November 8, 2015, Living Stone congregants, under the menacing gaze of hundreds of riot police, SWAT police, regular police, and officials from a multitude of government agencies, held a ceremony dedicating their new church. When government agents later attempted to force them to join the regime-controlled “Three-Self” church movement, they were firmly rejected. The result was a campaign of harassment, threats, and efforts at blocking believers from attending.
Defending the Rights of Small Churches
Pastor Yang Hua and Pastor Su divided their duties roughly in half: Su handled internal affairs, and Yang took care of liaison and external activities. As one congregant told me in an interview: “We’ve been helping small rural churches around Guizhou for years. When these churches are raided and broken up and their members arrested, no one else even knows.” The small churches seek out Yang Hua, who finds lawyers to defend them. Quite a few cases have been defended successfully.
Hongwu, Pastor Yang’s wife, said that on every occasion that brothers and sisters of the faith have been attacked by the government, Yang Hua stands up for them.
In May 2014 the authorities made a series of arrests of churchgoers in Liupanshui (六盘水), at a church that had grown rapidly and had held regular services for over 20 years. Now it was called an “evil religion” and its members detained. Yang Hua engaged lawyers in Beijing and Shanghai who traveled with him to Liupanshui, where they were followed by government vehicles. Chen Jiangang (陈建刚), one of the lawyers, described the torture that believers were subject to while in custody: they were beaten hard with long wooden staffs, forced to stand for prolonged periods, starved, deprived of sleep, and had lit cigarettes stuffed into their mouths.
In 2015 there was a similar incident in Daguan, Qianxi county (黔西大关), where a number of locals, who had returned from years in Hangzhou as migrant workers, were arrested after setting up a thriving church. Yang Hua and two lawyers from out of town arrived to help. They were followed by government-hired thugs everywhere they went. The men rammed their vehicle into Yang Hua’s, and pulled out long machetes threatening to hack him and the lawyers to death.
More than one person has described Yang Hua as diminutive in size and “frail” in appearance: he’s just under 1.6m (5’3″), is somewhat hunched due to back inflammation (ankylosing spondylitis) and often in pain. But when the rubber hits the road and fellow Christians are being assailed and threatened, he’s on the front lines defending their rights, not in the least afraid. He carries of aura of invincibility. “Pastor Yang Hua’s courage and sense of responsibility is extraordinary,” a church member who was on some of these trips with Yang Hua told me.
Zhang Tan once wrote an article about how Yang Hua dealt with a traffic case. “No matter the size of the case, Yang Hua fights it from the lowest level court to the highest. Even if he’s losing every step of the way, he doesn’t give up.” The process, Zhang told me, has revealed the savagery of the government power, but it’s also shown Yang Hua’s tenacity.
In today’s China, this sort of resistance doesn’t have much practical value. In the Daguan case, the five churchmen arrested were all imprisoned on China’s “evil religion” laws, and the Living Stone church has now also been crushed. Indeed, some church members complained that the fate of Living Stone was precisely because Pastor Yang Hua got involved in too many affairs of other churches.
As far as the Chinese Communist Party is concerned, Christianity and its dissemination is in and of itself a question of ideological competition. For decades the Party has used the “Three-Self” church system to integrate and assimilate Christianity under the banner of “patriotism,” exerting strict doctrinal and administrative control over these “competing” faiths. The escalated repression in Zhejiang, Henan and other provinces over the last three years are another example of the Party and Xi Jinping’s determination to dig out this supposed threat by the root. The shutdown of the Living Stone church and the arrest of Pastor Yang Hua is simply one development in the overall political schema in China. It has little to do with the “leak” of a ridiculous government document.
Zhang said that Christianity in China has reached a point in time, and that Guiyang’s Living Stone church is a perfect product of this point in time.
The Judgment of the Party vs. the Judgement of God
Since his detention, Pastor Yang Hua’s wife and children have been prevented from seeing him because his case “involves state secrets.” The two lawyers she engaged met Yang Hua for the first time in March and again in May. Yang Hua revealed how his interrogators used torture to try to extract a confession. They fixed him to an iron chair, stomped his feet with their shoes, and threatened his life and that of his wife and children. They also told him: “We know we can’t change your faith, but we control everything. If we want, we can paint you as a greedy pastor and destroy your reputation.”
The lawyers said that despite the threats, Pastor Yang Hua didn’t give in. Nor did the church’s accountant, Zhang Xiuhong (张秀红), who was detained in July 2015 — she is still being held, though according to Chinese criminal procedure should have long ago either been tried or released.
In September, lawyers reported that Yang Hua was suffering from liver pain, and had scabies all over his body.
The authorities claim that the case has nothing to do with religion. But they’ve denied Yang Hua, and the three other detainees, the right to read the Bible while in custody. For months Yang Hua’s wife hand-copied Bible passages and mailed them to him, but in October that final connection too was severed too.
For the pending trial, police warned lawyers not to plead not-guilty (indeed, the judicial system in China is government-directed theater, and everyone is expected to follow the script). But in their Legal Opinion submitted to the court in November, the two lawyers questioned the legality and authority of the ad hoc agency set up to suppress the church, the “Guiyang Municipal Command Center for Legally Dealing With the Living Stone Church.” They also questioned the validity of the regulation cited by the prosecution: “Regulations on State Secrets, Their Classification, and Scope in Religious Work.” It’s a document whose existence has never been announced to the public, and whose issuer, legal remit, and period of effect remain unknown. Yet it forms the basis of the charges against Pastor Yang Hua.
Hongwu said that though she has received no announcement of the trial, the only reason she won’t be there is if she’s put under house arrest. Pastor Su, according to a source, has been taken out of Guiyang on an involuntary trip.
As for the fate of the Living Stone church and the trial of Pastor Yang, Zhang Tan shared his thoughts: China’s “governing the country according to the law” (依法治国) is about using harsh legal instruments to control the people, in the model of the Qin Dynasty. It’s about maintaining and exercising the power of rulers, and has nothing to do with protecting the rights of the people. This, he said, is really the “Chinese characteristics.” “Secrets” are everywhere in today’s China, he said. “For example, they want to demolish my home, so they have a ‘secret’ document for demolishing my home. If I get ahold of this document, it is me who violated the law, not they, who want to destroy my property. Only a dictatorship has secrets everywhere, and it’s only under a dictatorship that one finds such absurdities at every turn.”
Zhang Tan argues that throughout Chinese history, there have been benevolent governments and ruthless governments. But take any issue and compare today’s communist rule with that of the Qin or Ming — widely seen as the harshest and most abusive dynasties — and the regime of today is worse. “The Chinese nation,” he said, “has come to an end.”
A sense of peace fills the letters Pastor Yang Hua has sent to his wife and children from his cell. He told Hongwu that his conditions have improved, and that he had no more need of money or other supplies. His imprisonment, he wrote, is a sabbatical that Jesus granted him after 23 years of toil. He said he’ll enjoy it, “like a child who’s had his full of milk, sleeping in his mother’s arms.”
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @YaxueCao.
Living Stone: A Portrait of a House Church in China, December 21, 2015.
As you’ve likely already heard, thousands of doomsday predictors have been arrested throughout China as part of the “evil cult” Eastern Lightning. Unfortunately many Chinese Christians are willing to dismiss them as a cult and agree with their treatment, but these arrests should concern everyone advocating for human rights in China and especially those concerned with religious freedom and yet there has been little discussion of this within the Western Media. Within this story are several important issues worth taking a moment to consider.
While Eastern Lightning meets many of the sociological definitions of a cult by urging members to cut off ties to their non-believing family members and friends, unquestioning faith in their charismatic leader, and exerting coercive pressure on those who try to leave (a piece focusing on the practices of this group appeared in Time magazine back in 2001); it has persisted for decades without facing mass arrests. What has changed is their growing public demonstrations, distribution of pamphlets and their calls for overthrowing the Party during a time when the Party is already nervous about their grip on power. While I may not agree with their beliefs and am concerned about abuses being committed by this group, they should still have a right to pray in public and distribute their information (and there is so far no evidence that these arrests are connected to concerns over abuses within the sect), however these basic rights are denied to all Chinese people. Their mass arrests do not seem to be based on rule of law as there has been no due process, but rather on an arbitrary label of “evil cult.” As noted Human Rights Lawyer Teng Biao tweeted, “The government has no power to determine what is a cult. The law can punish only actions, not thoughts.”
Furthermore, it should be considered in what kind of environment is the end of the world treated as good news? As the BBC reported, most of the arrests have come in Guizhou and Qinghai province, two of China’s poorest provinces. In China’s not so distant past, Falun Gong gained great popularity in the countryside as rural health care fell apart. Looking even further back, the Taiping Rebellion took route in Guangxi province and attracted people from the countryside who were looking for any other option than continuing their current lives. And while the Communist Party is not a religious movement, it was able to mobilize this same mistreated demographic. Many would argue that the key to a revolution in China is the “peasants,” and the concern from the Party is that cults grow most successfully among these marginalized groups, but their response of cracking down on believers ignores the roots – China’s rural citizens receive far less support than their urban counterparts.
So far, I have been incredibly disappointed by the media coverage on this important development, and feel that if thousands of Christians, dissidents, lawyers, or teachers had been arrested the coverage would have been vastly different. The idea that the cult members should be treated any differently from these other groups ignores many fundamental beliefs related to human rights. Within China (and every other country), it is not uncommon for major religious groups to act against “new” religious groups. In this case we see orthodox Christians acting against this heterodox sect, but in other cases we see Buddhists acting against Christian house churches in places where Christianity is growing quickly, and Atheists acting against Muslims in places where Islam and racial politics are difficult to unwind. Their complicit cooperation with the state’s desire to control religious practice is a major stumbling block for further improvement in human rights. Unfortunately, these groups are failing to see that their own ability to express their beliefs freely are wrapped up in the ability of others to practice freely.
So while it may be easy for many to dismiss the arrest of thousands of cult members, it should be difficult for us to ignore the trampling of the rule of law, the limitations on religious freedom, and the rights of individuals to gather and make themselves heard.
In my visits to rural villages in China I have been impressed by the ability of local churches to identify needs, and design projects to meet them. Often these projects rely solely on volunteers and donations from believers. Today I want to share a few examples of projects undertaken by Chinese churches and the impact they are having on their communities.
It is worth noting that these are initiatives begun by local TSPM churches, and represent just a small amount of the “good fruit*” that seems abundant in many of the churches I have visited.
Hospice and Counseling
One of the churches we visited had created a hospice program which met with terminally ill patients. Some of these patients were Christian, but many were not. The goal of the program was not to tell people about Jesus, but instead to show Christ’s love. This has been a theme in many of the projects I have seen.
For most of the patients, their families were either unable or unwilling to be with them (AIDS patients were generally abandoned by their families). In rural areas, discussing death is a major taboo, this means that those who have fallen ill are often lacking a person willing to listen to their fears. This group of dedicated volunteers fills a gaping void in end of life care.
After a few months of hospice work, many of the volunteers felt that their service wasn’t as professional as it should be. To better serve the hospice patients and others, they began a 1-year counseling course and invited psychology professors from the provincial university to help in the training. So far nearly 100 people have completed this lengthy course, and though the training offers them no career advantages, they commit themselves to the work as a part of their Christian compassion.
Another project supported by the local church was a school for deaf children. Since its inception they have been able to secure some funding from the gov’t, but the amount given per student is only 10,000rmb per year which is also supposed to cover the cost of hearing aids for each child. Because of this the deaf school relies heavily on volunteers and additional funding from the church and other organizations.
The school now boards nearly 100 students, with many coming from rural villages and other impoverished provinces. Some were as young as 2 or 3, which was sad to see knowing that they had limited contact with their parents. The school still suffers from a shortage of properly trained teachers who can communicate fluently in sign language (which are incredibly rare in China), but are working to develop a more complete school. They are also hoping that the gov’t will revise their funding so that they can provide a better learning environment for the children.
In one of the small cities we attended a presentation on AIDS education projects started by one church that was supported by the local CDC. The CDC leader proudly said, “We have always had a policy of being open about the scale of the challenge when it comes to AIDS in this city.” He also made sure to point out that the first case of AIDS diagnosed in the city was in 1994, it was a middle aged man who had worked for a foreign company (AIDS initially was viewed in China as a symbol of contamination from the West and a symptom of opening up).
Then the church leader stood up and said, “In the early 2000’s when we approached the CDC about creating an AIDS education program we were told that there were no cases of AIDS in our city and that we should focus on something else. But, they have always supported our work.” Despite the apparent contradiction, at the moment it did seem that the local CDC was supporting the efforts of the local church.
The AIDS education project consisted of running a hotline for questions about the disease, training community educators, and distributing tissue packets with information about how AIDS spreads. They also worked with the local infectious disease hospital, and visited AIDS patients. The church said that there had been a few setbacks along the way, most notably that the CDC had forbade them from discussing the link between prostitution and drug use and AIDS in materials meant for the general public (talk of needle sharing and sex were allowed). In their workshops for community educators, there were several description of how people get AIDS that included the story of a Party official contracting the disease from a mistress.
Another challenge was that initially a few church members had vocally opposed the project, since it might give the impression to the community that the church was full of prostitutes and drug users. Fortunately, reason prevailed, and church members saw that ministering to these marginalized groups was exactly what the church should be involved with.
These represent just a few of the community outreach projects started by Chinese Christians. Others include charity sales, support for the disabled and their families, English classes taught by local Chinese professors, and many others. The foreign ministers that accompanied me on this trip said over and over that they wished they could spark this kind of enthusiasm for volunteer work in their home congregations.
Tomorrow we’ll be looking at a few questionable types of projects the Chinese church is involved with.
*To me Matthew 7:15-20 seems to be saying that we should guard ourselves from false prophets and teachings, and that the way to judge these is by examining the fruits of those teachings. If rural TSPM churches are overflowing with new believers, and those believers in turn are reaching out to the neediest in society and working towards a vision of a just and equitable society, I find it hard to call that false.
I think too many Christians in the US are overly concerned with whether or not Chinese TSPM churches are teaching a “true” version of Christianity, with “true” usually meaning that it agrees with their exact ideology. It should be noted that missionaries in the 1900’s were keen to see Chinese Christians develop a native theology that met the needs of the local population, and the projects discussed in today’s post are very similar to what was done by “real” Christians at the turn of the century.
From what I have seen in my dozens of church visits, TSPM churches are often the most visible source of social good in their communities. They offer everything from medical treatment to agricultural education, from caring for orphans to helping those with terminal illnesses face death knowing that they are loved. They boldly proclaim Christ’s love not only in words but in deeds as well. These churches exist in a questionable space, a space that many of them would like to see reformed, but I have not seen a church anywhere in the world completely immune from politics and policies (many of whom are the ones pointing their fingers at TSPM churches).
I propose that instead of quarreling over TSPM church teachings, which have not been standardized or sanitized by the gov’t or the TSPM itself, we should instead be focusing on the restrictions placed on all religious groups within China. TSPM churches are also demolished and closed without explanation, and their ministers have been detained. As Christians we should be united in solidarity with our brothers and sisters (just one of dozens of verses warning early Christians about division within the movement).
My pleasant chat with the happy rural Christians was almost the complete opposite from my chat with one of the ministers of that province’s Christian Council (the governing branch of the officially recognized church). Perhaps that was because she could speak English, and wasn’t constrained by the officials that had come along with us; perhaps it was because she’d been pushed too far.
In the city where she worked, the gov’t had big plans for the downtown areas, and the plans required the bulldozing of a historic church and a Bible training center. While the groups were being more than fairly compensated for the land, this minister was adamant that gov’t should not interfere with the church and that these place were sacred (she was also very vocal about the inadequate compensation for the villagers that were being displaced by the new buildings).
When she explained the proposal from the gov’t, it was easy to understand why she was so upset. Not only was the Bible school to be moved from the downtown area to a distant suburb, but the gov’t had also maintained control over the design of the new school and church. The design the gov’t had selected was reminiscent of the Crystal Cathedral, and the minister was well aware of the fact that upkeep would likely be far more than the church could afford. The church wanted something practical, and the local gov’t wanted a centerpiece; by the time we arrived the church had already lost.
Later that day she pointed to a series of buildings next to a lake and explained that it was where the retired provincial officials lived. When the current gov’t tried to build a bridge over the lake, the cadres complained it would obstruct their view. As a result, there is now an incredibly expensive tunnel. To her, these two cases were one in the same.
During a dinner one evening with provincial gov’t officials (who were busy toasting others with very expensive baijiu, this fact was explained in a very very long speech), the minister shared something even more surprising – even though she was a life long member of the registered church, she supported her son’s decision to join an underground congregation. “The underground church,” she whispered, “is closer to the Bible.*”
She continued, “You know, I just returned from a conference overseas, and there everything about Bo Xilai was exposed on the internet. When I returned to China, we couldn’t see anything.” She was getting louder and had switched to Chinese, so I scooted closer and reminded her that the officials might hear her. “You know they monitor our (ministers’) emails and phones? One of my friends was taken away for meeting with foreign ministers. We work for the official church, but they still have no trust in us.”
“One man,” she said, “even built a school for the children of one very poor village. He had permission from the gov’t and everything. He had been very careful to do everything in accordance with the laws. One day, he was found visiting an underground church, so to punish him they said he could never return to his village and they closed the school.”
At this point she was pulled back into the conversation with the officials and I never had the chance to follow up with her for more stories.
For the next several days I traveled with this minister, and was thoroughly impressed by her ability to navigate through the system that was, while quietly encouraging something new. I was overwhelmed by her compassion; even in the smallest villages congregants would rush to hug her when we would step out of the car. If you’ve spent much time in China, you know how rare these displays of affection are. She shared an intimate connection with thousands of believers. She knew their challenges and concerns and also shared in their joys. This outspoken minister is one of the people that I will never forget.
Despite these problems with the local authorities, Christianity was flourishing in the communities we visited (the most commonly cited problem was overcrowding at services). Tomorrow I’ll be sharing some of the projects currently led by Chinese Christians that have a profound impact in their cities.
*This hasn’t been my experience in Chinese churches
A few weeks ago I had the chance to visit a very small village. The villagers there told me this story of how they converted to Christianity and I thought it was an interesting account that gave a glimpse of their relationship with God and a few of the practical challenges of being a rural Christian. The following is a fairly close retelling of what I overheard from their congregation-
Villager #1 – Before we became Christians, our village was known for quarreling with our neighbors. Outsiders said that you could hear us fighting even before you entered. Neighbors would fight from sun up to sun down. We were really terrible then (congregation nods in agreement).
Another villager later told us that she had been one of the absolute worst, and raised her hands to show her ability to fight. The other villagers found this hilarious, but it seemed pretty obvious that she was one tough old lady.
Then one of our villagers met the minister from the nearby town and became a Christian (this minister was Chinese, he had been converted by another Chinese minister in the 80’s). When the others saw how happy she was, they wanted to become Christian too. Now almost the whole village has become Christian, and we no longer fight with each other. Things are much better now. We even received an award from the local gov’t for being a harmonious village.
The Lord has blessed our village in many other ways as well. For instance, because we are located high on the cliff, and we only recently had a road built, we used to have to lower caskets down by rope for burial. From time to time, the casket would tip over and the body would come tumbling out, it was a terrible misfortune for the family. Since we became Christians though, this has not happened a single time.
Minister from the nearby town – When the villagers from this place first started coming to my church, it took them nearly 6 hours to get to the chapel. This was because there was no road to the village, and so the trip was not only difficult but dangerous. When I learned about this I contacted a Christian charity for help. The charity then worked with the local gov’t to secure the funding for the project, but to keeps costs low, the villagers had to work together.
Even though they weren’t fighting with each other as much during that time, they were still too busy farming to work on this project. One day though, this woman (a woman missing one arm comes to the front of the church), picked up a bucket and started working on the road. When the others saw that even this disabled person was willing to work, they knew they had no valid excuses (at this point, most of the people in the church were crying, including the woman). Now that the road has been built it is not only much easier for them to come to the city for church, but they can also reach emergency medical services and sell their goods in the market. This is truly a precious gift from God.
Lay Leader responding to a question about literacy – In our village we have very few people who can read. Most of the young people have left (the ones who could read), and so it can be difficult for new believers to understand the Bible’s teachings.
One of our members was so determined to learn the lessons, that she had her husband read her passages from the Bible every night until she memorized most of the important texts. Even though she can’t read, the others in the church know that if there is ever a question about the scripture, she can always recall the whole verse.
Another woman’s husband decided that he could teach his wife to read while she worked. So every night he would copy a verse in large characters for her. Then when she was plowing the fields, she would attach the verse to the back of the cow and study the characters one by one. Now she is one of our church leaders.
So even though most of the members can’t read, all of the members can access the Bible in one way or another. We also spend time before each church service learning all the songs for the day.
Minister from nearby town answering a question about whether or not he’d ever had trouble from the local gov’t for being a Christian- One time in the late 80’s, shortly after I became a Christian, I saw many young people on a motorcycle and they seemed to be prostitutes. I thought this was something that the gov’t should control, and so I made several large-character posters encouraging them to take action.
A few days later the Public Security Bureau came and took me to the police station for questioning. They asked, “Did you write the signs near the gov’t buildings?”
“I did,” I said.
“Who told you to do this?” they said.
“I did it by myself,” I replied.
“Why are you against the Party?” they asked.
I was very confused though, because I had never said anything against the Party, I was just encouraging them to uphold the laws. After several more rounds of questioning, I finally realized that these officers had never even seen the posters. Someone had simply reported to them that I was putting up signs by the gov’t buildings, and that I had never done this before I was a Christian. In those days, that was enough to get you into a lot of trouble.
Once I recognized this and explained to them what the signs had actually said, they were very embarrassed that they had questioned me about them, and assured me the gov’t would look into this case.