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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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Chinese version 《活石：一个中国家庭教会的遭遇》