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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.
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》
Interview with a Wenzhou Pastor: The Chinese Government’s Large-Scale Destruction of Crosses in Zhejiang Province
By Yaxue Cao, published: July 29, 2015
Yaxue spoke with Pastor L in Wenzhou on July 26.
YC: I began paying attention to the demolition of churches and tearing-down of crosses in Zhejiang last year after reading many international media reports on the demolition of the Sanjiang Church (三江教堂) in Wenzhou. Recently there’s been a resurgence of cross-removals, and the daily news items and images of this are quite shocking. It seems the Chinese government is determined to tear down every cross in Zhejiang!
I’ve also read the statements issued both this year and last year by clergy and believers in Zhejiang, including from churches that are acknowledged and even, to a certain degree, led by the Chinese government, such as the statement from the Christian Council of Zhejiang. It seems as if Christians in Zhejiang are at the point where they can no longer tolerate it any further.
Although there have been some foreign media coverage of these events, I feel that the outside world—including myself—doesn’t really understand very well how things got to this point. I hope that you can provide me and our readers with an “introductory 101 class” to help us gain a basic understanding of what’s going on.
Let’s start by talking about the demolition of the Sanjiang Church in April 2014. That was an extremely impressive church, and the images of its destruction are extremely shocking. Why did they want to tear down the Sanjiang Church?
L: The Sanjiang Church was an architectural landmark in Wenzhou. Situated in a good location opposite Wangjiang Road, it had just been built and was in the process of being fitted out but it was already being used for services. It was not the original plan to build such a large church, but the government gave encouragement for a larger building because Wenzhou has a lot of people living overseas and foreign tourists, and the authorities wanted it to become a tourist attraction.
At that point, Zhejiang Chinese Communist Party Secretary Xia Baolong (夏宝龙) came to Wenzhou. He’s the one who ordered that the church be torn down. The local government in Wenzhou has always been rather tolerant regarding religious buildings. Occasionally, there would be forced demolitions for redevelopment, but local officials would have never torn down such a large structure. So, we knew from the beginning that this was not the work of the local government in Wenzhou and had to have come from higher up.
Some online have said that Xia Baolong gave the order because he felt uncomfortable when he saw the size of the Sanjiang Church. But I think the more reliable explanation is that Xia had in fact already planned to tear down crosses all over Zhejiang. Even before the Sanjiang Church was demolished, there had already been cross removals elsewhere in Zhejiang since perhaps February. There was a great deal of discussion about this among Christians, a lot of it expressing surprise: “Why tear down crosses?” So the destruction of the Sanjiang Church was actually only the climax of this campaign.
Opposition to the demolition of the Sanjiang Church lasted about a week as groups of Christians began spontaneously arriving to defend the church. Several thousands camped out there inside the church to try to defend it, day and night. But we voluntarily withdrew late at night on April 26. There were several reasons for this. First, armed police had arrived and there would definitely be bloodshed if we continued to resist. Normally, they would send SWAT police, and they came so regularly we didn’t fear them. That day, the entire hillside was surrounded by SWAT vehicles and armed-police vehicles, and armed police were hiding out in the surrounding greenbelt areas. They’d already shut down all roads and entrances within a radius of miles. The government was very nervous, as they’d never encountered this kind of resistance and solidarity before. The church itself came under too much pressure from the government, who said that there were Xinjiang terrorists mixed among us. We could have actually continued to hold out, but it definitely would have resulted in big trouble.
On April 28, Sanjiang Church came tumbling down. From that point on, the dam burst. Wenzhou began to tear down crosses on a grand scale. All along the way, there has been resistance. The most serious was on July 21, 2014, in Pingyang County (平阳水头救恩堂), when SWAT police rushed protesters and started beating them. Fourteen people were injured, two or three of them quite seriously. The foreign media reported on this, using hidden-camera footage of the violence. But the churches have always exercised restraint. They could have mobilized a great number of people to oppose the demolitions, but that would lead to casualties on both sides.
After the incident on July 21, Christians went to the government seeking accountability for the police action and emotions were running high. Pastor Huang Yizi (黄益梓) held prayers at the scene of the protest and was subsequently sentenced to a year in prison.
YC: Was the July 21 incident about demolishing a church or tearing down a cross?
L: It was about tearing down a cross. The authorities claimed to be tearing down an illegal structure, but they only tore down the cross, not the part of the construction that was actually in violation.
After the July 21 incident, there was a great decrease in incidents of cross-removal and things quieted down for several months. But at the end of June and beginning of July 2015, we began receiving a large number of verbal notices that crosses needed to be torn down. And unlike the previous times, this time they wanted to tear them all down.
For example, all 135 crosses in Pingyang County must be torn down. There were more than 50 crosses in Lucheng District (鹿城区) – all must be taken down. East of here, in Yuhuan County (玉环县), they also wanted to tear down more than 50 crosses. In the area around Wenling City (温岭), they’re planning to remove all 168 crosses. [NOTE: Yuhuan and Wenling are both part of Taizhou (台州), northeast of Wenzhou.] To this point they’ve already torn down around 1,500 crosses. This is obviously a campaign specifically targeted at taking down crosses.
Actually, around the time that the Sanjiang Church was demolished we saw a leaked internal document that talked about things like the “political meaning behind the crosses” and “infiltration by foreign forces.” Since this document was leaked, they no longer circulate these sorts of written documents.
YC: What’s the current situation like?
L: Things are very different now from before. Resistance is much more widespread and difficult to suppress. Resistance used to be isolated and focused on a particular church. Now, with this campaign of total demolition, everyone feels like this is no longer simply about tearing down crosses. It’s not merely about symbols—they want to attack your beliefs. Everyone feels like this is the beginning of a deeper repression, where they first do away with your symbols and then attack at a deeper level, destroying your internal organization, your doctrine, your church finances, even your pulpits.
For example, no matter whether you’re a “Three-Self Patriotic Church” (church sanctioned by the government) or a “house church,” no one discusses government policies or regulations on Sundays. Now, they want us to take time during our Sunday worship to let religious-affairs officials talk about religious policies and regulations from the pulpit. This has led to extremely fierce opposition—no one’s willing to allow this.
It wasn’t like this before. At worst, you’d see the Chinese government cultivate a group of people within the church to act as its proxies, and the things they wanted publicized tended to be some government policies, like aligning moral education with official ideology. But you cannot tamper with doctrine or turn pulpits over to religious-affairs cadres. There’s even resistance to this from inside the “Three-Self churches.”
YC: Over the last few days I’ve seen an open letter from the Christian Council of Zhejiang (浙江省基督教协会). They seem extremely upset. What do you think of their announcement?
L: There are a few different reasons behind this. The vast majority of crosses torn down are from “Three-Self” churches. The government set up these “Three-Self” churches to bring churchgoers into their “United Front.” But the authorities have stopped using the relatively flexible methods they’d always used in the past, so the official churches feel they’ve gone too far. For one thing, the authorities’ actions aren’t in line with the Communist Party’s own religious policies. For another, many Christians complain about the official churches, which makes the official churches feel that they’ve lost their ability to function as a “bridge” between the faithful and the government. It’s become impossible for them to convince church members. They feel that if they don’t speak out, they’ll lose all credibility.
YC: I saw one report that after the Zhejiang Christian Council published its open letter, the government confiscated its official seal. I find the government’s arrogant and insulting behavior simply hard to believe. They treat churches with absolutely no respect, like a violent master towards a lowly slave. So it’s little surprise that they act in this barbaric manner, tearing down crosses and violating the religious rights of Christians.
You said a moment ago that the resistance of Christians is now more difficult to suppress. What form is their opposition taking and how is it being expressed?
L: It takes many forms. Many churches have people join hands to form a “human wall.” We also call this the “snail strategy,” where we stick to a place just like a snail. There’s also the “honeybee strategy,” where a bunch of people gather together and pester them. They typically come at night to carry out the demolition, so if you pester them for several hours they get tired and leave. Those churches that have been able to protect their crosses have done so through these methods.
YC: Oh, some have succeeded in defending their crosses?
L: Yes, quite a few have been protected.
There’s also the strategy of piling up stones to block the road leading to the church. This is used quite often in rural areas. The more rural a place, the stronger the resistance. I saw a photo of one location where they even demolished a bridge to block the demolition. There’s also a lot of banners and loudspeakers. Many places in the Cangnan plains (苍南平原) have been broadcasting legal-education recordings from loudspeakers toward the people who come to tear down the crosses—things like: “Article 36 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China guarantees its citizens freedom of religious belief. There is no legal basis for what you police are doing.”
YC: Are you seeing armed police or SWAT teams these days?
L: Yes, especially SWAT police. Armed police were deployed at Sanjiang, but now you don’t see them much. When the resistance is not so fierce, they use private security guards.
Churches don’t have protest experience, so their organizational capacity is rather weak. This is because for several decades, churches have responded to various threats through avoidance, non-resistance, and passive retreat. Now, they’re defending their crosses and there’s no way to escape. Several hundred churches have hired lawyers to sue local officials. Some are calling for the removal of Xia Baolong. Someone proposed that an image of Xia Baolong be made with a cross drawn over his face. Pastors and believers also use social media to broadcast latest development and photos of the scenes. A single post can get reposted tens of thousands of times in a single day if it doesn’t get censored immediately. As soon as it gets censored, another gets put up again and reposted tens of thousands more times. There are many ways of protesting. We’re mobilizing the imaginations of our fellow believers.
YC: Are any churches that had their crosses torn down putting up new ones in their place?
L: Lots of them. They put up new crosses right after they’re torn down.
YC: What do you anticipate will happen next?
L: Believers are manufacturing a large number of crosses out of both wood and acrylic glass. They say, “Go ahead and tear down the crosses. We can’t fight you, so we’ll put crosses on our cars and hang them from our homes. We’ll put them up on the side of the road or on a mountaintop. We’ll put up crosses all over.” It’s not easy to put a large cross back up on the roof of a church. You need to hire many experts and spend tens of thousands.
YC: In its open letter, the Zhejiang Christian Council says that there are more than 2 million Christians in Zhejiang.
L: That’s a very conservative estimate. There are over a million in Wenzhou alone. Wenzhou is unlike large cities like Beijing or Shanghai. It’s mostly made up of small towns, and there are churches everywhere. Each of these places of worship has hundreds of people. Even churches in remote areas have over a hundred people. It’s rare to see churches with fewer than a hundred people.
YC: Can you tell me about the social background of Christians in Wenzhou? For example, what sort of people join your own church? What’s their level of education, occupational background, and so on?
L: There are all sorts of people and people of all ages. There are many who are in business and many are intellectuals. We also have a lot of elderly people. There are also many Christians among the ranks of civil servants.
YC: Do they come to church openly?
L: Of course they do! But now they’re encountering great difficulties. I have a friend—a university professor—who resigned because of unbearable pressure. They used all sorts of different means to threaten him. Many of the doctors and nurses at the Wenzhou Medical College and its affiliated hospitals are Christians, and they too have come under pressure. There are also many Christians among middle-school- and primary-school teachers. They’re also well represented in early-childhood education, where Christians have an advantage because they learn to dance and play the piano in their churches from an early age. Now, however, kindergartens are refusing to hire Christians. It wasn’t like this before.
There are also a lot of young people who are Christians, and each church will have a youth fellowship organization. There are also summer fellowship camps for students, attended by dozens from a single church and several hundreds from a parish—all young people.
YC: I have another question. Given that this campaign to tear down crosses has become a focus of international attention, do you think the campaign is the work of the provincial government? I don’t see how it can be.
L: We’ve been having quite a heated debate on this point recently. There are two opinions. The first—mainly made up of people from the south—believes that this is the work of the central government, something either being led or condoned by Xi Jinping. The second view is held primarily by northerners, who believe this is a local action. This includes people overseas in Hong Kong and North America—those who study religion and research government-church relations mainly think this is a local action. But here in the south, people inside the church have a hunch that this is the work of the central government.
YC: This north-south division you describe is within the clergy, right?
L: It also includes people within institutions, university researchers, and public intellectuals.
YC: When it comes to tearing down crosses, is any distinction being made between Catholic churches and Protestant churches?
L: No. All are seeing their crosses torn down.
YC: Which is more predominant in Wenzhou, Catholicism or Protestantism?
L: There are more Protestants, but Catholicism is quite strong, too. There are two main streams of Protestant Christians in Wenzhou. The two earliest originated with the United Methodist Free Church and the China Inland Mission, now known as the Overseas Missionary Fellowship (OMF). Both came originally from Britain. These account for the two main denominations of Protestant Christianity in Wenzhou. There is also the Church of Seventh-Day Adventists, as well as the Christian assembly churches, similar to the Church of the Brethren. All four of these denominations are seeing their crosses torn down, without any distinction.
YC: Can you say a few words to explain a bit about the differences between “Three-Self” churches and “house churches”?
L: There isn’t too much difference in terms of doctrine. The government once wanted to change a core doctrine of the “Three-Self” church, namely the “doctrine of sola fide” (or “justification based solely on faith”). House churches and “Three-Self” churches all insist on this doctrine.
K.H. Ting (丁光训), a bishop recognized by the government, once proposed a doctrine of justification based on love. They wanted to change the doctrine in this way but were unsuccessful. Also, house churches don’t tailor their ethical guidance to official ideology. The second difference is that clergy in the “Three-Self” church are appointed and approved through official channels, while those in the house churches are not.
YC: Aren’t all of the churches that had their crosses torn down “Three-Self” churches? Can “house churches” be so large?
L: In Zhejiang, many house churches employ roundabout ways to build similarly large church buildings.
YC: I’ve heard people call Wenzhou “China’s Jerusalem.” I’ve seen so many extravagant church buildings in photos. Can you explain briefly why Christianity is so flourishing in Wenzhou and in Zhejiang? First, am I correct in this judgment? Is Christianity particularly flourishing in Zhejiang?
L: It’s true. Missionaries from countries like Great Britain, the United States, and other countries began proselytizing in Ningbo (宁波), Hangzhou (杭州), Wenzhou, Taizhou (台州) back in the 1880s and became long-term settlers here. So, there’s a historical source for Christianity in Wenzhou. From early on, Wenzhou’s trade with the outside world was very developed, and this is another important reason.
There is a strong practical and utilitarian flavor to the religious belief of people in Wenzhou. If I’m engaged in business or any other enterprise, I want to seek the blessings of God. If someone goes into business, he seeks the prayers and blessings of people in his church. After giving birth, you seek the prayers and blessings of the church so that your child may do well in school.
So, when Wenzhou merchants go to do business in Beijing, Shanghai, or other large cities, they immediately set up their own places of worship and devote at least one night a week to worship. As long as there are people from Wenzhou, there will definitely be a church for them. There are also a large number of Wenzhou Christians living overseas in places like Paris, Rome, New York and Los Angeles.
When people from Wenzhou make money and become prosperous, they voluntarily donate fund to build big churches. Once people rode bicycles; now they all drive cars. When they come to church they need places to park, so of course churches need to expand. In the past, when it was hot people fanned themselves to keep cool or installed electric fans; now you definitely need air-conditioning. People’s standard of living has improved, and church buildings also need upgrading. Why should churches be any different from government buildings in that respect?
YC: I notice that nearly all the crosses that have been torn down from churches in Wenzhou are red. Why is that?
L: This is a meaning being expressed there. Christianity has encountered several decades of repression in China. In the 20 years from 1958 to 1978, China banned Christian worship and Christians were all forced underground. Life was extremely difficult for Christians during those years. They had to gather secretly, hiding in the mountains or in other places where nobody went. There were no place to purchase the Bible, so they hand-copied it and shared with each other. If you got caught, they would confiscate your Bible.
Everyone was very happy when Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦) lifted the ban on religious belief in 1978. Older Christians shed so much blood and so many tears for their faith. They didn’t care much about or have a deep understanding of theology, but when they built churches they insisted that the churches be taller than their houses and that the crosses should stand up tall. What they were expressing is this: In the past, we weren’t free; now we want to show that our churches exist. So the crosses were built very tall and kept illuminated at night with a red light. The church is a city upon a hill. Christians are the light of the world. We want to shine in all directions.
Yaxue Cao (曹雅学) edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @YaxueCao.
The Ongoing War Against Religion in China, by Zhao Chu, China Change, August 4, 2015.
Source 《与一位温州牧师的访谈：中国在浙江省大规模强拆十字架》, translated by China Change.
More photo are available here.
By Teng Biao, published: January 6, 2015
A shorter version of the article appeared in Washington Post on December 28, 2014. Here is the full text. – The Editor
I’m afraid that those of you who excitedly applauded the Communist Party’s rehashing of the term “governing the country according to the law” have forgotten the famous words of Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Jiang Yu, who once warned sternly, “Don’t use the law as a shield.” I don’t understand why some people only remember the pleasant words they speak and but forget their blatant opposition to universal values; why some people are always willing to believe what they say, but disregard all the things that they do. The Communists once boasted wildly about “liberty and constitutional democracy” before they violently seized political power and established a frightening totalitarian rule, but they have since opposed judicial independence, democratic elections, freedom of press and freedom of belief. They have not ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and they refused to nationalize the military.
It is not the first time they come out with the banner of “governing the country according to the law.” In 1997, “governing the country according to the law” was written into the Report Delivered at the 15th Congress of the Communist Party of China, in 1999 it was written into the Constitution. But it was in 1999 that they launched the savage oppression of the Falun Gong, with hundreds of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners illegally taken into custody and subjected to torture, with more than 3,700 people persecuted to death. Since Xi Jinping came to power, no fewer than 400 rights defenders and intellectuals have been thrown into prison for political reasons. Properties have been forcefully expropriated or demolished, free speech has been restricted, religion has been suppressed, women have been forced to have abortions, the judiciary has been fraught with scandals, and the incidence of torture has multiplied. These abuses have never stopped, but have grown in intensity. In Xinjiang and Tibet, the authorities have been perpetrating one shocking human right catastrophe after another.
It turns out that the Chinese Communist Party’s “governing the country according to the law” is not the rule of law you and I understand. The essential element required for rule of law — using the law to limit the authority of the government–was exactly what the Communist Party opposes ideologically and in practice sternly guards against. The rule of law that they talk about in reality is “Lenin + Emperor Qin Shi Huang,” modern totalitarianism combined with the pre-modern Chinese “legalism,” which is nothing more than a tool to further control of society. Or in the Party’s own language, public security organs are the “knife hilt” of the Communist Party. In the “Resolution” of the Party’s recent Fourth Plenum, the term “Party’s leadership” appears at least 17 times. The rule of law is superimposed by the rule of the Party, and there is not a shred of doubt about this.
In China, the legislative organs controlled by the Communist Party have promulgated volumes and volumes of statutes. The judicial organs, also controlled by the Party, are busy dealing with cases. The legal professions, including lawyers, have been developed. However, the question remains: Is the law at the center of the governing order? In the words of Professor Fu Hualing (傅華伶), in addition to China’s legal processes, there are a large number of extra-legal processes, such as re-education through labor, shuanggui (an extralegal system within the CCP for detaining and interrogating cadres), and media restrictions, and then there are the extra-extra laws, such as house arrest, black jails, etc., not to mention all the illegal methods of governance: secret police, chengguan (a para-police force that works with police across the country to help enforce minor city rules and regulations), illegal detentions, monitoring and spying on citizens, extra-judicial torture, forced disappearances, internet police, and gangs. Think about it. Without these tools, how long could the Communist Party continue to rule?
Together with things such as the Three Represents and Harmonious Society, “governing the country according to the law” is Communist Party’s yet another attempt to address the crisis of legitimacy. These slogans have gone quite a way in reaching the Party’s goal of tricking people within China and the international community. However, legitimacy in contemporary politics can only come via the recognition given through free elections. But the Communist Party wants to cling to one-party rule, and it completely rejects general elections, even in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. It’s not difficult to understand why that real rule of law would necessarily mean the end of the one-party system. This is the limitation on the legalization process that began in the late 1970s that cannot be overcome.
I must admit that the term “governing the country according to the law” is different from other clichés in that it provides “rhetoric room” for citizens defending their rights “according to the law.” Over the past 10 years, I and other human rights defenders have consistently used existing laws to carry out our human rights work, and occasionally we’ve been able to achieve success in some legal cases. However, the limitations are obvious. The authorities have rejected any significant reform of the judicial system or democratization, and whenever they feel a threat from civil society, they suppress more and harsher. I myself have had my lawyer’s license revoked, have been expelled from my university, and have been kidnapped and disappeared several times. When the security police were torturing me, they shouted, “Don’t talk about any of this law stuff with us.”
In enumerating progresses being made in China legal system, people pointed out the fallen number of death sentences, the new criminal procedure law, the abolishment of reeducation through labor, reform of the local court system, government’s willingness to provide information, and the ongoing anti-corruption campaign. To begin with, it is questionable whether or not most of the above are actually progresses in the legal system. Even if they are, the major driving force for these changes has been the people, each a result of the probing, pressure and paying price by rights lawyers, democracy activists, and the countless Chinese on the lower rungs of society.
Xi Jinping once talked about locking up power in a cage, but this is not much different than a magician wrapping an iron chain around himself. In reality, what they would like to do, are doing and want to do, is to lock the people up in a cage. The APEC meeting that just concluded in Beijing has allowed people around the world to experience the power of “governing the country according to the law.” In Huairou, close to 9,000 homes were demolished, cars from outside the city were not allowed to enter Beijing, electric motor scooters were forbidden from being on the streets, stoves within a 5km circumference of the meeting center were prohibited, milk companies had to temporarily stop delivering milk, and express mail services were not allowed to deliver packages to Beijing. In Hebei, more than 2,000 companies were ordered to stop production, Tianjin cut off heating, street peddlers were driven away, a large number of human rights petitioners were detained, and even marriage registration offices of Beijing municipal government temporarily stopped operating, and crematoriums were ordered not to cremate the dead.
From between the lines of Party documents, sycophants inside and outside China are able to imagine a “spring for rule of law” that doesn’t exist while ignoring human rights disasters suffered by Ilham Tohti, Xu Zhiyong, Cao Shunli, Gao Zhisheng, Uighurs, Tibetans, petitioners, Falun Gong adherents, and house churches. The kind of selective blindness has hindered Western readers and politicians from understanding the reality in today’s China. It’s no surprise that this type of seemingly even-handed wishful thinking has become the excuse for Western governments to adopt short-sighted policies of appeasement in dealing with autocratic regimes and for favoring trade over human rights.
Teng Biao is a human rights lawyer, visiting fellow at Harvard University Law School. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other op-eds by Teng Biao:
Ilham Tohti should get the Nobel peace prize, not life in prison, Guardian, September 24, 2014.
Gao Zhisheng, out of prison but not free, Washington Post, September 7, 2014.
China’s growing human rights movement can claim many accomplishments, Washington Post, April 18, 2014.
(The author wishes to thank Paul Mooney @pjmooney.)
By China Change, published: February 12, 2014
On January 24, 2014, when all eyes were on the New Citizens Movement trials, in Tongzhou District, Beijing (北京通州区), police detained more than a dozen house church Christians and, two days later on January 26, 12 of them were announced to have been criminally detained. In recent days, rights lawyers have become involved in representing their case.
On the afternoon of Friday, January 24, when Xu Yonghai (徐永海), the elder of the Beijing house church “Holy Love Fellowship” (圣爱团契) and 17 or 18 others were studying the Bible in the home of one of their members, the police descended on them claiming that they had received a “report about a gathering of many people.” The police took all but four old or sick ones to the local police station without showing any legal document.
In the police station, each was interrogated two to three times. Mr. Xu Yonghai was released later but, in the morning of January 26, police officer took him away again.
On the same day, the police announced the criminal detention of Xu Yong hai (徐永海), Yang Jing (杨靖), Yu Yanhua (于艳华), Xu Caihong (徐彩虹), Lu Dongli (吕动力), Ju Xiaoling (居小玲), Zhang Haiyan (张海彦), Wang Su’e (王素娥), Yang Min (杨敏), Kang Suping (康素萍), Yang Qiuyu (杨秋雨), and Wang Chunyan (王春艳) for alleged illegal assembly, parade and demonstration. They are currently detained in the Beijing Municipal First Detention Center.
On February 11, Beijing-based human rights lawyer Liang Xiaojun (梁小军) met with Mr. Xu Yonghai at the detention center.
According to the lawyer, for 17 days since his detention, Mr. Xu Yonghai has been fasting and praying, but he seemed to be in good spirits and he still wore his contagious smile as ever. Mr. Xu thanked everyone for their concern and regretted the detention of so many of his church brothers and sisters.
Mr. Xu Yonghai’s wife told the Chinese rights defense network weiquanwang (维权网) that, the family has not received any legal document although Mr. Xu has been criminally detained for over two weeks already.
Just days before their detention, when the house church congregated in the same home for a Bible study session, an official from Tongzhou District Civil Affairs Bureau by the name Fu Haibing (付海兵) came and told the congregation that “you are illegal because you have not registered.”
Mr. Xu Yonghai told weiquanwang that the official then read Article 12 of the Regulations on Religious Affairs to the group: “Collective religious activities of religious citizens shall, in general, be held at registered sites for religious activities (i.e., Buddhist monasteries, Taoist temples, mosques, churches and other fixed premises for religious activities), organized by the sites for religious activities or religious bodies, and presided over by religious personnel or other persons who are qualified under the prescriptions of the religion concerned, and the process of such activities shall be in compliance with religious doctrines and canons.”
Having read Article 12, the official went on to say, “Any group with more than two or three people would constitute a collective body. Since you have not registered, your assembly here is illegal.”
According to Mr. Xu, the official also said, “We have the enforcement authority. We can ban an illegal church in accordance with the law. And when we do, we can confiscate Bibles and other religious publications.”
Mr. Xu Yonghai told weiquanwang that the Holy Love Fellowship began in 1989 and has existed for nearly 25 years, and that although he was put in jail twice for his belief, the Civil Affairs office has never asked them to register, nor has the group ever been identified as being illegal.
More rights lawyers are getting involved in representing these house church detainees.
Mr. Xu Yonghai graduated from Beijing Medical College in 1984, worked in several hospitals in Beijing, and became a Christian in 1989. In 1995, Xu was given two years of reeducation-through-labor for signing an appeal for democracy and rule of law to commemorate the 6th anniversary of Tian’anmen movement. In 2003, he was sentenced to two years in jail for helping a persecuted house church in the northeastern city of Anshan (辽宁鞍山). Since his release in 2006, he has often been subjected to house arrest and surveillance, and has not been able to resume his medical profession.
Xu Yonghai’s blog: http://blog.boxun.com/hero/xuyonghai/