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China Change, December 21, 2018
On Sunday evening, December 9, while worshiping with members, Wang Yi (王怡), the lead pastor of Chengdu Early Rain Covenant Church was seized and taken away by police. The church was raided; books and other items were confiscated. In the same evening, police descended on homes of many members, demanding that they sign a pledge not to participate in “illegal gatherings of the Early Rain church” anymore. Over one hundred were taken away for refusing to sign. The church’s WeChat group was shut down, so were the personal accounts of many churchgoers.
The authorities outlawed the church, the church’s elementary school and its divinity school.
According to the latest report, 25 church members have been detained so far. Of the 15 who have been criminally detained, Pastor Wang Yi and his wife Jiang Rong (蒋蓉) were arrested for allegedly “inciting subversion of state power;” the other 13 (elders, deacons, or members) were detained for “illegal business operation” or “provoking disturbances.” Seven have been disappeared and 3 given administrative detention.
The Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu is one of the best known house churches in China. Unlike any other Chinese house churches, Pastor Wang Yi and some of the church’s key members have been part of China’s emerging civil society since the early 2000s. Over the past few years, the church has attracted many human rights defenders and dissident intellectuals. In 2011, the church established a fund for families of political prisoners in Sichuan. Each year on June 4th, the church holds a prayer for the country to commemorate the Tiananmen democracy movement.
The church operates schools. “Each family, each church must defend the God-given sovereignty over the education of its children,” said Pastor Wang Yi, “even if we have to go to jail for it.” The church has a divinity school, an elementary school for 1st to 6th graders, a school of humanities, as well as a Sunday school.
(Members preaching on the streets of Chengdu.)
Pastor Wang Yi, who is 45 years old this year, is a Sichuan native who was born and raised in Santai county, Mianyang city. He graduated from Sichuan University law school in 1996, and taught at the business school of Chengdu University for a number of years. When Internet forums sprang up in China at the turn of the century, Wang Yi distinguished himself in a vibrant forum known as “Guantian Tea House” (关天茶社) where a new generation of intellectuals met, debated and made names for themselves. Wang Yi hosted a constitutional democracy forum that discussed China’s political transition.
In 2004, Wang Yi was selected by Nanfang People Weekly (南方人物周刊) as one of the “Most Influential Public Intellectuals.” Reporter He Sanwei (何三畏) described Wang Yi this way: “This young man is a bright sight to behold. His thoughts are sharp and deliberate, and his expressions well-formed and witty.”
The list included economist Mao Yuxi (茅于轼), lawyer Zhang Sizhi (张思之), political scholars Liu Junning (刘军宁), Zhu Xueqin (朱学勤), Xu Youyu (徐友渔), poet Bei Dao (北岛), rock singer Cui Jian (崔健), founder of Caijing magazine Hu Shuli (胡舒立), legal scholar He Weifang (贺卫方), and so on.
In April 2005, Wang Yi and his wife Jiang Rong started the Early Rain Blessings Fellowship in their home in Chengdu. Three years later in May 2008, the Early Rain Blessings Church was established. The Early Rain Covenant Church Currently has more than 500 members, and it is said that, on some weekends, there could be as many as 2,000 flocking to the church on the 23rd floor of the Jiangxin Building, in downtown Chengdu by the Jinjiang River.
Church elder Li Yingqiang (李英强), also a Sichuan native, is only 39 years old, but he was a prominent figure in China’s now-shattered scene of independent NGOs. He and a few friends founded the Liren Library (立人图书馆) in 2007 that brought books to the countryside. The idea was to “help rural youth grow to be healthy and normal citizens.” Liren Library had attracted many volunteers and donors. Over the seven years of its existence, they established 22 libraries in 12 provinces. But in 2014 at the onset of a sweeping crackdown on independent NGOs in China, Liren Libraries were forced to close down.
Another illustrious member of the church is Ran Yunfei (冉云飞), a prolific writer and an independent intellectual whose political and historical writings have influenced many readers of the internet age. He was baptized in 2016. He has been a key player in the church’s educational programs, and he is seen to give lectures on Chinese culture and Christianity during regular church gatherings.
Church activities have been for years surveilled and harassed. On May 11 this year, Chengdu authorities deployed over 300 people to prevent the church from holding a prayer for the 10th anniversary of the Wenchuan earthquakes.
The attack on Early Rain Covenant Church is part of the Chinese government’s broad and determined crackdown on house churches, and even some state-sanctioned churches, across the country since 2012. But it’s much more. On September 9, the government outlawed Zion Church, one of the largest house churches in Beijing. While church leaders have been under heavy surveillance, no arrests have been made.
In September 2017, the State Council issued revised Regulations on Religious Affairs (《宗教事务条例》), furthering tightening control of religious activities. The government has stepped up administrative measures to “sinocize” Christianity, and demolition of crosses and church buildings themselves. Churches are forced to display the national flag and sing praise of the Communist Party. China Change collected videos posted by churchgoers around the country and put them into one video to give our readers some visceral sense of the crackdown.
On September 1, 2018, under mounting pressure, 29 pastors in mainland China, led by Pastor Wang Yi, issued “A Statement for the Christian Faith.” As of now, more than 400 church leaders have signed it. The statement makes clear that the churches led by the signatories will only acknowledge, and submit to, the highest authority that is God, and that they will thus teach their members. The church leaders said that they would accept the government’s lawful regulation on civil organizations, but their churches would refuse to be co-opted by state-controlled religious organizations, nor would they register with religious management offices. Outlaw orders and fines levied on the churches, they said, would not be recognized or accepted. “For the sake of the gospel, we are ready to shoulder losses, and if we have to, pay the price of losing freedom and even life.”
On the day when Zion Church was shut down, Pastor Wang Yi delivered a forceful sermon: “We believe we have the responsibility to tell Xi Jinping that he is a sinner, and that the government he leads has greatly offended God, because he has used force against the church of Lord Jesus Christ. If he does not repent, he must perish. We have to tell evil men like him that they still have a way out, that there is only one way out, that way is the cross of my Lord Jesus Christ.” (Watch the full sermon here.)
Pastor Wang Yi was prepared for his arrest. Forty-eight hours after he was detained, his statement titled “My Declaration of Faith-based Disobedience” was posted online (a China Change translation is forthcoming).
He wrote: “The persecution of the church by the CCP regime is an extremely wicked criminal conduct. As a pastor of a Christian church, I must issue a severe and public condemnation of such sins.”
He said that his and the church’s actions of nonviolent disobedience are not in any sense rights defense actions or political acts of civil disobedience.
“As a pastor, the only thing I care about is faithful disobedience, a resistance that can bring a jolt to mortal sinners and serve as a testimony of the Christian cross.”
Just how the Chinese government is treating the case of the Early Rain Covenant Church is laid bare in the subversion charge.
Church elder Li Yingqiang issued a video for church members on December 10 while “on the run.”
“What do we do next?” According to their plans, the church will not compromise on its principles and determined path: While Pastor Wang Yi is away, the elders will take up the responsibility to shepherd the church. The church will not subject itself to government or Party control. The church members will stay together and worship together – if they can’t do so in their own church, they will rent a new venue; if they can’t rent a venue, they will worship outdoors. The church members will do everything they can to resist being forced to break up into small groups and to meet in homes of church members. If, in the end, they can’t even worship peacefully at
home, they are “ready to pay high prices.”
“We are not afraid of having two hundred, three hundred, or five hundred of us being arrested,” said Li Yingqiang. “We will let the world know that we are willing to go through such hardship for our faith. Dear brothers and sisters, I’m speaking to you while on the run. I hope you will be joyful because of the Gospel of Christ, that you will look forward to embracing a heavier cross and a more difficult career ahead.”
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The Burning Cross, a video compilation of church persecution in China, Sept. 24, 2018.
The Shepherds of Living Stone Church, Yaxue Cao, Dec. 25, 2016.
Interview with a Wenzhou Pastor: The Chinese Government’s Large-Scale Destruction of Crosses in Zhejiang Province, China Change, July 29, 2015.
Second Interview With the Wenzhou Pastor: After the Demolition Comes the ‘Transformations’, China Change, Dec. 15, 2015.
The Ongoing War Against Religion in China, by Zhao Chu, China Change, August 4, 2015.
Chinese Government Moves to Limit and Eliminate Public Service NGOs: the Case of Liren Rural Libraries
By Song Zhibiao, published: November 17, 2014
Editor’s update: Liren Rural Libraries announced its closure on September 18, 2014.
The Liren (literally: “cultivating talents”) Rural Libraries, which is devoted to aiding rural students to broaden their reading horizons and expand their learning opportunities, has met with the worst crisis since its founding. Its official Weibo revealed that, at the end of August, eleven Liren Rural Libraries, one after another, have undergone official reviews by such local agencies as the Education Bureau, the Culture Bureau, and the Culture and Sports Bureau. Two of the libraries have already been notified by their partner schools that the schools were terminating their cooperation with the libraries.
In additional comments, Li Yingqiang (李英强), who previously served as a responsible person for the Liren Rural Libraries, said: “In 2011, they closed one library; in 2012, five; and in 2013, three. We didn’t fight back for our rights, nor did we cry foul. We just continued operating libraries where we could. From 2014 to the present, they have already closed five libraries.” This, I’m afraid, may not be the end of the matter, and the Liren Libraries should perhaps prepare themselves for dissolution.
As an educational public service organization, Liren had earlier been questioned about another of its projects — study tour summer camps. These summer camps organize young students to go on study tours, and they employ scholars as guidance counselors. As such, these summer camps have been well received. Soon after their formation, however, they found themselves in trouble and were forced to adjust their program in light of government surveillence.
Several years after public service organizations flourished, they are now becoming sensitive targets subjected to government review. Through territorial jurisdiction and the division of government duties, the government has developed comprehensive means to keep tight control over the public service NGOs. Through qualification review and then through monitoring their sources of funding and their activities, all types of public service organizations are being watched and controlled, be they NGOs with government backing or grassroots organizations not associated with the government system.
Since this year, special reporting requirements have been set up for public service organizations that obtain foreign funding, invite foreign guests, and so on. Based on the logic of the official reviewers, public service organizations are channels by which foreign forces enter China. By assuming these foreigners have ulterior motives, the reviewing officials treat them as enemies; and the reviews deter the development of these public service organizations. As this model of government control continues to expand, an organization such as Liren Library, that embraces ideals of social improvement, bears the brunt of the official reviewers’ suspicions.
In the eyes of government monitors, who see enemies everywhere, the ideals that the Liren Rural Libraries cherish are incomprehensible, and its modus operandi is even more suspicious. Beyond the control of the educational authorities, Liren convenes students of all ages, thus breaking an old taboo. The guidance counsellors who take the students on study tours are mostly liberal intellectuals who influence the students with new ideas that are likely to provoke a backlash from the government’s brainwashing apparatus.
The Liren Rural Libraries are ensconced in towns and schools where volunteers are recruited to perform routine maintenance, instead of handing the libraries over to the schools to be the custodians. This of course is seen by the inflexible education officials as precisely the type of action taken to invade their sphere of influence. When one Liren Library was in trouble and investigated by the government, it would cause other Liren Rural Libraries elsewhere to be subjected to similar scrutiny by local governments, thus placing the entire Liren project on a very shaky footing.
During these past few years during which Liren has come under hostile government scrutiny, Liren has kept a low profile. Liren’s move to take corrective action in accordance with government requirements, moreover, is one reason that Liren has been able to continue its activities for a period of time. But as the work of public service NGOs is increasingly politicized, Liren’s setbacks are not entirely unexpected. We can very well expect that, sooner or later, Liren will have to cease its programs altogether due to the ever-tightening grip of government repression.
After taking measures to eradicate the “seven perils” [ideas perceived by the communist party to be subversive to its rule], various sectors and fields have all engaged in self-review and self-correction against such warnings. They have also quickly formed mechanisms for stability maintenance based on each sector’s characteristics, and between them, they have quickly formed a grid network of surveillance. With its ideological stand and its operation model that greatly challenge the existing order of education that aims at conforming to the communist ideology, Liren Rural Libraries is bound to find itself mired in difficulties.
The series of premeditated government harassments against Liren Rural Libraries in recent weeks further proves that the path of using civil society as a moderating force to change China is also short-lived and dead-ended. As for those organizations whose main mission is to advocate ideas, they are seen as a direct ideological threat, and their survival is even more precarious.
That the public service NGOs in China are no exception to government suppression is not pessimism, but a fact.
Because of this fact, the public service sector will become even more divided; boundaries of public service will be more clearly defined; avoiding challenging the existing political authorities will be accepted and observed as a rule for survival. This harsh environment will force public service organizations to adjust and adapt. Those unwilling to compromise will perish.
Having not enjoyed a spring, public service organizations in China now find themselves in deep winter, and a large part of the public domain, which is weak in China to begin with, has thus collapsed.
Rural Library Chain Closes, Citing ‘Tremendous Pressure’, the New York Times sinosphere blog, September 22, 2014.
Official website of Liren Rural Libraries is still live.
Song Zhibiao (宋志标) was a commentator with the Southern Metropolis Daily in Guangzhou and has been well-received for his commentaries on current affairs in China until May 2011. He is now an independent commentator and, by self-description, a media watcher.
(Translated by Ai Ru)