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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 Wai Ling Yeung, May 13, 2016
Recently a video of a 5-year-old Hui Muslim kindergarten pupil from Gansu province reciting verses from the Qur’an went viral on China’s social media, attracting almost unanimous condemnation from presumably Han Chinese netizens. At a discussion forum, for example, several comments labelled the preaching of religion to children as “evil cult” behavior. They called for netizens to “say no to evil cults and to stop evil cults from invading schools.” Others questioned why schools allowed children to “wear black head scarves and black robes as if they’re adults.” They also expressed support for legislation that “set an age limit to religious freedom.” One comment went as far as asking all Hui Muslims to move to the Middle East. “ In my opinion, their religion has no part in Chinese civilization. It belongs somewhere else. I hope they will all leave.”
It was subsequently discovered that the aforementioned video was initially posted on YouTube in 2014. It makes one wonder why the video has suddenly emerged and become popular, and whether the “public anger” it has generated is indeed genuine and spontaneous.
Provincial education authorities subsequently ordered a strict adherence to a ban on religion in schools. On Twitter, when Ismael, a Hui Muslim poet and blogger from Shandong, a coastal province, defended Hui Muslims’ right to freedom of religion, his Twitter account was invaded by a torrent of abusive responses to his recent tweets (here, here and here for just a few examples). As someone who re-posted Ismael’s tweets, I bore witness to this unfortunate episode of cyberbullying on Twitter; I later learnt that Ismael had sustained even more serious abuses at other Chinese online fora.
Ismael worries about the implications of what he describes as coordinated campaigns to ramp up racial tension against Hui Muslims. His suspicion is not groundless.
Australian researcher James Leibold notes some important changes to China’s ethnic policy since the appointing of Zhu Weiqun (朱维群)in 2013 as the Chair of the Ethnic and Religious Affairs Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Zhu, the former executive deputy head of the United Front Work Department of the CCP, was well known for his controversial vilification campaign against the 14th Dalai Lama. Little less known, however, was Zhu’s advocacy of an overt assimilationist policy to promote ethnic fusion through government intervention.
When commenting on the Central Work Forum on Xinjiang held in May 2014, Leibold notes how the Forum framed its policy proposals “around a new strategic intent: the erosion of ethnic differences, the removal of obstacles to the free ‘mingling’ (jiaorong) of Chinese citizens and the forging of a shared national identity.” He attributes this change of policy orientation to the “burgeoning influence” that Zhu and his allies may have had on top Party leaders.
Back at the time of the 2014 Xinjiang Forum, it was still uncertain how far the Chinese government would pursue this contentious agenda. Recent events targeting Hui Muslims, however, suggest advocates of this agenda have gone a step further to forge public opinion against ethnic-based rights to religion, challenging directly the traditional policy of regional ethnic autonomy.
In addition to the video of the 5-year-old reciting the Qur’an, two other events in particular have caught the attention of many observers:
- Unspecified allegations of ‘Arabization,’ in rather hysterical language, were made against Xinjiang, as well as the Hui autonomous region of Ningxia (宁夏回族自治区) and Linxia, Gansu (甘肃临夏回族自治州), during a high profile religious conference held in April 2016.
- Rumours surrounding the sudden dismissal of Wang Zhengwei (王正伟) in April as the Chair of State Ethnic Affairs Commission contain allegations of his unspecified involvement in new mosque building projects, promoting Arabic language education, and in regulating the preparation of Halal food. Wang is of Hui ethnic heritage.
Ethnic-based religious persecution against Uighurs has been a long-standing issue and worsening, but its possible expansion to the Hui Muslims is noteworthy. For a very long time, this fourth largest national minority group has been the poster child of China’s ethnic policy. It epitomises the benefits of ethnic autonomy as an arrangement that promotes social stability. It highlights the success of a policy that allows ethnic minorities the freedom to maintain their language, customs, and religion. Most importantly, it helps negate the negative publicity that the Chinese government is receiving due to its draconian policies in Tibet and Xinjiang.
Indeed, a recent report in New York Times provided us a closer look at the religious life of Hui Muslims in Ningxia. China’s Hui Muslims have assimilated rather thoroughly with the Han Chinese majority over the course of 1,000 years with Hui Muslim streets or districts in many cities across China, and co-exist remarkably well with the Communist Party. They have been allowed space to openly practice their religion with minimal government hostility and intervention, in stark contrast to restrictions imposed on Uighurs in Xinjiang.
According to Ismael, anti-Muslim sentiment is fast spreading among mainstream bloggers as censors at Weibo are working overtime deleting accounts of known Hui Muslims, in an attempt to prevent them from defending their religion.
“This is not London, where a Muslim can become a human rights lawyer. Here in China, human rights lawyers are in jail. We don’t have media that will speak for us,” Ismael wrote to me. “When anti-Muslim hooligans smear our religion on the internet, and if we dare to defend ourselves, our accounts will be deleted. Sometimes the police will turn up at our doorsteps.”
Wai Ling Yeung is a researcher based in Australia. Her research focuses on China’s internet culture. Follow her on Twitter @WLYeung.
If China Builds It, Will the Arab World Come? Beijing is spending gargantuan sums to promote its vision of Islam. The result so far: a sparsely populated eyesore. China File, May 5, 2016.
By Li Xiaoming and Wang Yi, translation by China Change, published: March 3, 2016
“As I watched Zhang Kai’s so-called TV confession, my heart ached to no end,” a Chinese Twitter user wrote. He speaks for many of us. Zhang appeared thin and haggard, his dishevelled hair and lusterless eyes all the image of a concentration camp prisoner. He sounded as though he’d been forced to read a script prepared for him by his tormentors. Watching him is like watching our brother being cornered and strong-armed, or our sister raped, as we stand by, helpless. We are pained, but fall silent. What’s more, we begin to think it’s alright to say and do nothing. Then there are those who can no longer “stay out of it.” We are deeply grateful to these voices, few they may be. — The Editors
A Statement by an Ordinary Christian
I, Li Xiaoming, of Mongolian ethnicity, am an intern lawyer in Beijing. I was born in 1989. My identification number is 15042319890806051X. In around 2008 I became attracted to Christianity, but only in early 2015 did I form a conviction to believe in the Lord. On May 10, 2015, I was baptized.
For the last two years the government has been tearing down crosses from churches in Zhejiang and arresting pastors, Christian lawyers, and believers who put up resistance. Recently, they have also hauled Christian lawyer Zhang Kai onto television for a forced confession, blatantly shaming the church of God. As an ordinary citizen, and as an ordinary Christian, I want to express my severe opposition to this behavior, and to demand that the government acts according to the law, honors citizens’ rights to religious freedom granted in the constitution, and immediately ceases its persecution.
From the perspective of my faith, I see the enormous peril that Chinese churches are in: that they have fallen far short of the glory that God has bestowed upon them is an established fact. Does God allow the removal of crosses to take place in so widespread a manner because the Christian church in China is not worthy of the honor of the cross?
In light of this, I put forward three questions for my brothers and sisters in the church to consider:
1) Has China got any Christian churches that truly practice righteousness, exercise mercy, and follow the example of Jesus? Why have I not yet seen any church, in its own name, make a solemn statement expressing its position against the severe persecution we saw recently?
2) Apart from Wang Yi (王怡), the lead pastor of the Early Rain Reformed Church in Chengdu (成都秋雨之福教会), I’ve seen no public stance taken by any other church. I’d like to know why, when pastors see one of their limbs tortured, they are content to sit in silence? If they are to face Jesus one day, will they be content in their hearts with what they’ve done?
3) Every Chinese Christian should kneel down and turn toward God, search inside their own hearts, and ask whether they have failed to live up to the glory of Jesus, whether they have been cruel and unscrupulous, whether they have forgotten the favor bestowed upon them, and whether they have treated reading the gospel as no more than having fun. If we’re reproached by the Holy Spirit, then what should we do under the current circumstances? Continue along calmly, or burn brightly for the Lord? All, please read Revelations 3—this is a question that no Christian can avoid.
I’m a weak, unworthy, useless criminal; before Jesus I’m a lamb. But I know that there is no way I can stay out of this—my conscience doesn’t allow me stay silent any longer. My statement is my own, and does not represent any organization, or my church. It represents myself alone.
Lord, if my statement does not conform to your will, please reproach me: I am willing to repent. Lord, with your spirit of holy benevolence, please lead us to the Way of the Cross.
Lord, I know that once this statement is published I will face danger, but no matter what, nothing can separate me from your love, and I know you love me.
“I was dumb, I opened not my mouth; because thou didst it.” (Psalm 39:9) I believe that you’re in charge of everything—I just pray that you’ll be with me.
Li Xiaoming (李晓明)
February 28, 2016 (the Sabbath), at 4 a.m., at West Zone 3, Tian Tong Yuan, Changping district, Beijing.
Wang Yi: A Personal Statement on the Zhang Kai Case
Lawyer Zhang Kai is, with me, a brother of the church—and he’s also my most respected friend.
For years, a lot of people have been sincerely asking a false question: will the Cultural Revolution return? Many seriously ponder what is an absurd proposition—how can we prevent the tragedy from repeating itself? But the truth is that a new round of cultural revolution has already been underway for years. Or perhaps even decades? In reality, is there a day when we have really stepped outside of the Cultural Revolution’s framework? The real question is how we can break free from this warped and irrational age. Tonight, my Lord, allow me to howl the pain felt by Zhang Kai as he is whipped, and to be healed by the scourging you have suffered.
What physical and spiritual torment can annihilate the will of a man who believes in God? What Brother Zhang Kai was eventually unable to bear, I don’t imagine I’d be able to bear half of. Aside from faith in Grace, what else can I believe in? Christianity came to China over 1,000 years ago, and the gospel has been taught for over 200 years. But the cultural revolution targeting the beliefs of Christians in China have never ceased, and the Boxers have never been disbanded. Lord, your servant has been crushed so—help me to rise!
Among the believers I know, Zhang Kai is a man of steel. And in recent years, of those who have been forced onto television to confess crimes they did not commit, who were made to affix their signature to a letter of repentance, who of them were also not firm and unyielding? Isn’t it precisely the horror of the sinful world that drives us to seek shelter in the grace of the Lord? No matter who is saved for their resilience, I praise God for also saving those of us who are weak.
As a pastor, there is something else that hurts me: it’s that in facing down the pressure of crosses being demolished, Zhang Kai did many things that should have been done directly by church leaders. It would have been perfectly sufficient if he had simply done the technical, legal work. The absence of the church leadership led a believer who ought to have been nourished and cared for to stand on the frontlines of the church’s spiritual battle. It was almost like the Muslim siege of Constantinople, when the invaders charged upon horses into the church throwing pikes, a bishop dodged to the side, and a spear killed a believer at the Communion.
Lord: I ask that you reproach the church, reproach your servants, and I ask that you watch closely over Brother Zhang Kai, safeguard his conscience, immerse him in your precious blood. Just as you asked Peter three times: Do you love me? My Lord: I wish that you ask Zhang Kai the same, loudly in his heart, 30 times, so he may be built anew by you, and so that us lowly servants will be ashamed.
Of the many “crimes” mentioned in the “big character poster”* condemning Zhang Kai, one is that he had planned to meet a foreign official and expose the destruction of crosses in Wenzhou. This official was the ambassador of U.S. religious freedom who came to visit China in August of last year. I myself also met this American ambassador of religious freedom, and have also discussed with “foreign figures” the matter of religious freedom in China. According to this logic, I share the same crime as Zhang Kai.
Another “crime” of Zhang Kai is that he often attended conferences held abroad, discussing strategies for Christian house churches to defend their rights. I attended these conferences with him on multiple occasions, and participated in the same discussions.
Also on the official “big character poster” was the chief crime levelled against Zhang Kai: that he called the government campaign to tear down crosses as “illegal constructions” persecution of the church.
This compels me to make this solemn statement: my view on the matter is entirely identical to that of Zhang Kai. All along, whether in public or in private, I have called the forced removal of crosses by the government (under the guise of removing “illegal constructions”) as a clear case of persecution of the church, and a shameful trampling of freedom of belief.
As such, I should obviously be prosecuted for having committed the same crimes as Zhang Kai did. I am thus reporting myself to the authorities; I promise to testify, and to respond to all questions by the Wenzhou Public Security Bureau.
My official identification number is 510722197306018819.
The year of our Lord 2016, February 26
*Translator’s note: Big character posters (大字報) are a form of propaganda from the Cultural Revolution, in which the supposed crimes (usually of a political character) of class enemies are written in large font and posted in a public place. The reference here is meant metaphorically.
Wang Yi (王怡) is the lead pastor of the Early Rain Reformed Church in Chengdu (成都秋雨之福教会).
Update on March 3, 2016: Thirty-six clergies and Christians across China issued a statement condemning the forced televised “confession” of lawyer Zhang Kai and declaring that he is a devoted Christian and has for years helped churches to defend their rights.
Lawyer Zhang Kai’s Work From 2003 – Present, by Qin Chenshou, March 1, 2016.
The Work of Lawyer Zhang Kai: ‘I Have God as My Backer’, August 31, 2015
The Ongoing War Against Religion in China, by Zhao Chu, China Change, August 4, 2015.
By China Change, published: February 29, 2016
Lawyer Zhang Kai was taken into police custody in Wenzhou on August 25, 2015. He was placed in residential surveillance in a designated location for six months, after which he appeared on Chinese television to make a “confession” on February 25.
Zhang, 37, appeared thin and haggard, and his hair made him look like a concentration camp prisoner. We still don’t know what kind of ordeal he suffered during those six months. Looking at the language used in his “confession,” which was delivered in the tone and style of the official media, viewers were left feeling that he had been forced to read from a script prepared for him by the authorities.
On February 28, Zhang Kai’s parents announced that Zhang had been transferred to criminal detention at 9 p.m. on February 26. According to Pastor Bob Fu’s Twitter feed: “[Zhang Kai’s] father was taken to Wenzhou by that city’s public security and domestic security police on February 27. By the morning of the 28th he was at the Wenzhou Public Security Bureau where he will likely be held temporarily and deprived of his freedom.”
I. Chinese media reports on Zhang Kai’s case mention “Fu XX and Yang XX of an overseas organization” and also charge that “each year this overseas organization used documents he provided to concoct lists of so-called ‘Top Ten Cases of Religious Persecution,’ which were included in ‘China Human Rights Report’ and contained unbridled vilifications of China’s image.” Pastor Bob Fu (傅希秋), of the Texas-based China Aid Association, Purdue University Professor Yang Fenggang (杨凤岗) who directs Purdue’s Center on Religion and Chinese Society, and Guo Baosheng (郭宝胜), author of the annual “Top Ten Persecution Cases,” have all issued separate statements:
Professor Yang Fenggang’s statement (translation by China Aid):
Zhang Kai is a friend of mine. He spent a year with me as a visiting scholar of the Center on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University in 2013-2014. He was one of the most courageous lawyers in defending Christian churches in Wenzhou whose rooftop crosses were facing forceful removal by the authorities. It is apparent that all Zhang Kai did was providing legal counsel to the willing churches, encouraging their leaders to use the existing law and regulations to defend their own rights. He urged both Christians and government officials to abide by the law and do not do anything beyond legal boundaries. His purported confession on Wenzhou Television on February 25, 2016 appears to me to be scripted and he appears to be physically exhausted. The few “evidences” shown in the television program all appear to be dated before 2013, so that even if they were true documents they have nothing to do with Zhang Kai’s activities in Wenzhou between August 2014 and August 2015. I urge Wenzhou authorities abide by the existing Chinese law and release Zhang Kai immediately.
February 25, 2016
Bob Fu’s Statement regarding forced Confession on TV by jailed Human Rights Lawyer Zhang Kai (translation by China Aid)
Zhang Kai was seen on official TV in Wenzhou on Thursday for the first time since he was detained and put into a “black jail” six months ago. He looked like he was under duress while making those ISIS/North Korea-style, scripted remarks about his confessed crimes of “endangering national security” and “gathering a mob to disturb social order,” of which he has been accused simply for his organized, legal defense work against the forced cross demolition campaign, which still continues.
I am proud of being Zhang Kai’s close friend and fellow Christian brother. I do believe he is innocent. Although I was sad as I painfully watched him condemn me and China Aid on the CPC’s official TV broadcast, I know he must have been going through enormous suffering and torture in the past six months (little did the evil authorities know that he and I actually made a pre-arranged agreement before his imprisonment that he would never compromise nor betray us in any way, unless he faces insurmountable hardship). We are always proud of you, and we love you, dear brother Zhang Kai. Keep up a good spirit, and may the comfort of the Holy Spirit be with you and heal you after you are free from physical bondage.
Although my name and China Aid are mentioned as an “overseas force supporting Zhang Kai’s legal defense work,” which is the shameful propaganda of CCP, we will never be intimidated, nor will we cease to continue to promote religious freedom for all in China.
February 26, 2016
Statement of Pastor Guo Baosheng on the Zhang Kai Case
At midnight on August 27, 2015, the Chinese authorities forcibly put lawyer Zhang Kai under residential surveillance in a designated location on charges of “suspected gathering a crowd to disrupt social order and stealing, procuring, or illegally providing state secrets or intelligence to overseas entities.” Zhang had been representing the lawful rights and interests of those trying to prevent the demolition of church crosses in Wenzhou.
On February 25, 2016, Zhejiang Television broadcast a program featuring Zhang Kai’s so-called confession. In that program, the authorities said that one of the charges against Zhang Kai was that he had provided materials to overseas entities and concocted the so-called “Top Ten Cases of Religious Persecution.” This charge is clearly related to the lists of the top ten persecution cases involving Chinese Christians that I have posted on the China Aid website in recent years (see attached). But I state here that these documents were not provided by Zhang Kai and have no connection to him whatsoever. These posts were based on materials I was able to find on public websites both in China and overseas. This is an example of the authorities’ attempt to frame Zhang Kai without the slightest bit of evidence. On this basis, I state for the record that the charge of “stealing, procuring, or illegally providing state secrets or intelligence to overseas entities” against Zhang Kai is totally baseless.
Pastor Guo Baosheng
February 26, 2016
II. A lesser-known lawyer from Jiangsu named Wang Xiuping (汪秀平) also took part in the Wenzhou church cases. He related Zhang Kai’s work in Wenzhou and the real picture of Wenzhou Christians’ rights defense efforts:
Respected Brother Zhang Kai has confessed. The only thing I find odd about this is the fact that some people find it odd that he has confessed. I’ve taken part in the Wenzhou church cases. We lawyers have exhausted all conventional means, but the courts either refuse to accept our lawsuits or else rule against us in first- and second instance. When we’ve followed ordinary procedure and applied to hold demonstration marches, the authorities refuse to give approval. When Christians raise crosses to express their ordinary demands, they’re treated as criminals. Below are some of the ways I’m aware of in which the public has been misled with deliberate falsehoods:
- In many of the original Zhejiang church cases Zhang Kai already exhausted all legal means without any result. There was no other choice but to let Christians gather to express their demands. This is contrary to reports that say that Lawyer Zhang didn’t use legal methods.
- There’s nothing at all shameful about receiving funds from abroad to engage in rights defense. Lawyer Zhang dispensed these funds to the lawyers who have been working on these cases. Moreover, the people in charge of these so-called overseas organizations are all good friends of Zhang Kai, like Professor Yang Fenggang of Purdue University. I’m also in touch with Professor Yang on WeChat. If I’m working on religious cases and he wants to provide financial support, what’s the big deal?
- A few local Christians appeared on TV too denouncing that Zhang Kai had received huge consultation fees in the Wenzhou church cases. First of all, these were ordinary fees paid to a lawyer for handling a case. Zhang Kai was ready to go to jail from the beginning for getting involved in these huge rights-defense cases, so why shouldn’t he receive such fees? Second, Zhang said on many occasions that, for the later cases he handled on behalf of the Wenzhou churches whose crosses were being demolished, his decision to take part came after difficult internal struggle. He knew there was a high risk of going to jail because of the way the local officials were dealing with things, so he decided not to have other lawyers “dive into the deep end” with him on these cases. Instead, he rushed to the front lines on his own.
- The reports deliberately blur the distinction between demolition of illegally built churches and demolition of crosses. As everyone knows, for the past two years only one church has been torn down in Zhejiang for being an illegal structure. The rest of the demolitions have all been crosses. What’s more, crosses have been torn down from countless churches that are not illegal at all. Many of the pastors who have opposed the cross demolitions remain in detention.
- Judging from the video of Brother Zhang Kai’s confession, he clearly appears to have lost around a third of his weight. He was once a really heavy guy!
- The Zhejiang authorities are shrewdly trying to shift responsibility for the church-state conflicts they have created onto Zhang Kai and present ordinary rights defense work as a kind of treason. You have to marvel what they do. Lawyers and everyone else: We mustn’t fear these hooligans and their efforts to use culture to carry out their thuggery!
Lawyer Zhang Kai’s Work From 2003 – Present, by Qin Chenshou, March 1, 2016.
The Work of Lawyer Zhang Kai: ‘I Have God as My Backer’, August 31, 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》