Spectator's Journal

Crammed Onto Buses

Easter in China is when the government makes clear it doesn't like China's house churches.

By From the June 2011 issue

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Foreign correspondents in Beijing were alerted to something strange going on with China's Christian community on April 10, 2011. Hundreds of members of the prominent Beijing Shouwang house church (whose name means "Keeping Watch") were preparing to gather in a prominent open-air space in the Zhongguancun high-tech commercial area of northwest Beijing for an outdoor Sunday worship meeting. Many of the worshippers, arriving at the site, were barred by the police from coming any closer. Others were herded into buses and taken away by the police for questioning. Still others, anticipating a blanket police clampdown of their corporate worship, gathered in small numbers nearby, including in a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant, where they went through the order of service that had been preprinted for that Sunday.

In a nearby elementary school temporarily occupied by the police to process the Christians, the detained congregation members sang hymns despite the police presence. The church leaders had instructed the members to offer no resistance to the police, who questioned them one by one and took down the details of their IDs. In most cases the detainees were allowed to return home within 24 hours. They were ordered not to try again to gather in a public place, but most refused to sign any piece of paper to that effect.

Meanwhile, senior pastor Jin Tianming and other leading members of the church had been confined since the previous evening to their homes by plainclothes or uniformed police and their vehicles, or by security guards stationed outside.

Though no one was formally arrested for the attempt to conduct Christian worship in an unauthorized location, by Easter Sunday, two weeks later, the authorities had clamped down even more fiercely. All of the top church leadership, all members of the choir, and hundreds of other prominent members of the congregation, more than 500 people in total, were physically prevented from leaving their homes by police planted outside their front doors. There was no letup the following Sunday, when even more church members were kept under house arrest, and dozens again detained for showing up at the Zhongguancun site.

What seemed to be emerging was a dramatic power struggle -- in effect perhaps China's first nonviolent human rights struggle -- between China's Communist Party authorities and house church members who do not want to be part of China's government-sanctioned Protestant organization, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. Confrontations between the authorities and the house churches have occurred in the past, especially in rural areas, where unauthorized gatherings of Christians have been disrupted or raided by police since the 1970s. The house churches were technically illegal, principally because they refused to consent to the Party's ban on all proselytizing. But in many parts of China, they were quietly tolerated as long as they didn't become too large or challenge the authorities.

SHOUWANG, HOWEVER, WAS DIFFERENT. Started in 1993 by Jin Tianming, a graduate of Beijing's prestigious Qinghua University, it rapidly developed into a network of small gatherings meeting in church members' private homes. But it became prominent for reasons other than its rapid growth. Unlike China's unregistered churches of earlier decades, which had been primarily rural in composition and more readily compliant with the authorities, Shouwang was composed strikingly of representatives of the new urban upper-middle class. Its members were college professors, lawyers, journalists, and other professionals who constituted the very elite that the Communist Party wanted to be proud of as China advanced to economic and perhaps political superpower status. As their numbers grew, they insisted on being quite open not only about who they were but about their determination to meet as a composite congregation in venues large enough to accommodate their growing membership, now approximately 1,000. During 2005-2007 they even tried to register with the government authorities as a Christian civic group independent of the Three-Self. Their application was repeatedly turned down because they refused to give up their independence and thus be folded into the Party-compliant Three-Self.

Doubtless because of this decision by the church leadership, which had been debated and in the end was supported by the congregation as a whole, Shouwang began to encounter difficulties in finding space in which to worship. Landlords, under intense government pressure, repeatedly reneged on rental commitments. In November 2009, the Shouwang congregation met in a Beijing park in the middle of the first snowstorm of the year because they had nowhere else to go. When they tried to repeat this action the following week, the police were ready and blocked them from entering the park. Recognizing its vulnerability as tenants, Shouwang decided that owning its own space was the best way to avoid government-mandated eviction. By Christmas 2009, Shouwang members had donated an impressive four million dollars and the church actually bought an entire floor of a Beijing office building to use as corporate worship space and church offices. This time, the authorities pressured the owners of the building not to hand over the keys to the floor that had been legally purchased and fully paid for in cash.

The Shouwang church is no second-thought, spare-time religious community. It has a sophisticated church leadership and administrative structure, operates its own Chinese website, has a first-rate choir widely acknowledged as the best among the Beijing house churches, and even produces a smartly edited quarterly theological and literary periodical, Almond Blossom. The church has repeatedly stated its intention to be "a city on a hill," a conscious reference to Puritan John Winthrop's aspirations when he addressed his fellow-immigrants to America in 1630 aboard the Arbella. When a Beijing bilingual newspaper, the Global Times, unofficially representing the authorities, argued in a commentary that Shouwang was using "freedom of religion to win easy points" and was actually hoping to have "confrontations with the [government's] system for maintaining social order," the Shouwang leadership tartly retorted in an official response released the next day that it was "the relevant departments in the Beijing (or the Haidian district) government" who had, "through [their] actions (or non-actions), forced Shouwang Church into choosing the ‘no other choice' option." Those departments, Shouwang said, had "clung to the religious policy of the previous century, of the 1950s and 1960s."

Although Beijing had shown signs of tolerating the house churches in more recent times, hopes that the churches would be able to register were dashed by a general crackdown on churches in December 2010, through a China-wide top Party policy directive called "Operation Deterrence." The clearly stated goal was to force all China's house churches either to cease operating or to compel them to submit to the Three-Self. A sense of urgency, however, has gripped the Beijing authorities ever since the unrest in the Middle East began gathering strength in January 2011, and they were quick to clamp down when calls appeared on the Internet calling for the "Jasmine revolution" to spread to China.

SHOUWANG HAS REPEATEDLY insisted that its desire to find a legitimate location for corporate worship has nothing to do with the "Jasmine revolution." That, however, has not prevented the Beijing authorities from responding viciously to Shouwang's actions. Immediately after the first outdoor worship attempt in April, some church members were fired from their jobs or evicted from their homes by bosses and landlords under government pressure.

Elsewhere in China, the Public Security Bureau has used mafia-style tactics to suppress house church activities. The front doors of the homes of some pastors and Christian human rights lawyers have been bricked up or glued shut with super-glue. In a more brutal assault on Christian leaders, a pastor in central China's Shaanxi province, Wang Zhanhu, was in a coma after being beaten by police with electric batons, a favorite tool of intimidation and torture by Chinese security officials.

Even more alarmingly, according to a report submitted, allegedly, by a conscience-stricken New China News Agency reporter writing under a pen-name to the New York-based organization Human Rights in China, torture played a role in the police's obtaining a confession in one of the most high-profile dissident cases this year. There has been no means of independently verifying the report, which alleges that the artist Ai Weiwei, who was seized by police the week before the first Shouwang outdoor worship attempt, confessed to the economic crimes for which authorities said he had been arrested. The New China News Agency reporter said that Ai had been tortured and then forced to watch video of the torture of another Chinese dissident, the Christian human rights lawyer and activist Gao Zhisheng. Gao was originally kidnapped by plainclothed police -- or perhaps gangsters under government contract -- in 2006, briefly released, then held in an unknown location from 2010 onward. During his brief period of freedom before being "re-disappeared," he recanted a confession he had made while in captivity and described experiencing such tortures as being stripped naked and having his genitalia pricked by multiple toothpicks. In the video allegedly shown to Ai Weiwei as part of the police torture, Gao was being sodomized by an electric nightstick, with various bodily fluids spurting out in different directions.

Even if the New China News Agency reporter's letter can never be authenticated, there is abundant evidence that China's Public Security Bureau has repeatedly used torture, especially by using electric-shock nightsticks, for many years. A more recent tactic now frequently employed is simply to kidnap individuals it doesn't like and hold them incommunicado for weeks, sometimes months at a time. One human rights group documented the following police moves just in the weeks between mid-February and the first week of April: Chinese authorities detained at least 28 individuals, disappeared more than 30, and put more than 200 under house arrest or round-the-clock scrutiny. The numbers have only escalated in the past month.

The import of all this is that China's house church Christians appear to be entering a period of a sustained civil rights confrontation with the Communist Party. China's house churches have hitherto tended to shy away from politics and the Shouwang church is emphatic that its struggle is not a political one. But a civil rights struggle it seems to be, perhaps China's first since the Communists came to power in 1949.

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About the Author

David Aikman is a former senior correspondent for Time Magazine and the author of ten books, including, most recently, The Delusion of Disbelief: How the New Atheism Is a Threat to Your Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness and The Mirage of Peace: Understanding the Unending Conflict in the Middle East.