China releases prominent house church leader

Monday, February 7, 2000

7 February 2000 (Newsroom) -- To observers of China's Christian church scene the event was as sudden as it was unexpected. Just the day before the Chinese New Year celebrations of February 5, one of China's most prominent house church leaders, Zhang Rongliang, was released quietly from prison in Fangcheng City, Henan Province, on grounds of poor health. The news was relayed quickly to journalists and China specialists outside of China by friends who had remained in close contact with Zhang for several weeks.

Zhang, 49, a native of Henan Province, originally was detained by police during a raid on a meeting of church leaders in Tanghe County, also in Henan, last August. At the time more than 30 Chinese Christians, all belonging to various unregistered churches, were held. All except six were quickly released. Last December, Zhang and five others were given administrative punishments -- less serious than formal convictions -- of between one and three years of re-education through labor. Zhang's release occurred after he had served less than six months of his sentence.

According to a Chinese who spoke frequently with Zhang both before and just after his release, the authorities apparently were looking for a face-saving reason to let him go. He was well treated throughout his imprisonment, he told this friend, and was so favored in the last few weeks that he was kept in a relatively comfortable detention house. His wife also was permitted to visit the prison and cook for him. "The jailers were very nice to him," said this Chinese friend.

When Zhang asked to visit a physician before his re-education through labor began, the authorities allowed him to do so. The doctor then signed an affidavit asserting that the performance of prison labor would be injurious to Zhang's health. Zhang is not known to suffer from any specific illness, but is of stout build and could have high blood pressure.

Zhang, affectionately known as "Uncle Liang" by thousands of house church Christians in China, had been a popular and highly active leader in Christian evangelism for nearly three decades. His first, six-year imprisonment, during which he was beaten and tortured, occurred in 1974, shortly after he was expelled from the Communist Party for his Christian evangelistic activities. Zhang was imprisoned a second time for 14 months in 1990, and was detained again for two weeks in 1994.

Five of Zhang's Christian fellow prisoners still must serve the remainder of their prison sentences, unless they also are released without warning. The oldest of these, Zheng Shuqian, is believed to be in his 60s and often is called "Uncle Zheng." He also is being treated leniently. At the time of Zheng's arrest last August he was wanted by police for failing to report regularly to the authorities while on probationary release from an earlier imprisonment. Instead of being punished for this earlier infraction as well, he will have to serve only the remainder of the one year since he was first arrested.

In August 1998 Zheng and Zhang both helped write the first house church document formally intended to be published in the outside world, "The United Appeal of Various Branches of the Chinese House Church," in the presence of two visiting American reporters. Four months later, in December 1998, Zhang also co-signed with three other house church leaders "Confession of Faith," a formal theological statement summarizing the Christian beliefs held by the widest gathering of Chinese house church communities. Independent scholars in the U.S. have declared that the "Confession" confirms the essential Christian orthodoxy of China's house church Christian community. Some Chinese officials at times have tried to brand as "heretical" the house churches, all of whom refuse to belong to the officially-sponsored Protestant "Three-Self Patriotic Movement."

Zhang is not expected to disappear quietly into obscurity, his Chinese friend reports, but rather is likely to resume his energetic evangelistic and organizational activities. "Nothing will stop him," said Zhang's friend.

Copyright © 2000 Newsroom.
Used with permission.