China's Persecution Dynamics

Saturday, August 3, 2002

by Alex Buchan

A crucial paradox lies at the heart of China's persecution dynamics. Over the past 30 years, conditions have improved for Christians in China. But during the past five years, they have deteriorated markedly.

More confusing still is that the long-term factors that have improved the situation of believers are still in place and will continue their positive influence. Yet negative short-term factors will intensify to produce more persecution in the next five years.

In short, China's Christians will continue to become more free while at the same time experiencing more persecution!


The good news is in the long term. The retreat from ideology and a determination to open Chinese society to world markets are the two primary factors still firmly in place. The commitment to join the World Trade Organization is ample proof of that. Gone is the ideological white heat of the Cultural Revolution. Gone is the presumption that religion is automatically harmful to society, and no longer are the thousands of Christian leaders and pastors being internally exiled in a bleak gulag.

Take the case of the Reverend Ji Tai. Once a confidant of Bishop Ding and head of research at Nanjing Theological Seminary, he dared to disagree with his mentor's theology and wrote openly against it in 1999. Two years after he published his first critical article, he was stripped of his post.

Yet he still receives a minimal salary from the official Protestant structure in China, the Three Self Patriotic Movement, and thus far his wife continues unhindered as a teacher at the seminary. If this were the fearful 1950s or the sullen 1960s, Ji Tai would be shoveling sand in a work gang and his entire family sharing his disgrace.

In the new China, hundreds may end up in jail for their faith, but most are released after serving a number of days or weeks. The number of sentenced Christians may amount to less than 100. A new official church is opened every two days.

Of course, this improvement is no cause for complacency. Ideological arrogance has merely been replaced with totalitarian pragmatism. It's easy to make improvements on Chairman Mao's mayhem of the 1960s, when all churches were closed.

Thirty years later, only 18 million Protestants and Catholics out of 60-million-plus feel able to worship in a state-controlled church -- the majority are still determined to keep their distance from the intrusive monitoring that entails belonging to the official churches.

It's far too many to have a hundred or more Christian leaders in jail for merely exercising their religious rights. Despite a legal printing press, as many as 45 million Chinese Protestant Christians still await the pleasure of reading a Bible they own. So the benefits of the long term can come as cruel comfort to many believers today. As Keynes famously remarked, "In the long term, we are all dead." Literally millions of China's Christians will not live to enjoy anything approaching basic religious freedom.

But millions more probably will! Says 82-year-old house church leader Moses Hsieh, "I am absolutely convinced that in the future we will be more free -- Chinese society is being restructured for personal prosperity, and increased freedom is the unintentional harvest." He also warns, "But the path will not be smooth." Hseih is shrewd to say freedom is an unintentional harvest of the modernization campaign followed since 1978.

The Chinese government has not set any goal to improve religious freedom. All benefits in this area were merely residuals from economic policies, and still the state has no such goal.

According to a high ranking government source, "The current leadership is genuinely confused about what to do with religion in China. Christians, Buddhists and others have all revived in number, and they are anxious to cool down religious fervor."

A November conference of the Religious Affairs Bureau (RAB) is reportedly planned to discuss how to deal with the growth of religion. Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji are both slated to make speeches -- a sure sign of the importance the top leaders now accord to the role of religion.


There are fears that the November RAB conference members will consider extending the hard-line tactics used against Falun Gong to Christians in the house churches. The campaign against the heterodox meditation sect has seen a revival of Maoist methods, including widespread propaganda, brainwashing and torture.

But whatever the decision -- if any -- there are four other short-term crises converging to bring government and house churches into greater conflict, probably resulting in greater persecution.

The first two have nothing to do with the churches, but are located in the society at large. They are what we might call the "political legitimacy crisis" and the "social instability crisis."

The legitimacy crisis affects the government itself. At some point it is going to look absurd to everyone (if it does not already) that a government consisting of a Communist Party whose ideology requires a planned economy is directing an economic revolution towards a market, capitalist economy. The cliches of ideology that are still in place will wear increasingly thin, and the government must reinvent itself to stay in power.

The upshot is that the Communist Party as an institution will become increasingly insecure, and that is dangerous to anyone who falls outside government control. Paranoia will increase, and Protestant house church believers must be major targets since they constitute the largest underground group in the country.

As a Shanghai pastor explains, "We are the objects of great suspicion by the government simply because we keep our distance from them -- to stay clear is to show dissent in this country, and so they come after you. The only way to be left alone is to join them and pretend to go along with them. But we will not play such games."

Feeding this insecurity will be a social instability crisis. When China joins the World Trade Organization (WTO), the social ramifications will be enormous. At least 50 million people are expected to be immediately unemployed from heavy industry, and the 100 million peasants currently on the land will lose their incomes, joining the 150 million migrant workers already on the move from village to town.

In other words, China may have an internally displaced population of over 300 million in the next five years. The potential for social chaos is high.

Managing the fastest and largest industrialization in human history is bound to stretch the resources of the Communist Party. We can expect the now annual "strike hard" anti-corruption police campaigns to get ever more sweeping. Even now the threat of urban terrorism from disaffected workers is high, with bombings of factories on the rise.

Another distinct possibility is that the government will stoke up nationalism to distract the population from the idea of blaming their leaders for domestic woes, creating outside enemies as a steam valve to relieve the pressure within the social system. But it is a high-risk strategy -- one that could lead to war with another country if the Chinese government gets desperate enough.

Into these twin crises comes the reaction of the house church movements to them. Many house church leaders anticipate a new "discipleship crisis," which will come as a result of the social instability crisis.

Urban and rural house church movements are consciously targeting the migrant population, and although evangelization efforts are just beginning, they are finding the migrants a receptive group. Some leaders now talk of a "second convert boom," where the numbers of Christians explode again like they did in the 1980s.

Certainly there seems little doubt that refugee populations are more susceptible to embracing new religious beliefs, especially as they are insecure in a new environment, and newly able to differentiate themselves from the beliefs of their old environment.

But this "boom" in convert numbers will cause a discipleship crisis, which was defined by a leader of the Fancheng house church network in Henan province as "when people become Christians at such rate that it overwhelms the ability of the church to disciple them adequately in the faith."

The persecution implications are these. If the house church booms again, then its profile rises higher and higher, threatening the government by the sheer scale of its numbers.

Furthermore, in order to cope with the need to disciple the new converts, house church movements will seek greater assistance from the Western churches, especially in requesting more teachers to come and help. And since the government criminalizes the offering of outside help to the house churches, much of this assistance will have to be illegal.

Thus we can expect more training seminars to be broken up by police, more deportations of foreign teachers and more arrests of local leaders.

Finally, there is always the abiding problem that if you cannot ground new Christians quickly in the faith, you run the risk of them believing a heterodox mish-mash of doctrines and leaving themselves open to joining a cult -- an increasingly serious charge in today's China.

The fourth crisis is called the "social involvement crisis." As Chinese society gets more unstable and as social needs become more glaring, we will begin to see the house church millions develop a social conscienceness.

Already there are indications from the leaders of the six largest network house church movements that they wish more theological input in the area of how to get involved in meeting society's needs. Traditionally house churches have kept clear of any social work, since the government has claimed a monopoly on such action. But as the potential for social chaos grows, and a larger and larger underclass emerges from the fifth-gear capitalism, house churches will feel increasingly responsible to get involved.

In Lanzhou, there is a house church of 32 individuals who became concerned about the number of AIDS sufferers in their city. At first they welcomed a couple and cared for their needs, but about a year ago the leader of the group said, "We have to tackle the roots of this problem -- there are hundreds of AIDS sufferers here, and we cannot help them unless we build up some expertise in caring, and assist at a policy level."

Three of the house church members were doctors, and they offered their services free to a government agency. The official who received them was grateful but cautious. He said, "If you are all Christians, then we need a clear understanding of what you are allowed to do and what you are not." The negotiations are still continuing a year later.

These Christians are not finding it easy to suddenly deal with government agencies after years of keeping clear, nor are they sure how their faith allows them to care at this macro level. For example, should they sanction the dispensing of condoms?

A sharper edge to this scenario may come from the more intellectual house churches in the big cities. Already one group in Beijing is talking of organizing workers' unions. This would bring a swift clash with government forces. Also as the WTO reforms take effect, new professional castes will emerge, creating new identities. For example, some will see themselves as "a Christian lawyer," or "a Christian economist," and entirely new networks of influence could be created.

At the moment, however, it would be wrong to say the house churches are all anxiously discussing ways to get more socially involved. But the trickle of concern in this area may become a flood, especially if Chinese society at the grassroots level starts to unravel.

It will lead to a clash with the government. Says a high-ranking leader with the Little Flock house church movement in Fuchou, "There are two things the government fears with the house churches: one, that they unite and become a solid bloc of influence; two, that they become politically active and begin to affect the social system."

These four crises can be viewed as four corners of a box pulling in towards the center, shrinking the space and bringing an insecure government, an unraveling social system, an expanded house church, and a socially awakened house church into what may be a deadly proximity.

It does not have to happen this way. Government policy could relax. The house churches may not experience this expected surge in convert numbers. But it does constitute a more than likely scenario on present evidence.


It would be remiss to pretend that all persecution comes from the state and can be eliminated. In the New Testament, the state is only one of five distinct sources of persecution, the others being family, priests, mobs and merchants. In other words, it was the culture itself that was the primary persecutor.

This is still true in China. A Chinese Christian is far more likely to experience persecution from a family member or a bigoted folk religious priest than from a state official. Indeed in a recent trip, I counted hearing of five arrests and no less than 36 instances of Christian women being badly beaten by non-Christian husbands on hearing of their conversion.

Chinese Christians are quick to point out the biblical basis of such an experience. One makes much of Christ's teaching to His disciples in John chapter 15, where He warns His followers, "If people persecuted me, they will persecute you too." Others quote Paul's exhortation to Timothy that, "Everyone who wants to live a godly life in union with Christ Jesus will be persecuted."

At any rate, even if government policy becomes more tolerant, persecution will remain as a phenomenon, since there is an "eternal term" in view, according to many of China's Bible teachers, where the "world" is opposed to Christ -- an antagonism that will never recede.

Thus persecution will recede, intensify, and always remain! Another puzzle worthy of the world's most complicated culture!

Copyright 2001, Compass News Direct. Used with Permission.