Dr. Yiedi Yeh | ChinaAid
Perhaps no issue nowadays features a greater gap between the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) official rhetoric and the stark reality of its persecution of Christian churches. Just ask a Chinese believer affiliated with a government-sanctioned church a question about religious persecution: “Do you think there is any government persecution of Christian churches and believers in China?” Highly likely, he/she would dismiss such concerns as misinformation. As China’s Constitution reportedly guarantees fundamental rights such as the right to religious freedom, a Chinese unbeliever’s reaction to the question would typically be the same.
In Xi Jinping’s “new era,” the viability of the promise of religious freedom warrants serious doubt. As church-related news can only be found on the official newsletters or websites the state-controlled Three-Self church manages, the truth regarding religious persecution has never made its way to mainstream media in China. The reality hidden from the Chinese public is that churches in China face tighter control in recent years and many believers become targets of escalating persecution. Under President Xi, the prospect that continued growth of Chinese churches will be tolerated appears bleak, as evidenced by a slew of new policies of religious restrictions enacted in past years. The CCP’s “Sinicization” plan issued in April 2018 clearly sent a message: all the doctrines and operations of all officially recognized religions must be aligned with the core values of socialism; the CCP’s leadership must be accepted by all religious organizations. Chinese church leaders and ordinary Christians will find themselves subjected to criminal penalties if they defy relevant government ordinances, regulations, or laws on religions.
The forced closure of four prominent house churches within less than two years received wide publicity in the West. These churches, known for large numbers of congregations and their firm stances in defying the CCP’s restrictive religious policies, include Early Rain Covenant Church in Sichuan, Zion Church and Shouwang Church in Beijing, and Rongguili Church in Guangzhou. The shutdown of these four leading churches, however, only reveals the tip of the iceberg. ChinaAid’s annual reports suggest that cases of church persecution have been rising steeply in recent years. Increasingly expansive suppression of Christian churches across China appears to be a new norm of governmental control since President Xi assumed power in 2012. Some house churches pushed back by appealing the local government’s decision to the higher-level government agencies such as the Bureau of Minorities and Religious Affairs, or even the State Administration of Religious Affairs. Others filed lawsuits with the People’s Court. Nevertheless, the courts invariably sustained the original decrees.
At this point, Pastors Wang Yi and John Sanqiang Cao have received the most severe punishments. In 2019, the courts sentenced the two Chinese ministers to 9 years and 7 years imprisonment, respectively. Pastor Wang, convicted for “inciting subversion of state power and illegal business operations,” has been a vocal critic of the government’s restrictive regulations on churches and even the Party’s Secretary Xi Jin-ping. The charge for Pastor Cao, a US permanent resident, “Organizing others to illegally cross the border” constitutes an offense equivalent to human trafficking in Chinese law. The severe punishment inflicted on these two ministers with connections in the US reveals the Chinese government’s vigilance of the influence of rapidly growing house churches in urban areas. It also serves as a warning to the West: do not ever try to interfere with our domestic affairs.
In dealing with other church leaders, the Chinese government has implemented a wide array of suppressive measures, ranging from threats, harassment, increased surveillance, house arrests, to criminal detentions. Ordinary church congregants may also face substantial risks if they refuse to sign an official document pledging to cut off ties with their churches. These believers could lose their jobs or professional licenses and find themselves wandering from place to place with their families (including their young children as local police force landlords to rescind leases). At times, authorities disconnect the utility supply in their homes and deny them access to social welfare, insurance, bank loans. Some believers endure constant police harassment simply because they hold Bible studies at home.
What purposes does the Chinese government aim to achieve with heightened assaults on the religious freedom of Christians? CCP officials hope to see Christian house churches eventually dismantle under intensified pressure, not merely with reference to church buildings but also in church doctrines and legacy. They believe this can be achieved through intimidation, persecution, and imprisonment. Authorities expect house church leaders (with exceptions of those like Wang Yi) to cave in under pressure before joining state-controlled Three-Self churches, which will continue to be used as the instruments of the United Front.
The stark reality confronting Chinese house church believers remains troubling. Ending China’s violations of religious freedom calls for the US foreign policy to prioritize religious freedom. The American government may have to consider imposing applicable sanctions on the Chinese government when necessary. Concerns regarding government persecution of Christian churches and believers in China cannot be dismissed as misinformation.