View From the Wall

Is Persecution Worsening?

Perspectives on the Changing Religious Policy Environment in China

Last year two senior house church leaders were asked to give their opinions on the current trends inside China. Their perspectives highlight the differing views of China’s Christian leaders.

Views of Pastor A

Are Chinese Christians entering a harsh winter season?

In recent years, much overseas media has covered stories of persecution incidents in China. The demolition of crosses has been reported extensively over the past two years. Some have even said the church in China is entering a harsh winter season. This gives an imbalanced impression that persecution is a common phenomenon in China. When we analyze the environment facing the Chinese church, we must not lose sight of the particular context of individual persecution incidents. Otherwise, we will misread the signs and miss the opportunities that the Father has been giving to the church in China of this generation.

Overall, the fact is that some persecution incidents have occurred in recent years and still do today. At the same time, the majority of churches continue their meetings and ministries with unprecedented freedom. Let me give an analogy. The government at times arrests people who are suspected of committing financial crimes, but that does not mean the government intends to forbid all activities of the financial market. Similarly, persecution incidents happening in China do not imply a harsh winter for the church—a nationwide crackdown on Christianity.

New measures on managing unregistered churches

I am also aware of the spread of an internet message about four ways of managing unregistered churches:

  1. Churches that are willing to join the TSPM system and be managed by the authorities can be granted registration.
  2. Churches that decline to join the TSPM system but are willing to be managed by the authorities can have an informal registration with the authorities for reference.
  3. Churches that neither join the TSPM system nor are managed by the authorities should continue to be educated by the authorities.
  4. Churches that neither join the TSPM system nor are managed by the authorities and continue to be infiltrated by foreign forces should experience crackdowns.

These four measures are consistent with the pattern of current religious restrictions, and I personally believe they are not merely rumors. It is common knowledge that the government conveys messages about new policies through informal channels to test the waters, in particular when those new policies are controversial and might arouse public opposition. In this way, the government may ascertain how the local churches and local authorities will respond to the new religious policies. They can then determine to what extent the new policies will be implemented. 

I personally find this new policy is not necessarily a sign of harsh winter. On the contrary, it creates even more space for church ministries. One might find the crackdown mentioned in measure #4 as very negative for the church. This is indeed the measure taken by the authorities over decades, so the church is no worse off now. However, in this generation, the overwhelming majority of churches in China are indigenous ones and are not funded by overseas entities.  Overseas funding is usually taken as a sign of control and unacceptable by the government.

Measure #3 is the current situation of most unregistered churches. The authorities attempt to educate and manage unregistered churches by having “tea meetings” with pastors. Again, this situation is no worse off than previously. As the authorities continue to dialogue with the churches, the churches can, on the contrary, grasp the opportunities to educate them about how the churches can benefit society.

Measure #2 is a new measure that provides the opportunity for church registration which has been called for by unregistered churches for years. Measure #1 is not a preferred choice for unregistered churches.

Personal experience of restrictions

I, personally, feel I have less control over my church and myself because of the relationship with the authorities in recent years. My church continues services in a commercial building without any interruptions. The authorities occasionally have “tea meetings” with me to receive an update on what is happening in my church. However, these meetings are becoming less frequent now—just two or three times a year. As part of the top leadership of my network, I, of course, do not naively believe I am free to do any kind of ministry. I expect tighter surveillance by the authorities than an ordinary Chinese pastor would receive. While hundreds of thousands of church leaders can freely communicate with local and overseas parties online, I often expect irregularities with my online service or electronic devices. While most pastors are free to travel to overseas countries for church events, I pray that the organizers of overseas events will not take too high a profile and cause the authorities to hinder my travel.

Pastor A is in the top leadership of a prominent church network in a rural area in China. He was imprisoned in a labor camp for a few years during the 1980s because he continued to evangelize under the tight religious control of the government. With the increase in urbanization, he migrated from his home village to a city and started an urban church in the 2000s. Now, for years, he has been shepherding a local church of hundreds of believers with a large proportion of well-educated young people. Like a good number of other urban churches, every week they conduct several church meetings in a rented apartment in a commercial building as well as tens of small group gatherings.

Views of Pastor B

Harsh winter is the right time to prepare ourselves

Historically, Christianity has been associated with Western imperialism. It is hard for the Chinese government to forget the painful invasion of western countries since World War I, in which western missionaries were seen as collaborating with foreign powers. The pouring of funds from overseas into the churches in China in past decades caught the attention of the Chinese government. Deeply rooted in Chinese culture, the provision of funds creates a master-and-servant relationship. Thus, the image of Christianity is closely related to infiltration by foreign forces.   

Religious issues are seen as sensitive under the sovereignty of the atheistic Chinese Communist Party. The advance of Christianity in China has drawn the attention of the Chinese government, and some government officials perceive Christianity as a destabilizing factor. In addition, the Occupy Central Hong Kong incident in the second half of 2014, with Christians playing a pivotal role in its organization and actively supporting it, was seen as threatening from the perspective of the Chinese Communist Party. This has been taken as an apparent clue that Christianity could initiate and participate in social movements. That gets on the nerves of the state leadership. 

Pine trees harden during a harsh winter

In Chinese culture, pine trees are often depicted as symbols of steadfastness and endurance while plum blossoms portray a strong personality that does not fear difficulties. When winter becomes harsher, pine trees harden even more and plum blossoms take time to flourish. We firmly believe that regardless of changing circumstances, the One who reigns over all, including our history, shall never change. Everything is in his good hand.

Therefore, we should examine the situation and prepare for the worst. On the other hand, we should hold on to our hope that victory is a sure thing and walk faithfully with the Lord. As we revisit church history, God’s kingdom can be further expanded when his children grasp the opportunities to share the gospel during difficult times. Throughout the generations of the early church, the scattering or migration of believers helped to spread the gospel. 

Today, some worry the churches in China are not aware of potential severe persecution as they seem to take an optimistic perspective towards the signs of a tightening environment. It can hardly be imagined how they would endure, or even survive, in a tightened environment. Yet from the history of the Chinese church, we can see that harsh winters realign the churches, test their foundation of faith, and enable believers to show their faithfulness to the Lord. Because the price for keeping the faith has been raised by the authorities, the churches in China will naturally purify themselves. True gold fears no fire. Difficult times can nurture disciples that are willing to carry their own crosses. Pastors will also have to serve with pure motives, be ready to be motivated by God’s love, and to shepherd the Lord’s sheep faithfully.

If the situation gets worse, local churches will be compelled to break up into smaller sizes. The scattering of believers will help to spread the gospel, as in the early church. As the government prepares to put a strong hand on donations, churches may face financial hardship. However, local churches will then be unable to “lay up treasures” in their bank accounts. After all, there will be no need for them to save money for establishing glamorous church buildings. As soon as donations are received, they will have to be given away—to the poor, to seminaries, and to charitable groups. This could speed up the development of church ministries in a wonderful way.  The delegation of religious control to the authorities at the community level would, on the one hand, narrow the space for unregistered churches. On the other hand, for survival, local churches would be motivated to gain favour from the local authorities by doing good deeds in the community. It is time for more local churches to move out of their comfort zones to reach and serve the community, help the needy, and care for the neighbourhood—to truly become salt and light.

Chinese churches have gone through over 200 years of ups and downs. We may see the past as a nurturing stage when believers were pampered, trained and disciplined. Now that they are mature, it is time to put their strength to the test. Learning from the historical patterns of the church, we see that passionate evangelization comes from a burning spirit; a burning life comes after the test of fire. All in all, the harsh winter is a period of trials but also a season of hope. Farmers will have the time to relax, reflect and prepare for the busy harvest in the coming spring. When the winter trial is over, I believe God will enormously revive the churches in China and charge them with the Great Commission.

Churches in China have been abundantly equipped in the past decades; the restrictive environment is a mere, but crucial, push for them to reach their destiny in God’s kingdom.

Pastor B is an indigenous Chinese scholar with strengths in theological education and the history of the Chinese Church. He shepherds an unregistered urban church of mainly well-educated, middle-class people.

Taken from published materials of Open Doors. Used with permission.

Image credit: The Chinese flag by zachary jean paradis via Flickr. 
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