ChinaSource Blog PostsChurch and State

Red Lines


In his book, The Politics of Protestant Churches and the Party-State China: God Above Party?, Loyola Professor Dr. Carsten Vala explains that the Chinese government has typically had three “red lines” which unregistered Protestant congregations must not cross in order to avoid repression. (p. 14, p. 132) It might be helpful to think of them as the limits of toleration. Although never actually codified, these became commonly understood in the 1990s.

First, illegal religious groups were expected to remain small in size, with fewer than a few dozen participants, just like the small meeting points under official churches. Second, their leaders, just like official church pastors, were expected to report to authorities on their congregations and activities, especially with foreigners. Third, illegal religious groups violated a red line when they connected with Protestants across jurisdictional boundaries, because officials worry that such ties indicate a national organization in formation. (p. 14)

Writing further, he suggests that this allowed unregistered churches to operate with the “tacit permission of the Party-State’s local authorities.”

Leaders of small unregistered congregations knew that involvement of foreigners, cross-jurisdictional linkages, and large-scale gatherings could trigger Party-state intervention, and so Protestants usually prudently observed them, (and sometimes cautiously subverted them), although they did not think such restrictions were appropriate. (p. 14)

In late November, I was talking with a Chinese friend and scholar about these red lines in relation to the Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu. Given the fact that Early Rain clearly existed beyond each of these lines, and that Pastor Wang Yi was increasingly vocal in challenging the Party-State, we were puzzled as to the government’s tolerance of the church.

That tolerance apparently ran out on December 9, as security officials arrested Pastor Wang Yi and his wife Jiang Rong, as well as several elders and 100 church members. Some have since been released, but the pastor and elders have not.

Having puzzled over the “why not yet?” question, we now found ourselves wondering “why now?” Was this a case of “killing the chicken to scare the monkey?”—a warning shot to other churches not to cross the red lines? Or was it a response to Pastor Wang Yi’s increasingly strident criticisms of the government—a challenge they could no longer tolerate? Even two weeks on, it’s hard to come up with a clear answer.  

This was not the first time Pastor Wang Yi has been detained; but in the past he was released within 48 hours. With that in mind, he prepared for this detention by writing letters and statements that were to be released to the public (via western media) should his detention last beyond 48 hours. When that deadline came and went, his letter, My Declaration of Faithful Disobedience was released. It is a powerful statement.  Steve Childers, of Pathway Learning, has links to the declaration document translated into various languages, as well as other relevant documents and papers.

In a year that has seen an uptick in the number and severity of government harassment and persecution, taking action against this church seems to be a serious escalation. But interestingly, as of this writing, other house churches in the city, including those that are part of the same network, have not been affected. Some are even publicizing their special Christmas services on WeChat. It’s also important to note that, despite the high profile nature of the church, it is not representative of house churches in China, most of which seek to keep a lower profile and remain a-political (and thus are so far unaffected by the recent crackdown).

There has been a lot of reporting on this story over the past two weeks, but let me highlight a couple of pieces.  Ian Johnson, who wrote about Early Rain and Pastor Wang Yi in his book The Souls of China: The Return of Religion after Mao, reported on the arrests for The New York Times.

Christianity Today published a story about the closing of not just Early Rain, but also Zion Church (Beijing) and Rongguili Church (Guangzhou), referring to them as China’s three “mega-churches.”

Finally, China Partnership publishes regular updates on the situation. In addition, they have published a prayer guide to help people know how to pray for the church.

As we enter into this Advent season, please continue to pray for our brothers and sisters in China.

Image credit: Wuhan, by Tauno Tohk, via Flickr.
Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is senior vice president of ChinaSource and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University... View Full Bio


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