One of China’s most prominent house churches is battling eviction from its meeting space. Zion Church in Beijing has fought off pressure to close up and vacate premises the church claims they legally occupy. Over the past several months, government authorities have one by one shuttered Zion’s satellite meeting locations. All that is left is Zion’s main meeting location and office space at the Longbaochen office park.
In this article posted on The St. Charles Institute, the SCI China correspondent fills in details that provide context for why Zion is being forced out of its meeting space. She also explains how Zion’s situation fits in the larger context of recent government pressure against Christians in China and why Christians must respond to such pressure.
Who Wants To Evict Zion Church Beijing?
Rental leases being used as a new weapon to suppress Chinese house churches
On August 20, 2018, a “Contract Due Notice” appeared on the lobby of the Longbaochen Commercial Mansion, at No. 176 Beiyuan Road, Chaoyang District, Beijing. The notice states that the third floor office lease signed under Beijing Jianweitang Culture Co., Ltd. has expired, and the company must move out within 15 days. Since August 24, anyone entering and exiting the building received a copy of the “Contract Due Notice,” notifying all Jianweitang-related occupants to terminate all activities on the third floor.
The third floor, which Jianweitang rents out entirely, covers 2,400 square meters. Jianweitang pays three million Chinese Yuan (approximately $440,000 USD) per year for the third floor. The company has never defaulted on rent and has promised to continue paying the full amount of rent punctually in the future.
Why, then, would the landlord, Longbaochen Commercial Mansion, be so eager to expel such a reliable tenant?
To answer this question, it is important to understand a few key pieces of information. Jianweitang Culture Co. Ltd. is a company registered by Zion Church in Beijing. Under the current Chinese system, most Christian churches are unable to gain independent legal status to sign any contracts, including renting spaces or opening bank accounts. Therefore, house churches either empower their pastors to sign lease agreements on behalf of the church, or register a company to rent a venue for church usage.
Zion Church is currently one of the largest Christian churches in Beijing, with over 1,500 attending its Sunday services weekly. It is well-known by the majority of churches in China and is recognized by the global evangelical Christian community.
Zion Church Beijing, through Jianweitang Culture Co. Ltd., has rented out the office space in the Longbaochen Commercial Mansion since March 2007. Initially, the church rented only one office space on the fifth floor, and it later expanded to include a few more offices. At the beginning of 2013, a nightclub originally operating on the third floor of the office building closed down, vacating the entire floor. This caused a dramatic decrease of revenue stream for the landlord. The landlord took the initiative to reach out to the church, asking if they could rent the third floor. Considering the cost of rent for such a massive space, as well as the cost of teardown and renovation, the church was not ready to take on a new lease.
In an effort to maintain their revenue, the landlord continued to actively negotiate with the church and promised the church a ten-year lease commitment. Based on this commitment, Zion Church agreed to rent the third floor of the office building with a lease term of ten years in August 2013. However, since the property is a state-owned asset, and since the parent company owning Longbaochen Commercial Mansion only permits a three-year contract in order to compensate for changes in price, further negotiation was needed. Finally, after much persuasion, the lease agreement was fixed on a five-year term to accommodate for price adjustments, with the ten-year lease commitment left unchanged.
However, since March 2018, due to various external pressures on the landlord, Longbaochen Commercial Mansion abruptly and unilaterally backed out from their ten-year commitment. At the end of the first five-year lease term, Longbaochen Commercial Mansion terminated the negotiating process with Zion Church and has since then used various methods to force Zion Church to move out.
Legal Venues for Religious Activities?
Why would an office building landlord, with the self-interest to maintain normal revenue flow, suddenly want to drive out a lease holder who can and has been consistently paying rent? In fact, this is not just a peculiar phenomenon happening in Beijing, but rather, this type of illogical stance is widespread across the country. Since the beginning of this year, there have been multiple incidents of landlords evicting individual Christian tenants or churches. The reasoning given for such eviction is their engagement in "illegal religious activities," namely evangelizing, communicating between believers, and holding Sunday services.
These actions are based on the official “Regulations on Religious Affairs,” which came into effect on February 1, 2018. The revised regulations specify that the venues for religious activities must all be strictly incorporated for administrative inspection and for government approval. All other religious gatherings are identified as illegal.
Christianity requires their followers to live out their faith in all aspects of life. The liberty to practice publicly one’s religion is the concrete manifestation of freedom of religion. Historically, Christians have held worship services in various types of “venues,” such as prisons, palaces, forests, and city plazas. Christianity also requires believers to express their beliefs within their families, at work, and in social activities.
Therefore, enforcing restriction on venues for religious activities or classifying religious activities outside of the restricted venues is absurd. Regulations of this kind only show how seriously the policy writers misunderstand religion and how religious groups operate. These regulations prove in reality to be nearly impossible to enforce. For example, a distinctive part of the Christian faith is to say grace before every meal. This is part of normal religious activity. However, under the current regulations, this type of prayer may be defined as illegal if such “religious activity” was not carried out within the “enforced venues.” Would this mean that all the Chinese Christians would only be allowed to eat in an approved church?
In China, a considerable number of Christians belong to the so-called “house church.” These are churches that are not registered under the National Committee of Three-Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches in China (TSPM). Some churches have rented or purchased office buildings for worship. The majority of house churches are still operating in family homes or such small meeting places. If they are all sentenced as “illegal” and are imposed a fine, such policy will seriously deprive Chinese Christians of their religious freedom.
Increasing Tension in Church and State Relations
But the current issue confronted by Zion Church is not just a simple question of whether or not to implement the “Regulations on Religious Affairs.” Since February 2018, Beijing Zion Church, as well as many other Christian churches across the country, have witnessed increasing tension between the church and state. The relevant departments of various local governments dealing with religion have actively confronted churches in order to suppress Christian beliefs and its practice in life.
For example, the government demanded installation of surveillance cameras in the auditorium of Zion Church in early April. This was the first time that Zion Church has received such a request in the eleven years it has existed. Such imposition implies a vigorous tightening of supervision on the church and its congregation by the state. After the church refused the request, the water supply and electricity on the third floor were cut off for a brief period.
On June 12, the official WeChat social media account of Zion Church was blocked after five years of consistent operation. Then, a series of similar removals of alternative WeChat accounts by Zion Church happened on June 14, June 20, June 28, August 4, and August 15. On August 2, the official video platform Youku account of Zion Church was also taken down.
At the same time, six satellite campuses of Zion Church were closed down. The first one was the Zion Church in Wangjing, which was shuttered on February 7. At the end of March, Zion Church Tiantongyuan campus was forced to close. In mid-May, Zion Church Houshayu campus was also forced to shut down. On July 1, Zion Church Songzhuang campus was forced to close. And since July, the one remaining Zion Church campus in Zhenguang has also received pressure from its landlord.
On July 5, Zion Church Yizhuang campus suddenly received a text message from the landlord requesting the termination of the contract and refused to refund the initial two-month deposit and the quarterly rent payment which had just been paid. When members of the church rushed to the Yizhuang campus, they found that the door was locked. Six unidentified men stood in front of the entrance and did not allow the members of the congregation to enter the rented space. After all negotiations failed, church members called the police. Four of the six men left before the police arrived. The other two who stayed behind attempted to use a fake ID card to justify their actions, but one of them was identified as a member of a gang with a criminal record. Afterwards, the six men continued to obstruct the believers from entering the venue, and the police claimed no power to deal with the matter. On Sunday, July 8, the hallways and elevators to the venue were locked, and more than a dozen security guards stood in place to stop all attempts to enter the building. As of now, Yizhuang campus still cannot be used as promised.
How to Ease Church and State Relations in China
Zion Church in Beijing is among the numerous churches that are currently experiencing persecution in China. Local governments in Beijing, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Chengdu, Lanzhou, Xuzhou and other cities, have carried out actions to suppress and persecute the local house churches. Similar actions have taken place across the entire provinces of Henan and Jiangxi. Chinese churches are experiencing the climax of the severest persecution seen in the past forty years.
These acts of persecution of Christians are premeditated and systemically planned. Learning from past experiences, government officials at all levels deal with religious issues through civil laws that are non-religious in nature. These acts are attempts to avoid revealing the blatant persecution of the church and the suppression of religious freedom. Terminating a church’s rental contract is just one such example.
In the future, it is expected that the Chinese government will employ similar tactics to increase pressure on the church—through opaque queries of fire protection measures, by questioning the legality of printed materials used by the church, through harsh and unfair applications of business licensing requirements, and so on. The common feature of these legal tactics is the effort to close houses of worship for “non-religious reasons,” and in so doing, sidestep the accusation of suppressing religious freedom. It is difficult to estimate whether such tactics will really reach their desired end.
Original Article: “Who Wants to Evict Zion Church Beijing?” The St. Charles Institute
Chinese version available on original site.
Reposted with permission.
Image Credit: The St. Charles Institute.
Are you enjoying a cup of good coffee or fragrant tea while reading the latest ChinaSource post? Consider donating the cost of that “cuppa” to support our content so we can continue to serve you with the latest on Christianity in China.