One of the ways that people in China have of dealing with injustice is the administrative system known as petitioning. A carry over from imperial times, this system allows people to take their grievances to the Bureau of Letters and Calls, which exist at the local, provincial, and national levels. In recent years, with China’s rapid development, millions of people have used this system to seek redress for losing their homes or livelihood to property developments. If petitioners are unable to get satisfaction at the lower levels, they often travel to provincial capitals or to Beijing to try to obtain justice. Since this reflects badly on the local officials, the police often arrest them or use other harsh measures to prevent them from taking their cases higher, compounding the injustice that they are experiencing.
The Weixin Journal of the Early Rain Reformed Church in Chengdu (a house church) recently posted an article about a petitioners fellowship that the church has started. In it, the writer shares his experiences of working with the petitioners, as well as dealing with the local police, who often view the petitioners as troublemakers. It’s an interesting look at how a church is trying to meet the needs of some of the most down and out members of Chinese society as well as the way it interacts with the local police. We have translated the article in full.
Petitioners Fellowship: Grace in a Universal Era of Greed
This year the police blocked the petitioners fellowship group at Autumn Rain Church in Chengdu three times. The month of June was a sensitive month; July was another month of "Party building;" and the petitioners fellowship was again blocked. As church members we obey the authority of our local government, so we stopped for two months. The fellowship meetings were restored in August, following intense negotiations with the police. But by November, with cold winds blowing through the ancient city, the fellowship group was again disrupted by the "current political situation."
On November 15 at 10 a.m. Political Instructor Huang and Chief Wang of our district police station, as well as Chief Neighborhood Official Long and one other person, came to my home. Actually, they are my "regular guests" and, by my count, have been guests in my humble home four or five times this year. When they knock on my door, we all know what this is about; they don't need to explain. I know they've come to talk about the petitioners fellowship group.
During the conversation I show the police courtesy, and after several conversations, they are beginning to understand our situation. The attitude of the police is getting better; they do not always use coercion. With a heart that delights in God, I open the door and greet them. Neither haughtily nor begrudgingly, I ask them how they are. Chief Wang's child has just turned three-years-old and for four consecutive days has had a fever. He should be at his child's side, and as soon as he sees me he starts bitterly complaining about the profession he is in. In fact, this situation is difficult for all of us. The Bible teaches us "to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God [主]." Yet, the police also have their "Master" [i.e. "God," 主] whom they must follow. Our hardships may be similar, but our loves are different.
Instructor Huang believes that there are many greedy people among the petitioners. They ask for way too much and they intentionally provoke the government. I can agree with him on some level. I've ministered to the petitioners for more than two years now and I've visited the homes of more than forty petitioners. Of course there are those among them who have this attitude and aspiration and are looking to maximize their benefits. But I ask Instructor Huang, "How is this the petitioners' problem?" The Chinese bureaucracy is even more insatiably greedy; just look at people like Zhou Yongkang* and Li Chun'cheng.** All they had to do was jot a couple of words on a document and they could pocket millions of dollars. In terms of personal character, even if the petitioners want sixty or seventy thousand RMB more or want one or two more houses, there is a much greater fear of the overt and covert benefits of bureaucrats and their power to trade money when comparing the two.
Li Chun'cheng (李春城) used to be the party secretary of the city where I live. The people gave him the very appropriate nickname, "Li Chai'cheng" (李拆城) [Li the Demolisher of the City]. People are nurtured by their environment, and so are the public officials. However, from the news that has leaked out, the amount that Li Chun'cheng stole is more than the total amount that families have been asking for in compensation for being forced to relocate from their homes so that their houses can be demolished. This is a truly horrifying kind of greed.
Since these guests have come to my home, I should make them comfortable. Every time the police come to my house, we explore the issue of my ministry with the petitioners fellowship. The police want us to completely stop this kind of gathering. They want me to stop sticking my nose into other people's thorny business and just be a simple Christian. I quote the words of the Bible, "So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin." This is the ministry approach of our church, and the spiritual guideline to which I must adhere. But our fellowship of petitioners is indeed entirely different from intellectuals who defend legal rights by demonstrations and protests. We know the superficiality of the Chinese legal system. Even though our church has a lawyers fellowship group that also participates with the petitioners fellowship, because of the corrupt practices of the system we actually cannot help them (the petitioners) very much in their legal defense. If the gospel does not penetrate their hearts, the petitioners have no hope of righteousness or peace in their hearts; everything else is in vain.
I cited one case to the police. At 2 p.m. on July 20, 2013, while we were holding a petitioners fellowship meeting, we received very tragic news. A petitioner named Ji Zhongxin blew himself up at Beijing International Airport because he had unsuccessfully sought reparations after being severely beaten (to the point of being crippled) beaten by local public security officers in Dongguan. I said: "If Ji Zhongxin had not gone to the airport, but to church instead, perhaps this tragedy would not have happened!" This kind of violent resistance is gaining momentum in China. Eventually, the heart of every citizen of this country will suffer by social injustice and people ignorance. This is the type of thing that the police have been safeguarding against for all these years; however, the more they safeguard, the more unstable things become!
In fact, we are a nation lacking in love. I told the police that the police do not love their chief, the chief does not love the bureau chief, the bureau chief does not love the provincial head of the department, and the provincial head does not love the head of entire department. You can also say that Christians lack love. Everything we do today does not come from our own love. Even if we have love, it is fickle. We are still used to "sweeping the snow in front your own door, but don't disturb the snow on your neighbor's roof."*** But, the reason why we persevere in our ministry is because we are people who have been blessed with grace. When God's grace illumines us, our hearts will be rebuilt in brokenness and we will develop a new life. As it says in the beatitudes, "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy."
Over the years, due to all sorts of problems, we have found ourselves dealing with the police more and more. I often hear them complain about their jobs, but I tell them that we have it worse than they do. On the one hand, we suffer police persecution. On the other hand, we also bear persecution from petitioners. Our love resides in a "double persecution." The former is easy to understand. But is the latter also persecution? Yes, of course it is!
Among this group of petitioners we serve, 48% of the households have had their homes forcibly demolished, 44% of the people have encountered unfair treatment and injustice, 80% have gone through legal proceedings, and 68% have tried to recover rights and benefits through administrative proceedings. Unfortunately, most have been unsuccessful. Furthermore, 55% have been detained, 44% beaten, 52% implicated in a crime, 16% convicted of a crime, and 13% suffer from auditory and visual hallucinations. This is a group of extremely angry and bitter people on the bottom rung of society. They often complain to no end, ferociously denouncing the "evils" of the Party and the country. They often take out their anger on us. Even during our monthly petitioners fellowship meetings they are still not completely at peace. They often explode with anger and mistreat the special speakers who come to talk and share with them. Even when you help them analyze the details of their case, or assist in talks with the police about their rights, or write relevant case documents, they don't easily show appreciation and complain that we "have no way of understanding." One time, when I was heatedly attacked and criticized by a long-term petitioner I'd assisted, I couldn't stifle the rising indignation of my heart and began yelling at him on the phone.
Since the role of the police is to maintain social stability by safeguarding the underlying ideology, they are quite wary of the ministry of the church’s petitioners fellowship group. However, they are unaware of the hardships of our ministry and don’t understand why we want to do such difficult work. I told them a story. Our church pastor, Wang Yi, once set a goal that anytime he got on a public bus and there was at least one other person standing, he would not take a seat. One time, his son suspiciously asked him, "Daddy, why can't we sit down?" Wang Yi said to his son, "Because we have eternal life!"
This is the kind of social value system Christians maintain by grace.
The practice of petitioning is actually a sick characteristic of the Chinese system, but since it is such an ingrained practice, it difficult to overcome. According to Christian ethics, it is an inevitable outcome that the faults of the government and the faults of the individual petitioner are disputed. As business negotiation theory will tell you, the more powerful party often easily takes unfair advantage of the weaker party. When the interests of the government and the people are at odds, they will also fall into this pattern. Therefore, when a father who is being evicted from his home is "Li Gang,"**** the government will consider each party's role and do its utmost to yield to the interests of the other party. If the father of the other party is not "Li Gang," then there is no one behind the scenes to rely on. In order to increase one's claim for benefits, the petitioner will often harass the other party with unreasonable demands and threatening letters. And by increasing one's social influence, one can use social status as a bargaining chip for equal treatment in negotiations with the government. There is no rest for the weary in such a protracted struggle!
As the Bible says, in this society, "There is none righteous, no, not one." When extended to social phenomena, what we see is a universal era of greed. The government and citizens are like this, upright officials and corrupt officials are like this, law enforcement personnel and lawbreakers are like this, career officials and criminals are like this, those who pick up a pen and those who pick up a gun are like this, shopkeepers and errand boys are like this, production and marketing are like this, emotion and sex are like this, those who burn incense and those who worship Buddha are like this. I am like this and so are you!
This is precisely the reason why we need the gospel to turn culture around and transform lives! When I talk about these things with them, the police are taciturn and don't say a word.
I remember one time while Pastor Wang Yi was preaching he repented of his own sin in front of the entire congregation. Several years ago, he was still a prestigious public intellectual and one day he went to an electronics market to buy CDs. A young man ran over to him and quietly offered to sell him a pornographic CD. Wang Yi thought about it and was lured into a secluded spot. Suddenly, four or five thugs rushed out and surrounded him. In only two or three minutes he was cleaned of over 2,000 RMB he had just made in wages. As Wang Yi said this, suddenly he raised his right hand and said in a loud voice to everyone gathered for the service, "those among you who are greedy, who are lustful, please raise your hands.” At that moment, I saw what appeared to be a dead tree grow tender shoots. Everyone simultaneously raised their arms and the sound of weeping quietly spread through the congregation.
Once again going back to the discussion about the petitioners fellowship, I shared an exhortation from the Book of Galatians with the police. "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law." I said, if you know the beauty and goodness in this, it will soften your hard hearts. And with a smile, you will offer your best wishes for a peaceful month ahead for the petitioners fellowship with each other!
*Zhou Yong-kang is a former member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo who was recently arrested and expelled from the Communist Party on charges of corruption.
**Li Chun Cheng is the former Party Secretary of Chengdu, who was arrested on charges of corruption.
***A Chinese idiom that expresses the importance of tending to one’s own affairs and not getting involved in the affairs of others.
****Li Gang was a Public Security official in Hebei Province whose son ran over two university students while driving. When he was arrested, he told the police, “My father is Li Gang,” thinking that this would protect him. The story quickly made the rounds on China’s Internet and people were outraged because it was such a powerful symbol of the corrupt system. This became known as the “Li Gang Incident” and “My father is Li Gang” became a powerful Internet meme.
Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to Early Rain Reformed Church as Autumn Rain Church.
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