Saturday, June 7, 2008

Man vs. God: The Story of China’s Persecuted Christians

We tend to read about persecuted Christians around the world and feel sorry for them and pity them. Think about it though. If we really are all part of the body of Christ, these people are more our brothers and sisters than our own family.

[Please excuse the grammar problems if there are any. The copying and pasting was a trip. This is my research paper for my English class. I was very touched by it.]


Christianity is growing in the world. Despite what it may seem to many in the Western world, Christianity may very well be undergoing its biggest growth in history (Marshall 8). China is no stranger to this growth. In fact, as Paul Marshall stated in Their Blood Cries Out, “More people take part in Christian worship in China than do people in the entirety of Western Europe" (Marshall 8). This statement is 10 years and millions of new believers old. Many reports tell of thousands coming to know Christ every day. Some reports, although a little far fetched, estimate that number to be as many as 35,000 people daily (The Underground Church).

China, however, is a communist country. Since the communist party came to power in 1949, millions of Christians have been arrested, beaten, or brutally tortured for Christ. Paul Marshall wrote that “During one particular beating, the board being used by the security police was reduced to splinters” (Marshall 78). Chinese believers still suffer today. Why does China persecute believers? What effects does the persecution have on them? The still unfinished story of the persecution of Chinese believers shows that when man goes against God, there can only be one Victor.

I. Background

Although there were Catholics in China for centuries, the story really began in 1807 when the first protestant missionary arrived from Britain (History of Persecution in China). The church grew over the next century but missionaries’ cultural imperialism hindered the growth of the church and caused tensions to build. The leaders of the Chinese church could see the problems and tension caused by the West’s influence and they emphasized the need of Chinese churches to lead themselves. Their foresight of the Boxer Rebellion, which saw the deaths of well over 20,000 Christians and the flight of most missionaries, was invaluable. Over the years, the torch was passed to China and Christianity was made relevant to the culture. Led by godly men, the church grew astronomically and, for the most part, successfully navigated sometimes tumultuous waters in the years leading up to the communist takeover (Grant).

From the 1920s onward, communism slowly rose in influence until Mao Zedong and China’s Communist Party (CCP) took power in 1949. Christian leaders who supported Communism issued the famed Christian Manifesto which officially ended all ties with the Western church and pledged complete loyalty to the CCP. Under the newly formed Religious Affairs Bureau, the Three-Self Movement (as the afore mentioned movement was now called), and the similar Catholic Patriotic Association, China’s church was controlled by the communists. All missionaries were expelled from the country and many protesting Christians who were not sent to prison or labor camps were driven into their homes, beginning the famed “house church” movement (Grant; History of Persecution in China; Marshall 78; The Underground Church).

Despite the advances that were made for the communist agenda, Mao Zedong was not satisfied with the progress. Through a series of events and advertising campaigns, Mao began the next significant event against criticizers of himself and communism. The Cultural Revolution, as it was called, lasted from 1966 through 1976 and was possibly the most bloody event for Christians in history. The infamous Red Guards, school children ripped from their education in order to bring down the “counter-revolutionists,” went on a rampage. All religion was banned and even the government controlled institutions disappeared. Millions of people died and millions more were disgraced and/or sent to labor camps. The struggling economy led to atrocities such as mass cannibalism. Paul Marshall wrote that “In one incident a mother and son were tortured, buried alive atop one another in a single grave, then dismembered and eaten by their tormentors” (Marshall 78). Christianity and the house church movement, however, survived the chaos, largely because of its relatively new independence from foreign missionaries (Grant; Marshall 78; Rogaski; The Underground Church).

The rest of the century saw the death of Mao Zedong and the reign Deng Xiaoping. Xiaoping attempted to paint over the mistakes made in the Cultural Revolution and sent misleading messages of “religious freedom” to the outside world. The Three-Self Patriotic Movement was back with just as many restrictions as before driving millions more to the house church movement. The highs and lows over the rest of the century ended in the 90s with a heightening of the persecution—wherein thousands of house churches were closed. Torture, forced sterilization, and labor camps were among the fears of 1990s Christians. Overall, the first 50 years of the communist government saw one out of every 22 Christians detained, hundreds of thousands sent to labor camps, and thousands others tortured or killed (History of Persecution in China; Marshall 79-82; Nieh; The Underground Church).

After seeing a brief history of the persecution of Christians in China, one must begin to ask questions. “Why do they hate Christianity?” one might ask. “Didn’t I hear that there was religious freedom in China?” The answer to the latter question is that China, as previously mentioned briefly, has been sending deliberately misleading messages for decades. As quoted by the China Aid Association (CAA), China’s constitution states that “The state protects legitimate religious activities” (The Underground Church). For decades China has responded to criticism by saying that people are not prosecuted for belief but for breaking the law. This only attempts to cover up the fact that “legitimate religious activities” are only those that are “patriotic” and approved by the government (Marshall 79).

The other question presented was, “Why do they hate Christianity?” The reality may be that the reason for persecution is not so much out of hate but somewhat out of fear and recognition of the power of human spirituality. Paul Marshall quoted the Chinese state-run press in 1992 saying that in order for China to avoid the changes that happened in post-Soviet Europe, China “must strangle the baby while it is still in the manger” (Marshall 10, 11). Peter Xu Yongze, a Christian leader, was quoted by Kate McGeown of BBC news as saying, “The Communists feel threatened by any popular ideology which is different from their own” (China’s Christians Suffer for Their Faith). When free minds pose a threat to governments such as China’s, force and intimidation are oft used tools to maintain control (Worldwide Persecution of Christians).

Another measure taken by China was to control the church. The house churches, the ones that do not register with the state, are those that undergo the most persecution. The medium by which China controls the church is the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. Churches that register—those that follow the state’s rules—are considered among those “legitimate religious activities” (The Underground Church).

TSPM’s traces its origins to before communism in 1892, as mentioned previously, when church leaders chose to move toward independence from Western missionaries. This principle was called the Three-Self Principle: self-supporting, self-leading, and self-propagating. In 1950, however, the communists took the name and made it political. The new Three-Self Movement, later changed to the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, was designed to keep the church loyal to the communist government. Under the Religious Affairs Bureau, TSPM and the church was directly subject to the government and any objection was swiftly punished (Hart; Grant; The Underground Church). Sen Nieh, director of the Global Coalition for ByeCCP, quoted in a speech the leader of TSPM saying, “I do not believe in the miracles Jesus had performed. I have discarded them all” (Persecution of Faith-Based Groups in China).

What was so wrong with TSPM that prompted the explosive growth of the house church movement? TSPM decides where and where not to have meetings—only Sunday services are allowed. Those under 18 cannot be brought, evangelized, or baptized and some pastors have to have their sermons screened by the government. These and other restrictions, with severe consequences for refusal, prompted different reactions from believers. Some joined TSPM and tried to cope with the restrictions while others abandoned TSPM’s often twisted doctrines and met among themselves. Today, the millions of Chinese Christians meet in house churches—a large reason for the persecution (Hart; Marshall 74; The Underground Church). These reasons still play a part in the lives of the present day sufferers.

II. The present day sufferers

In May 2007, the annual report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom stated, “The Chinese government continues to engage in systematic and egregious violations of freedom of religion or belief (120).” In 2004, Hu Jintao came to power in China and one of his first measures was to change laws that were to “protect religious freedom.” However, as always, they had a hidden catch that gave the government more control. Believers and other groups (Christians are not the only persecuted people in China) have suffered an escalation in persecution since the middle of the decade. There has also been the largest crackdown on foreign missionaries since the early 1950s. However, there has been somewhat of a respite in the persecution in the recent months which many attribute to the 2008 Olympics to be held in Beijing. All of this happens as the church continues to grow astronomically (Asia: China; Annual Report of Persecution; USCIRF).

Just how big is the Chinese church? How many people actually worship apart from state churches in these so called “house churches?” The Chinese government officially says that there are 16 million Protestants and three million Catholics. These are only those in state approved “patriotic” churches, however. The actual total is probably closer to 130 million, according to a Chinese official’s closed door report. The forced secrecy of the house church movement makes it tough to pinpoint actual numbers but the estimates show the church doubling in the past decade—around 35,000 every day. In 2005 there was an estimated 6000 house churches in Beijing alone. Since the house churches are the largest and most persecuted Christian group in China, a closer look is warranted (Grant; MacLeod; Neff; The Underground Church).

House Groups or Family Churches, as the Chinese prefer to be called, vary in size from five to 100—although most churches split at around 30 as a precaution. They meet anywhere they can from forests, farms, caves, and mountainsides to homes, offices, and factories. Music is simple if not altogether absent because either money is lacking or the noise attracts attention. There are testimonies, Sunday schools, and an average 90 minute message. Among other precautions they take, they rotate their meeting place because of different threats around them from the government itself down to unfriendly neighbors (Hart; Tong).

Today, if arrested for “illegal activity,” believers face a myriad of different punishments. Probably the most unpublicized of these punishments are the laogai camps: re-education through labor (RTL). In principle, these camps are not much different than the general concentration camp. Two thirds of the roughly 300,000 occupants in 300 camps nationwide are those who have committed “minor” crimes, a very arbitrary term as defined by law. The other third is made up of religious prisoners of various groups including Christians. During the Cultural Revolution and the surrounding years, the camps were much more widely used. Still, only 10 years ago, one-third of China’s tea was produced in these camps—among many other essential things to the Chinese economy. Although reform discussions are underway, 21 house church leaders were sentenced at the same time to one to three years in the labor camps for being part of an “evil cult” on the 19th of February, 2008 (Hung; Marshall 75-78; 21 Major House Church Leaders Sent...)

Many Christians only face fines or a few days to weeks in prison. However, apart from labor camps, China has torture methods beyond the imagination of a Westerner’s mind. Many Christians are beaten severely, some to death, but China has even more horrifying methods. Some of those methods are: burning of the skin with cigarettes, sexual abuse, and shock by electric baton. The latter is possibly the most gruesome—the victim and often his most private parts are beaten and shocked with a wand charged with as many as 300,000 volts. There are numerous other methods even more gruesome that have been proven to be used but have a lack of evidence [that I could find] as to their use on Christians specifically (Chinaview; Marshall 81, 82).

Peter Xu Yongze, mentioned earlier as the founder of a large Christian movement, suffered torture first hand. At the time of the 2002 BBC News story by Kate McGeown, Xu was 61. Over his lifetime he had served five prison sentences because he believed in Christ. Xu, who now lives in the United States, saw many things in prison—people being killed for Christ. “A believer was praying, so a jailer made other prisoners lift him up to the ceiling and drop him to the ground many times until he died.” He himself endured excruciating torture. “They hung me up across an iron gate, then they yanked open the gate and my whole body lifted until my chest nearly split in two. I hung like that for four hours” (China’s Christian’s Suffer for Their Faith).

Ma Yuqin was another first hand witness of the methods of the Chinese. She bravely endured torture, refusing to betray those in her congregation, even while her son and friend were suffering with her. 54 years old at the time of the interview that was published in 2002 by Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times in an article entitled “God and China,” she told of the chilling 2001 incident. Police captured her, her son, her daughter-in law, and a friend who had stopped by in May of 2001. The 27-year-old friend died in custody, presumably because she was beaten to death. “They used the electrical prods on me all over…They wanted to humiliate us.” While Ma was almost fatally beaten, her son was tortured in the next room as motivation to betray her friends. “They wanted me to hear his cries…It broke my heart.” Ma was released for health reasons, but her son was taken to a camp where criminals were ordered to beat him up.

III. The perseverance of the saints

The question must be asked: “How has the decades-long persecution affected believers?” It’s easy to paint a pretty picture of China’s Christians’ condition but that’s not entirely true. One negative effect is that there is a huge strain on believers. Apart from those being arrested and beaten, there may be thousands of other Christians in the area who have very few Bibles and are desperately in need of training. New believers also undergo a strain and, as [don't want to post the name] saw, there is much falling away of new believers—the “rocky soil” (_____). There are many whose faith is strong and is strengthened, but there are also many who fall (_____; Hart; The Underground Church).

Not all of these struggles are felt just by the house churches. Those in the state church, though not arrested, undergo different kinds of persecution such as ridicule just because of their Christian faith. Few non-genuine Christians, it would seem, would stay and endure even in the state church. However, a rift has grown between the house churches and the state church that is almost irreconcilable. Many in the state church see house churches as obstacles to the future of religious freedom, as the cause of new regulations from the government. Adding to the tension, many house churches see the state churches as people who compromise their faith (Marshall 74; Tong).

However, although there are negative effects that come with persecution, for a Christian, there are also positive effects. Persecution has a way of drawing the persecuted closer to God and to their fellow victims. Surrendering to God and his perfect will, identifying with Christ in his suffering, and simply worshipping God are several ways that Christians cope with and benefit from the persecution. Even while enduring trauma and complete isolation from the things of God, what a Christian has hidden in his heart can be what gets him through and even what helps the spread of the gospel in prison (Tong; Ting and Watson).

The personal effects also work together to grow the church as a whole. Recent estimates show Christianity growing at around seven percent every year, which amounts to millions. The church in China has grown at least 20 times in the past 30 years. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” is true as ever in China because the church even grows in the prisons. Around the world, as word gets out about their testimonies, Chinese believers are displaying what it means to be a Christian for all to see (Flythe; Marshall 82, 83; Neff; Tong).

With virtually everything except listening to a state-approved, Sunday morning message being illegal, how much does the persecution affect how Christians live out the basics of the faith? The truth is, apart from necessary precautions to avoid detection, nothing is neglected. They can’t preach on the street corners, but witnessing goes on everywhere. One on one with friends, family, and co-workers—it goes on, quietly yet potently. Offices, factories, and homes are all places of witnessing. On college campuses Christians meet secretly, make friends, evangelize, teach, and train new converts to do the same. Wherever and whenever possible, Chinese Christians do not neglect what God has called them to do (_____; Tong).

The conclusion I wrote for my paper

When I, as the author, observe my research, I draw many things. It is important to note that although the focus of this report was Christians, Christians are not the only people being persecuted in China. Any religious or spiritual group that dares to stand up to the communists is swiftly punished. The fact that the government fears free minds is a very interesting and I believe accurate statement. It is very possibly the main cause behind all persecution in China. They recognize Christianity’s potency to change people’s lives, but instead of embracing it, they suppress it as a threat to their power—which evidence shows actually hurts their cause.

I also draw many things from the effects of the persecution on Christians. As a Christian from the West, I see that the Chinese are just like me, just like Christians from the West. They have their problems and divisions just like the West does. However, they are not like the West in the way that they grow and in the way that they stand firm. Persecution draws them together and strengthens their faith. It helps the church grow and sends a message of hope to the world.

In my overall view of my findings, I see a group of Christians who do not have freedom—yet they prosper. In the West, I see a group of Christians who have freedom—yet prosper in worldly goods alone. I have emerged from my study with a sense of shame to live in a country where I can worship freely. The Chinese are the ones that deserve to be free. They have used their lack of freedom for God’s glory while the West has misused the freedom given to them. All throughout the Chinese church’s history, there has been a consistent desire to honor God.

The story of Chinese believers has a long history. The cause of the persecution: a two-faced government who desires power above all else and lies about its doings. The effects of the persecution: a group of believers who have been drawn closer to each other and to God as they fulfill their heavenly calling without compromising. The story is still unfolding. As Beijing prepares for the Olympics, the world gathers and for the most part ignores the suffering people within. However, even when the world ignores, God’s people fight on and prosper. All evidence points to the fact that when man has gone up against God, Christ was truly victorious.

[works cited page available by email. the copying and pasting did not work well with the links.]


Melanie H. said...

Wow. Excellent job on this article, it's truly convicting. I'm speechless.

Fellow Rebelutionary, Melanie H.

P.S. May I link to your blog?

Andrew B. said...

I am soooo glad I chose this topic for my research paper over universal healthcare. :) As you said, it was so convicting! I was really blessed by doing the work, and I learned more than could be put into the paper. It makes me want to help persecuted Christians somehow.


P.S. Sure! You can link to my blog. Hopefully I'll be able to keep posting at at least a once a week pace.