China tries to keep the flock in official churches

Government favors party-run version of Christian faiths

Beijing — The matronly woman reading the Bible to a dozen solemn migrant workers in her tiny but tidy living room heads a family of dangerous political provocateurs, in the eyes of the Chinese government.

Her family’s crime: believing the state should have no role in how they follow their faith and share it with others.

It’s a belief for which 62-year-old Cai Laiyi has paid a heavy price. On Tuesday, authorities sentenced her son, Cai Zhouhua, to three years in prison for distributing free Bibles he had printed himself and for running an unregistered Protestant church. His wife, Xiao Yun Fei, along with Xiao’s brother, Xiao Gao Wen, and his wife, Hu Jin Yun, who were also arrested with him, were given 18-month terms.

The judgments were handed down just days before President Bush arrives in Beijing for a visit.

“He was arrested on Sept. 11 last year,” Cai Laiyi said of her son. “Frankly, the significance of this date seemed a bit distant earlier. Now we have our own tragedy, but whereas your attack came from outside, the perpetrators here are those in the government. Democracy and freedom are being destroyed in this country from within.”

A murmur of assent rises around the room as Cai’s congregation voices its ire at a government the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedoms lists as a “particularly severe violator of religious freedom” for its suppression of independent religious groups.

“The (Communist) Party wants us to obey only them,” said Cai, who is called “Mother” by her congregation. “They don’t want the people to hear the real words of love, of God, because they know the people will find something new to believe in.”

To retain control over religion — particularly faiths with foreign connections, such as Islam and Christianity — the government bars its people from following the established heads of these religions. And in officially atheist China, the printing of Bibles and all other religious publications needs approval from the State Bureau of Religious Affairs.

The party has created its own “Catholic” and “Protestant” churches, called the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association and the Three-Selves Patriotic Movement, respectively. Both appoint their own clergy and are supposed to maintain complete religious and financial independence from the Vatican and foreign Protestant churches.

“That is really a preposterous idea,” said Wu Guo Yin, a laundry owner originally from central Henan province in Cai’s Protestant congregation. The official church “is headed by a Communist who doesn’t believe in God, yet he feels he can stand at the door between us and our God.”

Part of the reason for their religious stance is that Chinese leaders fear foreign religious groups could threaten national stability and the party’s continued rule, as well as its policies.

“How can a Chinese citizen pay homage to the head of another state who preaches that China should follow policies that are not good for it?” asked Chen Xin, a professor of sociology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, referring to the Vatican’s ban on birth control.

Part of the party’s insecurity over religious movements is rooted in history, said Jean-Paul Wiest, research director of the Beijing Center for Chinese Studies at the University for International Business and Economics.

“Think how many governments here were toppled by religious movements that started underground and seized the country’s imagination,” Wiest said. “People here still remember that 20 million Chinese died during the Taiping rebellion.”

The uprising inspired by Taiping leader Hong Xiuquan, who claimed he was the Chinese brother of Jesus and used a quirky blend of Confucianism and Christianity to stir Chinese peasants to revolt in 1851, led to an 11-year war.

Today, as part of the crackdown on independent religious groups, 16 out of 50 underground Catholic bishops are under house arrest, and four others are missing, Wiest said.

Still, millions of Chinese continue to embrace Christianity — both official and underground.

Chen Rufu, a snack-food stall owner who recently joined Mother Cai’s group, said he used to be a fervent believer in the Communist Party.

“But things have changed now,” Chen said. “My whole family has become believers in Christ, and we have all become one big community, loving each other, helping each other. When my wife had an accident last year, no one did anything for us except our church, which helped me take care of my wife and my stall. People in my official church never did that.”

Wiest said the government’s attempt to create state-controlled churches and curb independent ones is struggling against a surge of interest in religion.

A recent survey by Horizon Research Group, a private Chinese company, found that the number of people in Beijing who call themselves Christians has almost doubled over the past decade, from 2.2 percent to 4.1 percent.

Protestantism, which was once largely an urban faith in China, is spreading rapidly into rural regions. Underground church members admit they receive large amounts of money and guidance from churches in Hong Kong, Taiwan and the United States, and estimates for the number of underground Protestants range vary widely — from 35 million to more than 100 million.

Wiest said the underground Catholic Church may number as many as 8 million followers. It has established links with the Vatican and, somewhat surprisingly, the government-controlled Catholic Church.

“The line between official and underground is blurring,” Wiest said. “In many (official Catholic) churches, the bishop is state-approved and the vicar-general is from the underground church, and they both live in the same building.”

The arrest of Cai Zhou Hua and his family members was an attempt by the government to re-exert control, said Gao Zhisheng, one of the lawyers defending the Cai family for free. But perhaps out of fear of provoking China’s new believers and drawing international condemnation, it didn’t confront the issue head-on.

“The government played a trick — they didn’t arrest them for spreading their religion, as that would have drawn too much attention,” Gao said. “So they charged him with running an illegal business, as they had no permission to print their Bibles.”

To Cai Laiyi, sitting with her son’s picture by her side, his Bible in her hand, all of this seems too distant and disconnected from her own embrace of faith and its consequences.

“I pray for him,” she said gently. “And for all of us. We are simple people, but we do know this: In the Bible, it says follow your leaders, but first follow your God.”


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
San Francisco Chronicle, USA
Nov. 12, 2005
Jehangir S. Pocha, Chronicle Foreign Service

Religion News Blog posted this on Monday November 14, 2005.
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