Despite Crackdowns, Protestant Religious Groups Flourishing in China
Washington Post, Dec. 24, 2002
By John Pomfret
WENZHOU, China — “Jesus Saves!” Zhang Conghua exclaimed. “Believing in Jesus, you have to pay a price, but don’t be afraid!” he intoned, throwing open his arms in a wide embrace.
Zhang’s audience sat in rapt attention: Ten girls in ponytails on one side of the aisle, six boys in near crew cuts on the other. Bibles were stacked neatly, two by two, on their desks. “Amen,” they replied.
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Outside was Communist China, clanging with the sounds of mom-and-pop workshops that ring Zhang’s seven-year-old church and detonations from a rock quarry not far away. Inside, it was Sunday school.
Zhang’s class was one of hundreds that meet every Sunday in churches across this city of 6.9 million, which lies 200 miles south of Shanghai in one of China’s wealthiest districts. The area is famed for entrepreneurs, an impenetrable local dialect and, increasingly, the Protestant Gospels. On a recent Sunday at Zhang’s church, seven classes — with students ranging in age from 5 to 18 — met all day, singing, painting, praying and reading.
Zhang and scores of other Protestant pastors and believers here have since last year conducted an unprecedented campaign of organized civil disobedience against city authorities attempting to close the church schools. Along the way, they have been arrested, forced to sign documents promising never to hold such classes again and seen some churches shuttered. They have also pored over Chinese law books, traveled around the country to lobby businessmen, officials and religious figures, and huddled with lawyers in Beijing. Through it all, they have continued teaching.
“We haven’t stopped for one Sunday!” Zhang proclaimed. “Thank the Lord!”
The battle for Sunday school in Wenzhou is part of a war between the exploding number of China’s religious believers and its officially atheist government. At its broadest, the war is over the soul of China, where the official ideology of Communism is being fast replaced by a confused mix of hedonism, materialism and faith. It is also about creation of civil society in a country where the Communist Party still fears unofficial associations. And it concerns the rights of ordinary Chinese to peacefully oppose government policies.
This article, part of a series of occasional stories on power in today’s China, examines how it works in the small but growing spiritual realm. Although change is slow and uneven, the growth in the number of believers over recent years has meant more power for organized religion, forcing the Communist Party to relent in some places. In addition, China’s commitment to signing international human rights covenants means the central government can no longer openly endorse the repressive campaigns of the past.
The subject is of particular interest to the Bush administration. During talks in Beijing last week, Lorne Craner, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, pushed the government to increase religious freedom, specifically access to religion for young people. Chinese officials this year had told John Hanford, ambassador at large for international religious freedom, that religious practices by the young are legal. But the truth is more complicated.
China’s policies on religion have fluctuated between bloody repression and grudging tolerance. Freedom of belief is enshrined in the constitution for five approved religions, Buddhism, Islam, Taoism, Catholicism and Protestantism. These official religions were established at the founding of Communist China in 1949 within government-sanctioned organizations. But the government barred — and on paper still does — folk religions, fundamentalist Muslims and Christian denominations outside the government-controlled organizations, whose members traditionally have gathered in unauthorized “house churches.”
Over the past several years, the government and the party have been forced to reconsider some of their repressive policies, partly in response to foreign pressure as well as the enormous growth in the number of religious practitioners. Also important has been lobbying by influential Chinese intellectuals. They have argued that mainstream religions can help fill a moral void in Chinese society and also help meet the enormous need for social services caused by the collapse of health care and education in the countryside and the bankruptcy of state-owned industries in the cities that left millions unemployed.
Some local and regional governments around the country now encourage faith-based charities and turn a blind eye to proselytizing. Evergreen Family Friendship Services, a Protestant charity, is the biggest in Shanxi province. Meanwhile, educational institutions have knowingly hired thousands of Christian missionaries from the United States as English teachers over the years.
“They are the cheapest teachers we can find,” said the dean of a university in the southwestern city of Kunming. “As long as they don’t proselytize too openly, everybody winks at it.”
Top government officials no longer recite the Marxist saw that “religion is the opiate of the masses.” In a speech at a religious affairs conference last December, President Jiang Zemin said religion “may outlast the party and the state,” a stunning acknowledgement from a man supposedly committed to wiping out religion.
Despite the softer tone, no significant laws or regulations have been rewritten. In theory, China’s religions are still subject to party guidelines issued in 1982. And anti-religious crackdowns continue unabated in some places.
Hundreds have been killed in the campaign that began nationwide in July 2000 against the Falun Gong spiritual movement. A government-sanctioned Protestant preacher from Henan province said authorities, following orders from Beijing, have conducted a withering crackdown against Christians of all stripes there for three years, sending hundreds to labor camps for crimes as mundane as possessing foreign books.Outside the Mainstream
Protestant denominations are the fastest-growing religious groups in China. In 1949, when Mao Zedong’s Communists seized power and vowed to wipe out independent religions, there were fewer than 1 million Protestants in China. The Bureau of Religious Affairs, which monitors religion, recently estimated the country now has 25 million Protestants. Western researchers estimate there are at least 50 million, if unauthorized churches are taken into account.
Protestantism has far outstripped Catholicism, which claims 10 million followers. Beijing’s longstanding concerns about Catholics’ relationship to a “foreign power” — the Vatican — has made expansion difficult for Catholics. In addition, most foreign missionaries operating clandestinely in China are Protestant.
Christianity’s growth has been rapid all over China, however, from the richer east coast to the central plains to the rust belt in Manchuria. In Heilongjiang, in the far northeast, for example, there were 5,000 registered Protestant worshipers in the early 1980s. Today there are 1.3 million, according to a government-authorized pastor in that province.
Within Protestantism, the evangelical approach has taken China by storm. Membership has skyrocketed in groups practicing faith-healing, laying-on of hands, prayer sessions lasting three days and three nights, speaking in tongues and full-body baptism. This is partly because of the collapse of rural health care and partly because some of evangelical Protestantism’s practices echo those in Chinese folk religions.
In the cities, many intellectuals interested in political change have embraced Protestantism and its strongly individualistic message. “China needs a system that stresses individual responsibility and equality of all individuals in the eyes of God, the state, whatever,” said a Chinese religious activist and participant in the 1989 demonstrations at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. “Protestantism meets these criteria.”
But the growth of evangelical Christianity has presented an enormous challenge to the Three-Self Patriotic Movement and the China Christian Council, the two government-sanctioned Protestant organizations.
In the past, Protestantism could be neatly divided into two categories. On one side was the official church that practiced a mainstream Protestant theology that stressed good works. Anglican Bishop K.H. Ting, long-time leader of the China Christian Council, once even wrote that ardent Communist Party members could go to heaven because they were good people, too. On the other side were unauthorized churches, meeting in houses discreetly and stressing faith-healing and individual salvation.
Now, the evangelical movement is taking over the mainstream church. In Wenzhou, for example, there is no clear distinction between house and official churches.
On a recent Saturday, in the city’s Ouhai district, hundreds of youths gathered for an afternoon of Christian rock music at a massive government-sanctioned church. “Lord, I Worship You,” read a banner above the altar. Between rousing tunes with a heavy backbeat, the assembled — young families, clean-cut boys straight from Wenzhou’s shoe factories and pink-cheeked girls fresh from the countryside — were treated to a string of stories about how faith-healing could cure cancer.
“Hallelujah,” bellowed one preacher. “Hallelujah! Believe in Jesus and He will heal you!”
Some Chinese churches push the envelope of Protestant doctrine. Eastern Lightning, for example, is a fast-growing group started several years ago that believes the Bible is passé. In a throwback to a 19th-century Chinese rebellion led by a man who said he was Jesus’s younger brother, Eastern Lightning holds that Jesus’s sister has come to Earth and is Chinese.
The group has grown quickly in the central plains by abducting house church leaders and persuading them to join. Last year, Eastern Lightning kidnapped more than 30 leaders of an underground church, the China Gospel Fellowship, according to fellowship leaders and government officials.
“The government is in a fix,” said a government-sanctioned preacher in Hebei province. “They won’t allow the normal religions to grow so, of course, the abnormal religions grow instead. They are creating serious problems for us and for themselves.”Wenzhou Cracks Down
On June 12 last year, churches throughout Wenzhou received a document from the city’s Religious Affairs Bureau banning Sunday school. It said it was based on a regulation “To Prohibit Various Religion Groups And Organizations from Organizing Religious Classes for Minors.”
“Those disciplined religions with morality, belief, culture and vision should let minors enjoy a relaxed summer vacation,” it said. Otherwise, the state would fine the churches and shut them down.
The government followed the document with raids. Several churches were shuttered and believers were detained. At one church, believers struck back, locking a government official inside the church because he came with no search warrant, witnesses said.
After six weeks of the crackdown, the government consented to a meeting with church officials from several districts on July 27. Church officials presented the government with six points, including complaints that churches had been closed illegally, that police and other government officials had overstepped their authority and that nowhere in Chinese law did it stipulate that minors could not be involved in religion.
This last point was the most explosive. For years, Chinese officials have told Westerners that people under 18 are banned from religious involvement. But according to Ma Jing, an official in the Religious Affairs Bureau legal department, no such law exists. Nevertheless, this ban has been in effect for decades as part of the party’s efforts to limit religion’s growth — especially Islam, Tibetan Buddhism and Christianity.
“We said there are 13-year-old monks in China who are respected, why can’t you have young Christians?” a participant in the meeting recounted. “The government didn’t have anything to say. They knew we knew the law.”
Wenzhou’s government called an emergency meeting to deal with the mounting resistance.
“I believe they had religion fever,” said Ouyang Hechao, a Wenzhou religious affairs official involved in the campaign. “We are a socialist country and we are atheists. These children must be educated in the right way.”
On Aug. 9, four Wenzhou preachers met with Bishop Ting in Nanjing, 275 miles to the northwest. A robust 88-year-old with a thick shock of white hair, Ting is a controversial character among China’s Christians. Some call him a traitor for remaining loyal to the Communist Party. Others recognize that he has lobbied behind the scenes to modify religious policies.
Ting was instrumental, for example, in helping to free the man who started Sunday school in Wenzhou, Pastor Chen Guoguang, when he was jailed in the 1990s. “My help, if you can call it that, was very simple,” said Ting, in an interview in his home in Nanjing, next door to the Nanjing Union Theological Seminary, which he heads. “I wrote a letter.”
Ting’s letter was to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a government advisory body. The letter described Wenzhou’s difficulties and pointed out that “stopping children under 18 from entering the church was something impossible to defend,” Ting said. He called for an end to government officials — “willingly or unwillingly” — misinterpreting the law on this point.
“I suggested that there should be a relaxation,” Ting said. He received no reply.
The representatives’ next stop was Beijing, where they met with Paul Wang, a young pastor who, like scores of other young believers, embraced Christianity following the Tiananmen Square crackdown. At a restaurant in eastern Beijing, Wang and the four representatives mapped out a cautious legal strategy.
“We wanted to make our point,” said one of the four preachers. “But we didn’t want to open ourselves to questions about our patriotism. We needed to do it quietly but firmly.”
“We came up with a principle,” Wang said. “Don’t provoke the government, so no more locking their officials inside our churches, but don’t give in.”
Wang and the team drew up a petition asking the Wenzhou Religious Affairs Bureau to reconsider its ban. Wang also helped the team draw up a document informing Wenzhou authorities of the intention to challenge the government order in court. “When they presented it to the official in question,” Wang said, “he ripped it up.”
But the church leaders had lobbied elsewhere, in government bureaus and business associations such as the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce. Wenzhou businessmen, some of the richest in China, play an important role in that group.
Wenzhou’s government looked to Beijing for support, but did not get it, a government source said. The central government had been telling foreign officials, including Americans, that Sunday school was legal. Indeed, tightly restricted pilot projects had been started in churches in Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou. And, the source recalled, China has committed to signing the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which gives parents the right to teach their children religion.
“We couldn’t help them,” said a government official.
Wenzhou backed off.
But the fight, it turned out, was not over. This year, the government took the fight into the elementary schools, warning children not to attend Sunday school and banning government teachers from teaching there, cutting their salaries and stopping their promotions if they did.
“We’ve asked the teachers in elementary schools to persuade their students not to go to church, and we talked to parents as well,” said Xiang Yuenian, another Wenzhou religious affairs official. “We don’t have strong or clear law to support us, so it’s hard to do this job . . . . But we must take strong measures to stop such schools. We must take compulsory means to stop such wrongdoing!”
Several weeks ago, the government also demanded that each church fill out a form listing all activities for 2003, saying that from now on each activity must get approval. “We’re not going to fill this thing in,” said the chief pastor at one Wenzhou church. “If they want to fight us, we will fight them. Jesus is on our side.”
Researcher Jin Ling in Beijing contributed to this report.