EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appears in the January 31, 2005, issue of National Review.
Beijing–I meet Qiu Yue and her friend Yang Jie at an average-looking restaurant. Qiu has chosen the place precisely because it is unremarkable. Our meeting must have a low profile: Qiu and Yang’s safety would be jeopardized if the authorities knew they were having lunch with a Western journalist. In fact, Qiu fears that her security has already been compromised. She suspects that her phone has been tapped, and knows that her e-mails, like those of everyone else in China, are screened by software that searches for terms deemed politically sensitive. We have therefore taken precautions: Our phone conversations have been short and vague, and in our e-mails we have made a habit of writing “C” instead Christian, “B” instead of Bible. Probably we have avoided detection. But one cannot be sure.
Qiu and Yang (which are pseudonyms) belong to “house churches” here in the capital. A house church is a Protestant Christian assembly that is illegal, having refused to register with the Chinese government and join the Three Self Patriotic Movement, the Communist party’s umbrella Protestant organization. A similar division exists within Chinese Catholicism: The Patriotic Catholic Association, which is controlled by the Party, does not recognize the authority of the Pope, while an illegal Catholic church remains loyal to the Vatican and operates underground.
Those unacquainted with contemporary China are often surprised to learn that the Communist party sanctions a kind of Christianity. But this is not surprising when one realizes that many of the Party’s propaganda efforts involve the presentation of a simulacrum of genuine freedom. Religion is a case in point. Although the Party remains dogmatically atheist, it permits worship in state-approved churches such as the Three Self Patriotic Movement. But because China’s Communists remain hostile to anything that posits a source of authority higher than the political, they carefully control what is taught in these official churches to ensure that the realm of the divine is firmly subjugated to the authority of the Party.
This subjugation manifests itself as a tendency to strip from Christianity its claims to transcendence. “The Three Self Church has never preached Christ’s Second Coming,” says Qiu. “They don’t think that Mary was a virgin. They think Christ had an earthly father.” The only kind of Christianity to receive official blessing is thus sundered from many of Christianity’s essential doctrines and reduced to a collection of moral precepts.
The Three Self Church also uses religious instruction as an opportunity for political indoctrination. As an example of this, Qiu adduces the Three Self Church’s teachings about Lei Feng, a Chinese peasant-turned-national-hero who was lionized by Mao for his supposed acts of selflessness and political service (acts which, incidentally, many Western historians now believe never happened). The Three Self Church teaches that Lei Feng, in virtue of his service to the country, will go to heaven. The political message of such a teaching cannot be overlooked: Lei Feng is one of the Party’s best-known symbols.
“Lei Feng’s works focus more on serving the government than on serving Christ,” says Qiu. That is an understatement, and Qiu–perhaps because she is accustomed to having to be careful–tends toward moderation in her criticisms of the Chinese government. She even makes a point of telling me that her church prays for Hu Jintao and the Party leadership. But she leaves no doubt that official Chinese Christendom “combines religion and politics,” and that she finds this unacceptable: “We want our faith just to be our faith.” Some 80 million Chinese Christians feel likewise–and, like Qiu and Yang, have gone underground.
Some of them have been treated with a kind of benign neglect. “The government knows where [our] church meets,” says Qiu. “They leave us alone.” This is partly a matter of necessity: “If they put everyone in prison there won’t be enough room in the jails.” Consequently, the government ignores those who keep a low profile. “If we go to Tiananmen Square and preach that Jesus Christ is coming, they’ll give us trouble. But we don’t do that.”
Yang Jie’s church, however, has not been so fortunate.
Last September, the pastor of Yang’s church, Cai Zhuohua (his real name), was arrested. Police from China’s Security Bureau searched his home and a neighboring building that housed a printing press. The owners of the press had cooperated with Cai to print some 230,000 Bibles and religious tracts. The police confiscated all of these materials and arrested two young women who were working at the press. They were later released, but remain under watch.
Cai’s wife, who was not with her husband at the time of his arrest, fled to a coastal province, but was caught shortly thereafter. Her older brother and his wife were also arrested. They, along with Cai, are still being held incommunicado. The only members of the pastor’s immediate family to avoid arrest were his four-year-old son and his 70-year-old mother, who are currently being cared for with donations from church members.
The day after Cai was arrested, an underground seminary associated with his church was also raided. More than 20 policemen surrounded the seminary and arrested its students. (Yang, who was enrolled at the seminary, happened to be away at the time, and thus escaped.) Beijing’s Public Security Bureau held the students for three days, fined them a hefty amount, and sent them to their home provinces for punishment by local authorities. Yang suspects their punishments have been severe, although he has no way of contacting them.
I ask Yang what will happen to Cai, and he says that no one knows. Cai stands accused of being a “counter-revolutionary.” Once tried for this offense–of which he will almost surely be found guilty–he will receive a prison sentence of anywhere between three years and life. While hoping for the best, Yang fears that “he will be punished very heavily.”
If the pathos of Cai Zhuohua’s story lies in the details of his persecution, the pathos of Christianity in China lies in the fact that these details are altogether ordinary. Over the summer, Western media reported that the task force originally set up to crush Falun Gong was carrying out a crackdown on rural Christians. Stories of arrests were widespread, and included news of the imprisonment of more than a hundred Christians attending a retreat in Chinese Turkestan (Xinjiang). And Chinese Christians often meet fates worse than imprisonment. Some are sent to labor camps; others fall victim to the arbitrary brutality of rural officials, as Jiang Zongxiu did. Last June, she was arrested in Guizhou Province for handing out Bibles, and was later beaten to death by the police.
But such persecution does not defeat the spirits of China’s Christians. Remarkably, Cai Zhuohua’s church continues to meet under the direction of Yang Jie, who says that he is not intimidated, and that Cai’s example is a motivation for his service. If anything, the crackdown appears to have strengthened Yang’s faith: “That we are able to continue under these circumstances shows that God is with us.”
Qiu Yue, for her part, hopes to return to her native province of Jilin as her church’s first missionary. She now teaches English to middle-school students, and they sometimes ask her about her religion. She answers them. “At my work, they told me, ‘Don’t speak about Christian ideas to the students; it will be dangerous.’ . . . But God has given me courage to speak.”
Qiu says her church baptizes three or four new members every week. On this very day, her parents have been baptized. Yang’s church grows at a similar rate. These facts, along with the remarkable courage of Yang and Qiu, lead one to believe that Christianity will thrive in China despite the Party’s oppression. Indeed, Christianity’s history demonstrates that it is able to flourish even under the most extreme forms of persecution.
Even as we hope, however, we should remember Cai Zhuohua in his jail cell–and take the opportunity to say that there are things that must never be excused.