Feb 6, 2016

China’s New Crackdown on Christians

The Wall Street Journal
February 4, 2016

Nearly seven years after Warren Bird visited the biggest Protestant church in China, he's still deeply moved as he recalls its pastor, "Joseph" Gu Yuese, preaching that morning from Psalms.

"His sermon was on how God understands our cares," says Mr. Bird, an American researcher and expert on global megachurches. "He got very emotional—not in the sense of high emotion carried by his voice tone, but emotional in the sense of affirming, from the Psalms, that God cares about our hearts, and God feels our pain, and God relates to us. It was like, wow."

Mr. Gu's sermon in Chongyi Church on that Sunday morning in August 2009 now feels eerie—and prescient. Psalms is a book about finding comfort from God amid hardship and persecution, and this week Mr. Gu disappeared into the hands of the Chinese government. He is reportedly imprisoned in a secretive "black jail," notorious for deplorable conditions and even torture. Not since the Cultural Revolution has the Chinese government gone after such a high-ranking church leader.

Mr. Gu comes from Zhejiang Province, a region known for both its flourishing Christianity and entrepreneurial spirit. Believers there have long enjoyed relatively good relations with the authorities.

When I visited Zhejiang in 2012, Christians repeatedly told me how they sought to obey both the government and God. Their extensive charity—caring for the elderly, disabled and orphans; donating blood during disasters; feeding the poor—won them good will from authorities. They have picked their battles wisely and compromised often, submitting to the government's demands whenever they feel it is morally permissible.

In 2001, for instance, provincial officials tried to forbid religious education for children. Churches pushed back, writing a joint appeal. They cited Chinese law, emphasizing their love of country. Though Christians refused to stop raising their children in the faith, they agreed to postpone some classes, offering a way for the government to back down and save face. For the most part, this strategy worked. Sunday schools remain common in the province.

Zhejiang's combination of faith and patriotism has underpinned Mr. Gu's pastoral career. Until January, he held leadership roles on two of the bureaucratic organizations overseeing state-sanctioned Christianity in China, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement and the China Christian Council. And with the government's approval, his Chongyi Church has thrived, drawing as many as 10,000 attendees each Sunday.

But since President Xi Jinping assumed office in 2013, religious persecution has intensified. In 2014 the central government named religion one of four "severe challenges" to national security in an official report. Weeks later, a memo leaked, calling for provincial authorities to "see clearly the political issues behind the cross[es]" that dominate the architectural landscape in Zhejiang Province, urging them to limit the spread of Christianity.

Since then, the government has forcibly demolished more than 1,800 crosses across Zhejiang. In one particularly gruesome incident, police beat believers with electric batons after they gathered to protest the removal of a cross at Wenzhou Salvation Church. One man suffered a cracked skull. More than 95% of the torn-down crosses belonged to state-sanctioned churches, which had painstakingly registered with the government in an attempt to operate in accordance with official policy.

"There was no compromise, no discussion—it's an order, and you have to do it," observes Fenggang Yang, director of the Center on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University. "For Christians in Zhejiang, this is a symbolic fight. The Christians treat the cross as very meaningful to their faith, to their Christian life. They don't see the legal basis for the crosses' removal."

Mr. Yang noted that they tried to defend the crosses by legal means, even hiring lawyers. Unfortunately, he says, the legal processes have been stopped. The lawyers, as well as the church leaders who worked closely with them, "have been arrested, because there's no room for negotiation through the legal procedure. I think that it's not that Christians are unwilling to compromise. It's simply that the government side has provided no room for any negotiation."

Mr. Gu elected not to stay silent. He issued a public statement with the red stamp of the China Christian Council, where he was provincial chairman, calling the crackdown "barbaric." On Jan. 18 Mr. Gu lost his job. Less than 10 days later, authorities seized Mr. Gu and his wife at their home, later freeing her.

Mr. Gu was considered the poster boy for how Chinese Christians could practice their faith while obeying their government. That raises a daunting question for China's Christians: If Mr. Gu can't stay on the good side of the authorities, who can?

Ms. Melchior, a writer for National Review and the Steamboat Institute, traveled extensively in China in 2012, reporting on Christianity as a Robert Novak Fellow.

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