Note: This is the latest in a series of articles on ChinaAid's report on persecution in China. Earlier this week, China Source's Brent Fulton and Open Doors's Jan Vermeer countered some of the conclusions of the report, noting that most Christians in the country do not claim they are being persecuted. Today, ChinaAid founder and president Bob Fu responds.
After reading the opinion pieces of Brent Fulton and Jan Vermeer, I have concluded that we have very different readings of the facts regarding persecution of "house church" Protestantism in China.
The ChinaAid annual report states simply that the number of incidents of "persecution" increased in 2012 from the previous years, including a number of arrest, sentencing to labor camps, short term detentions, rape and torture in police custody, destruction and confiscation of property, beatings, fines, the loss of jobs or business licenses, and police intimidation. We believe these to be egregious and severe violations of the international freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and belief that warrant the attention of the worldwide Christian church, human rights advocates, and policy-makers.
The mission of ChinaAid is to highlight such abuses and assist the faithful in China to deal with their situation, particularly the members of a fast growing "house church" movement who are technically illegal (or abnormal in Chinese legal parlance) because of their refusal to join the government-approved "Three Self Protestant Movement" (TSPM). Most Protestants in the "house church" movement have vast theological differences with the TSPM and view its leadership as complicit in past and ongoing persecution. Even Vietnam, which does not have a stellar religious freedom record, allows for different Protestant denominations to register and operate independently.
Our report does not conclude that the Chinese government is trying to "wipe out Christianity." Instead we show through the government's own secret directive and documents that its policy is to "eradicate" Protestants affiliated with the "house-church" movement unless they affiliate with the TSPM in the next decade in three phases. The new "soft" tactics adopted in the step by step crackdown as listed in our report would not make the massive visible "Cultural Revolutionary" era arrests possible nor will it be successful according to the Chinese Communist government's own acknowledgement. Moreover, since it is our core belief that all political decision emerge from the top, in other words, from Beijing and various Communist Party entities, the documents we discovered are troubling and fit patterns of religious freedom abuses emerging throughout China. This we have tried to demonstrate in our report though as we freely admit, because ChinaAid has limited resources, our statistics are not exhaustive. There are surely many more instances of religious freedom abuses and restrictions going on each year.
One can certainly argue that the persecution we detail is not as gravely serious as that of 30 years ago, when religious believers were disappeared and jailed in huge numbers. However, one cannot discount our findings that the Chinese government is taking steps to "eradicate" the "house church" movement unless the documents and facts we discovered and reported are somehow proven to be fabrications.
Abuses faced by Christians in China are not only a matter of corrupt local officials stealing land or because a church leader is publicly critical of the Communist Party. They occur because it is a policy set by the Communist Party, assisted by the Public Security Bureau and the State Administration of Religious Affairs and carried out by provincial police, an extra-legal anti-cult team called the 6-10 office, and local Religious Affairs Bureaus, a pervasive security and bureaucratic apparatus that does not exist to ensure the freedom of Chinese religious believers.
Given our findings and experience, the Communist Party does not draw clear lines between what is political and what is religious. Fearful of a collapse reminiscent of the Velvet Revolution in Eastern Europe, the Party sees all organizations it cannot control—Protestants and Catholics who refuse government oversight, democracy and free speech advocates, intellectuals, and labor unions—as the biggest political threat to their power. One only has to look at President Xi Jinping's recent speech in Guangzhou to recognize that an Eastern European model collapse remains prominently on the mind of Communist Party leaders.
In other words, one does not have to act, in what we in the West consider to be overtly politically ways, to be considered a political threat in China. The persistence and growth of the "house church" movement is such a threat no matter how much is stays clear of party politics. How else to explain another central government-sponsored secret initiative we recently discovered that seeks to curtail the spread of Christianity and Christian fellowships among college students and professors in the name of "anti foreign religious infiltration"?
I do agree, however, with both Brent Fulton and Jan Vermeer, that if Protestant groups remain in home fellowships under 20 to 30 people, do not seek to act on behalf of the poor and vulnerable, do not form fellowships with like-minded groups in other provinces, comply with bans on proselytizing among college students or communing with their foreign brothers and sisters without permission, there would be fewer arrests, fewer detentions, and fewer restrictions.
But that is just not the "house church" Protestantism that I know today in China. It does not describe the many courageous religious leaders and religiously inspired advocates who are growing the church, building national "house church" organizations, standing up for the right of religious freedom guaranteed by Chinese law, and seeking to be both salt and light in Chinese society. It is ChinaAid's mission to protect and equip these individuals in the situations they find themselves and for the battles they chose to fight.
I was jailed in the 1990s for organizing an illegal "house church" while teaching English at the Communist Party School. My wife and I were able to escape, by the grace of God, through a network of friends and allies, eventually settling in the United States. Many of my friends and colleagues were not as fortunate. I know that China has changed much in the past thirty years and we continue to praise progress where and when it occurs. Christianity has grown despite persecution and restrictions. The most extreme cases of violence or imprisonment are reserved now for the most influential leaders to encourage self-censorship and fear, such as in the cases of Fan Yafeng, Alimujiang Yimiti, Gao Zhisheng, Yang Rongli or Cao Nan.
While the tactics may be different and more subtle, we are dismayed to find that many of the goals remain the same, particularly when it involves the "house church" movement. There continue to be too many religious freedom abuses in China and it remains unfortunate that many elements of the Chinese central government and security forces continue to see the "house church" as a threat that must be eradicated if it does not conform. Christans in China are hoping for a different future and for opportunities to assist their country address massive future problems of spiritual bankruptcy, materialism, and poor systems of elderly care, education, and rural health.
I want to thank my colleagues Brent Fulton and Jan Vermeer for their opinions and their expertise. As Christianity in China continues to grow and Chinese becomes (hopefully) a society open to more international engagement, there is a need to build a working consensus among the worldwide church and parachurch agencies on how best to engage government entities dealing with religion, how to encourage more openness, and how to equip Chinese Christians with the capacity to flourish without (again hopefully ) government oversight, persecution, and control. That is the mission to which ChinaAid remains committed.
Bob Fu is founder and president of ChinaAid.