During China's brutal Cultural Revolution in 1968, Peter Xu Yongze, newly called to Christian ministry, surveyed the bleak future facing Christianity in China and was overcome with grief.
Climbing a mountain near his village in the rugged Henan Province, Xu stopped and prayed, "Dear Lord, please revive your church!"
During the intervening 30 years, Xu evangelized, planted new house churches, and trained local church leaders, eventually creating the Born Again Movement (BAM), which has an estimated 3 million followers independent of the official registered church in China. Spinoffs from BAM, one of the fastest-growing religious groups in China, have an estimated 20 million followers, nearly twice the size of the registered church, which was re-established in 1979.
HERETIC OR HERO? This year, however, Xu will not be celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of his mountaintop plea. Last September he was sentenced to serve ten years in a "re-education-through-labor" camp in Henan. Chinese authorities arrested Xu, now 58, on charges of being a leader of a banned religious cult, disrupting public order, and spreading religious heresy about the imminent end of the world.
After Xu's arrest, the official Chinese news agency compared him to David Koresh, the Branch Davidian leader who in 1994 died in a fiery apocalypse in Waco, Texas, as the fbi attempted to arrest him. Both registered-church and house-church leaders, including Samuel Lamb and Allen Yuan, have criticized Xu and his movement for alleged doctrinal aberrations, such as the expectation that new converts weep for three days to bring about forgiveness for their sins.
Yet, other Christian leaders have defended Xu, saying that his harsh sentence exposes how the Chinese government has not changed in its essentially hostile attitude toward religion as a superstition.
While evangelicals have noted that Xu's movement is emotional and highly expressive, Brent Fulton, managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies based at Wheaton (Ill.) College, says Xu is no heretic and his theology is sound. "Xu is caring, very sincere. He is smart in a strategic sense. He knows how to organize a huge band of evangelists. Most of his followers have a junior-high education."
Pastors in BAM believe "jail is their seminary," says Jonathan Chao, president of China Ministries International, a leading house-church advocacy group that recently relocated from Hong Kong to Taiwan. "Jail is like a battery that charges the believer and movement." Xu had been imprisoned twice before, including in 1988 when he attempted to meet Billy Graham during the evangelist's trip to China.
According to sources in China close to the Xu family, "They say our church is a heresy. This is a very bad word to use about us. Xie-jiao [heresy/evil religion] is like when a person kills somebody or a group always killing.
"People say that we say that you can only be saved if you cry for three days or even three days and nights. This is not true. We are saved by Jesus' grace."
SERIAL HOSTAGE-TAKING: For Paul Marshall, author of Their Blood Cries Out (Word, 1997), Xu's arrest and imprisonment is another odious example of China's "serial hostage-taking," in which emerging Chinese Christian leaders are locked away as they reach their most productive phase. Years later, they may be released or exiled. Recently, China freed an aging Catholic leader from prison, only to put him immediately under house arrest. "I've met with people from 17 provinces in the last 12 months," Marshall says. "They said they are suffering the worst crackdown since the 1980s." Xu is one of hundreds or perhaps thousands of religious leaders who have been arrested or jailed in China during the 1990s. As recently as May 31, officials reportedly detained Roman Catholic Bishop Zhang Weizhu, one of the millions of underground Catholics who recognize Vatican authority. (China requires all Catholics to join a government-controlled association.)
The imprisonment of Xu comes at a time when American religious and political leaders are focusing on religious persecution as never before. Congress, which is targeting China's abuse of human rights, has passed legislation prohibiting imports of Chinese products made by slaves or prisoners and banned from visiting America those Chinese officials responsible for religious persecution or forced abortions.
Conservatives have renewed efforts to oppose most-favored-nation trade status for China because of human-rights abuses (CT, June 16, 1997, p. 54). This fall more than 100,000 congregations are expected to participate in the third International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church.
The most critical debate among church and ministry leaders is how best to bring about greater religious freedom in China. Traditionally, missions leaders have focused on evangelism and relief work, not human rights, for fear that public criticism could jeopardize their ability to work in the country.
But as abuses of religious freedom have persisted, missions and church leaders have been forced by circumstances to re-evaluate their methods and strategies.
Meanwhile, outspoken religious-freedom advocates have steadily increased the political pressure in Washington to put religious freedom near the top of America's foreign-policy agenda.
Last month more than 200 American religious leaders, representing Protestants, Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and Scientologists, signed a letter urging President Clinton to persuade the Chinese government to release all religious prisoners, to revoke mandatory church registration, and to relax restrictions on Buddhists in Tibet.
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder of the Center for Jewish and Christian Values, initiated the letter to Clinton, whose historic nine-day trip to China was scheduled to wrap up July 3. Last year Eckstein presented to Chinese authorities a petition with 12,000 signatures calling for Xu's release. But Eckstein does not want to be counted among the growing number of China-bashers.
"One of the things I've learned in my dealings with the Chinese is they want to see that Americans are not using them or bashing them," he says. "China-bashers don't acknowledge the changes that have taken place." He advocates greater religious freedom in China's policy, using what he calls "prodding engagement."
Although China's constitution enshrines freedom of belief, there is no corresponding constitutional protection for freedom of worship or freedom from state control. Through the Chinese government's Religious Affairs Bureau (RAB), the Public Security Bureau, and the Communist party's United Front Work Department, every aspect of religious expression is managed.
"Those Chinese who seek to express openly dissenting political and religious views still live in an environment filled with repression," the U.S State Department reported in January.
The Chinese government places boundaries on religion at every key point: 1. Worship places must be registered, and members must have joined one of five officially recognized religious associations (Protestant, Catholic, Buddhist, Muslim, or Taoist). 2. Publication of Bibles, religious books, magazines, and other materials must be state approved. 3. Admission to seminaries or other religious training for registered-church pastors or lay leaders requires permission of local authorities. 3. Individual believers may be required to provide identification on receipts when purchasing Bibles at a registered church. 4. Communist party members are prohibited from expressing religious beliefs. As a result, only atheists are allowed to head government offices that regulate religion. 5. Government officials determine which religious beliefs are heretical, and therefore illegal, for anyone to espouse. 5. No religious group outside China is permitted to have control over any Chinese religious body or religious affairs, or to establish an independent operation.
Chinese who stray outside permitted religious activities have frequently been detained without being charged or having legal counsel. The U.S. State Department declares, "The judicial system continues to deny defendants basic legal safeguards and due process because authorities attach higher priority to maintaining public order and suppressing political opposition than to implementing and enforcing legal norms."
Amnesty International, in its 1997 human-rights report, estimates that China's prisons detained 200,000 people without charge or trial. In the main Chinese prison in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, one out of six prisoners is a Buddhist monk or nun who had most often been accused of "endangering public security."
A GOLDEN PERIOD? Although the Communist United Front Work Department establishes China's overall policies toward religion, no individual has greater influence over day-to-day government oversight of religious activities in China than Ye Xiaowen, the ambitious and energetic director of the RAB, which has officials in every province and major city.
During Ye's first American appearance one year ago, he met with leaders from the Christian Leadership Exchange of California, an influential group composed mostly of overseas Chinese Christian leaders.
Ye, 45, plays the role of an intimidating police officer well. "The ancient Greeks have a saying: The most difficult thing is to know yourself. I am a tiger, having the willingness to have the boldness and braveness characteristic of a tiger." The RAB and other Chinese leaders have not been reluctant to demonstrate the power of the state in limiting religious practice. In May 1997, according to Amnesty International, about 5,000 Chinese troops were deployed to the village of Donglu, Hebei Province, to bar Catholics from making an annual pilgrimage.
Ye was influential in developing the Chinese government's conviction that Christianity played a critical role in the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
Although one American evangelical leader who is knowledgeable about Ye says he is a "hardcore materialist," Ye's main philosophy seems to be pragmatism within the context of the directives of the top leadership.
Ye, like China's President Jiang Zemin, represents a new attitude that is not personally hostile to religion but expects religious leaders to buttress state and party control. Some of China's leaders, including Ye, a sociologist by training, have closely studied American culture. Ye finds one secret to American success in Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, first published in 1904. Weber, also a sociologist, compared the West and China, concluding that a missing element in Chinese culture had been, up to that time, a strong antimagical religion like Christianity, with its emphases on a transcendent God, transcendent laws, and spiritual calling above all human favoritisms and local superstitions.
China's leadership still has difficulty comprehending basic Christian concepts, says Richard Cizik, policy analyst for the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE): "They don't understand the power of faith to change people's lives, the Christian teaching of the soul, or the Christian teaching of the conscience. They view [religion] through a political lens." Cizik and other evangelicals have attempted to counter the belief among China's leaders that Chinese Christians pose a threat to the state by arguing that good Christians are good citizens and good workers.
In 1994, as new regulations governing religion in China were being implemented, Ye became RAB director and quickly positioned himself and the RAB as protectors of the religious status quo. In suppressing house churches, the RAB most often labels them as secret cults with an antisocial agenda. In addition, Ye says the RAB protects registered churches from corrupt local officials who may harass faithful believers.
While in Washington, Ye declared that religious believers in China had entered "a golden period." Last October, an official Chinese government white paper, which focused on all religious activity in China, listed 100 million religious believers, 85,000 worship sites, 300,000 clergy or priests, and 74 schools for clergy training, far more than in 1949 when Communists took control. The report also noted: 1. Since 1980, more than 600 Protestant churches have been reopened or rebuilt annually. 2. More than 18 million Bibles have been printed. 3. The official number of baptized Christians in registered churches has risen to 10 to 15 million in 1997, from fewer than 1 million in 1949.
The document defends the Chinese government's regulation of religious activity, saying, "No one in China is punished because of his or her religious belief. But no country that practices the rule of law in the world today would tolerate illegal and criminal activities being carried out under the banner of religion."
However, the report does not detail the ideological work of the Communist United Front Work Department. In a September 1996 article in its journal, the United Front detailed how 400 religious leaders had been "trained politically on how to get the religious organizations to cooperate with the [Communist] party." In 1992, Tong Zhan, a former United Front leader, published an inside view on how the United Front works behind the scenes in the appointment of key religious leaders. He said the United Front follows a "divide and rule" strategy to keep religious groups in check.
Even by official accounts, Christianity among the Chinese is experiencing the kind of stunning revival and explosive growth that would test the structure of any religious organization. In Guizhou Province in the rural southwest, there are more than 360,000 Christians. About half of them await baptism, and many baptized believers go more than one year without celebrating Communion.
"The Chinese church today is the most charismatic church in the world. They rely totally on the Holy Spirit," says David Wang, international director of Asia Outreach. "With all the persecution and harassment and suffering, the church is still exploding. Growing is too tame a word."
HAZARDOUS PILGRIMAGE: In February, a delegation of three American religious leaders, at the invitation of President Jiang, made an unprecedented pilgrimage throughout China.
During their three-week tour, then-president of the National Association of Evangelicals Don Argue, Roman Catholic archbishop of Newark Theodore McCarrick, and Appeal of Conscience Foundation president Rabbi Arthur Schneier met with China's president, held discussions with about 60 other top leaders, and traveled to Tibet to visit Buddhist leaders (CT, April 6, 1998, p. 26).
Although the threesome described the trip's mission as focused on deepening dialogue with China's leaders, they frequently brought up issues of human rights and religious freedom.
In a lengthy interview with CHRISTIANITY TODAY (see pg. 34), Argue says that they inquired about the cases of 30 persecuted believers. He said Chinese authorities have responded with details about some, but not all, of the individuals.
From the beginning, American political and religious leaders sharply questioned the wisdom of the effort, saying that China would manipulate domestic media coverage to its own advantage. While the delegation was in China, the front page of the People's Daily published photos of President Jiang and Argue, but quoted only Jiang.
American critics of the delegation's visit cut across a wide spectrum, including Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council, Nina Shea of Freedom House, and Joan Brown Campbell of the National Council of Churches.
During the delegation's visit, Shea charged, "Beijing manipulated the group's visit throughout, even detaining priests and the families of Christian prisoners so that the group could not meet with them."
But after the visit, one Chinese official in Beijing said, "These people were very well briefed, and actually disputed some of our versions of events, and expressed strong discontent with our religious policy. This we were not used to."
When the delegation returned, they held a press conference in New York City, where they issued a 12-page report. Their findings included: 1. Official government statistics significantly undercount Christians. 2. Chinese leaders view religion as a potentially destabilizing force in society, particularly among China's large peasant population. 3. "Joint ventures in understanding" between the United States and China on religious belief and practice should be undertaken as soon as possible.
Cizik, who traveled with the American delegation, told CT that China's leaders are "being forced to acknowledge by the faith of their own people that religion isn't a Western phenomenon only. It's a church that is growing. And, to some degree, [it] poses a threat to the power of the state."
A BIGGER CAGE? Even as the Chinese government has moved to marginalize underground churches, it has given the registered church more room to breathe. But its critics still view the registered church as a caged bird.
With the retirement of Bishop Ting in 1997, the China Christian Council (CCC) is now under the leadership of Han Wenzao, a lay church leader. The CCC and the Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), which promotes the doctrinal ideals of self-propagation, self-government, and self-support, form the central nervous system of the registered church.
During an in-depth interview with CT at Nanjing Seminary, Han struck a conciliatory note toward the house-church movement. But he did not repeat Ting's call in 1994 for the Chinese government to recognize house churches.
Han says many unregistered churches have become registered in Jiangsu Province. "We have two problems with registration. Government officials are reluctant to get more churches to be registered. On the other side, some congregations, I'm sorry to say, are influenced by outsiders who advise them not to get registered."
Han says the relationship between house and registered churches is not black and white. Some believers, especially in urban areas, may attend services at both kinds of churches. In addition, some registered churches allow house-church leaders to use their facilities.
In calling for greater cooperation and Christian unity, Han says, "We also have to confess that we have done some things wrong to our brothers and sisters. A divisive church cannot be very strong for our Lord, especially in China. Yet we fight each other."
Some house-church leaders have shown a willingness to register with the local government, but they resist joining the TSPM, which falls under government and Communist party control.
But Han says, "The Three Self does not have a political nature. It's just a people's organization to show our fellow Christians that we Christians are fellow Chinese Christians."
Han disputes the allegations that freedom is nonexistent for the registered church. "We have enjoyed a reasonable amount of religious freedom," he says, "because the context is very different around China."
"We can do much. Within the framework, we can move around much. So my observation is that we have enjoyed a reasonable amount of freedom within the churches."
Although Han is striking a conciliatory note in comments about house churches, he has not minced words when condemning the International Mission Board (IMB) of the Southern Baptist Convention for "covert missionary" activities within China (CT, Jan. 12, 1998, p. 64).
Last year, Han broke off relations between the CCC and IMB because he alleged that Southern Baptists were pursuing an illegal "two-track" strategy of working openly with registered churches, but covertly as well through setting up businesses for missionaries to use as a front for evangelistic outreach. There have been estimates that as many as 200 IMB missions personnel in China are involved in such work.
Werner Burklin, whose German missionary parents raised him in China until they were forced out in 1949, has worked with registered churches since 1981. He has also had contact with house-church members. Burklin says, "To the local Christians, it really doesn't make too much of a difference with whom they are registered. They would like to see the church expand." Burklin believes if the Communist state collapses, Chinese Christians will lose an important unifying force.
Burklin observes Chinese Christians across the board have taken responsibility for outreach and missions, unlike their dependency on foreigners prior to the 1949 revolution. "Chinese Christians are strengthening the social arm of the church to win the hearts of the people. I know of churches that even take offerings for [state] schools."
LIMITS OF COOPERATION: In spite of the ongoing dramas of religious repression in China, Christian ministries worldwide have regained a strong presence throughout the country, in relief work, adoption, pro-life advocacy, church support, Bible publishing, and leadership training.
Increasingly, American-based ministries are openly attempting to establish relationships with house-church and registered-church leaders. The 1998 Missions Handbook, published by the California-based Mission Advanced Research and Communications Center, reports that 155 Americans from more than 40 Protestant agencies work inside China. In addition, more than 660 Chinese citizens who are active in Christian ministry receive support from American missions organizations in the form of training, materials, or money for building improvements or construction.
Much of the support comes from the estimated 7,000 Christian churches for overseas Chinese, many of whom fled following the Communist revolution.
George Chen is a significant example of how Americans and Chinese are rewriting the ministry playbook. Born in Shanghai 64 years ago, Chen gave up university studies in economics for Bible school and began working as a missionary at age 18. "God called me to spread the gospel to the poor of the villages," Chen explains. "The cities have made progress. But in the villages, it's the same as ever. The people are very poor."
After the 1949 Communist revolution, Chen's work grew increasingly hazardous. He was jailed for religious activities in the 1950s. In 1960, he was sentenced to hard labor at a prison in Anhui Province in eastern China.
With a wife and son still in Shanghai, he saw little prospect for survival. "They tried to make things really bad for me by putting me to work in the cesspool," Chen recalls. "I spent my days deep in human waste, turning it with a shovel to make compost. They thought I'd be miserable, but actually I was happy. It smelled so bad that no one would come near me, so I could pray and sing aloud all day."
Yet physical adversity was only part of the hardship at the camp. "The brainwashing was the worst," Chen says. "If God had not been with me, I'd have collapsed under it. People who were physically stronger than I did."
In 1978, as official attitudes toward religion changed, Chen was finally released. He discovered that the churches he planted had grown to 5,000 from the original 300 members.
Now a U.S. citizen, Chen travels for nine months each year throughout China organizing churches, preaching, training leaders, and raising funds.
Because Chen works mostly in rural areas, he has been able to enlist the cooperation of local government leaders as well as house-church leaders in his ministry efforts.
In May, a journey brought Chen deep into the rugged wilderness of Yunnan Province to show the needs of Lisu tribal people to Ralph Plumb, president of International Aid, a relief and mission-support agency of Spring Lake, Michigan.
Wedged between Tibet and the countries of Southeast Asia, Yunnan remains one of the least-known areas of China.
The Lisu were converted from demon worship early in the century by missionaries. In the early years of Communist rule, the tribal people were forbidden to worship. Their Bibles were confiscated, and some of the people were imprisoned or killed. Many fled across the mountains to nearby Myanmar (Burma). Yet most remained faithful. The year that brought Chen's release also brought them freedom to worship openly again.
With special permits to enter the territory normally closed to foreigners, Chen and Plumb traveled in trucks provided by the provisional government to the distant village of Kang Po near the upper Mekong River.
Mountain people waited to lead them up a steep foot trail into misty green valleys. They passed log and plank houses clinging to slopes. Meager crops of corn, rye, and wheat smear mountainsides so steep that farmers lie on their sides when they plant and harvest to keep from tumbling downward.
"I've never seen people in China poorer than the Lisu," Chen says. "They have not enough food."
Yet the welcome at a village named Wahsaluke was lavish. Many of the 900 residents lined both sides of the trail applauding the visitors and shaking their hands. They provided basins of spring water for washing and feasts of freshly killed chicken, eggs, fried ferns, corn cakes, rye pancakes, and honey.
"The Lisu people love very much," Chen explains. "Really, they follow the teaching of the gospel."
Plumb saw the log frame of a new school his agency financed through Chen. The visitors worshiped with villagers in a dark and primitive log-and-plank church building so rotted that local officials fear it might collapse.
Both Chen and government authorities encouraged International Aid to finance a new church structure. Chen had also arranged a cash gift to buy 100 goats loaned to families for breeding then returned for reloaning. "But the greatest need of all," Chen emphasizes, "is for trained church leaders. Christianity is growing, but because we don't have trained leaders, cults and heresies are springing up. Nine thousand evangelists should be trained," he says.
But the spirit of cooperation that Chen has forged in rural areas has not always translated into urban settings. When Chen traveled to a major urban area in southern China, he was invited to preach at a Sunday service. But at the last minute, officials denied permission for him to preach because he is a foreigner.
MORE TURNING TO CHRIST: China missions experts who have studied the growth of Christianity during the past 35 years often say that the decade-long cultural revolution in the 1960s and '70s was the church's time of greatest persecution and greatest rate of growth.
But in the late 1990s, the economic revolution in China is a central element in driving individuals toward religion and spirituality. China scholars say the surge of working-age adults from rural villages to industrial areas, along with urban unemployment, has created a displaced "floating population" of 100 million people, desperate for work and living on the margins of society.
Among China's 1.2 billion people, more than 700 million are considered nonreligious, making them the largest group of unchurched people in the world. With the collapse of communist ideology, Chinese society is facing a vacuum of values and beliefs, and many Chinese are turning to nationalism, consumerism, or religion.
"The prestige of the party has gone," says Daniel H. Bays, history professor at the University of Kansas and author of Christianity in China: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present (Stanford, 1996). "Nobody believes in communism anymore. This is one reason why people are becoming Christians. There is a lot of corruption, people are cynical, and ever since the 1980s, there's been a good bit of public anger with the government officials lining their own pockets."
New research on Christian growth in certain provinces reveals how China in some regions is turning to Christianity. In the eastern coastal province of Jiangsu, the site of the nationalist capital of Nanjing, there are 890,000 Christians, four times as many as a decade earlier.
Tony Lambert, director of Chinese research for a large mission agency, says China's leaders are well aware of Christian meteoric growth rates, which drives their need for stricter control. "I did a sampling and analysis of letters we are receiving from China," he said. "I grouped them by province. Jiangsu [Province] letters reported the worst persecution. Anhui and Henan [Provinces] also reported very tight control in some localities."
For Lambert and other scholars of Chinese Christianity, the growth of new religious sects, Christian cults, and heresies in many ways poses a greater threat to the church than the state.
While some heresies develop from non-Christian religions, dozens of heretical groups in China that are drawing millions of followers develop from distortions of Christian theology, teaching, and practice. These include: 1. Lightning from the East, which promotes the idea that Christ has come again, bodily reincarnated in a woman named Lightning, and that only those who believe in this female messiah will be saved. 2. The Disciples (Mentuhui Society), started in 1989 by farmer Ji Sanbao, who has a strong end-times orientation and calls for overthrow of the government. 3. The Lingling Cult, which was begun as a religious movement in 1985 by Hua Xuehe, who sees himself as a second Jesus and in 1990 prophesied the second coming of Christ.
THE GOSPEL THREAT? The Chinese government has increasingly employed the strategy of associating charismatic religious leaders with antisocial cults and charging those leaders with violating criminal laws, not religious regulations.
In the case of the imprisoned evangelist Xu, the founder of BAM, the government has alleged that Xu holds beliefs similar to the Weepers sect and that church members have committed suicide amid intense religious fervor.
But it was not Xu's theology itself that posed a threat to the Chinese government, China scholars say. Xu's covert, independent network of evangelists was the true target of the state. Last year, six other house-church evangelists were arrested with Xu as they apparently laid plans to coordinate their outreach efforts.
In a discussion with CT, a Chinese central government official who asked not to be named reported that the government's actions in the Xu case reveal the depth of its concerns about independent Christian evangelists. But he said, "I don't think it's important for the church in China to get Xu out [of prison]. No matter how many people or church leaders are put into jail, the church keeps on growing.
"The reason is that the church is not controlled by these leaders. The church develops in China in a very strange and incredible way."
As Xu serves out his prison sentence, hidden Chinese evangelists travel to western China, Vietnam, Myanmar (Burma), Kazakstan, Uzbekistan, and Outer Mongolia with no visas, passports, or support. Asia Outreach's Wang says, "But they have feet. They travel as far as transportation will take them; then they walk into those countries."
With reporting in China
by Tony Carnes, Bruce Brander,
Carol Thiessen, and Alex Buchan.
Copyright © 1998 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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