Happy Easter, China #6: analysis, first-hand accounts, and an indirect official response [Updated]

Recap: There’s an on-going public standoff in Beijing between a large unregistered church and the Chinese authorities. Trouble began years ago when the church crossed the unofficial line of tolerance by meeting regularly in a large group, rather than as multiple small groups. In April, with nowhere to meet due to continual gov’t harrassment of their landlords, they began meeting in a public park. The church wants the authorities to stop harassing their landlords so they can actually take possession of property they’ve bought, among other demands. Every Sunday since Easter, church members who are able show up for worship are immediately arrested, interrogated, and released within one or two days. The authorities seem to be trying to wait them out and wear them down, keeping the confrontation as low-key as possible by employing behind-the-scenes methods like house arrests, pressure on employers, landlords and family members (some church members have lost their homes and jobs), and even internal deportation.

I’ve been following this story with occasional updates/link roundups because I think it’s a huge story. Normally I keep news-related links like this out of the main column, but this one has too much content to fit in the sidebar.

Here’s the best content I’ve found since the previous update.

Outside analysis:
Sinologist Brent Fulton offers some analysis (chsource.org):

the public declaration of Sh0uwang’s intentions and the subsequent media attention that was drawn to the actual outdoor event triggered a very predictable official response. Furthermore, by demanding not only that they be allowed to meet, but also that the government guarantee in writing their ability to do so, the Sh0uwang leadership pushed the government beyond what its current policies could accommodate. Honoring Sh0uwang’s request would have entailed a broad policy change, with ramifications not only for Sh0uwang but for thousands of unregistered religious groups across the country. The officials with whom Sh0uwang was dealing had no authority to make such a decision.

“Such is the nature of religious policy and its implementation in China: accept the ambiguity of functioning within a gray area, and one is free to operate within certain limits; demand that the government define what is and what is not allowed, and the scope of one’s freedoms narrows significantly.”

From God, Policy & Law:

the authorities are aware that the overhaul of the religious policy and laws is long overdue as is its management of civil society groups, but with the up and coming change of the top leadership, this is not of immediate urgency to them.

First-hand accounts from church members and leaders:
A first-hand description of trying to visit the church’s pastor at his home:

“It turned out to be true that Tianming is receiving the highest standard of the house arrest as both the police and DSPS agents not only have the office desks, they also have foldable beds. It is said only security guards and doorkeepers are hired for regular members of the church and they have only camp chairs and recliners.

“For Tianming who has always been confident of himself, seeing so many brothers and sisters of Sh0uwang Church being persecuted when they are detained, interrogated, released each week and seeing so many people forced to move or fired from jobs, it is more miserable and harder to endure than if he experienced these himself. Now, the shepherds are separated from the flocks of sheep. The sheep are being beaten but the shepherds cannot stand out to fend off the blows. It is hard to describe in words how heart-wrenching it is to see all this happening around him.”

The church publishes a weekly letter, reporting what happened the previous week. Here are the latest two letters (translated), for Sunday #23 and Sunday #24.

A first-hand account of trying to meet for worship and being detained by police: Beijing pastor describes trying to get to church with police determined to stop her and This Is The Road We Have Never Traveled By:

I can’t agree with some of the things they have done, but I am aware of their limitations just as I am aware of my own limitations. Therefore, it is better for me to coordinate with them as much as I can. Usually upon their indication that they need to fulfill an order from their superior, I would always cooperate to receive their lecture. Even when … coming to ring my door bell at 1 a.m. on Sunday morning, I still put up with it by talking to them; after being told by the locality police in charge of me that my outdoor worship on the small holiday of “May Day” interrupted his vacation with his wife, I later wouldn’t, without letting him know, have the heart of going on a trip during small holidays anymore, but would rather choose to go at ordinary weekends. None of us is the kind that wants to cause each other trouble, and by human nature we usually dislikes conflicts or tension.
[…]
I pr0test against the abuse of power… against the destruction of human relationships… against one’s personal interest being held over conscience… against unrighteousness and the lack of mercies… against the trampling and disregard of a human being’s dignity and rights.
[…]
It’s widely believed that the government has shown relative toleration and restraint towards Sh0uwang’s outdoor worship this time. In fact, the idea of toleration, only concluded after being compared to the extreme practice, is not at the level of righteousness, truth and law. As for the unrighteous and illegal behavior, all have got used to it and do not mind so much anymore.
[…]
I’ve tried my best to seek guidance through prayers and my conscience.

To those who don’t agree, I sincerely ask for your tolerance. May God let us know which path we should take, because this is a road that we have never traveled by.

The Official Voice:
Meanwhile Xinhua counters, indirectly, by providing the currently-prescribed official narrative of Christianity in China and the relationship between the gov’t and Christianity: Christianity in Beijing — Past and Present

Christianity in the capital of China has existed for a long period of time; its spread and growth has been closely linked with the fate of the nation.

Last month, hundreds of Christians from different churches in Beijing held a chorus of thanksgiving and tribute in the Century Theater, with the theme of “Going Together With One Heart.”

Through the chorus, Christian followers expressed their gratitude toward the Party, the government and society, said Cai Kui, chairman of the Beijing Committee of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement of Protestant Churches in China (TSPM).

“In today’s Beijing and China, there is freedom in religious belief and a harmonious development of religion and society,” Cai said.

“Believers enjoy a happy and peaceful religious life. Different religions forge ahead on the correct path of adapting to socialist society and do their own part to build a harmonious society and promote social development,” he said.

I’ve found nothing else since April at Xinhua or Global Times regarding this situation (Global Times had a handful of editorials back in April, like “Praying for Trouble”).

Clarifying “illegal”, “underground” and “unregistered”
Groups like Sh0uwang are often described as “illegal”, “underground” or “unregistered”. But the situation in China is complicated, and each of these terms needs an asterix. I’ve not been careful in how I use them on the blog, so now I’ll try to set the record straight:

  • Illegal. Basically, yes, groups like Sh0uwang are illegal, though I’m not sure if there’s an actual law stipulating that all churches must join the designated “patriotic organizations” or not. Either way, that’s the practical effect. But local authorities throughout China, including Beijing, routinely give tacit tolerance to these churches, so long as they obey the unwritten rules and don’t cross the sometimes-moving unofficial line.
  • Underground. This sometimes suggests to people secret meetings and clandestine groups dodging the probing eye of the government. But groups like Sh0uwang aren’t hiding; they’re operating in full view of, and in contact with, the authorities in an evolving grey area of limited tolerance. Often this grey area requires that they keep a low public profile, but they don’t have to be invisible. Sh0uwang is apparently officially registered as a “social group.” But by breaking the unwritten rules (insisting on large, more conspicuous meetings) and by demanding official, written permission to do so, Sh0uwang lost the tolerance of the local authorities.
  • Unregistered.When people speak of “unregistered” Chinese churches (as I did in the first paragraph above), they specifically mean “churches that are not registered members of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (or the Catholic equivalent)”, one of the organizations under the Religious Affairs Bureau through which the Party exercises control over Christianity in China. Strictly speaking, Sh0uwang is legally registered as a “social group”, but they refuse to join the Three-Self Patriotic movement and submit to that degree of control. One compromise sometimes offered to non-TSPM churches is to register ‘in name only’ — a deal where they join the TSPM on paper but the local authorities leave them alone, so long as they don’t cause trouble. Sh0uwang has explicitly rejected this compromise.

So in China today you have everything from groups that attempt to be entirely secret and groups that are harshly persecuted, to groups that register with local authorities and operate openly but refuse to register specifically with the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (or Catholic equivalent). Sh0uwang was in this second group, but invited harassment by refusing to comply with the unwritten rules and boundaries of the unofficial gray area of tolerance.

Interestingly, Sh0uwang apparently has an ‘overseas Chinese attitude’ toward gov’t restrictions since many of them have spent time in churches outside of China while studying abroad. This supposedly contributes to their willingness to break the unwritten rules and make demands of the Beijing authorities.

Previous Updates:

P.S. – Happy National Day, everybody!

2 thoughts on “Happy Easter, China #6: analysis, first-hand accounts, and an indirect official response [Updated]”

  1. At some point (I hope), the Party really has to ask themselves: Gee, this won’t work…we are already spend half of the money we have and employing half of the population on Wei-wen (maintaining stability), pretty soon, we will run out of people and money to do this, how is this going to work?

  2. The problem at the low level is well summarized by Fulton in the quote above.

    The problem of the government response(s) is multifaceted when it elevates to a higher level, because there is no separation of powers. Thus there is no way for the leadership to untangle the various problems of enforcing policy without writing new policy. Effectively central-local dynamics of government have prevented the high level from incrementally adjusting their policy.

    This is why the efforts of Shouwang are important. They are making very clear that a crackdown is the only real policy the central government to resolve these things, but that a crackdown is also obviously not desirable to any party. Implicitly Shouwang’s existence is undermining the TSPM legitimacy, which is fundamentally attached to the policy of low-level bullying and high-level crackdown.

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