Hitting problems sideways goes back thousands of years in China. Wéiqí 围棋 (aka “encirclement chess” aka “Go”) is at least 2500 years old. And while they’re certainly willing to engage in head-on confrontation, using an indirect approach is the standard M.O. for Chinese authorities when dealing with troublesome, undesirable groups — it’s effective and less accountable. Here are three examples: two on-going and one more-or-less recent.
The Doomsday Cult
侧面地 — “sideways” — is the adverb a friend used this last Sunday to describe the way the gov’t indirectly combats the Eastern Lightning/Church of Almighty God cult (东方闪电 / 全能父教会), of whom his mother-in-law is a member. Everything she does and everywhere she goes is monitored, but they haven’t confronted her directly. They went instead to her husband’s employer, revealed a bunch of what they know, and pressured the employer to use his leverage to pressure the husband to contain his wife.
The result so far is that the entire rest of the family now fears for their livelihoods. All of them reject the cult and its teachings, but having a family member involved is enough to put them all at risk. It’s sufficient motivation for a family to do whatever they can to discourage the wayward grandma. Which, in their case, isn’t very much; this group isn’t called cult for no reason (links at bottom). In China, they’re officially an “evil religion” (邪教).
The Social-problem-engaged Non-Profit
A couple years ago a non-profit in our former city got the sideways treatment. They run a project that provides therapy for disabled kids and training for their parents. That project’s major event every year is a Christmas performance; they rent out a local theatre and the kids, parents and teachers put on a show. One year the local authorities decided to squash it. But instead of contacting the org directly or telling them during the monthly meeting to ‘have tea’, they went to the theatre on the weekend before the show was scheduled and told the managers to cancel the booking. The theatre refused; apparently the authorities weren’t offering to cover their lost revenue. So police were sent to the org’s office. I was told by a person present that there was a verbal confrontation between them and the Chinese staff of the disabled children’s project. Apparently one staff member got agitated: “This is not a religious event, and if you want to cancel it then you can bring your battalions to the show and cancel it yourself!” In the end there was a compromise: they could still put on the show, but they had to take out all the parts that had to do with the Christmas Story (so no baby Jesus in the manger, shepherds and sheep and angels and all that).
The Envelope-pushing Church
In the under-reported case of Shouwang, a church in Beijing that’s been engaged in a public standoff with the authorities for over a year, sideways tactics played a key role in creating the mess. They were a large unregistered church network of small gatherings that decided to begin meeting as one big group. This was breaking an unwritten rule in the gray area of illegal-but-tolerated religious practice in China; unregistered normal churches are often left alone so long as they don’t meet in large groups or otherwise draw attention to themselves. After repeatedly being turned out of venues they’d rented by landlords who were being pressured by the authorities, they purchased their own place. But when they were prevented from taking possession of their own property, they began holding their Sunday services outside in a park in protest, demanding an end to the harrassment and that they be allowed to register as a legal organization without being required to join the Party-controlled “Three-Self Patriotic Church” (三自爱国教会). These demands, however, require changes to actual policy, not just an altering of the unwritten rules of the status quo. They want an end to the “sideways” management, and they want official, legally-recognized status.
So they’ve forced direct confrontation with local authorities. Those that aren’t under house arrest are detained by waiting police every single weekend. But consider these details (emphasis mine):
In 2012 … members of Shouwang Church were detained 1,600 times by either Domestic Security Protection agents in various districts [of Beijing] or in more than 90 different police stations across Beijing (for periods of several hours to 48 hours). Sixty people were evicted from their homes and more than 10 people lost their jobs…
They’ll use legions of police to make sure a scene isn’t created in a public space on Sunday morning, and they’ll keep the leaders under long-term house arrest. But in the meantime they’ll wear down the rank-and-file, suffocating them by twisting the arms of their landlords and employers. (You can find more details of this on-going saga documented here.)
Update #1: landlords, employers, relatives
I’m adding this update because it’s a perfect real-life example:
the situation has been increasingly tense since the beginning of March. He said, the government departments don’t even bother trying to have any direct contact; instead, they go behind our backs to threaten the landlord and not allow us to continue worshipping here. Then they go to the work units of the individual church members and give them orders, telling them they do not have permission to come to our church anymore, otherwise, they must resign from their jobs or they will be fired.
The senior pastor said, “Last weekend, even my 70-year-old elderly mother was summoned by the neighborhood committee and forced to answer questions about my situation, which gave the old lady a great fright.”
Update #2: Children
I failed to mention in the above examples that children are not exempt from being used as leverage: Ten-Year-Old Girl Detained, Denied Food and Water