China’s Communist party is intensifying religious persecution as Christianity’s popularity grows. A new state translation of the Bible will establish a ‘correct understanding’ of the text
In late October, the pastor of one of China’s best-known underground churches asked this of his congregation: had they successfully spread the gospel throughout their city? “If tomorrow morning the Early Rain Covenant Church suddenly disappeared from the city of Chengdu, if each of us vanished into thin air, would this city be any different? Would anyone miss us?” said Wang Yi, leaning over his pulpit and pausing to let the question weigh on his audience. “I don’t know.”
Almost three months later, Wang’s hypothetical scenario is being put to the test. The church in south-west China has been shuttered and Wang and his wife, Jiang Rong, remain in detention after police arrested more than 100 Early Rain church members in December. Many of those who haven’t been detained are in hiding. Others have been sent away from Chengdu and barred from returning. Some, including Wang’s mother and his young son, are under close surveillance. Wang and his wife are being charged for “inciting subversion”, a crime that carries a penalty of up to 15 years in prison.
Now the hall Wang preached from sits empty, the pulpit and cross that once hung behind him both gone. Prayer cushions have been replaced by a ping-pong table and a film of dust. New tenants, a construction company and a business association, occupy the three floors the church once rented. Plainclothes police stand outside, turning away those looking for the church.
One of the officers told the Observer: “I have to tell you to leave and watch until you get in a car and go.”
Researchers say the current drive, fuelled by government unease over the growing number of Christians and their potential links to the west, is aimed not so much at destroying Christianity but bringing it to heel.
“The government has orchestrated a campaign to ‘sinicise’ Christianity, to turn Christianity into a fully domesticated religion that would do the bidding of the party,” said Lian Xi, a professor at Duke University in North Carolina, who focuses on Christianity in modern China.
Over the past year, local governments have shut hundreds of unofficial congregations or “house churches” that operate outside the government-approved church network, including Early Rain. A statement signed by 500 house church leaders in November says authorities have removed crosses from buildings, forced churches to hang the Chinese flag and sing patriotic songs, and bar minors from attending.
Churchgoers say the situation will get worse as the campaign reaches more of the country. Another church in Chengdu was placed under investigation last week. Less than a week after the mass arrest of Early Rain members, police raided a children’s Sunday school at a church in Guangzhou. Officials have also banned the 1,500-member Zion church in Beijing after its pastor refused to install CCTV.
In November the Guangzhou Bible Reformed Church was shut for the second time in three months. “The Chinese Communist party (CCP) wants to be the God of China and the Chinese people. But according to the Bible only God is God. The government is scared of the churches,” said Huang Xiaoning, the church’s pastor. Local governments have also shut the state-approved “sanzi” churches. Sunday schools and youth ministries have been banned. One of the first signs of a crackdown was when authorities forcibly removed more than 1,000 crosses from sanzi churches in Zhejiang province between 2014 and 2016.
“The goal of the crackdown is not to eradicate religions,” said Ying Fuk Tsang, director of the Christian Study Centre on Chinese Religion and Culture at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “President Xi Jinping is trying to establish a new order on religion, suppressing its blistering development. [The government] aims to regulate the ‘religious market’ as a whole.”
While the CCP is officially atheist, Christianity is one of five religions sanctioned by the government and religious freedom has been enshrined in the constitution since the 1980s. For decades, authorities tolerated the house churches, which refused to register with government bodies that required church leaders to adapt teachings to follow party doctrine.