Arrests and Sentencings ‘The Tip of the Iceberg’ in China
House Church Leaders Say Illegal Police Actions are Commonplace
by Alex Buchan
HONG KONG (Compass) — The sentencing of six Protestant house church leaders to hard labor last December and the arrest of six more leaders of the Roman Catholic underground church are but “the tip of the iceberg” of religious oppression, according to five prominent house church leaders inside China, contacted by Compass in January.
“The sentencing of those arrested is not so common, but police beatings of evangelists, and illegal actions of police, are very commonplace — this must be highlighted too,” said one. They also expressed great concern that the crackdown on the indigenous religious group Falun Gong was resulting in more Internet surveillance of house church activity. The house church leaders feared that the definition of what constituted a “cult” was becoming so elastic that “any networked house church movement could fall foul of the new rules.”
The six Protestant house church leaders sentenced were among more than 30 leaders arrested in August 1999 when authorities raided various unofficial seminars in Henan province. Although most were released after paying fines of up to 10,000 yuan ($1,200), six leaders were sentenced in mid December: David Zhang and Zheng Shuqian, to three years hard labor; Shen Yiping and Wang Jiansheng to two years, and Feng Jianguo and Jing Rongqui to one year each.
Then in late January, the Cardinal Kung Foundation alleged that six members of the Roman Catholic underground were missing, presumed arrested. This included 63-year-old Bishop Hang Dingxiang, thought to have been arrested on December 1 while leading a retreat. In the same release, the Kung Foundation listed three other priests, arrested earlier in 1999, and a lay worker, Mr. Wang Chengqun, arrested prior to Christmas. All were from Hebei province.
But the house church leaders Compass consulted were adamant that the handing down of hard labor sentences — though deplored — was not the most common type of persecution. “It is police brutality,” said one in Shanghai. All five leaders then related stories of fierce beatings of Christians in custody. Said a Fuchou-based leader, “Out of every 50 arrests I hear of, barely two or three get hard labor, but most get a severe beating in jail. The police are a law unto themselves.” The five knew a total of 123 Christians arrested in 1999, with seven sentenced (not including the December sentencings), but the families of those jailed do not wish publicity. Most of the detentions last 15 days or less, with Christians being released after paying fines relative to their economic status. But more worryingly, most were bruised and sometimes sustained broken bones from police beatings.
A Kunming house church pastor said a 20-year-old evangelist had been beaten very badly last October in a county outside the city, and was still in the hospital recovering. He was hit repeatedly about the head by three policemen with truncheons, who kept kicking him on the ground even while he was unconscious.
The leaders also complained that the police did not know the law of China, although their justification for interfering is supposedly to uphold it. For example in Lushing county, Yunnan province, police beat Christians telling them, “It is illegal to believe in Jesus,” which is not true under Chinese law, where religious belief is allowed.
In the on-again-off-again arrest saga of Li Dexian, police demolished an annex to a house in which the believers were meeting. The police said it was an illegal extension, but the owner of the house, who was not a Christian, challenged them. “How come you arrive with a bulldozer, and not ask me first where my paperwork is? I’m the owner, you must deal with me,” he said. The police refused to speak with him.
It is the 1999 crackdown on the Falun Gong that has the house church leaders very uneasy. One immediate consequence is greater Internet surveillance of religious websites. A new Chinese Christian website was closed down after posting only six items in mid January. Falun Gong is organized primarily by e-mail, spooking the Chinese government into issuing draconian guidelines in the “People’s Daily,” insisting that any website is illegal unless it first clears everything it posts with the authorities.
Another consequence is that the definition of a “cult” is becoming more elastic, with local officials often erroneously thinking that there is no difference between the network-type house churches and Falun Gong. Network house churches are those which are authoritarian in structure, often with a founder-figure who exerts control in a strict chain-of-command manner. Often they spread over a number of provinces and have doctrinal distinctives that might be seen as eccentric or even heretical by other house church leaders. These networks are primarily organized from Henan, and it is no surprise they have borne the brunt of the recent pressure. The six sentenced in December come from such movements. In the cities, however, most house church Christians do not belong to these large-scale network systems, preferring small scale, autonomous groups with minimal cooperation for security reasons.
According to Samuel Lamb, an independent house church pastor from Guangzhou (Canton), “The networks like the Born Again movement, or the Shouters, are heretical and the government is right to call them cults.” Others disagree. The Kunming pastor said, “I think we have to make a distinction between groups that are utterly heretical, and those that are merely over-zealous.” He would put Xu Yongze’s group (Born Again) in the latter category, in contrast to Pastor Lamb.
In the city of Kunming, a “winter to spring offensive” was declared against seven Christian sects in October. The seven sects named were The Lord God sect (Zhu Shan Jiao), the Shouters (Hu Pan Pai), The Disciples (Men Tu Hui), the Full Scope Church (Quan Fan Wei), the Three Grades of Servant sect (San Ban Puren), the Established King cult (Bei Li Wang) and the New Testament Church (Quan Bei Fuyin). Said Paul Davenport, Compass Direct’s China analyst, “There’s no question most, if not all, of these groups are cults by Christian definition. The question is whether the government has the right or even competence to crack down on them.”
Samuel Lamb agrees. “Heresy is a matter for the church to deal with, not the government,” he said. But all five house church leaders said they supported the government crackdown on Falun Gong, and were dismissive of those Christians who intervened to help Falun Gong members on human rights grounds. Their attitude is understandable, though it may be unfortunate. The apparatus of oppression being constructed to repress Falun Gong today could well be used to repress the house churches tomorrow.
Copyright © 2000 Compass Direct News Service.
Used with permission.