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Engaging and evading the party-state: unofficial Chinese Protestant groups in China's reform era.

Despite official regulation and in some cases repression, Protestant Christianity is one of the fastest growing religions in Mainland China today. In 1949, at the time of the Communist revolution, there were only 623,000 Protestant Christians in the mission churches in China, and they made up less than one-tenth of one per cent of the entire population. (1) Today, there are at least 50 million Protestants in China, and some scholars estimate that there are as many as 100 million. (2) Roughly 20 per cent of China's Protestants worship in churches affiliated with the government's Three-Self Patriotic Movement (Zhongguo jidujiao sanzi aiguo yundong weiyuan hui or sanzi jiaohui; hereafter, TSPM). (3) The rest worship in churches that are not recognised as official Protestant groups related to the TSPM. (4) This article draws on unique and valuable new data, as well as other primary and secondary sources, to examine the challenges and open spaces for non-TSPM Protestant groups in China's post-Mao period. It finds that four important factors influence the ability of non-TSPM Protestant leaders and groups to thrive within China's post-Mao political environment: (i) the behaviour of Protestant groups in the face of official rules and restrictions; (ii) the geographic location of Protestant groups; (iii) the extent and type of their personal connections (guanxi) with Party-state authorities; and (iv) political and material pressures on the local authorities with whom Protestants interact. Overall, the data and findings presented herein offer new insights into the complexity of Protestant church-state relations in China today.


Supplementing the rich data that can be found in the existing scholarly literature on Mainland Chinese Protestant groups, (5) this article taps an array of additional sources. First, it consults reports prepared by human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and the China Aid Association. Second, it examines primary documents produced by various levels of the Chinese Party-state, as well as primary documents and autobiographical accounts produced by members of Protestant churches. Third, it references non-academic studies by foreign journalists and observers who have extensive contacts with Mainland Chinese Protestant churches. (6) Fourth, it utilises information reported in nine roughly two-hour interviews conducted in 2009 and 2010 by the authors. The respondents included former Protestant church leaders and members currently residing in the United States who are still in contact with official and unofficial churches throughout China, and human rights lawyers who have defended the leaders of unofficial churches (see Appendix for a list of the questions posed to these interview subjects). Five of the nine respondents were in leadership positions in large unofficial Protestant churches or church networks when they were in China. At the time of the interviews, all of the respondents were active in Chinese Protestant churches in the US that minister to unofficial Protestant churches throughout China. Fifth, it draws on the personal experience of one of this article's co-authors, who was a member for 30 years (1978-2008) of an unofficial Protestant church that has been illegal in China since 1952. She was employed and later volunteered as a translator in the church's publishing companies in Taipei and the US from 1983 to 2001. Since 2002, she has helped nearly 100 Mainland Chinese members of her church and other unofficial churches to obtain asylum and settle in the US. She has also done freelance translation and interpretation work for the China Aid Association.

Sixth, this article is based on the content of a random sample of 800 letters written by listeners in China to the Hong Kong-based Far East Broadcasting Company (hereafter FEBC) and its Voice of Friendship Seminary. The FEBC is a "nondenominational, international Christian radio network that broadcasts the Good News in more than 130 languages from 128 transmitters located throughout the world". (7) The FEBC currently has three broadcast towers directed towards China--in the Philippines, Korea and Saipan--enabling its programming to be heard in every Chinese province. (8) In 1983, the FEBC's Hong Kong office started the radio broadcast Voice of Friendship Seminary to help meet the growing need for leadership training among rural churches in China. (9) The 800 letters that have been consulted for this article represent a small portion of FEBC's 300,000 archived letters from listeners received between 1949 and 2005. During a research visit to the Chinese University of Hong Kong in July 2011, the co-author was given access to several thousands of the letters that have been scanned into PDFs. (10) She read through 800 of them, 200 each from the years 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2005, which were sent from Guizhou, Jiangxi, Shandong, Liaoning, Anhui, Inner Mongolia, Shenyang, Shaanxi, Hunan, Jilin, Fujian, Jiangsu, Tianjin, Guangxi, Gansu, Hubei, Hainan, Hebei, Xinjiang, Heilongjiang, Sichuan, Guangdong, Henan, Yunnan, Shanghai, Shanxi and Zhejiang. The authors also conducted interviews with students and leaders in FEBC's Hong Kong office in January and July 2011, and took notes on statements made by Voice of Friendship Seminary students visiting Hong Kong at an FEBC event in July 2011. Altogether, these data comprise a rich new source of information on the situation of unofficial Protestant churches and church members in contemporary China.


"Unofficial" Chinese Protestant churches practise their faith within a highly regulated and restricted political context. China's 1982 Constitution affirms the citizenry's freedom of religious belief, but protects only "normal" religious activities. The Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee's "Document 19" (1982) grants legal existence to five religions (Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Protestantism and Catholicism)--but only under government-affiliated "patriotic" associations. For Protestants, this association is the TSPM. In order to register with the state, a religious group must submit a preliminary application, a document of approval from the TSPM, records of assets and proof of the right to its meeting place, a membership list and a constitution. (11) In addition, the group must agree to the "three fixes" (san ding): a fixed meeting place, leader and area of coverage. The group must also pledge to eschew the inclusion of individuals below the age of 18. Since the late 1980s, provincial and local Party-state authorities have issued scores of regulations that technically must accord with these stipulations, but in reality have been subject to little central oversight. (12) In 2005, the government's State Council promulgated new "Regulations on Religious Affairs". (13) However, as of late 2010, these regulations remained "almost completely unrealized". (14)

Within this regulatory environment, Mainland Chinese Protestant groups fall into two general categories--official and unofficial. Official churches are registered affiliates of the TSPM. Only one such church is permitted to exist in a given locality (e.g. city district, township, or rural county). Official TSPM churches congregate in an official church building, and their lead pastors are trained in official TSPM seminaries. (15) Unofficial churches may be separated into two subtypes: registered unofficial churches and unregistered unofficial churches. Registered unofficial churches are not officially designated TSPM churches, but have registered with the state via the process outlined above. Although churches of this type do not have an official TSPM-affiliated church building, they often operate publicly out of a fixed structure. Their leadership is trained in their own church training programmes (sometimes called "guerrilla seminaries") or through FEBC's radio broadcast of Voice of Friendship Seminary. Unregistered unofficial churches are not registered with the state (and thereby are also not official TSPM churches). These churches typically do not have a fixed, public meeting place. As many worship in private homes, they are commonly known as "house churches" (jiating jiaohui). However, many such churches worship in other types of structures (including businesses and schools, after or before working hours) or even outdoors. Their leaders receive training in the same manner as registered unofficial churches. Some unregistered unofficial churches have been branded cults (xiejiao) by China's ruling authorities, and thus have been clearly marked as illegal. Yet most others have not been given such a designation, and as a result exist in a sort of legal limbo. This restrictive yet ambiguous political environment has created both challenges and open spaces for unofficial Protestant groups in China's reform era. Within this general political context, four factors have more specifically influenced the ability of unofficial Chinese Protestant groups to thrive.

Protestant Church Group Behaviour

The first factor that has shaped the ability of Protestant groups to thrive is the behaviour of the church leaders and members themselves. The first critical decision an unofficial Protestant group must make is whether or not to register with the TSPM. Many unregistered unofficial groups refuse to register with any government entity, such as the TSPM, because they believe that communism is atheistic and ultimately anti-religious. (16) Their understanding of the Bible keeps them from "yoking themselves with unbelievers". (17) Members of other groups express distrust of the Chinese government, pointing to the cycles of repressive "strike-hard actions" (yanda huodong) against Christians since the early 1950s. These Christians fear that registering with the government gives officials too much information to use against them during the next repressive cycle. For example, in 2002, one of the co-author's clients described his experiences with a house church in Nanjing that registered with officials. After three months, local Public Security officers arrested the group's leaders and ordered all members to attend worship services at the official TSPM church. Friends of the co-author told her about the messages they had received from Protestant Christians living in cities in Fujian and Shandong provinces reporting similar experiences. The letters in the FEBC archives, however, attest to the numerous unofficial Protestant groups that have successfully registered with TSPM and operate in harmony with the TSPM pastors. (18) Most of these groups seem to be located in rural areas, where the TSPM pastors have the fewest resources with which to serve large areas. (19)

Among the unregistered unofficial groups, more secretive groups experience less harassment than groups that are more open and assertive. For this reason, members of unregistered unofficial Protestant churches often take great pains to be secretive. Most divide into smaller groups for regular meetings. (20) Several respondents reported that they did not have a set place for church gatherings. They would rotate among the houses of the members or go to another city and meet in a hotel. (21) Other respondents reported congregating in special hidden locations, such as secret attic rooms or in businesses after hours. (22) Some church members who host meetings build into their homes secret escape exits and hiding places for church leaders. (23) Others install soundproofing in the walls before inviting church members to their homes. (24)

In addition to maintaining the secrecy of meeting places, members of unregistered unofficial churches emphasised the need for quiet services. (25) When gathered, members of unregistered unofficial churches--particularly in dense urban areas--avoid singing hymns loudly, but pray silently instead. (26) If the neighbours are bothered by the noise, they may report the church members to the police. (27) Members of unregistered unofficial Protestant groups are also very careful as they go to and from their gatherings. They arrive alone or in pairs from 30 minutes before the scheduled start time to 30 minutes after, and they leave in the same way. (28)

For unregistered unofficial groups, maintaining secrecy is also very important when notifying church members of the time and place for the next church gathering. Several respondents noted that known leaders of unregistered churches are frequently subject to wiretapping by government officials. (29) In many cases, in order to know the time and place of the next gathering, members have to attend the previous gathering. In some groups, leaders will inform one person, who tells another and so on. (30) Other leaders buy single-use cell phones several times a month and go to remote places like rural mountains or cemeteries to phone church members. (31) Some groups use the internet for communication, but some members of unregistered unofficial Protestant churches have been caught communicating via email. (32)

When members of unregistered unofficial churches gather quietly in small groups in their homes or closed businesses, and when they do not communicate outside their own small circle, it seems that in most cases government officials leave them in peace. (33) If church members decide to move their activities to a public place (such as a park or restaurant), they are more likely to come into conflict with officials. (34) If members of unregistered unofficial churches want to organise a picnic together, they report the safest bet is to go to remote rural areas. (35)

Conversely, active evangelism on the part of unofficial Protestant groups--especially those which produce rapid church growth--is likely to incur charges of official harassment. One of the biggest triggers of repression is an evangelical ministry that crosses provincial lines. (36) A repressive official response can also be elicited when evangelists attract the "wrong" kind of converts, such as human rights activists or political dissidents. (37) Some unofficial churches try to avoid this problem by sharing their faith with only close friends and relatives. (38) Others use the internet to run background checks on potential new members. (39) Unofficial Protestant churches and church pastors that insist on carrying out a Christian gospel ministry reportedly are more likely to be arrested, especially if they contact foreign preachers (40) or organise leadership training programmes; furthermore, they are more likely to be categorised as a "cult". (41) This is especially true of groups that preach to students and young people. (42) Several of the co-author's acquaintances and translation clients were arrested for providing Christian leadership training to high school and college students. The charges were more severe if the training programme made use of materials supplied by foreign ministries. (43)

The need for leadership training among China's Protestant groups is so great, however, that several of the larger unofficial church networks regularly hold their own training programmes in secret. In urban areas, the trainees are frequently cloistered in one building for weeks or months while they attend intensive classes in Bible study and church service. In rural areas, church networks hold seminary trainings in remote, mountainous areas. The curriculum is similarly intensive, and the students are restricted to a small area in order to escape detection. (44) Students in these programmes call them "guerrilla seminaries" because in the event of police raids, the staff and students scatter into the mountains and meet up again at a previously agreed upon spot to resume their studies at a different place. One former student of a "guerrilla seminary" in Hubei province reported disruptions every other week during her 18-week course of study, one of which forced students to go into hiding without food or water in the hills for almost a week. (45)

A less dangerous alternative to "guerrilla seminaries" is the FEBC's radio ministry. FEBC began its radio broadcast Voice of Friendship Seminary in 1983 for the purpose of training church leaders in China's rural areas. The Voice of Friendship Seminary currently has 2,800 students enrolled in both basic and advanced classes. The students come from 15 different provinces across China, including Guangdong, Inner Mongolia, Gansu, Zhejiang, Anhui and Shandong. In addition to the broadcast lessons and homework, FEBC arranges for groups of students to come to Hong Kong for visits to area churches so that they can see models of established church service. Some students travel as long as 48 hours by train to attend such field trips. If students are unable to come to Hong Kong, FEBC sends groups of teachers to rural areas in China for training. (46)

As the Voice of Friendship Seminary is approved by the TSPM, its broadcast and online seminary programmes are a safe alternative for leadership training. Some provinces, such as Gansu and Inner Mongolia, require all lay ministers to receive FEBC certification before they can legally operate under the auspices of the TSPM churches. (47) Hence, FEBC seems to provide a means for unofficial Protestant groups to receive training without the risk of interference or repression.

In addition to establishing "guerrilla" leadership training programmes, another activity that seems to incur the wrath of the authorities is the ownership, publication, or distribution of Bibles and other religious publications by unofficial Protestant groups. (48) Importing Bibles is particularly dangerous because it shows a connection to foreign sources. (49) Religious publications, including Bibles, are legally available for purchase in China, but only through official TSPM outlets. Leaders of unofficial Protestant churches who have been involved with publication ministries have suffered substantial harassment from government authorities. (50) One was caught and roughly interrogated, but was released when the police were unable to find evidence of the religious materials that he had been translating and publishing. (51) Another respondent was arrested and the publication materials were seized. She was sent to labour re-education for three years, and other leaders from her church are still in prison. (52) Unofficial Protestant groups persist in their publication ministries, however, because there is a great dearth of Bibles and other spiritual materials in China, even among TSPM churches. The majority of the letters to the FEBC that were read by the co-author contained requests for Bibles and other spiritual publications. (53)

Unofficial Protestant churches that plan to be active in evangelism and publication work tend to train new converts from the outset that they need the mindset of a martyr. (54) They teach them to hide their tracks on the way to and from church activities, and they make sure that at the beginning of each service, all congregants know the escape routes. People from out-of-town are paired with locals to facilitate escape. (55) And finally, they train their members to literally turn the other cheek in the event that they are raided by the police.

Another kind of publication that can elicit the ire of the authorities is a public petition to the central regime. In 1999, for example, leaders of unofficial Protestant churches in Henan and other areas penned a series of open letters. As Kindopp reports, just "two days after the first letter was issued, 40 leading members of the China Fangcheng Church of Henan were arrested". This case also reveals how church behaviour can interact with temporal regime concerns. As Kindopp relates, just prior to the one-year anniversary of these arrests, "the regime conducted another mass arrest of 130 Fangcheng members, presumably to discourage the group's leaders from making the open letter an annual event". (56)

As noted above, groups that engage in leadership training, cross provincial lines with their evangelism efforts, or publish Christian Bibles and books, may find themselves on the government cult list. Section 300 of the "Criminal Code of the People's Republic of China" states that membership in a cult is punishable by three to seven years in prison or "for more than seven years in prison for serious cases", [57] while organising activities of a social group without proper registration only carries penalties of detention up to 15 days, or fines amounting to less than 200 yuan, or simple warnings. (58) Once a group is on the cult list, it has trouble regularising its status and seems to be more susceptible to harassment by officials. (59) The definition of cult is not clear, however, and local officials have been known to accuse unofficial Protestant groups in their jurisdiction of being "cults", even though the groups were not officially on the list. Such accusations seem to have been used to justify increased fines or increased harassment. (60) One human rights lawyer reported being told by several different government officials that any unofficial religious group could be considered a cult by officials. (61)

In sum, the behaviour of unofficial Protestant church members has a profound impact on their relations with the ruling authorities. Overall, churches that successfully register with the state are accorded more tolerance. Further, more conciliatory, law-abiding, small-scale and quiet church activities tend to be accepted, while actions that are more public, expansive and defiant often elicit a negative official response. However, the ability of unofficial Protestant groups to thrive within China's ambiguous political environment is also shaped by other important factors.


The second such factor is location. In general, unofficial Protestant churches in cities are more tightly constrained than those in rural areas. This pattern results from: (i) the greater population density of urban areas, which means that it is difficult for unofficial Protestant churches to hide their activities from the authorities; and (ii) the more competent and higher number of religious affairs officials in urban areas. In one area of rural Shaanxi province in the mid-1990s, for example, there were no offices specifically charged with monitoring religious affairs. Cognisant of this freedom from oversight, an unofficial Protestant group built a 1,000-seat church structure. Subsequently, unofficial groups in eight other small rural towns in the area also built fairly large church structures. (62) Similarly, Kindopp reports that "in rural areas [in the 1980s], many geographically isolated [unofficial] house churches organised into diffuse networks. Regions with rapid church growth ... gave birth to networks that have grown to encompass thousands of local congregations and span provincial boundaries". (63) In large cities, such behaviour could never proceed undetected.

At the same time, however, when urban authorities crack down on unofficial Protestant groups, they have tended to do so in a manner that is much more nonviolent and "by-the-book" than is the case in rural areas. Urban officials do not appear to confront unofficial Protestant church members as frequently, and when they do, their actions seem to be less violent and less offensive. Rural officials are reported as being more apt to confront unofficial Protestant church members. They also seem to be more violent in their actions and more likely to levy fines or confiscate valuable items from the homes of church members. In addition, more instances of being sent directly from the police station to labour re-education are reported by Protestants in unofficial groups from rural areas. (64)

To a far greater extent than is the case in large cities, local authorities in rural areas have beat, physically harassed and extorted money from unofficial Protestant groups and individuals. One respondent from an unofficial Protestant church in rural Hubei province reported that local officials repeatedly visited church members, searching their homes and confiscating anything of value. (65) Such stories are the norm among the co-author's acquaintances who were members of rural unofficial Protestant churches in China. Indeed, many members of unofficial rural churches reported that they have stopped buying things of value for their homes for this reason. (66)

All of our respondents, many acquaintances of the co-author, and both scholarly and non-academic accounts also describe marked differences in treatment by police officials in the event that members of an unofficial church are taken in for questioning. A Chinese human rights lawyer who defends members of unofficial religious groups in China noted that in big cities, police interrogation is carried out without violent means (even though the interrogation methods used still constitute torture by international standards). (67) In contrast, this human rights lawyer reported that rural police routinely use physical violence against unofficial Protestant church members and their lawyers. (68) In addition to physical violence, rural police have been known to levy arbitrary fines when they round up unofficial Protestant church members. (69) Local police have the authority to send repeat offenders directly to labour re-education for up to three years and first-time offenders for up to two years. They have tended to use this authority more commonly in rural areas. (70) Overall, there appears to be significant differences in the way urban and rural officials interact with unofficial Protestant groups.

Yet at the same time, because rural TSPM pastors are more apt to lack resources than their urban counterparts, it appears that unofficial rural Protestant churches are better able to successfully register and ally themselves with the official TSPM churches for their jurisdictions. The legal limitations on TSPM pastors tie them to one building in the county seat, making it difficult for them to minister to the practical needs of their congregations. This situation seems to be engendering a new kind of hybrid TSPM/unofficial church in rural areas. Many letters to FEBC from listeners in rural areas mention the "big church pastor" far away and the "house church pastor" near the writer's home, both of whom are in communication. (71) Unofficial church leaders in villages outside the county seat can be deputised by the county's TSPM pastor as lay ministers, and they can continue their church activities under the umbrella of the TSPM. As noted above, the provinces of Gansu and Inner Mongolia require leaders of unofficial churches who want to register with TSPM to obtain FEBC certification. Thus, the lines between TSPM and unofficial churches may be blurring in some rural areas. (72)

The challenges faced by, and open spaces available to, unofficial Protestant groups also vary by province and region. (73) Unofficial Protestant churches in China's eastern coastal region--particularly Zhejiang and Fujian provinces--seem to enjoy a much greater degree of autonomy and freedom than is the case in other geographic regions. (74) Guangdong province and Shenzhen city are also places known for relatively relaxed control over unofficial Protestant groups. (75) Governing authorities in Xinjiang are perhaps the strictest in the country against Protestants in unofficial groups. (76) The provinces of Sichuan, Jiangxi, Tianjin, Shandong, Shanxi, Henan, Hubei, Inner Mongolia and Yunnan are also reportedly relatively unfavourable to unofficial Protestant churches. (77)

Personal Connections (Guanxi)

A third factor that shapes the ability of unofficial Protestant church groups to thrive is personal connections (guanxi). First, members of unofficial Protestant churches who hold government jobs are reportedly not treated as roughly by the police as are members not holding government jobs. They are typically not put in prison as long as they hold government posts. The first punishments meted out to government employees are usually forced, unpaid leave of absence, followed by fines and confiscation of property. If they persist in their membership with the unofficial church, they are typically fired from their government positions. Generally speaking, it is only then when imprisonment may be imposed. (78)

Similarly, members of unofficial Protestant churches who are family members of government officials are not harassed as often. (79) For example, Lambert relates that in rural northern Henan province in the early 1970s, an unofficial Protestant church met openly in the house of the village brigade secretary. As the secretary's wife was miraculously healed from a terrible ailment by church members, the secretary turned a blind eye to the meetings. (80) Although members of unofficial Protestant churches are often protected by their kinship ties, they are also careful not to endanger their regime-affiliated relatives. Most take precautions to avoid getting caught and are careful about keeping their relatives in the dark on their activities in the unofficial church group. (81)

A second category of guanxi is the personal relationship cultivated by members of unofficial Protestant churches with officials. Some churches absolutely refuse to use this kind of tactic. (82) Others visit the local police station with gifts for the officers and notify them that they will be having small, discreet gatherings. (83) Members of unofficial Protestant groups also establish guanxi by cooperating with the police. Respondents report that in keeping up with their Christian practice, they try to be polite and friendly to the police officers assigned to put them under surveillance. After a period of time, the surveillance officers gradually sense that the Protestants are good people and that it is a waste of time to keep a close watch on them. Some of these officers even eventually begin to warn the unofficial churches of raids and crackdowns. (84) Finally, members of unofficial Protestant groups who are also wealthy business owners often find it easy to cultivate guanxi with local authorities who see such ties as beneficial to the local economy (and thus their own political careers). In such situations, members of unofficial Protestant groups are typically granted substantial freedom to engage in religious activities. (85)

A third category of guanxi is the relationship between unofficial Protestant churches and the leaders of TSPM churches. Some pastors in TSPM churches are sympathetic towards unofficial Protestant groups. (86) If they know that an unofficial church is being raided, they will go to the police and tell them that the meeting had been carried out under the auspices of the TSPM. Often, the unofficial Protestant group members will then be released and they will be more tolerated in the future. (87) At other times, leaders of unofficial churches coordinate with the TSPM pastors to bring in foreign preachers or to hold large events. In these instances, the police may insist that the events take place in a TSPM facility, but they usually do not cancel the activity. (88)

Conversely, respondents reported that some TSPM pastors were helpful at first, but would suddenly turn the unofficial churches over to the police due to police pressure or if they became jealous of an unofficial church's success. (89) If the TSPM leaders in an area oppose a certain unofficial church or church leader, that person or group will typically be confronted by police even more severely than usual. According to one respondent, an unofficial Protestant church leader who ran afoul of the TSPM was jailed for 13 days and then imprisoned without a trial. He was not allowed visitors in prison and was put in a cell with violent offenders where he was badly beaten. Anyone who was known to have associated with him was also taken into custody by the police. He was not permitted to return to his own district after release from the prison. His household registration (hukou) was erased and his identity card was confiscated. Stripped of his status as a legal citizen, he could no longer hold or apply for a legal household registration anywhere in China and could not open a bank account or receive medical attention. As of November 2009, his family remained under surveillance and their phones had been tapped. (90)

A final kind of guanxi that affects unofficial Protestant churches is their relationship with foreign human rights groups or churches. If a leader of an unofficial church comes under an international human rights watch after being arrested, the going tends to be better for him or her. (91) One of the tactics used by Chinese human rights lawyers who defend members of unofficial religious groups is to post the charges and other trial documents on the internet. (92) If it appears that church leaders will be sentenced to life imprisonment or even death under China's cult laws, church members often do their utmost within their power to get the word out to international human rights organisations. If the news appears in the foreign press, the charges are normally reduced. (93) Thus, having a channel of access to foreign human rights organisations can be very beneficial to unofficial churches. Yet, ties to foreigners or foreign groups could be dangerous too. Along with the increased likelihood that a group could end up on the government's illegal cult list, (94) in the event that the Chinese government came under the glare of international spotlight and harsh criticism in a high-profile case, it is widely known that the governing authorities will avenge on the group in retaliation for the national embarrassment several years later. (95)

Political and Material Pressures on Local Authorities

A fourth factor that influences the potential of unofficial Protestant groups to flourish is political and material pressure on local authorities. In part, these pressures shift in accordance with yearly cycles when local officials have to meet quotas for report deadlines or national directives related to holidays and anniversaries, or when local officials require extra money (for example, prior to Chinese New Year). Local police stations must submit quarterly reports of their work efforts, and one way for them to fill up last-minute arrest quotas is to round up known members of unofficial Protestant groups. The Protestants do not usually resist arrest, and thus taking them in is easier for the police than going after dangerous criminals. (96) In the weeks before Chinese New Year, the local police reportedly are also more apt to arrest and fine members of unofficial Protestant groups. (97) In addition, local officials are usually instructed to take known "reactionary elements" (fandong fenzi) into custody just before important national holidays (such as May 1 Labour Day and October 1 National Day), and the anniversary of certain events (such as June Fourth). Leaders of unofficial Protestant groups frequently fall under this category. (98)

Similarly, when the central authorities announce a national effort to crack down on "reactionary" or ideologically suspect "elements", local officials often come under pressure to repress unofficial Protestant groups. For example, when the Party launched the Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign in 1983, many leaders of unofficial Protestant groups were arrested. (99) Roughly 10 years later, there was a serious crackdown on unofficial Protestant churches across the nation. Concurrently, the government promoted more traditional Chinese religions, such as Buddhism, Daoism and qi gong. (100) The result was Falungong, whose exponential growth surprised and frightened CPC leaders. When the central authorities launched a nationwide effort to suppress Falungong beginning in 1999, they viewed Protestants more favourably than members of Falungong, and local authorities felt little pressure to focus on members of unofficial Protestant churches. (101) In 2001, for example, unofficial Protestant church leader Yuan Xiangchen (aka Allen Yuan) was performing out-of-town baptisms by a riverbank. According to Yuan, "the local police showed up ... and asked, 'Are you Falungong?' When told no, they responded, 'Okay, carry on'." (102)

Simultaneously, however, the CPC promulgated new, more stringent anti-cult laws. In 2001, local authorities severely cracked down on unofficial Protestant groups that ran afoul of these laws due to their connections to foreign churches, networks in several provinces, publication ministries, leadership training programmes and/or rapid increases in membership. (103) International human rights organisations intervened in a few of the more high-profile cases and things loosened up for a few years. (104) In regions where these high-profile cases were located, retaliatory crackdown against members of unofficial Protestant churches were carried out years later, after the international human rights furore had died down. (105) Another repressive spike occurred between late 2002 and early 2003, when the CPC's top post was handed over from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao. (106) The last major national crackdown against groups deemed a threat to the state began just prior to the 2008 Olympic Games. (107) In general, when such crackdown movements are announced by the central authorities, local officials are pressured to engage in more repressive actions against unofficial Protestant groups.


A look at some real cases of interactions between specific unofficial Protestant churches and Party-state authorities illustrates the ways in which these factors may intersect to provide open spaces for and/or pose challenges to unofficial Chinese Protestant groups. When most or all of the factors outlined above align in a negative fashion, greater repression and conflict result, and when most or all variables align in a favourable direction, unofficial Protestant churches can usually operate quite freely. In most cases, the four factors align in dissimilar ways, as in the scenario where a particular group still shares favourable guanxi with local authorities even when a national crackdown is in effect. In such situations, the group will exist somewhere between the extremes of official repression and toleration. Similarly, as shown in the third case below, when one of the four factors shifts in a particular church-state relationship, its ability to practise and grow may be transformed.

A respondent from an unregistered unofficial Protestant church in a large city on the southeastern coast of China described a situation in which all four factors aligned favourably. Since the church was urban and in the coastal developed region, both aspects of its location were quite favourable. The respondent reported that some members of the church were related to Party officials, the church leaders cultivated guanxi with local officials and that the church leaders enjoyed a good relationship with TSPM leaders in the city. In addition, many church members were engaged in business and had connections with Christians in Hong Kong, Korea, Australia and the US. Hence, all aspects of the second variable were quite favourable. The members of this church were also relatively discreet. They held their meetings in a business outfit after work hours, and prior to having church activities in the building, the owners made sure the rooms were fully soundproofed. The respondent reported that this particular church was able to carry out a full range of church activities with minimal difficulty. It appears that even the pressure on local officials to implement crackdowns have not impacted the group. (108) This example shows how, when the four factors align favourably, an unregistered unofficial Protestant group can function relatively freely in cooperation with the government.

In contrast, a respondent from an unregistered unofficial Protestant church in rural Hubei province described a situation in which the four factors aligned unfavourably, with tragic outcomes for that particular church. This group started in the rural region of a province that is unfavourable to unofficial Protestant groups. Thus, both aspects of its location were unfavourable. None of the members had connections with the Party and the church members did not attempt to cultivate ties with the police or TSPM officials due to the members' strong belief that churches should answer only to God. They also had no connections with foreign groups. Overall, their guanxi was entirely unfavourable. In addition, the church members were exceedingly zealous, developing an evangelistic network in every county of 17 different provinces. The church also had its own seminary training programme in remote mountainous regions. Moreover, it had a publication ministry which included a newsletter, devotional publications and books of scriptural exegesis. Church membership was growing rapidly in 2001 when China launched a crackdown on unofficial Protestant churches with publication ministries that crossed provincial lines. As a result, this particular group was labelled a cult in 2001. Consequently, many members were forced to sell their homes in order to pay the numerous fines levied on them. Others had all items of value confiscated from their houses during police raids. After the church leaders were arrested and faced life imprisonment or possible death penalties under the cult laws, foreign human rights groups intervened to get the charges reduced. Several years later, church members who were not imprisoned faced additional reprisals and harassment. Members in rural Hubei province continue to be harassed by local officials till today. (109) This example illustrates the extreme challenges faced by unofficial churches when all four factors align unfavourably.

A third respondent, Brother X, described situations in which the four factors shifted or counteracted one another. Brother X grew up in a Christian household in a city in Xinjiang province. The TSPM pastor of his hometown protected unofficial Protestant groups. This pastor's efforts spared the unofficial Protestant churches in his city from troubles, despite the fact that Xinjiang is one of the hardest places for unofficial Protestant churches to operate. Later, Brother X moved to a city in Hubei province--an area that is also unfavourable to unofficial Protestant churches, though not as severely as in Xinjiang. The TSPM pastor of the new city was favourable to Brother X's new church when he first arrived, but a year or so later, the TSPM pastor changed his mind about the church and it became very difficult for the group to continue conducting their meetings. Brother X noted that in accordance with their belief in evangelism, group members were relatively open and unguarded about where and when their gatherings were held. After the TSPM pastor turned against them, their meetings were frequently raided by the police, and the members' books and Bibles were confiscated. Since coming to the US, Brother X has received reports that members of the group who remained in China were arrested and beaten up when the police raided an unofficial church gathering. (110)

This case shows how unofficial Protestant churches with good guanxi and moderate behaviour in an unfavourable location can operate in relative freedom, but if there is a change in the guanxi, a church that has not experienced problems previously can suffer harassment even though the other factors remain the same. More broadly, this case suggests that guanxi may be the most important of the four factors. Further, it appears that--similar to this third case--relations between most unofficial Protestant churches and governing authorities are typically neither entirely cooperative nor entirely conflicting, but are constantly in flux.


The four factors described herein help to explain the great variation in the ability of unofficial Chinese Protestant churches to practise and grow. If China's ruling Party-state truly seeks a "harmonious society" (hexie shehui), it would do well to alleviate the political and financial pressures that drive local authorities towards repressive behaviour, to professionalise cadre behaviour in the countryside, and to encourage soothing ties of guanxi between the Party-state and unofficial Protestant groups. Yet despite the degree of success the CPC may achieve in these respects, it has relatively little ability to control the behaviour of Protestant church leaders and members, and in the case of many of China's unofficial Protestant churches, heterodox beliefs and actions are unlikely to abate. Thus, while there is hope for more conciliatory church-state relations to emerge, tensions between unofficial Protestant groups and China's governing authorities are likely to persist.


Questions Posed to Interview Subjects

A. Protestant Church Leaders

1. What is the name of your religious organisation?

2. What is its legal status in China?

3. Is your organisation affected by China's cult laws?

4. How have you or any members of your group known personally by you been affected by Chinese government officials?

5. Has your group made any attempts to change its legal status?

6. What are your strategies to avoid harassment by the government?

B. Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Representing Members of Unofficial Protestant Groups

1. What is/are the name(s) of the religious group(s) whose members you have represented?

2. What is the legal status of these groups in China?

3. How have these organisations been affected by China's cult laws?

4. How have you or any members of these groups known personally by you been affected by Chinese government officials?

5. Have these groups made any attempts to change their legal status?

6. What strategies have you and the groups that you have represented used to avoid harassment by the government?

(1) Lian Xi, Redeemed by Fire: The Rise of Popular Christianity in Modern China (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010), p. 10.

(2) Most scholars lean towards the lower estimate. See Richard Madsen, "The Upsurge of Religion in China", Journal of Democracy 21, no. 4 (Oct. 2010): 62; Lauren B. Homer, "Registration of Chinese Protestant House Churches under China's 2005 Regulation on Religious Affairs: Resolving the Implementation Impasse", Journal of Church and State 52, no. 1 (Winter 2010): 61; Paul Hatthaway, "How Many Christians are There in China?" (Asia Harvest, 2010); and Carsten Vala, "Pathways to the Pulpit: Leadership Training in 'Patriotic' and Unregistered Chinese Protestant Churches", in Making Religion, Making the State: The Politics of Religion in Modern China, ed. David L. Wank and Yoshiko Ashiwa (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009).

(3) The "three-self" refers to self-propagating, self-supported and self-governed. The intent is to ensure that religious groups are free of any external (i.e., foreign) influences--a concern that derives from the Western missionary role in bringing Christianity to China. While the TSPM oversees relations between the government and Protestant religious groups, the official China Christian Council (Zhongguo jidujiao xiehui) is charged with managing relations among Protestant religious groups.

(4) Xin Yalin, Inside China's House Church Network: The Word of Life Movement and its Renewing Dynamic (Lexington, KY: Emeth Press, 2009), p. 31.

(5) See, for example, Daniel Bays, "Chinese Christianity Today", The China Quarterly no. 174 (2003): 488-504; Lauren B. Homer, "Registration of Chinese Protestant House Churches under China's 2005 Regulation on Religious Affairs: Resolving the Implementation Impasse", Journal of Church and State 52, no. 1 (Winter 2010); Jason Kindopp, "Fragmented yet Defiant: Protestant Resilience under CCP Rule", in God and Caesar in China: Policy Implications of Church-State Tension, ed. Jason Kindopp and Carol Lee Hamrin (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2004), pp. 122-45; Pittman Potter, "Belief in Control: Regulation of Religion in China", The China Quarterly no. 174 (2003): 317-37; Mickey Spiegel, "Control and Containment in the Reform Era", in God and Caesar in China; Joseph Tse-hei Lee, "Christianity in Contemporary China: An Update", Journal of Church and State 49, no. 2; Yang Fenggang, "The Red, Black, and Gray Markets of Religion in China", The Sociological Quarterly 47; Yang Fenggang, "Lost in the Market, Saved at Mcdonald's: Conversion to Christianity in Urban China", Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 44, no. 4 (Dec. 2005); Carsten Vala and Kevin O'Brien, "Recruitment to Protestant House Churches", in Popular Protest in China, ed. Kevin O'Brien (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008); Huang Jianbao and Yang Fenggang, "The Cross Faces the Loudspeakers: A Village Church Perserveres under State Power", in State, Market, and Religions in Chinese Societies, ed. Yang Fenggang and Joseph Tamney (Leiden: Brill, 2005); May M.C. Cheng, "House Church Movements and Religious Freedom in China", China: An International Journal 1, no. 1 (Mar. 2003); Carsten Vala, "Pathways to the Pulpit: Leadership Training in 'Patriotic' and Unregistered Chinese Protestant Churches", in Making Religion, Making the State: The Politics of Religion in Modern China, ed. David L. Wank and Yoshiko Ashiwa (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009); Lian, Redeemed by Fire; Xin, Inside China's House Church Network; and Alan Hunter and Chan Kim-Kwong, Protestantism in Contemporary China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

(6) The most well-known works are David Aikman, Jesus in Beijing (Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, 2003) and Tony Lambert, China's Christian Millions (Grand Rapids, MI: Monarch Books, 2006).

(7) The FEBC was founded by John Broger and Bob Bowman in 1945, and its first broadcast was aired from Shanghai that same year. As mission work in China came to an end in 1948, FEBC moved to the Philippines. Its broadcasts to China resumed in 1949; see <> [15 Aug. 2011].

(8) FEBC presentation, Hong Kong, 30 July 2011.

(9) FEBC presentation, 2011; Interviews with FEBC leaders, Hong Kong, July 2011.

(10) The letters are currently in the possession of the Divinity School of Chung Chi College of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The Divinity School is applying for grants to process the letters to make them publically available to scholars. As the letters have not been redacted yet, no copies could be made or taken away from the Divinity School. There are two Chinese-language studies of these letters, copies of which were provided by the Divinity School for reference: a paper by Ying Fuk-Tsang, entitled "1950-60 niandai neidi fuyin guangbo tingzhong xinhan fenxi" (Analysis of Letters from Listeners to Gospel Radio Broadcasts from the 1950s and 1960s) and presented in December 2010 at a conference at East China Normal University in Shanghai; and a Master's thesis presented in June 2010 by Wu Jianli of Southeast Asian Divinity School, entitled "Zhumu juanqi--cong liangyou diantai neidi tingzhong laixin (1959-1983) kan damen changkai qianhou de zhongguo jiaohui" (Lifting the Bamboo Curtain --Looking at China's Churches before and after the Door Opened through the Letters from Listeners (1959-1983) to Voice of Friendship Broadcasting).

(11) People's Republic of China State Council Order no. 250, published by the State Council at the eighth ordinary session, 25 Sept. 1998; Religious Affairs Regulations, article 6. Cited in Lauren B. Homer, "Registration of Chinese House Churches", p. 57.

(12) "Five Provincial Level Regulations on Religious Affairs", Chinese Law and Government (2003); Fin Carlson, "China's New Regulations on Religion: A Small Step, Not a Great Leap, Forward", Brigham Young University Law Review (2005); Spiegel, "Control and Containment in the Reform Era", p. 45.

(13) See "Rules Safeguard Religious Freedom in China", China Daily, 20 Dec. 2004; Zhang Jinyong, "Chinese Consultative Body Chair Attends Religious Affairs Study Class", Xinhua News, 26 Jan. 2005; Carlson, "China's New Regulations on Religion".

(14) Homer, "Registration of Chinese Protestant House Churches", p. 50.

(15) Some lay TSPM leaders and assistant TSPM pastors are trained by the FEBC. Graduates of the FEBC programme can go on to a TSPM seminary to get fully certified as a lead TSPM pastor (interview with FEBC leaders, July 2011).

(16) Interview #3 and personal knowledge of the co-author.

(17) Several clients of the co-author quoted 2 Corinthians 6:14: "Be ye not unequally yoked" (King James Version), when asked why their churches would not register with TSPM.

(18) FEBC letters, various dates.

(19) See the discussion of "Location" below for a fuller description of rural churches.

(20) Interview #1 and interview #7.

(21) Interview #1.

(22) Interview #8 and interview #7.

(23) Interview #9.

(24) Interview #7.

(25) Interview #2, interview #6, interview #8 and interview #9.

(26) Interview #3 and interview #9.

(27) Interview #2, interview #9 and personal knowledge of the co-author.

(28) Interview #8 and interview #9.

(29) Interview #1, interview #3 and interview #9.

(30) Interview #9.

(31) Interview #9 and personal knowledge of the co-author.

(32) Interview #7 and personal archives of the co-author.

(33) Kindopp, "Fragmented yet Defiant", p. 140; personal knowledge of the co-author; and interviews #2-#4.

(34) Interviews #1-#4, interview #7 and personal knowledge of the co-author.

(35) Interview #3.

(36) Interview #1 and interview #7; the respondents reporting this fact believed that ruling elites fear a nationwide movement that the Party does not control.

(37) Interview #2.

(38) Interview #2 and interview #3.

(39) Interview #3.

(40) Interview #7.

(41) Interviews #1-#4, interview #7 and interview #9.

(42) Interview #4 and personal archives of the co-author.

(43) Personal knowledge and personal archives of the co-author. One client was arrested while conducting a leadership training session with more than 20 college students. He was imprisoned for over a year because the materials for the training came from the US.

(44) Xin, Inside China's House Church Network; Aikman, Jesus in Beijing, pp. 120-1.

(45) Interview #9.

(46) FEBC presentation, 2011.

(47) Interviews with FEBC leaders, 2011; FEBC student statements, 2011.

(48) Interview #2, interview #3, interview #7, interview #9 and personal knowledge of the co-author.

(49) Interview #2 and personal knowledge of the co-author.

(50) Interview #3 and interview #9.

(51) Interview #3.

(52) Interview #9.

(53) FEBC letters, various dates. Many letters requesting Bibles came from members of TSPM churches. There were even a few letters from pastors of TSPM churches requesting money with which to purchase sufficient Bibles and other spiritual publications to meet the needs of their congregations.

(54) Interview #3.

(55) Interview #9.

(56) Kindopp, "Fragmented yet Defiant", p. 140.

(57) As stated on 2004 anti-cult wall posters from a southeastern province, personal archives of the co-author.

(58) Ibid.

(59) Interview #9.

(60) Chinese Law & Religion Monitor: A Journal of China Aid 4, no. 2 (2008): 98-9.

(61) Interview #6.

(62) Lambert, China's Christian Millions, p. 265.

(63) Kindopp, "Fragmented Yet Defiant", p. 128.

(64) Possible explanations for these differences include rural officials' relative dearth of economic resources and lack of oversight by higher-level governing authorities.

(65) Interview #9.

(66) Personal knowledge of the co-author.

(67) Interview #4 and personal knowledge of the co-author. Urban church members describe being deprived of sleep for 48 to 72 hours when their meetings were raided and they were taken to the police station. During this time, the police yelled and swore at the detainees. They also threatened them and sometimes their family members. At times, food and drink were withheld until the detainees gave the police information.

(68) Interview #4.

(69) Interview #2.

(70) Interview #9 and personal knowledge of the co-author.

(71) FEBC letters, various dates. There were more than five letters using terminology similar to these. The letters came from different places and were written throughout the various years reviewed by the co-author.

(72) All letters describing such churches were from listeners in rural areas where the motivation for such cooperation may be greater both for TSPM pastors without resources and for Protestant church groups facing the possibility of violent treatment from government officials.

(73) For a province-by-province description of unofficial Protestant group conditions and incidents of religious repression in China, see Lambert, China's Christian Millions, pp. 225-77 and the China Aid Association's annual reports (China Aid Association, Annual Report of Persecution by the Government on Christian House Churches within Mainland China: January 2009--December 2009 [Midland, TX: China Aid Association, 2010]).

(74) On the experience of unofficial Protestants in Wenzhou city in Zhejiang province, see Cao Nanlai, Constructing China's Jerusalem: Christians, Power, and Place in Contemporary Wenzhou (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011).

(75) Many sources generally attribute this relative laxness to the importance of wealthy members of unofficial Protestant groups to the locality's economic prosperity (Aikman, Jesus in Beijing, pp. 179-91; Cao, Constructing China's Jerusalem; Interview #7; and personal knowledge of the co-author).

(76) Interview #5 and interview #7. These respondents believe that Xinjiang is particularly unfavourable to unofficial Protestant groups because it is under military rule and also because the government authorities see such persecution as a way to score points with the largely Muslim population in the region. For more on the intersection of ethnicity, religion and politics in Xinjiang, see Dru Gladney, "Islam in China: Accommodation or Separatism?", The China Quarterly no. 174 (2003): 451-67.

(77) Interview #7 and interview #9.

(78) Interview #4.

(79) Interview #7.

(80) Lambert, China's Christian Millions, p. 88.

(81) Interview #2, interview #7 and personal knowledge of the co-author. It can be dangerous for the high-ranking relative if the house church Christians get caught. Two of the co-author's translation clients had a high-ranking relative who accorded them some measures of protection. When they became the subject of a police investigation, the clients fled China in an attempt to protect the relative. When the investigation was concluded, the relative was in danger of losing his government position and being accused by provincial authorities of collaborating with "counter-revolutionaries". The clients were told by other relatives in China that if they did not return to China with significant evidence against their church leaders, they should attempt to get the wife pregnant immediately to create an impression that they had left China to circumvent the one-child policy in an effort to have a son.

(82) Interview #9 and personal knowledge of the co-author.

(83) Interview #8.

(84) Interview #3, interview #7 and personal knowledge of the co-author.

(85) See Cao, Constructing China's Jerusalem.

(86) For a discussion of TSPM pastor resistance to TSPM doctrines and practices in the 1990s, see Kindopp, "Fragmented yet Defiant", pp. 131-2.

(87) Interview #5.

(88) Interview #7.

(89) Interview #5.

(90) Interview #7.

(91) Interview #3, interview #6, interview #9 and personal knowledge of the co-author.

(92) Interview #6.

(93) Interview #6, interview #9 and personal knowledge of the co-author.

(94) Personal knowledge of the co-author; a number of translation clients reported hearing this from Public Security Bureau officials.

(95) Interview #9 and personal knowledge of the co-author. Personal archives of the co-author include flyers for crackdowns in an area that had a high-profile, internationally known case. These documents were dated the month after the last prisoner on human rights watch was released from prison and allowed to escape to the US.

(96) Personal knowledge of the co-author; this point has been attested to by almost every member of an unofficial Protestant group of the co-author's acquaintance.

(97) Ibid.

(98) Personal archives of the co-author. Statements of charges against members of unofficial Protestant groups usually accuse them of being "reactionary elements".

(99) Lambert, China's Christian Millions, pp. 94-7 and personal knowledge of the co-author; several of the co-author's friends and former clients were arrested during the Anti-Spiritual Pollution campaign.

(100) Interview #3 and personal knowledge of the co-author.

(101) Interview #2.

(102) Aikman, Jesus in Beijing, p. 60.

(103) Interview #9 and personal knowledge of the co-author.

(104) Ibid.

(105) Interview #9 and personal archives of the co-author; the crackdown in a southeastern province in 2004 included poster campaigns, meetings in country villages and work units and education modules in the schools.

(106) Kindopp, "Fragmented yet Defiant", p. 140.

(107) China Aid, "Persecution of Protestant Christians in the Approach to the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games", Chinese Law & Religion Monitor 4, no. 2 (2008): 9-22; and personal archives of the co-author.

(108) Interview #7.

(109) Interview #9.

(110) Interview #5.

Teresa Wright ( is Chair and Professor of Political Science at California State University, Long Beach. She obtained her PhD in Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley. Her research interests focus on East Asia (particularly China and Taiwan), with an emphasis on state-society relations, protest and dissent and the relationship between capitalism and democracy.

Teresa Zimmerman-Liu ( is pursuing graduate study at California State University, Long Beach. She obtained her MA in Asian Studies at California State University, Long Beach. Her research interests centre on Chinese culture and society, with an emphasis on Christianity in modern China.
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Title Annotation:RESEARCH
Author:Wright, Teresa; Zimmerman-Liu, Teresa
Publication:China: An International Journal
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Apr 1, 2013
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