A Chinese Christian refugee in New York, working with Christians in China, has compiled an extensive new archive documenting brutal religious persecution that has caused more than 100 deaths and thousands of injuries.
Activist Li Shi-xiong, head of the New York City-based Committee for Investigation on Persecution of Religion in China, believes these documents establish that communist rulers at the highest levels take an active role in persecuting house-church Christians. In the past, top leaders in China have blamed repression on overzealous local officials.
The New York committee timed its unveiling of the archive to influence President Bush during his February trip to China.
The archive is a 10-foot-high stack of 22,000 testimonies about persecution of Chinese Christians. It includes court transcripts, internal government documents, and photographs. Experts call it the largest collection ever assembled on the persecuted church in China.
"The secret documents alone are extremely rare and incredibly important," says Carol Hamrin, a star China analyst who recently retired from the State Department. The mammoth collection, which Li calls a "truth bomb," includes 5,000 detailed testimonies of Chinese Christians describing their arrests, interrogations, and jailings. Many accounts include photographs of the persecuted believers, including injuries they suffered while in custody. Some case files include official arrest and court records. The largest number of testimonies comes from central Henan Province, where persecution has dramatically escalated since 1999. Li's group has also collected partial reports on 17,000 others, mostly Christians, persecuted for their religious beliefs.
Li is also documenting the cases of 117 religious people who have died while in official custody, 700 who have been put in labor camps, and 550 who are wanted by the police but are in hiding. He is also investigating 300 police officers accused of being especially abusive.
Freedom House's Nina Shea has written that Li's archive is a "tremendous work." Shea, a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, marvels at Li's "dedication to the cause of religious freedom and his amazing work in the documentation of so many thousands of cases of the persecution of China's Christians." Freedom House, an advocacy organization founded in 1941 by Eleanor Roosevelt, plans to make extensive use of the archive.
China scholar Brent Fulton, head of China Source in Los Angeles, is aware of the archive but has not examined its contents. He says the documents indicate the "degree of seriousness" with which China approaches unregistered religious groups. "They see the unregistered groups as a national security threat."
Li and the New York committee believe that going public with the archive will build international political pressure on China's leaders to end their repression of religion. Fulton foresees the government searching for those who leaked the documents. He also expects more crackdowns. But, he says, "The long-term response to the release of these papers will be good."
A Sensitive Time
The revelation of the archive comes at a sensitive time for China. Political leaders say that the nation of 1.3 billion people faces wrenching changes related to its entrance into the World Trade Organization (WTO) last December. WTO membership will lower trade barriers, enabling China to compete for trade on a more level playing field. Certain parts of China's economy, such as high tech, are expected to do well. Others, such as the inefficient and subsidized industrial and agricultural sectors, may be pummeled. Millions of unskilled laborers could be thrown out of work.
Seeking to maintain its grip on society, the Chinese government since 1999 has been waging a campaign against "cults," such as the Falun Gong movement. (Falun Gong adherents use physical exercise as a spiritual discipline.) China's officials are trying now to eliminate what they consider undesirable movements, because WTO membership will bring additional international pressure on China to improve its poor record on human rights. "[China's] officials spell out that the anti-cult campaign is a preparation for the further opening of society because of China joining the World Trade Organization," Hamrin says. But, Fulton adds, "There are in fact a lot of cult groups that are doing bad things."
Says Eric Burklin, president of Colorado-based China Partner, "China wants to have a positive image with the rest of the world. The government can't really discern the cults from the non-cults because [China's top leaders] are atheistic."
The archive makes it clear that repression of religion is official state policy at the highest levels—not merely a local and sporadic phenomenon, as China usually claims. In the documents, officials say the cults are "soaking into" and weakening the foundations of state authority. Officials link rising religious influence to the increased influence of Western cultural values of democracy and equality.
In public, Chinese leaders are vague on what actually constitutes a cult. "Cults are not religions," Premier Zhu Rong Ji said in a December meeting on religion. Critics say this approach allows authorities to crack down on any groups they do not like—including many house churches. These churches typically do not register with the government-sponsored Three-Self Patriotic Movement.
While there is no consensus on the number of Christians in China, Operation World estimates the presence of 45 million people in house churches and another 40 million members and adherents in the official church. There are about 12 million Catholics in China, in both state and unofficial groups.
Hamrin, who favors improving trade relations with China, says that this latest government repression will worsen matters. "This massive campaign against millions of their people will exacerbate social tensions."
In a recent public pronouncement, China's government declared that religion has never fared better. Ye Xiaowen, the head of the Religious Affairs Bureau, toured the United States last year. Ye claimed that the government had initiated a "golden time" for religion. China's president, Jiang Zemin, recently told a U.S. congressional delegation in Beijing, "I am looking forward to seeing a church on one side of every village and a mosque on the other side."
During the second week of December, top communist leaders gathered in Beijing to discuss religion policy. Jiang led off with a speech declaring, "The influence of religion on political and social lives in today's world should never be underestimated."
In lower-profile gatherings, however, the talk tilts toward intensive surveillance of religion, according to Li's archival materials. In a speech, a local public security official in charge of religion quoted Hu Jintao, likely to be the next leader of China, on the proper approach to a "cult": "Watch and follow its direction and deal with it by law at the proper time." As the orders filter down, local leaders often act aggressively. A provincial security chief says, "Talk less and smash the cult quietly."
Li's archive documents how the anti-cult campaign was quickly broadened to include many well-known Protestant groups. In just one example, on August 18, 2001, authorities raided three offices of the South China Church. They arrested 14 people, using fists and electric clubs to obtain accusations against the pastor.
"The central government is defining whole groups as targets of extreme measures," says Hamrin, who produced the U.S. State Department's first annual reports on religious freedom and persecution in China. For example, more than 300 Chinese associated with the Falun Gong movement have died while in China's custody.
Increasingly, groups are targeted not just for breaking civil laws on registration and holding unauthorized meetings, but for their beliefs and religious doctrine. The government, the archive shows, especially dislikes preaching about "the end of the world" or teaching that "the Lord can heal a person of disease."
According to the archive, the Ministry of Public Security spells out five characteristics of a cult, ranging from the clearly defined "deifying its top leader" to the grab bag of "stirring up and deceiving others." (See "What China's Secret Documents Reveal")
The documents show that officials are especially wary of unregistered church groups that attempt to link with other unregistered groups. In such cases, the archive shows, officials are returning to the fierce battles from the era of Mao Zedong, China's first communist ruler, from 50 years ago. This has led to tremendous abuses. In April 2000, officials put Peter Xu's Born Again Movement on their cult list. Officials set quotas for arrests, putting pressure on local police to obtain confessions. Police often beat, slap, and use electric shocks to obtain those confessions.
Leaders of the large South China Church organization also have been hit hard by recent arrests. A document from a police official in the provincial religion office hints that poorly trained police in Hebei Province are resorting to abusive interrogation methods instead of quiet information-gathering. The archive reveals several recent cases of local police trying to bribe the families of people they had killed under interrogation. Leaders of the South China Church report, "On July 20, 2001, we heard the news that Yu Zongju was tortured to death. The police did not inform her family until her body started to smell. They asked her family to meet them in a restaurant. They paid them $8,000 and warned them to keep quiet."
Christian Networks "Mutate"
Last year, the Bush administration sponsored a resolution for the United Nations Commission on Human Rights that condemned Beijing's human rights record. Amnesty International reported in 2001 that China's use of torture was widespread and systematic.
China analysts such as Hamrin say that the Chinese government, wishing to improve its image internationally, probably will respond favorably to pressure to improve human rights.
"China has really developed and they have tasted too much freedom to go back," says Eric Burklin of China Partner. "There would be major bloodshed if they tried to go back to Maoist times."
But Li's archive shows that China's emerging strategy for dealing with the house-church movement is comprehensive and difficult for outsiders to counter. Officials gain access through informants, harass leaders, block communication, and strip churches of financial assets, including church buildings and homes.
The government notes in the documents that house-church Christians already have a means to resist these new efforts at repression. House-church leaders reportedly are creating networks that constantly mutate. Leaders communicate with wireless phones and hard-to-trace Web sites. In response, the government has begun building a national computer network known as the "Golden Shield" in order to conduct Internet surveillance and information-gathering.
Meanwhile, the impact of Li's archives promises to be seismic. "It's a bombshell," Shea says.
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A ready-to-download Bible Study on this article is available at ChristianBibleStudies.com. These unique Bible studies use articles from current issues of Christianity Today to prompt thought-provoking discussions in adult Sunday school classes or small groups.
Also appearing on our site today:
The Unlikely ActivistHow a bitter athiest helped besieged Christians—and became a believer.
What China's Secret Documents RevealThe New York archive of religious persecution in China contains numerous government documents that show how the government controls religion.
China Persecution Dossier: Zhang Wu-JiTortured to the point of death.
China Persecution Dossier: Shi Yun-ChaoBeaten for Hosting Bible Studies.
China Persecution Dossier: Gu XiangmeiSurviving on "tiger's diarrhea."
A Bible study based on this article will be available in Christianity Today'sCurrent Issue Bible Study Series.
Coverage of the release of the Chinese documents includes:
Papers 'reveal' Chinese religious persecution — BBC (Feb. 14, 2002)
Furor Over Death Sentences of 5 in Chinese Church Group — The New York Times (Feb. 13, 2002)
Secret papers tell of war on religion — Sydney Morning Herald (Feb. 14, 2002)
China deepens assault on faith — The Washington Post (Feb. 13, 2002)
U.S. Rights Groups Issues 'Secret' Chinese Documents — Reuters (Feb. 13, 2002)
Religious hopes rise in China — Chicago Tribune (Feb. 12, 2002)
China 'extreme' on sects — The Washington Times (Feb. 12, 2002)
China Accused of Christian Crackdown — Associated Press (Feb. 11, 2002)
Leak uncovers Beijing's torture of Christians — The Times, London (Feb. 11, 2002)
The State Department's 2001 International Religious Freedom Report on China said the "government seeks to restrict religious practice to government-sanctioned organizations and registered places of worship and to control the growth and scope of the activity of religious groups."
See Christianity Today'sBearing the Cross article on the persecution of Christians in China.
Previous Christianity Today stories about persecution in China include:
Gong's 'Accusers' Claim Torture Induced False ConfessionsLetters from imprisoned Christian women in China describe assaults with electric clubs. (Feb. 1, 2002)
Church Leader Gets ReprieveChina's case against Gong Shengliang now on hold. (Jan. 24, 2002)
Chinese House Church Leader Granted Time to Appeal Death SentenceSentence likely to be commuted to imprisonment, but church remains in danger. (Jan. 8, 2002)
House Churches May Be 'Harmful to Society'But China's unofficial congregations resist "evil cult" label. (Jan. 25, 2001)
China's Religious Freedom Crackdown Extends to ForeignersIt is against the law for visitors to teach the Bible in China's house churches. (Nov. 13, 2000)
China's Smack Down53 Christian professors, students, and church-planters detained. (Sept. 11, 2000)
House Approves Divisive U.S.-China Trade PactBut will permanent normal trade relations status help human rights? (May 25, 2000)
China Should Improve on Religion to Gain Permanent Trade Status, Commission SaysReligious liberty in Sudan and Russia also criticized. (May 8, 2000)
A Tale of China's Two ChurchesEyewitness reports of repression and revival. (July 13, 1998)
Late last year, Chinese leaders gave indications that the country may soon drop the requirement that Protestant congregations must register and join the Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM). London"s Guardian and Far Eastern Economic Review both reported on this apparent move to be friendlier to religion. Related Christianity Today articles include:
Free China's ChurchThe Communist country may ease some religious restrictions, but they still want an apolitical church. (January 3, 2002)
Communists May Recognize Independent ChristiansCommunist leaders in China are preparing to give formal recognition to unregistered religious groups, but house-church leaders are wary. (November 19, 2001)
Changes in China's Religious Policy Imminent?Several respected house-church leaders consulted about official registration. (November 16, 2001)
A recent Christianity Today Web-only feature analyzed the Falun Gong: What is it and why does China want to destroy it?
China Source is an organization that provides information and resources for people who serve China.
FreeChurchForChina.org is a non-profit advocacy group for religious freedom.
Human rights groups have voiced strong protest against the selection of Beijing to host the 2008 Olympic Games. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom statement depicts its deep disappointment with the Olympic decision.
Human Rights Watch answers questions concerning Beijing's selection to host the games and issued a press release challenging sponsors to make the event a force of change. The group's 2001 World Report on China said it "showed no signs of easing stringent curbs on basic freedoms."
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