Christianity in China: An Open Secret, But Often a Dangerous One

on February 18, 2009

The following originally appeared in a recent Religious Liberty e-newsletter.  If you would like to receive our weekly e-newsletter, click here and select “Religious Liberty.”


Recently, the Chicago Tribune online posted several stories about Christianity in China. One piece was an audio slide show, “Christianity sweeping China.”  With commentary from Chicago Tribune’s China correspondent Evan Osnos and photographer José M. Osorio’s powerful images of Chinese Christians across the country, the slide show presented courageous Christians struggling to worship in freedom and to spread the Gospel throughout their nation and beyond. Several other articles about the Church in China, such as this one, are also available on the web site, along with accompanying videos. The reports of China’s burgeoning churches are very encouraging.

Journalist Osnos reported that “China is in the throes of an unprecedented religious awakening,” and that “from coastal boomtowns to inland villages there are churches that have become major parts of public life.”

In past years, Christians either went to “registered,” Three-Self Patriotic Movement churches, or they belonged to unregistered, underground churches, known as “house churches.” But now many registered churches are beginning to behave like house churches, and many houses churches have come out from underground, and are worshipping much more openly, as parts of public life. Perhaps this says less about any change in the receptiveness of the Chinese Communists to democracy (although these days it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to envision a future China with more freedom than the United States) than it does about the willingness of Chinese Christians to follow God’s direction.

Osnos highlights two churches in Beijing. The Haidian Christian Church is government sanctioned. According to the report, some 4,000 people attend services there each weekend, packing even the overflow room. Like Haidian Christian Church, the ZionChurch, also in Beijing, was formerly state-sanctioned. Now ZionChurch has broken away from the official church. Its pastor, the Rev. Jin Mingri says the church has “nothing to hide.” He believes that the ZionChurch could be “a laboratory for the future of Christianity in China.” It is pushing farther than other registered churches have before, and, says, Osnos, “it is hoping that the government will permit it to grow and govern itself in ways that underground churches have not been allowed to do.”

Likewise, the former underground house churches have also been pushing the envelope. Inspired and encouraged by a new breed of Chinese Christians – young intellectuals, artists, writers, attorneys, and other leaders of the pro-democracy movement – house church leaders have been functioning more openly. Christian attorneys offer legal challenges to the Chinese government’s abuse of its country’s own laws and constitution that have emboldened house church pastors to stand up to the bullying and intimidation of the police.

The traditional house church movement has proclaimed boldly and suffered willingly for the cause of Christ. The young, intellectual pro-democracy movement has courageously challenged the Chinese government to embrace democracy and human rights. The fusion of the two is a powerful force for transformation in China.

Left to Right: Liu Min, Faith McDonnell, David Aikman, Zhang Boli, and Yu Jie

I wrote about this for IRD’s Faith and Freedom soon after meeting two famous Chinese activists who are a part of the movement of Christianity and democracy in China at a meeting hosted by IRD on Capitol Hill.  Zhang Boli, one of the top leaders of the Tiananmen Square democracy movement, was one of China’s “most wanted” dissidents of the 1990’s. Zhang was forced to flee from Beijing after the massacre and was taken in by an illiterate peasant woman who happened to be a Christian. Each day as she fed him in soup and helped nurse him back to health, she asked him to read to her from a handwritten copy of the Gospel of John (the only scripture she had). Zhang, who came to faith in Christ on Christmas Day, 1989, is now a pastor in northern Virginia.

The main speaker at IRD’s meeting was Yu Jie, one of China’s most famous young intellectuals. Yu, a poet and author of over twenty books, is also a Christian and house church leader in Beijing.   He and his wife, Liu Min, are leaders of the ArkChurch, which Yu refers to as an “above ground” house church in Beijing. They also publish a magazine called Olive Branch that addresses critical moral and ideological issues. Yu declared that the house churches are a crucial force for transforming China into a democracy.

Osnos observed such a transformative house church community in HenanProvince, the area known as “the Bethlehem of China.” In Henan Province, Christians who not long ago were worshipping in secret, underground churches in catacomb-like caves are worshipping openly.

“Right now, it’s not completely secret, but it’s not public,” one of the house church pastors in HenanProvince told Osnos. “Partly secret, partly open,” he said.

Falun Gong
Falun Gong, a spiritual discipline founded in China in 1992 by Li Hongzhi, teaching the principles of truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance, has as many as one hundred million adherents around the world.  This July 2009 will mark the tenth anniversary of the banning of Falun Gong, by the Chinese Communist government, which labeled it “an evil cult.” Since that date, Falun Gong practitioners continue to be targets of government crackdowns and victims of government torture and persecution. According to Manfred Nowak, the UN special rapporteur on torture, Falun Gong members make up half the population of China’s prison camps. The Falun Dafa Information Center has documented the deaths of 3,000 and the torture of 64,000 Falun Gong adherents. We pray, and ask your prayers for these peaceful and good people.

But even with the new openness of the house churches, the experience of believers in HenanProvince demonstrates the continuing dichotomy of Chinese Christianity. House church pastors and other Christians may be more willing to confront the injustices of the Chinese legal system, and to take the risk of meeting more openly, but they are still vulnerable to the Communist government’s often brutal treatment of Christians and other freedom seekers such as Falun Gong members, Uiyghur Muslims, and Tibetan Buddhists. And even the courageous attorneys who do battle for them are in danger, when the Chinese Communist Party decides to crack down on them.

Several of José Osorio’s photographs at the house church in Henan Province show the members praying for fellow Christians who have been imprisoned for their faith. The group gathered around Cheng Hongxian, the wife of Zhang Rongliang, imprisoned pastor of the China for Christ house church network, which is reported to have ten million members. Zhang (known as “Uncle Z”) was arrested in 2004 and sentenced to seven and a half years in prison, not long after coming to the United States where I was blessed to meet him. Zhang had already spent twelve years in prison from various arrests.

Just in the past few weeks, the following news has come out of China, as well:

The China Aid Association reported on February 8, 2009, Shuang Shuying, a seventy-nine year old woman, was released from prison. Her release allowed her to be with her 91 year-old husband, Hua Zaichen, until he died the next day. In January of 2007, Shuang and her son, evangelist and Christian activist, Hua Huiqi, were attacked by the Chinese Olympic police as they were walking past one of the hotels that was to be used for the Beijing Olympics.   Shuang was later sentenced to two years in prison on trumped-up charges of willfully damaging public and private property when she went to inquire about her son’s imprisonment.


Earlier in 2007, Hua and his wife had been forcibly removed from Beijing to prevent him from coming into contact with President George W. Bush when Bush was visiting Beijing. Again during the Beijing Olympics, Hua and his brother attempted to meet President and Mrs. Bush when they attended church in Beijing and were prevented by the Chinese police.

In addition, well-known Christian human rights attorney, Gao Zhisheng, forcibly was taken from his home in ShaanxiProvince by a dozen policeman on February 4, 2009, and his whereabouts remains unknown. Gao has been arrested, beaten, tortured, and imprisoned numerous times by the Chinese authorities for defending Christians, resisters to China’s forced abortion policy, human rights activists, and Falun Gong practitioners. Recently, China Aid Association released an open letter written by Gao concerning the torture he endured during his last imprisonment.


Another case recently highlighted by China Aid Association is that of Dr. Wang Bingzhang, who is serving a life sentence in solitary confinement for his efforts to bring democracy to China. Dr. Wang, regarded as the founding father of the Chinese pro-democracy movement abroad, gave up a career as a medical doctor to focus on democracy advocacy. He had been living in the United States for twenty years when he was kidnapped while visiting Vietnam in 2002. He was brought to China where he was convicted on false charges of espionage and terrorism.

Situations such as these continue to oppress the Christians in China. On January 31, 2009, China Aid Association released the 2008 issue of its annual report on religious persecution in China. In an ironic parenthetical addition, the cover notes that in this year of persecution, China was given the honor of hosting the Olympic Games.

It is a shame that the Chinese government sees Christianity as a threat rather than a blessing. The Christians of China are some of China’s best citizens, peaceful and honorable people. And it is the very characteristic which the Chinese Communist Party fears most that makes them that way – obeying an Authority higher than the Communist regime.

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