Ever since the Chinese Communist Party came to power, critics and courageous activists have worked to end its tyranny. But not everyone persisted in the fight. Those who do are often motivated by a religious faith which supported them through decades of persecution.
On February 16, in the middle of China’s epidemic, human rights activist and the leader of China’s “Weiquan” (protection of rights) movement, Xu Zhiyong, was arrested at his friend’s farm near the southern metropolis of Guangzhou. His crime was criticizing President Xi Jinping and his cronies for their pathetic initial response to the outbreak.
At about the same time, a man who shares Mr Xu’s surname and disdain for the regime, Tsinghua University professor Xu Zhangrun, was placed under house arrest after he wrote an eloquent article politely asking President Xi to step down for the sake of the nation.
Two months later, an unlikely ally also got into trouble with the regime for also asking Xi to step down.
He is the wealthy “Red princeling” (i.e. the descendants of the original Communists who fought alongside Mao) and property tycoon Ren Zhiqiang, a man so brash and loquacious he earned himself the nickname “Big Cannon Ren” in Beijing.
Known for his outspoken criticism of the Beijing regime, despite being a Communist blueblood, Ren is now under the investigation by the CCP Disciplinary Committee (usually a pretext for jailing the person).
Ever since President Xi came to power, hopes of forming a civil society in China and opening up the possibility for political reform have been dashed. The arrests of Xu Zhiyong and disciplining of Ren Zhiqiang are simply the final echoes of that reformist dream, the last hurrah of a once-inspirational hope.
Does that mean all is lost?
No. The most formidable foes of the CCP in its quest to maintain power are people who believe in a higher power than the CCP, particularly Christians, both Protestant and Catholic.
Here I will use one shining example: Protestant house churches, a phenomenon that is uniquely Chinese.
Since 1949, Christian churches in China have experienced several waves of persecution. But one of modern China’s greatest miracles has also come out of it — the house churches.
House churches, to paraphrase one of its most famous leaders, Pastor Wang Yi of the Chengdu Early Rain Covenant Church, are the only organizational bodies that have managed to escape subjugation by the CCP (he also includes the underground Catholic Church). They grew out of defiance against the Chinese government’s elaborate campaign to force all churches to denounce their “foreign” roots, cut foreign ties and come under the wings of the CCP, aka the “Three-Self Patriotic Movement”. TSPM, a government-controlled body and a “fake church”, is the only officially sanctioned Protestant Christian body in China. All Protestant churches outside of TSPM are “illegal”, which of course includes Pastor Wang’s Early Rain church.
The first house churches were founded by Samuel Lamb （林献羔）of Guangzhou and Wang Mingdao （王明道）of Beijing. Despite undergoing intense pressure and fierce persecution after refusing to join the TSPM, Wang stated in 1955 that he would not denounce the “imperialism” of Christianity and that his church would be independent of the Chinese government.
More than 65 years later, the house church movement, which only had a few hundred thousand people, less than a third of Chinese Christians in the 1950s (two-thirds joined the TSPM) and after the martyrdom and jailing of hundreds of thousands of faithful, now has tens of millions of followers.
Even more inspiring is the fact that generation after generation, new leaders take up the torch. Wang Mingdao and Samuel Lamb would be proud of pastors like Wang Yi and the ethnic Korean pastor Ezra Jin, who went on to build some of China’s largest urban house churches, numbering in hundreds to thousands of faithful, in the 21st century.
Of course, after Xi came to power, the house churches suffered the same fate as to the secular activists. Pastor Jin’s Beijing Zion Church was shut down, whilst Pastor Wang’s congregation and its illegal seminary saw waves of arrests and confiscations of all their church property, culminating in Pastor Wang’s sentence of nine years in prison in December last year.
But here is the difference between religion and the secular intellectuals. House church members did not despair, silence themselves or dissolve the congregation after their physical churches were closed. Jailed members continued to spread the gospel in prison. Members outside continued to meet in groups and now online with Zoom. (Early Rain members were visited by the police because they livestreamed their Easter service at Easter.) Telegram church groups and posts on Github continued to send out sermons and prayers, keeping the church members up to date, whilst circumventing censorship.
Early Rain and other house churches uploaded their jailed pastors’ sermons on YouTube. Church leaders under house arrest continued to write sermons and record and distribute them online. Even pro-life, anti-abortion groups are still active and operating clandestinely in the midst of severe restriction, trying to persuade mothers, both Christians and non-Christian, to reconsider abortion.
What does this mean?
It means that unlike the secular activists, house churches now have deep roots in China, roots too deep to eliminate. Faithful Christians have experienced decades of persecution; after every persecution they have come back stronger.
Church numbers actually grew during the Cultural Revolution despite the fact that the official policy at the time was to eradicate religion, even the version practiced by the obedient and loyal TSPM. There is no doubt that after this persecution there will be another revival.
Such is the resilience of the house church, which directly challenges the CCP in its unique way: it is formed by people from all backgrounds — from government officials to businessmen to former prostitutes. It is a movement with followers in every province, in every major town and many villages, with a self-elected, self-nominated leadership structure completely devoid of CCP influence. No wonder the CCP wants to crush them. But as history shows, it is impossible.
Many argued that Hong Kong was the only place in the greater China region to have publicly held memorials for the June 4th Tiananmen massacre in the years after 1989. But that is not true: Pastor Wang’s Early Rain Church held public vigils. They were open even to the plainclothes police monitoring them every year in Chengdu until the church was shut down. Hundreds of faithful got together and openly called for the truth behind the massacre to be investigated.
House churches across China also ignored a long-standing ban on public proselytism. Beijing Shouwang Church and Beijing Zion Church had public prayer meetings every week in the streets of the capital city despite police brutality. Chengdu’s faithful openly preached with homemade banners and self-directed plays in the parks and pavements. Meanwhile the TSPM churches are still following Party orders.
This is what the CCP fears the most: the Christian gospel. That’s why it cracks down on churches the hardest. Sadly, most Chinese have never heard of secular idealists like Xu Zhiyong or Xu Zhangrun, but many have heard of Jesus and at least basic tenets of the gospel. If the Cultural Revolution and Chairman Mao could not eradicate house churches, how can Xi Jinping? Xi cannot even tame the people of tiny Hong Kong.
Moreover, today’s CCP is no longer the Party of Mao, which inspired intense loyalty. Communism used to be the world’s most deceptive and attractive fake religion, but its contemporary descendant is bound together not by revolutionary fervour, but by a desire for profit and power. In contrast, Christian believers have a faith and fervour which will help their house churches survive.
Many will falter and fall, like those Chinese Christians who joined the TSPM in the early 1950s. And yet others will keep the faith. A Catholic bishop (later a Cardinal), Ignatius Kung Pinmei, expressed it in these moving words in 1954: “If we renounce our faith, we will disappear and there will not be a resurrection. If we are faithful, we will still disappear, but there will be a resurrection.”
The epic struggle of the house churches and their faithful members in China offers hope to Christians elsewhere. It is a David versus Goliath battle which has lasted seven decades and will stretch on for decades to come. But in the end, as in the Bible, David is going to win.