13 January 2021

Regulation and surveillance intensify in China: World Watch List 2021

This year, the Chinese Communist Party turns 100. But whilst the nation celebrates, Christians are being increasingly crushed under the weight of increased regulation and oppressive surveillance.  

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Recent years has seen an increase in raids and closures of churches in China

The turn of the century brought relative freedoms for Chinese believers, but recent years has seen a squeeze on Christian expression. It’s led to China jumping six places to 17 in the latest World Watch List – the first time in a decade it’s been in the top 20.

As China’s economic prowess and influence has grown, so has Chinese nationalism: religion – seen by President Xi Jinping as a potential destabiliser and incompatible with socialist ideology – must be ‘directed’ rather than given free rein. 

From church closures to intrusive surveillance, interference with sermons to the reinterpretation of Bible passages, the clampdown is hitting Christians from all sides – and it may yet get worse. 

Children aren’t allowed in church 

In Shandong province, a woman took her child to a state-affiliated church. You might not think that sounds like much of an issue. But the child’s attendance was captured on CCTV and the church was reprimanded – because it’s illegal for under-18s to go to church. Across China, this is quickly becoming the ‘new normal’: law and surveillance combining to thwart Christian freedom.  

"This venue [church] was raided, shut down and sealed off. The authorities came inside and smashed all the equipment..." 'Caleb'

The children’s ban is linked to a revision of religious regulations in February 2018 aimed at the ‘sinicisation’ of churches – that is, making them more ‘Chinese’. The laws, extended again last year, are being implemented with relentless determination. 

Pastors have been told to attend their local police station to report on church activities. Landlords have been pressured to terminate rental contracts with house churches. Churches have been raided and shut, with Bibles confiscated and interiors defaced. One church registered to avoid closure, only to find that a submitted list of names (part of the registration process) was used to threaten and insult older believers.

“Raids happen quickly,” says Caleb, an Open Doors partner whose name, like all those featured in this article, has been changed. “Some churches have been shut down. One was in a five-storey building in a small city. The church took up two floors of the building and had enough seating for 200 brothers and sisters. This venue was raided, shut down and sealed off. The authorities came inside and smashed all the equipment. New renovations were also destroyed. The believers were devastated.”

There have also been reports of churches being pressured to fly the national flag higher than the cross and sing the national anthem before church services, and a pastor said recently, “Every time I preach now I am expected to praise the government rather than Jesus, and I don't like it.

Even in their own homes, Christians have little room to breathe – a suspicious neighbour could inform on them to the authorities, for financial reward. 

Cameras follow your every move

The suffocation of Christianity in China is made worse by the country’s intrusive use of technology. There are an estimated 570 million CCTV cameras in China, including many churches. Many have facial recognition software. This is linked to a ‘social credit system’ which also monitors ‘loyalty’ and party dissension. 

could give biblical training to a believer from a country in the World Watch List Top 10.

Worryingly, social credit is already being linked to religion. In provinces such as Shanxi, Henan and Jiangxi, Christians have been threatened with the removal of social-welfare benefits, including pensions, if they refuse to replace Christian imagery such as crosses with pictures of President Xi Jinping. 

Even online, church activities are closely monitored and, in the case of some state-affiliated churches, services have been ordered to stop. 

How are Christians reacting to the new wave of persecution? 

This year could see the state tighten its grip even further. Believers are being forced to retreat or react. There’s a Chinese idiom which says, ‘kill a chicken to warn the monkey’ – in other words, target a few churches to warn the rest. Sadly, in some cases, fear is forcing Christians to retreat. It’s an understandable reaction. After all, how would you respond if put in their position? 

"It’s just the way we do church is periodically adjusted or modified, to sustain the continuous growth of the kingdom against all odds." 'Caleb'

But, to take another local expression, ‘a crafty hare has three burrows’, which means, ‘to succeed you must have alternative options’. It’s here many believers are courageously stepping up. Like a hare with three burrows, the Chinese church is learning once again to downsize, meet ‘underground’, be versatile, and prepare ‘escape plans’ in the event of a raid.

“Many house churches are like water in a river,” Caleb says. “Whenever an obstacle is encountered, they will not fight it with their own flesh. Instead, they will stream past the obstacles and change course and continue to flow towards the big ocean, which is the Great Commission. The ultimate destination never changes. It’s just the way we do church is periodically adjusted or modified, to sustain the continuous growth of the kingdom against all odds.”

However, as churches downsize to avoid detection, resources are stretched. There is a struggle to find leaders and buildings for new house churches, whilst there is a desperate need to train leaders and disciple believers, as well as find new and creative ways to do youth work. It’s here that Open Doors partners have moved quickly to provide training to strengthen the persecuted church. 

Younger Christians especially shocked by persecution 

The intensity of persecution has come as a shock to many Chinese Christians, even older believers who’ve experienced strong opposition before. Because of this experience, though, they’ve been able to adapt quickly. However, for younger Christians, the harsh environment – or what Caleb calls the ‘new normal’ – is taking longer to get used to. 

"I now know that I can be peaceful and calm because I know that I am following the one true God" Chinese girl

Simon, another Open Doors partner, was running a youth camp when it was raided. Thankfully, the leaders persuaded the authorities that it was simply a holiday, at which point they left. But it disturbed the young people. Why would the authorities do such a thing? 

“I remember one of these young girls, she was one of those who felt confused, and she didn't know what to do,” Simon recalls. “She was a little scared. But then after the whole event she said, ‘I now know that I can be peaceful and calm because I know that I am following the one true God. I know that there are a lot of different ways to face persecution.”

The group discussed what had happened until 3am. “It was more educational than a training class talking about persecution, because this was a real life event,” Simon adds.

New life in the suffocation

The renewed clampdown on Christian expression by the Chinese state is perhaps epitomised by efforts to reinterpret the Bible, and other key religious texts, according to socialist values. An official ethics textbook includes a twisted take on Jesus’ encounter with the woman caught in adultery. In it, Jesus stones her and says, “I too am a sinner. But if the law could only be executed by men without blemish, the law would be dead.”

"Pray for the faith of Chinese Christians, that they would be strong and bold." 'Peony'

In its centenary year, the Chinese Communist Party wants to suck the life out of the country’s Christian witness. Believers are feeling the squeeze and desperately need your prayers. But there is hope. Every time a wave of persecution has come against the Chinese church, God has breathed fresh life into it. He’ll do so again – and you have an instrumental role to play.

“I am grateful that people everywhere are willing to pray for the Chinese church,” shares Peony, director of Open Doors work in China. “I ask that Christians everywhere pray for the faith of Chinese Christians, that they would be strong and bold. Pray that they would never give up, no matter how tough the persecution. Please pray that Chinese believers live lives worthy of their calling, and that they set a wonderful example for the young ones to follow.”

Please pray

Lord God, we are amazed at the astonishing growth of the Chinese church over the years, despite persecution. Give Christians a renewed sense of the wonder, power and love of Jesus, that it will strengthen and boldly galvanise their faith and witness. Provide leaders and buildings for churches, and unleash a wave of creativity so churches continue to thrive. May we yet see more tremendous growth of the church in China. Amen. 

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