Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 2

“These few days, all of those arrested have been badly beaten by the police. Ma and her boy Longfeng were both beaten almost to death. Li Enhui fell unconscious and was awakened with cold water and beaten again. They did this to her non-stop for seven days and seven nights. Xiao Yajun was also questioned seven days and seven nights. On July 20, we heard the news that Yu, who was arrested in Ma’s house, had been tortured to death.”

This horrifying account of China’s renewed determination to eradicate independent Christian churches was described in a letter, dated December 31, 2001, from members of an underground Christian church in China, which was then smuggled to the West. It reveals graphic details and new information about the Chinese government’s crackdown on Pastor Gong Shengliang and his South China Church in China’s central Hubei province.

Pastor Gong had been sentenced to death on December 5 on charges of operating an “evil cult” and on apparently trumped-up charges of rape and assault. The month-long period for deciding his appeal was extended on January 5 by a Hubei court following sharp international protest.

The letter, written by two underground Christian women reports that, in efforts to find and apprehend Pastor Gong and suppress the South China Church, police arrested sixty-three congregants, severely beating at least twenty-five Christians and torturing some with electric prods. The person whom the authors write was tortured to death is Yu Zhongju, a young mother from Zhongxiang, who had been arrested last May in a private house connected with Pastor Gong’s congregation. She died in police custody in late July, after having being beaten. According to her family, police informed them of Yu’s death on July 20, after her body had begun to decompose. The police paid the family, warning them not to raise the matter further. There has been no official investigation of the case.

Gu Xuegui, a Christian man connected with Pastor Gong’s church is also said to have disappeared while in police custody, probably sometime in October. A congregant from Puyang City, Henan province last saw Gu in a prison vehicle with his face showing signs of beatings. His family later received information that he had died under severe torture.

The letter relates that two women, Li Tongjin and Chi Tongyuan, from Shayang, tortured by police with electric prods, resulting in blisters and burns all over their bodies. The torture was reported to have been used to force them to testify that they had had sexual relations with Pastor Gong. One woman was later able to telephone her brother and report her situation, saying, “be ready to come to pick up my body. I may either be beaten to death or sentenced to death.”

The letter reports numerous other cases from May through December 2001 of brutal police beatings of the congregants in Hubei, Henan, Hebei and Sichuan provinces. It states that Pastor Gong himself was apprehended by the police on August 8 and then kicked and beaten by government security forces.

The South China Church is known within the Chinese underground Christian community and to churches in the United States. Founded by Gong in 1991 as a break-off group from Peter Xu’s All Ranges Church “Quan Fan Wei” [also known as Total Scope Church or Born Again movement], it is a large evangelical congregation estimated to have at least 50,000 members in eight provinces in China. It is respected as an orthodox Christian group among the underground Chinese Christians with whom I spoke. Pastor Gong is well known within Chinese Christian circles as a third-generation Christian from a pious family, married with several children. Now being held in the Jingmen detention center in his native Hubei Province, Gong had been in hiding for several months after the Public Security Bureau placed him on a most wanted list for unauthorized religious activity.


The Chinese authorities seem to be systematically targeting Christian churches that have not registered with the state, thereby submitting to state control, and which have been deemed “evil cults” in official documents. Around the same time we received the letter, we also learned of Li Guangqiang, a Hong Kong resident with the “Shouters” another evangelical underground church in China, who was also recently issued an “evil cult” indictment, possibly carrying the death penalty, by a Fujian court, for smuggling 33,000 bibles into China.

An August 9, 2001, “top secret” government document bearing the official seal of the General Squad of National Security and Defense of Beijing Bureau of Public Security, labeled the South China Church an “evil cult.” The official document orders “the security squad, surveillance squad, domestic defense squad, relics protection squad and all the local public security offices” to carry out the arrest of Gong and other top leaders of the church and the “complete demolition of [the church’s] organizational system.” Given the source of the document, it is inconceivable that this directive did not originate at the highest levels of the Chinese government.

To a greater or lesser extent, China has repressed religion throughout the fifty years of Communist Party rule. Its aim has been to make religion serve the interests of the communist state until it disappears from Chinese society. This remains the dominant view. State religious policy, as explained by Chinese president Jiang Zemin in March 1996 is to “actively guide religion so that it can be adapted to socialist society.” Ye Xiaowen, the hardliner heading the Religious Affairs Bureau (RAB), in 1996, also urged the “handling” of religious matters according to the dictates of Lenin and declared that “we will gradually weaken the influence of religion.”

In the 1950s, Mao Zedong sought to control religion through government-controlled religious groups and the total suppression of uncooperative religious leaders through brutal labor camp terms, murder or exile. In the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, Mao closed all places of worship and tried to extinguish religion altogether. Since Mao’s death in 1976, the government has tolerated some religious expression, but only within government-registered organizations. The constitution, in Article 36, guarantees freedom of religious belief but elsewhere it sets forth sweeping exceptions and qualifications to the right and states that it only protects religious activities that are “normal,” without defining the term.

The collapse of Soviet Communism and the Tiananmen Square democracy demonstrations in June 1989 shook the leaders in Beijing profoundly. In 1991, the government issued Document 6, which called for a crackdown against unregistered religious groups and reaffirmed its goal of creating a “materialistic,” “scientific,” and atheistic society. Repression against underground religious groups rose again in 1994 after Beijing issued Decrees 144 and 145, mandating the registration of religious groups. This was followed in the late 1990s with the “strike hard” campaign and the anticult laws, aimed at “eradicating” unregistered groups.


Religious leaders cannot preach outside of their own area. They and their venue must be approved by the government. Religious services and members are subject to monitoring. Sermons must stick to approved topics under penalty of arrest. Seminaries and schools for theological training exist but are tightly controlled: Students, the Chinese authorities believe, must be “politically reliable.” Children are barred by law from being baptized, educated in religion or attending public worship services. Registration requires that churches desist from speaking about the Second Coming of Christ, the gifts of the Spirit, the story of Creation in Genesis, certain sections of the Catholic Catechism and the evils of abortion. The “Patriotic” Protestant churches have to be organized in the same undifferentiated church body. Many unregistered places of worship have been shut down or bulldozed in recent years. Bibles and other religious literature can only be printed with government permission, and legally obtained through government-approved sources.

Beijing controls the five “authorized” religions (Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Islam and Taoism) by the Religious Affairs Bureau (RAB), controlled by the United Front Work Department, itself controlled by the Central Committee of the Communist Party. In turn, Party officials, by law must be atheists. The RAB registers and controls all religious groups through the Three-Self Patriotic movement and the China Christian Council for Protestants, the Catholic Patriotic Association and Bishops Conference for Catholics, and similar patriotic associations for Buddhists, Muslims and Taoists.

The heightened crackdown may stem from frustration and political insecurity as authorities observe the astonishing revival of religion throughout China particularly through unsanctioned groups. Since the end of the Cultural Revolution, China’s Christian churches, registered and underground, Catholic and Protestant, have been experiencing explosive growth. Thirteen million Protestants are registered with the government. Unregistered Protestants may number over 50 million, in house-churches, so named because services are held in houses.

Along with the current crackdown, China’s government is pushing an aggressive public relations campaign to convince the West that there is no religious persecution in China, that whatever incidents of repression occur are either the unauthorized acts of “overzealous cadres” or else necessary measures against dangerous criminals, cultists and practitioners of “abnormal” religious activities. Levelling rape charges is a favored way of morally discrediting Christian pastors.

China has more Christian prisoners and detainees than any other country in the world. Three-year’s “reeducation” in labor camps is the norm for such prisoners. Like political and other prisoners, Christian prisoners are held in deplorable conditions, with many forced to work as veritable slaves in labor camps.

We were told that giving China WTO status, granting it Permanent Normal Trade Relations status, awarding it the 2008 Olympic Games would all have moderating effects on China. Instead what we are seeing are the most draconian measures against Christian leaders since the anti-cult law was adopted three years ago. China continues to arrogate to itself the rights to determine religious doctrine, determine what is Christian heterodoxy, and designate religious leaders in direct violation of the international human rights covenant that it has signed.

It is urgent that President Bush, who has on several occasions publicly deplored religious persecution in China, speak out now against these latest unspeakable assaults on religious freedom. He should reconsidered his state visit to Beijing scheduled for late February. He should not be raising a toast with the Chinese president while Christian leaders languish in China’s torture chambers because they refuse to submit to the control of the Communist Party.


Nina Shea was the director of the Washington-based Center for Religious Freedom of Freedom House.