By Jinghong Cai
Edited by ChinaAid
On Feb. 6, 2014, President Obama made a remarkable speech at the National Prayer Breakfast. He highlighted freedom of religion as the right of every person to practice their faith freely from persecution and fear. It is only fitting that President Obama spelled out freedom from fear as an integral part of religious freedom, because fear is the method of choice of totalitarian governments to deprive people of their freedoms.
I used to be a victim of this “fear”—and to an extent, I still am—but by the grace of God, I came to this country, and I am beginning to conquer my fear. As President Obama remarked, “no nation on Earth does more to stand up for the freedom of religion around the world than the United States of America,” I broke through my fright; I was baptized formally into the Christian faith, and now I can stand for and share my beliefs, as Jesus commanded His disciples to “be My witnesses … even to the remotest part of the earth.” (Acts 1:8 NASB)
‘… fear has to do with punishment’ (1 John 4:18)
Controlling people through fear has been a key element of the ruling strategy in China for centuries, from the emperors’ era to today’s Communist regime. Because of fear, many Chinese Christians feel compelled to conceal their faith, which has caused the Chinese government to “underestimate” the power of Christian faith.
Yet, the rapid growth of Christianity in China has deeply troubled the Chinese government and made the Communist Party leaders nervous, to say the least. According to the Seattle Times (http://seattletimes.com/html/nationworld/2021335345_chinachurchesxml.html), it is estimated that Shanghai alone is home to hundreds, if not thousands, of underground churches, and there may be up to 67 million Protestants in China, many of whom attend the underground church. These estimates place China among the top 10 nations in the world in the number of Christians… and the numbers keep growing.
The Chinese government perceives the growth of Christianity as a threat to its rule; hence it has multiplied its efforts to suppress the expansion of the underground church in a “systematic and intense” way (reported by the Seattle Times, July 6, 2013). Over the past year, more than 1,000 unregistered Protestant Christians were detained and sentenced, according to ChinaAid, a nonprofit human-rights organization based in the United States.
The moniker “underground church” is, in fact, ironic. As Anna Orso from Penn State University states, “Chinese Christians who shun the state-supported church gather in smaller settings and without fear of government influence on what’s being preached,” although they experience a different fear, namely, being an “unregistered” or non-sanctioned Christian. It means that they are illegal Christians, who risk losing their jobs or being arrested by the government.
This insightful observation potentially explains the false impression that the persecution of Christians in China today is less brutal than in the past. Over the last 20 years, Christian believers in China have gathered in small groups in homes, hotels and other inconspicuous venues to practice in secrecy, for fear of government retribution. Clearly, it is not that the government has mitigated the persecution but rather has multiplied its actions to instill fear in people by brutally punishing Christians who refuse to join the official churches.
Most Chinese shun Christians and other religious believers because they have witnessed how others have been persecuted simply because of their association with Christians and other believers. According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, as well as other Christian organizations (such as ChinaAid and International Christian Concern), many Chinese who organized or joined “house-based churches” or “underground churches” have been either forced to participate in political “reeducation” (actually brainwashing), physically and psychologically harassed, interned in mental hospitals, arrested, sent to labor camps, or have died in suspicious circumstances usually reported as suicide or heart attacks. One of my high school classmates, who used to work for the People’s Daily as a promising young journalist, died mysteriously after he was baptized in the U.S. and returned to China ( “The mysterious death of a Christian in China,” https://chinaaid.org/2014/01/guest-post-mysterious-death-of.html).
In a better known case involving a Christian minister—Pastor Zhang, who is currently detained in Nanle (Henan Province)—fellow Christians and lawyers who defended him were physically attacked by “thugs.” Those “thugs” actually were townspeople secretly employed by the local police. Every day, if you do an online search, you can always find news about Christians in China behind bars, “waking up in cold cells, facing another day of confinement, another day of unspeakable treatment, simply because they are affirming God” (President Obama).
‘Do not fear what they fear…’ (1 Peter 3:14)
Fear makes people hide their Christian faith. Fear also makes the Communist Party persecute Christians. Yet, a true Christian has the courage bestowed by God to conquer fear. In China, I used to hide my faith, because I was afraid of losing my job and being sent to jail. It pains me to admit that I still hide my faith from my parents, my brother and my son in China, because I am afraid that my ailing, elderly parents might not survive the harassment from the police, my brother might lose his job, and my son might be expelled from school. At least, if they can claim they don’t know, they’ll have “plausible deniability”… or so I try to convince myself.
But God doesn’t want His children to live in fear, because His “perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18). In 1986, I secretly got my hands on my first Bible. It was a bilingual copy that I obtained through a risky visit to the office of “Three-Self Patriotic Christian Association” in Beijing. In 1995, I took a big chance and sneaked out to church with my students on Christmas morning, because I wanted them to know why we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. From 1994 to 2007, I secretly introduced my students to the Bible and invited them to read some important chapters.
‘I will fear no evil: for thou art with me‘ (Psalm23:4)
Fear was part of my life in China. I grew up in an atmosphere where parents threatened their children by telling them that “the police are coming to arrest you.” Whenever I traveled abroad as a tourist, I was threatened by the government not to speak to any Falun Gong member or other human rights activist. When in 2008 I worked as a volunteer during the Beijing Olympic Games, I, along with formal employees and fellow volunteers, was ordered to parrot a ready-made answer written by the government when foreigners asked questions about Tibet, Taiwan and other human rights issues. When I left China, the Party Secretary of the university where I taught threatened me that I would never again be employed, even if I received my degree in the U.S. Now, living and studying in the United States, I’m still afraid, but by the grace of God and the beauty of democracy, I am conquering my fear. At last, I feel I can worship and witness my faith freely.
Some people argue that Christians are not persecuted in China. How then can they explain that Protestants can only attend the officially registered “Three-Self church,” an institution tightly controlled by the Communist Party in everything—from what is preached to who is allowed to preach? Furthermore, why do millions of Chinese Christians risk their lives to embrace underground churches rather than openly and “safely” going to the church that the government has sanctioned?
The answer is, for love of the truth; “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32).
True Christians would never compromise their faith to worship both the Communist Party and Jesus Christ. “No one can serve two masters.” (Matthew 6:24).
Jinghong Cai is a PhD Candidate in the field of Education at a university in the U.S. and a guest contributor at ChinaAid. You may follow her on Twitter at @jhcai613
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