Cracking down on Chinese Christians

NICK EICHER, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: missions work in China.

The uphill battle has gotten steeper as China cracks down on Christians. Officials have demolished churches and harassed congregants in recent years.  But the crackdown reached a new stage in December. That’s when police raided Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu.

Early Rain is a prominent house church in China. Fourteen church members remain imprisoned in unknown locations. That includes pastor Wang Ye and his wife, Jiang Rong.

But Chinese Christians aren’t the only ones feeling the force of Xi Jinping’s campaign to put religion under Communist Party authority. Foreign missionaries living in China are receiving orders to leave the country. In some cases, they’ve even been detained and interrogated.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: WORLD’s East Asia correspondent June Cheng recently wrote about this new development. She joins us now.

June, western missionaries have had relatively free access to China since the 1980s. Tell us a little bit about that history and the influence it’s had on Chinese Christians.

JUNE CHENG, REPORTER: During China’s opening up, they really wanted to develop economically. And so they welcomed foreigners to come into the country to help with teaching English, to help with starting businesses. And many Christians took the opportunity to come to China and they started teaching. And through that, they were able to develop relationships with their students and their colleagues and were able to share the gospel and start Bible studies.

REICHARD: And so what happened after that time?  

CHENG: So, many of the early Chinese Christians will point to those missionaries as how they came to Christ. And later on, the Chinese Christians were able to take on evangelism, they were able to plant their own churches, and so missionaries kind of started to work more in areas that required more specialization, such as Bible translations or theological training.

REICHARD: And so what’s changed now?

CHENG: So, government officials always knew that some of the foreigners were Christians. But at that time, they needed those skills more than they really cared about proselytizing. But now, President Xi Jinping is trying to Sinicize religion, which means to put it under the authority of the Chinese Communist Party so that the government can have better control over Christianity.

REICHARD: What does this crackdown look like for foreign missionaries?

CHENG: I think China is trying to cut ties between the Chinese church and the global church. And so in the last year, we’ve seen many foreign missionaries get kicked out of the country. And what’s more concerning is that some of these missionaries have actually been held for days or even weeks for interrogations. And all of this is detrimental for the growth of the Chinese church because, as I mentioned earlier, the missionaries were taking on some of the more specialized roles to help the Chinese church grow.

REICHARD: And, June, you talked to some American missionaries who had worked for quite some time in China. Tell us about that.

CHENG: So, one of the missionaries that I spoke to I used the pseudonym James Young for him in the story. And he’s been in China for over a decade working with a minority group. And he’d actually gone on furlough but he went back to China for a trip and when he came out of his hotel, there were a dozen police waiting for him in the parking lot and they detained him. And they took him to a hotel room and for the next eight days they interrogated him. At the same time, police arrested four other missionaries from that same mission organization and they would ask each of them similar questions and compare answers. In the end, Young was forced to write a confession and he was given a sentence of not being able to come back to China for five years. And so the next day, 20 police officers accompanied him to the airport and he was forced to leave.

REICHARD: Wow. And Americans aren’t the only ones affected, are they?

CHENG: No, actually South Korean missionaries who are very influential in China have actually had a more serious crackdown. Part of that reason is that China is less afraid of a diplomatic pushback from South Korea. And this year local religious affairs bureaus have put out action plans to “investigate and prosecute Korean Christian infiltration.” And similar to the story I mentioned earlier, Korean missionaries have also had their visas cancelled and they’ve also been detained and interrogated.

REICHARD: What does all of this mean for future mission work in China?

CHENG: I don’t think things are going to get any better. I think things are going to get worse, actually, for missionaries in China. Some of the missionaries I spoke to said that they will be able to continue their work from overseas, either communicating with Chinese believers online or meeting with them in another Asian country. There’s also opportunities here for missionaries who have been kicked out to help with China’s own mission movement by moving to countries in the Middle East or Southeast Asia where they can help Chinese missionaries adjust to cross-culture missions. And I think that this expulsion of missionaries has also caused local believers to step up and take over some of those roles that the missionaries have occupied for awhile, and I think that that could be beneficial to the growth of the Chinese church.

I think there’s also hope because the last time missionaries were kicked out of China in 1949 when the communists took over, even though there was a lot of persecution under Mao Zedong, that actually caused the Christian church to grow exponentially.

REICHARD: Well that part is good news. June Cheng is WORLD’s East Asia correspondent. June, thanks for joining us today.

CHENG: You’re welcome, Mary.

(Photo/Handout) Police officers stand on duty outside the Dongtang Catholic church in Beijing.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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