By Yaxue Cao
When the Living Stone church was founded in Guiyang in 2009, about 20 members rented a single apartment and gathered there to worship.
The four founders of the church were born in the 1970s—all in their 30s who had been ministering full time for years already. Three of them came from the countryside and boasted no more than a high-school education. The current head pastor, Su Tianfu, was a rural teacher before resigning from that job, while Pastor Yang Hua was a third-generation young pastor from a village. He was born Li Guozhi but later changed his name to Yang Hua, which in Chinese means “looking up to Jehovah.”
Before founding Living Stone both Su and Yang Hua had preached in the countryside for over a decade, until they felt an obligation to found a church. The first 20 or so participants were people the pastors had known over years of preaching—folk who were originally from the countryside and had come and settled down in the provincial capital.
Because of its small scale, the church didn’t attract much attention. But it grew fast, doubling parishioners each year. By 2013 it already claimed 400 members, and had become a well-known house church in Guizhou. Parishioners were of all ages and professions. Its rapid development, according to those interviewed by China Change, was not due to anything special about the church itself, but mainly because of the vacuum of faith in Chinese society. Living Stone is a pure and unadorned church, and provides parishioners a tight-knit group in which members can help one another, experience a sense of belonging, and receive spiritual and moral guidance.
As the membership increased the church began meeting in three different locations and held multiple sessions every Sunday to accommodate the crowd.
In 2013, they began discussing buying a bigger venue in which to meet. They looked around, prayed, and contributed. They bought a 648 square meter space on the 24th floor of one of the three office buildings known as Guiyang International Center , in a new, mixed-use development downtown.
The church paid for half of the cost—2 million yuan (HK$2.39m)—in cash up front. Because Living Stone has never been able to legally incorporate, the new location was registered in the names of three members: head pastor Su Tianfu; Zhang Xiuhong, the accountant; and Liang Xuewu, a bank employee. Liang, whose father was once a high-ranking official in Guizhou, is also a deacon at the church; Zhang was originally an obstetrician, but later resigned and became a small businesswoman.
In 2014 the church was in possession of its new premises, and was preparing to hold a ceremony to consecrate it on November 8, putting the new location into formal use.
‘Illegal religious activities’
It is important to note that, in Chinese cities and towns nowadays, most house churches are not “underground” even though they are outside of the government-controlled Three-Self Patriotic Movement. In the case of Living Stone, they leased building space, and when they held large-scale activities, they would file with the government’s Administration for Religious Affairs and the public security department. Living Stone established internal elections for officiary positions, set up a managerial system, and handled their financial and church affairs openly and transparently.
However, the government has interfered in church events on multiple occasions, especially if they were large in scale, church members told China Change. When several hundred gathered for an evening service during Christmas, for instance, agents came and cut off the electricity and water. Two baptisms were also cut short due to interference.
The two baptisms were held outdoors in a river in the southern outskirts of Guiyang, an area of some historical significance for China’s Christians. In 1861 four Catholics were killed there, later becoming known as the “Martyrs of Qingyanzhen,” the first Chinese saints canonized by the Vatican. Along with the roughly 100 people being baptised, there were a total of 300-400 present, including observers, friends and family. On both occasions the government mobilized double or triple that number of personnel, including police, politico-legal officials, Internal Security agents, and religious affairs officials.
As soon as Living Stone purchased its larger location, the church came under more severe pressure: Internal Security officers and officials with the State Administration for Religious Affairs would check in regularly for “talks.” In November last year, while the new chapel was still being prepared, Religious Affairs officials attached a highly visible notice to the building announcing that the Living Stone church was an unregistered, non-religious organization, and that the new center was “an unapproved non-religious center set up without permission. The responsible individuals, Li Guozhi [i.e. Pastor Yang Hua], Su Tianfu, and others, are not registered and are not religious instructors.” The notice further urged the public not to participate in Living Stone’s “illegal religious activities.”
Radio Free Asia reported that the local Religious Affairs bureau and other departments engaged in a long negotiation with church personnel; at the same time, all the members of the church were called in for menacing “chats.” The authorities were of the view that the consecration ceremony for the new chapel was too large an event; they demanded that the number of participants be reduced, that the time be shortened, and that the religious ceremonies be watered down. The event had to take the form of a secular “get together” instead. On November 7, during these discussions, the officials made a clear threat: if the church doesn’t back down, and insists on holding its consecration ceremony, then the government will mobilize force.
The church made a number of concessions and the authorities allowed the event to proceed on Sunday, November 8. But the government mobilized several hundred policemen to surround the entire area, along with around 200 vehicles: police cruisers, ambulances, and emergency response vehicles—as though they were facing down a formidable foe. The provincial politico-legal secretary took up a command post on site, and it was rumored that there was even a member of the provincial Party Standing Committee giving orders also.
Surrounded by the wary gaze of hundreds of riot police, special police, regular police, and government officials, the Christians of the Living Stone church held a consecration ceremony for their new place of worship.
‘A menu of coercion’
After this, there was a period of quiet truce. But before long the authorities again began meeting church leaders for “talks” — not only the pastors, but key members of the church, in an attempt to force them to join the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. But as church members saw it, the Three-Self Movement is simply a church run by the Communist Party, an extension of the Party’s organizational apparatus—not genuine, unadulterated Christian belief, and not something that they could accede to.
Government officials made another explicit threat: failure to join the Three-Self Movement would, sooner or later, lead to the destruction of the Living Stone church. They then began choosing from a menu of coercion: the first tactic was simply to try to scare parishioners away, telling them they weren’t allowed to attend church. They threatened every single person, especially state employees. Many people—for instance, anyone who worked at a state company, the tax department, or in the banking sector—had to compromise.
Pastor Su Tianfu told Radio Free Asia: “A huge number of believers received numerous visits at their houses for ‘chats.’ They were directly told that their Living Stone church is an illegal organization, that all of its activities are illegal, that it’s banned by the government, and that they absolutely could not continue attending. Then they had their photographs taken and were asked to sign statements promising to sever their connections with the church. Our church has several hundred people, and 99 percent had received telephone calls, or been called in for face-to-face meetings, or had their homes visited.”
Some indeed stopped coming. But the number of people coming to worship in the congregation did not diminish—instead, it kept growing.
An umbrella for besieged churches
A member of the congregation described Yang Hua as upstanding, honest and brave. Yang’s father spent time in jail during the Cultural Revolution because of his Christian faith.
Yang not only looks after his own congregation, but often bounds around various house churches in Guizhou, helping to sort out problems as they crop up. There are quite a few lawyers among the Living Stone congregants also, all of whom dare to stand up and put their skills to rights defense work. Zhang Kai , the human rights lawyer currently under secret detention in Wenzhou, also came to Guizhou on a number of occasions, helping out with the legal defense work with the church.
As soon as there was official suppression of a church—for instance, in Bijie, Liupanshui, or elsewhere—Living Stone members would come out and help. All this made it seem as though Living Stone was some sort of umbrella organization, looking after small house churches that had only a dozen, or at most a few dozen members.
Apart from its role as a faith community, the Living Stone church provided a range of public services: for years, they helped with the adoption of abandoned infants, the fostering of children with developmental disabilities, teaching survival skills to children in orphanages, and other welfare services—they were on several occasions praised in the press for this work.
Separately, a number of church members founded or participated in charitable social programs of their own outside of the church structure, helping disabled people, orphans, the elderly and more. The church thus became an interconnecting structure, linking the community with the wider society.
Church members interviewed by China Change were of the belief that the authorities found this series of social activities unsettling. They thus appointed government officials whose specific job it was to suppress Living Stone.
‘No way to completely legalize’
In May of this year the Bureau of Civil Affairs, in an official communication to the church, declared that Living Stone was an “illegal organization.” Congregants said that this definition was made without foundation: for years the church had submitted applications to the bureau, and did so even more proactively after the establishment of the new building.
In China, house churches have no way to completely legalize, but they can apply to legalize the venue of assembly, which at least legalizes the use of the church space. The church all along submitted such applications, but the bureau never responded. Under such circumstances, how could it be said that the church was illegal? Church members are currently preparing a legal complaint against the bureau. Members told China Change that the church has all along followed China’s laws and regulations, and that it has always ensured that nothing it has done is out of compliance with the law or established procedures.
After that altercation in May, the government decided to simply put its cards on the table: You’ve got two choices, they said: the first is to continue your assemblies, but become part of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement; the other is to remain independent, in which case the church will be forcibly eliminated. The Internal Security division of the Public Security Bureau—the group set up especially to do the government’s dirty work—laid out this position.
In the beginning, church members didn’t believe the government could do much: with so many people, how are you going to use force against us? At that point, Living Stone had baptised around 700 people.
One afternoon in late July the presiding deacon of Living Stone, Zhang Xiuhong, was stopped and hauled from her white sedan as she was driving near the church building. One of the assailants climbed in and drove off. Later, her house was raided, her computers and hard drives confiscated, and her husband taken away, leaving an 80-year-old parent and a 3-year-old child alone.
Two days later her husband was released, and Zhang was criminally detained and charged with “illegal business operations.” The charge was related to a beauty salon that she once ran, though hadn’t been involved in for a long time. In any case, the accusation—withdrawing cash from a credit card—wasn’t even illegal. Later, when Zhang Xiuhong told her lawyer during a prison visit that questions about her business were only asked at the beginning, and the interrogations thereafter focused on the church, revolving around information about the pastors and core members. It was clear that the police were trying to get a handle on the inside details of the operation.
Zhang Xiuhong has still not been indicted. After her arrest, the authorities also confiscated the accounting books of the church and froze its bank accounts. The 640,000 RMB in the bank was the money the church needed to pay for mortgage on the new space. The government’s intent seems clear: to sever the group’s finances.
In early November, a young Hong Kong resident who was studying in Taiwan came to visit, and the pastors took him around Guizhou to look at a number of house churches. Two days later, the pastors sent him off at the airport. As soon as they left, this young man was accosted by over 10 state security officers who took him to an apartment, began torturing him using sleep deprivation, and interrogated him as to the purpose of his trip, what his ties were with foreign organizations, and more. He was detained for 72 hours before being sent away, upon which time it was suggested to him that he could be a spy for them.
Days later when church congregants heard about this from the student, they were extremely shocked by the level of surveillance they were under.
‘Triad of coercion’
In mid-November, pastor Su Tianfu applied for a Hong Kong-Macau entry-exit permit, but he was denied, and explicitly told his right to leave China had been rescinded.
On November 18, the church received a “Rectification Order” from the Nanming District City Urban Administrative and Law Enforcement Bureau, informing them that their usage of the commercial building as a place of church assembly was illegal. They cited the “People’s Republic of China Code for Classification of Urban Land Use and Planning Standards of Development Land” as well as the “Guizhou Province Urban Planning Ordinance.” The order said they had three days to rectify the problem, or begin incurring fines of 20 yuan per square meter per day. The total fine every day was over 13,000 yuan; as of now the church has accrued hundreds of thousands of yuan in fines.
In response, the church published an open letter, rebutting the accusations of the Urban Enforcement Bureau, enumerating the attacks against the church made by the government since 2013. The letter said: “This is the triad of coercion the government has subject us to: first, they threaten our parishioners not to attend service; second, they freeze our financial assets, preventing us from operating; third, they freeze our space, preventing us from congregating.”
As all this happened, the Guiyang Public Security Bureau’s internet surveillance branch threatened two pastors, demanding that they not expose to foreign media the recent actions by the Urban Enforcement Bureau.
In early December a secret document ( full translation) produced by the Guiyang municipal government was leaked. The agency that authored the document, dated December 3, was the “Guiyang Municipal Directorate for Dealing with the ‘Living Stone Church’ According to the Law”; the official stamp affixed to it was the “Office of the Guiyang Municipal Leading Group for Stability Maintenance Work.”
The item said that “Dealing with the Living Stone church according to the law is a political task. A high level of attention must be placed on it, and the top leading cadres in various work units must personally take charge, following the comprehensive municipal plan, earnestly organizing and completing every work task.” The document included the name of every Living Stone church member, and asked each work unit to conduct an inspection on any of their employees whose name appeared on the list, and put each person under “stability control” — a euphemism for surveillance.
Church members were again shocked: the suppression of their group had escalated so quickly that a special municipal command center had been established to carry it out. A Living Stone member told China Change that this was the same pattern used in 1999 when the authorities embarked on the persecution of Falun Gong. He worried that the next step would be more imprisonments of Living Stone members, the use of “study sessions,” and more coercion applied against believers.
More members were forced to withdraw from the church. Pastor Yang Hua told China Aid in an interview: “When the authorities find out that someone is coming to service, they go to their neighborhood committee, summon them, and then threaten them. We had a female church member who ran a store. The police showed up one day and threatened her, trying to make her sign a declaration that she would no longer attend the Living Stone church. If she still went, they’d make it very difficult for her to do business.”
Yang Hua continued: “The government has sent agents into believers’ homes, sought out their parents, relatives, friends, siblings, telling them to stop their relative from going to the church. Some workplaces threatened employees with being fired; some parents were told that if they did quit the church, their children would not be denied schooling. They used whatever method they came up with. There was a 70-year-old retiree became very afraid after been threatened. So we went and told the police: You can’t bully old people any more.”
Pastor Yang Hua told Radio Free Asia that the Religious Affairs Administration demanded that the church voluntarily close its doors or else the government would declare it outlaw.
On December 9, a Sunday, the Guiyang Bureau of Civil Affairs as well as Nanming District Administration for Religious Affairs mobilized about 300 police and law enforcement personnel, divided them into three divisions, and separately closed down and sealed off all three of Living Stone’s church locations. Over two hundred church members were put under house arrest, and Pastor Yang Hua was administratively detained. On the same day, a female member of the church was also detained, because she had used “extreme” language in a WeChat group. Another individual detained was Yu Lei, a friend of the church, whose arrest is believed to be connected to the leak of the secret document.
Both dated December 9, 2015, an announcement by the Bureau of Civil Affairs banned the Living Stone church on the ground that the church is an illegal social group, and an announcement by the Nanming District Administration for Religious Affairs outlawed the church for setting up a religious venue without permission.
On December 14, Pastor Su Tianfu was taken from his home by police for “disrupting public peace.” On December 15 a female member of the congregation known by the Internet name “Yangdamei” was detained for posting an article about the crackdown against the church. On December 16, Pastor Su was briefly released, but was explicitly told by the authorities that he would soon be arrested and prosecuted for the crime of leaking state secrets.
On December 21, after ten days of administration detention, Pastor Yang Hua was placed under criminal detention on charges of illegally possessing state secrets. Later, over ten police officers ransacked his home, confiscated his computer, a tablet device, USB drives, and more. When his wife, expecting his release, went to the detention center to pick him up, she saw him being led away by four men, with a black hood over his head, before being loaded into an van with no number plate and driven away. The same day, Chen Jiangang, a lawyer Pastor Yang had hired, was denied meeting with his client.
Christmas behind bars
As of this writing there are between 6 and 7 people have been detained in connection with the Living Stone case: accountant Zhang Xiuhong, Pastor Yang Hua, two women congregation members, church friend Yu Lei, and one or two individuals accused of involvement in the leaking of the secret document.
Zhang Tan, a member of the church currently in Australia visiting family, was in the late 1980s the chief of the Christian division at the Administration for Religious Affairs in Guiyang. He recently penned anarticle online: “As a Christian, a congregant of the Living Stone church, a former mid-ranking cadre in Guiyang dealing with Christian matters, and a scholar who has researched religious policy for many years, I believe that the use of political methods, especially the model of a political rectification campaign, to deal with religious matters is inappropriate.”
A Living Stone member who has for years worked at NGOs in China said that around a decade ago when the idea of civil society was discussed, it was commonly thought that this meant that groups and organizations would be formed to represent a variety of social interests, that this would be civil society, and that slowly, over time, a social transformation would take effect and China would transition towards democracy. But he said he has realized, since becoming a Christian, that change in China isn’t simply a matter of whether people can participate in elections and cast votes—but whether a coherent set of social values can be formed and nurtured that will bind the society together.
This individual believes that a Christian community provides just such a site for the fostering of values in Chinese society. In the same vein as the Wenzhou pastor I interviewed recently, he believes that religious organizations in general have greater vitality than regular civil society organizations. A NGO can be easily destroyed in China—and indeed, the authorities have over the last two years carried out a destructive campaign of suppression against them. But destroying a church isn’t as easy, he said, Living Stone members have indeed told the police: What you’re doing is pointless; we’ll just keep coming, stronger and stronger.
“These last two days I’ve been turning it over in my mind ceaselessly: when the freedom to believe is so severely suppressed and the freedom of the spirit cannot manifest, the soul becomes a prisoner of the body. Because we’re afraid—afraid of the body being detained,” wrote “Yangdamei” in her essay “Our Destination Is in Jail.” “If a government illegally locks up Christian believers and righteous people, then the proper home for Christians and righteous people is jail. At this time in China, the situation is precisely thus.”
It’s clear, upon reading her piece, that she is an ordinary Chinese woman and the mother of a young child. And she knows that as soon as she posts her reflections online, the police will be on the way.