Tim Stafford

Listening to Chinese Christians

A fresh report.

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When the communists came to power, the missionaries were sent away and the church was sealed: "Overnight, everything was gone. We used to have four hundred people working at the church. Only three were left—me, my aunt, and Bishop Lu Hanchin." Even now, Zhang Yinxian says, most of the orphans raised by the church are reluctant to admit any connection: "They renounced the church during the Cultural Revolution, afraid they would be accused of colluding with foreign imperialists …. [D]espite the situation having made a turn for the better over the past decade, they are probably still afraid of being persecuted."

And with good reason. Liao records many stories of severe persecution during Mao's era; they are all the more powerful because told without drama. The suffering endured by some families is almost unbearable. And yet, remembering back, they often speak with serenity.

Zhang Yingrong, for example, born in 1923. He was a seminary student when the communists took power in 1949. His family was classified as "landlords," and though he owned nothing and had no interest in politics, he had to write hundreds of "confessions." These culminated when he was forced to kneel in the rain for three days without food or drink. He crawled home, but within a few hours was hauled to a public denunciation meeting. "When they realized he couldn't move," Zhang's wife told Liao, "they found a wooden plank and carried him out, put him on stage, and forced him to open his eyes."

Zhang himself continues the narrative:
There were about three to four thousand people there. I couldn't move. There were ten others on the stage for denunciation, all tied with ropes. My eldest brother was there beside me, his arms held behind him by two militiamen, his body bent to ninety degrees. I lay on the wooden plank, looking up. The rain had stopped. Amid the loud shouting, I could hear the river nearby. The clouds had dispersed and the sky was a clear blue. I thought, People lived harmoniously under this same sky in the same village for many years. Why did they act like this now? Why did they hate each other and torture each other like that? Was that what the Communist revolution was all about? All the "class enemies" had been beaten; their faces were swollen and their heads scarred. Beatings couldn't quench their thirst. They started killing. After that meeting, all the former officials under the old regime were executed, including my brother; their children were sentenced to ten to twenty years in jail, where some lost their minds, or died.
I wasn't interested in politics at all. I had never exploited anyone. So they let me live. The torture left me disabled for the rest of my life …. I wasn't allowed to preach, of course.

Talking to underground pastors in Beijing, Liao marvels at their determination and courage. "If the authorities had used my relatives and friends as hostages to threaten me, forcing me to give up my faith," he says, "I would have written confessions, lied, done whatever was needed." In response, Liao's Christian interlocutor asks a probing question:

"But you wouldn't chop off your right hand and swear never to write again, would you?"
"Of course not."
"It's the same principle. My father would not betray his faith, because it was his life."

God Is Red is full of memorable passages like these. Oddly enough, its meandering style and thesis-free curiosity amplify the sense of the church as a powerful and indelible Chinese reality. The Christians who fill these pages are real people. It would be hard to fit them into a single story line; they are too varied.

Most are elderly, but the concluding interview—with brash Ho Lu, 24—suggests a different China emerging. Referring to a documentary film, The Cross: Jesus in China, Ho complains that it focuses too much on history: "Chairman Mao and Deng Xiaoping have been dead a long time. Most Chinese don't care about Communism or revolution anymore. Even the Communist officials don't care much about Communism …. So why do we still waste our time finding fault with this government? It already feels very insecure for its criminal past. It's better not to provoke the commies."

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