Religion in China - Part 4

This is the third part of a three-part series on the Three Grades of Servants church in China.  See Part 1 and Part 2.

(Phoenix Weekly)  The Religious Reality in a Rural Village.  By Liu Zhiming and Deng Fei.  April 15, 2006.  Issue No. 216 (2006 issue no. 11).

In March at Lingliu village, the wheat fields were bright green.  There are more than 1,700 people in this village.  The village mayor Zhang Daosheng told Phoenix Weekly that six or seven out of every ten families are religious believers in this village.  In Xu Wenkou's home village of Xuying Team, the ratio is even higher as almost every family believes in religion.

The local villagers belong to many kinds of churches, mainly Catholic and Christian churches.  On weekends, the villagers gathered at the various small churches around the place or else at the homes of believers to celebrate mass, sing hymns and say prayers.  Some people who have been believers relatively longer will do readings and interpretations from the Bible and they are known as "preachers."

According to the villagers, the earliest family that became believers a the same time as those people in Xuying Team is Xie Changfeng's family in Zhengyu village.

63-year-old Xie Changfeng believed in Christianity ever since when he was small.  He told the reporter that the Xie family began to believe in religion with his grandmother.  She had an incurable illness, and so she joined the church.  Afterwards, the entire family joined.  When Xie first joined, there were very few believers.  "Out of a thousand people, there might be one or two."  At the time, all the churches nearby had no elders or pastors.  When the Cultural Revolution began, the churches were forced to shut down.  Like Xu Wenkou, Xie Changfeng's father Xie Junqian got swept in.

Xie recalled that his father was strung up on a tree and beaten.  The ropes were so tight that even the bones in his hands were showing.  Due to his religious faith, Xie Junqian was classified into the "five elements" (note: landlords, rich peasants, counter-revolutionaries, bad elements and rightists) and penalized for 40% of his work points for seven years.  At the start of the 1980's, religious activities were gradually revived and the Xie family joined the church again.

Xie Junqian is 84 years old today.  He is blind, his mind is hazy but he can still sing hymns.  The old man has seven sons and they have children too.  The whole family consist of more than 30 people, all of whom are believers.  The old man said that religious believers are tolerant and considerate, and they are happy and content.

There are many churches near Lingliu village.  Apart from the Zhengyu village church, the Xiaodian township area has eight other churches.  Lingliu Village Xuying Team's Jiao Chuncai is the second-in-command of the Zhengyu village church.  On weekends, he will go there to preach.  He is acknowledged as one of the most fervent Christians in the village.  His religious experience went through a twisted journey of "believer -- non-believer -- believer".

According to what Jiao Chuncai told the reporter, at the end of the Qing dynasty, the Americans built a Christian church in Nanyang.  Jiao's mother had breast cancer and they had no money to treat the disease.  So they joined the church, and the breast cancer healed itself.  She lived until 97 before dying peacefully.  So the whole family were believers.

Jiao Chuncai had been a village cadre at a certain period of time.  He detested corruption among the grassroots cadres, and he filed complaints many times to the superiors.  A Nanyang county public security bureau director was investigated as a result.  Jiao Chuncai told Phoenix Weekly that he had offended many powerful people in town as a result of these incidents.  This caused more than 10,000 RMB of his wages as a village cadre to be withheld and not paid to him.  Jiao has visited the relevant departments, but everyone ignored him.  So that was why he became unhappy and rejoined the church after having left before.

"In a situation with no exit, religious belief helps one to stay calm," said Jiao Chuncai.

Some believers told Phoenix Weekly that when the town church finds out that a believer's family is encountering difficulty, they will send people to visit and show concern.  Some believers will even organize to come over to work in the field.  "Although this is not exactly like the government sending over food and blankets, they are still sincere."  Furthermore, most of the young men and women in the village have left to work on the outside and the people left behind are mostly young and old.  Life is monotonous and therefore a church assembly provides the opportunity to sing and pray in a group setting.  Therefore, many people think that religious faith makes them feel warm and not alone.

The believers in the villages know that there are much larger churches in the cities allowed by the government under the "three freedoms."  "But they are not able to come down to the villages because they have too few people who have to do too many things."  Therefore, the villagers have made their own choices with respect to the churches.  It has always been that "whichever church has a better reputation in curing illnesses, they will have more believers -- most peasants cannot afford medical treatment.  They are trying to find the method most suitable for them to cope with illnesses."

"When the public security people arrest people from a certain church, we won't go there anymore."  Villager Zhang Chunfu said that they can then tell which churches are permitted by the government and which ones are not permitted.  But he complains that there continues to be more churches appearing in the villages and the public security militia cannot always be at the villages.  Many times, he and his neighbors are lost and confused when they encounter these preachers.

Zhang has chosen to go to a church.  He believes in a common Chinese saying -- the monks may run off, but the temple cannot.  "A church with a fixed location should be better."

The local government does almost nothing to interfere with the religious practice of the village residents.  When the villagers celebrate mass in the local churches, they will not be disturbed or questioned.  Zhang Daosheng said that the church has commandments posted to remind the believers to believe in God, honor their parents, avoid adultery and theft and not do anything harmful to others.  Therefore religious believers are often better tempered and easier to get along with than other people.

A local informed source said that apart from celebrating mass at the barren churches, there are also secret assemblies inside homes.  Actually, the local police has been monitoring the churches that are not under their control.  Many county-level national security squads have special "anti-'evil cult' squads" to strike at the "evil cults" as defined by the National Ministry of Public Security.

Xu Wenkou obviously did not develop his own church in his hometown.  Therefore, he is barely known in his hometown.  Eastern Lightning, which had major clashes with the church led by Xu, has a bigger reputation.  Zhang Daosheng believed that there are other churches which are not approved by the government such as Eastern Lightning in their villages, but their activities are more secretive.

Phoenix Weekly noted that the specialized organizations that are supposed to combat evil cult heretics in China have done new work related to people's thoughts.  The grassroots party and government organizations are asked to set up working organizations to stop the evil cults, to pay high attention to the importance of dealing with the evil cults and to include this work as routine part of the overall administration of construction and public security by the grassroots party and government organizations.

The mainland government thinks that the evil cults pose a great threat to the stability of national government authority and society.  The infiltration by the evil cults into a small number of rural villages has endangered the productivity, livelihood and physical lives of the peasants, erode the authority of the base-level government and seriously affect the stability and economic development of the rural society.

As village mayor, Zhang Daosheng can feel that there have been changes in how the town government has felt towards the religious beliefs of the villagers.  Based upon the information that he has come across, the local party and government organizations must improve their leadership "to act quickly by going to the villagers and face up to their needs in order to develop educational activities against the evil cults."

Town cadres have told Zhang and his village party committee to educate the villagers "not to listen to propaganda by the evil cults, not to listen to the lies from the evil cults and above all not to propagandize on behalf of the evil cults."  They should also encourage the villagers that when they find evil cult people deceiving people, holding illegal assemblies or organize sabotage activities to quickly report to the village party committee and the public security organizations.

As for the official determination to stop the activities of evil cults in villagers, Tsinghua University Political Science Department professor Kang Xiaoguang stated that the evil cults are popular among those whom the government has abandoned because the evil cults provide social services that the government is not offering and they also let people have a sense of belonging.

In November 11, 2004, the New York Times published the article Violence Taints Religion's Solace for China's Poor which claimed that the economic development in rural China has been slow so that the peasants who account for 2/3 of the population in China are still leading poor and backwards lives.  By contrast, the people in the cities enjoy medical coverage and other social welfare benefits which have not yet reached the rural villages.  The newspaper believes that the violent power struggle between the Three Grades of Servants and Eastern Lightning exposes the risks brought about by the urban-rural difference in government policies towards religion as well as overall government policies towards the peasants in health, education and religion.

According to a researcher of religion in China who wishes to remain anonymous, emptiness and yearning in the closed rural society forced the religious churches to go underground, and form a breeding ground as fertile for the wheat and the barley.  In the absence of diversified information channels which allow for comparisons to mainstream beliefs, the evil heretical cults are unlikely to be eradicated in mainland China.  Therefore, he called for the government to allow more space in the development of new villages to let the heretical and mainstream religions interact positively and healthily.  Then the heretics will naturally disappear and dissolve into nothingness.  The ecology of religious beliefs in mainland China can then be changed step by step.