By JOSEPH MACKINNON | September 07, 2022
Throughout its history, but with renewed vigor in recent years, the atheistic communist Chinese regime has sought to crush or at the very least control Christianity within Chinese borders. Christianity is regarded by the communist leadership as a foreign threat to its control and well-being — one that Mao Zedong endeavored to eliminate altogether. Although Chinese Christians of all denominations have routinely been subject to harassment, torture, detentions, and executions inside China’s borders, the CCP has recently taken more brazenly to hounding those who have fled abroad.
Pastor Pan Yongguang and 61 congregants belonging to the Shenzhen Holy Reformed Church fled China to the South Korean island of Jeju in 2019, seeking asylum. The CCP required that the SHRC and its members should join a registered church, one strictly regulated by the regime, or otherwise be disbanded and barred from assembling.
Registered churches are required to display images of Chinese dictator Xi Jinping and communist propaganda alongside or in lieu of religious images. Homilies are censored. Surveillance cameras installed on altars record all church happenings. Additionally, to ensure state atheism takes, people under the age of 18 are barred from participating in religious ceremonies.
Pastor Pan had no intention of registering.
Pressure mounted when the regime, responding to the 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, sought to everywhere re-exert its dominance. Pastor Pan said that “quasi-martial law” was consequently imposed on Shenzhen and upon his parish. The SHRC mulled over what to do. The church put the matter to a vote, and the majority elected to leave.
Though they successfully made it to South Korea, it was made abundantly clear both by local authorities and U.S. officials that Pastor Pan’s congregation would be unable to stay. Less than 1% of asylum seekers were permitted to stay in 2019.
Bob Fu of the non-governmental Christian nonprofit China Aid warned, “If they get deported back to China by Korean officials, every member of this church will face extreme punishment.” Fu was not speaking hyperbolically.
Within months of the SHRC’s exodus, Pastor Wang Yi, the founder of one of China’s largest unregistered churches, was sentenced to nine years in prison, denied all political rights, and fined. Yi’s fate is commonplace for Christians in the region.
Spanish journalist Pablo M. Diez has elsewhere noted how Catholic Bishop James Su Zhimin, like others who refused to subordinate themselves to CCP religious regulators, was “disappeared” after “having spent most of his life deprived of his freedom.”
Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong was similarly arrested May 11, 2022, for his religiosity, support of freedom, and criticism of the CCP.
For fear of being returned by South Korea to China to suffer the kind of fate met by Zhimin, Yi, and Zen, the SHRC congregants migrated instead to Thailand, where they believe CCP agents are still stalking them.
Despite escaping China, Pastor Pan and his parish have nevertheless been subject to continued harassments, threats, and surveillance by the CCP. Those they left behind in China have also paid the price for their families’ Christianity, in the way of intimidation, interrogation, and other statist abuses, including the prohibition of a newborn child’s legal status.
The pastor, whom CCP agents have accused of “treason,” “collusion with foreign forces,” and “subversion of state power,” learned that his siblings and mother have been penalized as a result of his actions.
Another congregant’s relative in the mainland was told by communist officers, “Your descendants may suffer.”
The presumed objective of the CCP’s mistreatment of the expat Christians’ relatives is to coerce Pastor Pan and his parish back to China, where if not executed, they may be placed in reeducation camps and forced to renounce their faith.
China is home to tens of millions of Christians. Although the communist Chinese regime stated in 2018 that there were only 44 million Christians within its borders, this is regarded by many to be a gross undercount, as official figures only factor in members of registered Christian groups (in which the SHRC, house Christians, and the underground Catholic Church are not numbered).
A 2011 Pew Forum report indicated the number of Christians, including Protestants and Catholics, exceeded 67 million. The Economist similarly indicated in 2020 that official numbers aren’t reflective of the reality; that Chinese Christians and Muslims together outnumber the membership of the communist party (92 million).
A broader problem
The CCP does not only send its agents abroad to stalk Christians who have fled. Freedom House issued a report last year indicating that China “conducts the most sophisticated, global, and comprehensive campaign of transnational repression in the world.” It targets religious and ethnic minorities (e.g., Christians, Uyghurs, Tibetans, Falun Gong practitioners), political dissidents, human rights activists, and others.
For instance, over 1,500 ethnic Muslim Uyghurs have been detained in the Middle East and North Africa, many of whom have been extradited back to China. Thousands more have been targeted, hit with cyber attacks, or have had their families back in China threatened.
The CCP has also activated agents in the United States. Earlier this year, five CCP spies were charged with stalking, harassing, and spying on Chinese nationals in New York.
In October 2020, eight illegal agents of the CCP were charged for surveilling, locating, and intimidating targets of the communist regime. These agents intended to coerce their targets back to China, where “they would face certain imprisonment or worse following illegitimate trials.”