China (ICC) -- Two weeks ago, the New York Times published details of a fascinating interview with Mr. Zhang, the claimed author of a note written in English and allegedly smuggled out of the Masanjia labor camp while he was imprisoned there. The letter was discovered by a woman in Oregon who found it stashed in a box of Halloween decorations that were packaged at the labor camp. The letter revealed that conditions in the camp were "a living hell" and that about half the camp's occupants were either Falun Gong practitioners or members of underground house churches.
In late 2012, China Aid, a human rights organization dedicated to assisting Chinese Christians who face abuses of religious freedom, published a report citing an increase of 131.8 percent in the number of Christians imprisoned by the Chinese government over the course of 2012. The report was alarming and controversial, but recent research conducted on the ground by International Christian Concern (ICC) has confirmed that Christians still face arrest and imprisonment in large numbers despite the overall impression that China has curtailed repression of religious minorities in recent years.
One eyewitness sentenced to a re-education through labor camp in Shangqui, Henan Province, told ICC late last month that she estimates at least 50 to 60 Christians spent time in her camp over the course of her two-year sentence. She said many were arrested repeatedly for refusing to stop attending house churches which remain technically illegal in China. The only legal option for Protestants is to attend an officially registered "Three-Self church." However, millions of Chinese Christians refuse to join these churches due to the high level of control exerted by the Communist Party over everything -- from what is preached to who is allowed to preach it.
Also alarming is the length to which Chinese officials are willing to go in order to keep the repression of religious groups confidential. Many Chinese religious leaders told ICC that the number of violent incidents, such as beatings or torture while under arrest, have decreased dramatically in recent years while at the same time the level of control exerted over these groups has increased exponentially. One pastor relayed how officials in his hometown "knew everything about him" and were constantly tracking meeting locations, times, and number of people in attendance. They would often invite him to "have tea" and apply subtle pressure for his congregation to join with the local Three-Self church.
This heightened level of observation should not be surprising. Starting in 2010, China began spending a greater share of its gross domestic product on internal security to police its own population than on its substantial military. One source cautioned an ICC representative that they should assume that all communications -- cell phone, e-mail, and even web addresses visited -- would be monitored and recorded while visiting China. If at any time the work of a foreigner becomes too prominent or threatened, they would be "deported without delay." The requirement for users of hotel internet to input their passport number before being able to browse was the first indication to this author that China's internal security apparatus remains alive and well.
The bright side to all of this is that it appears that international pressure has in some ways had a great effect on China's overall treatment of religious minorities. Incidents that would spark an international outcry, such as handing down a long prison sentence to a major house church leader, are frowned upon by Beijing, even if publicly the country's leaders deny any wrongdoing to the rest of the world. For the millions of Christians living in Beijing, Shanghai, and other major cities, this is good news.
Unfortunately for the millions more living in more rural or suburban areas of China, there is little hope of assistance. Stifling restrictions placed on both the Chinese press and foreign journalists make it extremely difficult to collect first-hand reports of recent arrests on the basis of religious belief. The information we do have, though, suggests that it is far too soon to announce the dawn of anything like true religious freedom in the People's Republic of China. For hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens, that day remains hidden in an uncertain and, if the Communist Party has its way, highly controlled future.
International Christian Concern is a Washington, D.C.-based human rights organization that exists to help persecuted Christians worldwide. ICC provides awareness, advocacy and assistance to the worldwide persecuted church.
Publication date: June 24, 2013