Government agents attend all services, and church members themselves are bribed to inform for the government, leading to paranoia among believers.
Placing government agents and moles in Three-Self and house churches for long-term surveillance is one of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s consistent practices. These spies secretly monitor Christians – especially the speech and movements of preachers and leaders – and make reports to the government.
At the end of last year, Bitter Winter talked to a State Security Bureau agent who had been monitoring a Three-Self church in Zhejiang Province in eastern China. The State Security Bureau is the CCP’s primary intelligence agency, and one of its roles is the surveillance of dissidents and religious individuals.
“To put it plainly, the National Security Bureau was established to prevent the state regime from being overthrown,” said the agent. “We monitor any organization that is growing.”
The National Security agent was uncommonly honest and direct in his speech. “The people you see in churches aren’t all Christians. Among them are also people from the United Front Work Department (UFWD), and there may also be people from the local State Security Bureau. They bring pinhole cameras and other surveillance equipment. They watch the Christians’ movements to see if they are engaging in any speech that could be disadvantageous to the government. In the past, the surveillance equipment in the churches didn’t have audio, and they could only analyze the Christians’ movements through visual surveillance footage. Now, however, we can listen to and monitor what they are saying in person. When we discover an anomaly, we report it immediately and have the people seized. Some people have no idea what’s going on even when they’re taken away.”
He continued, “Some churches don’t have very many members, but we have moles in them regardless. We put several agents in most churches, though we don’t even know the identities of one another. It’s all very secretive, and many agents’ closest family members don’t know their true identities.”
These types of stake-outs are long-term, and agents are expected to go to the church every week to listen to sermons.
Some churches are harder to put agents into because past intense persecution has driven them to be very suspicious of outsiders. To monitor those religious groups, the CCP often tries to bribe members of the community to gather information.
Recently, Bitter Winter interviewed a former Three-Self Church preacher from Shaanxi Province in northwestern China. The local government tried to bribe him on multiple occasions by offering him a high salary to infiltrate The Church of Almighty God.
This preacher, who was unwilling to reveal his first and last name, stated that a division chief of the local Bureau of Religious Affairs began contacting him in 2013. He was told that his preaching was great and that he might be able to gain the trust of The Church of Almighty God and infiltrate it undercover. The government offered to pay him 5,000 RMB (about $714) per month as compensation to act as their operative. However, he would need to remain undercover for 2-3 years, and during that time he would have to report regularly about the Church’s activities.
The preacher stated, “They couldn’t get regular State Security personnel to do this job, so they had no choice but to try to bribe a believer into doing it. The Bureau of Religious Affairs and UFWD contacted me repeatedly for six months. I just played dumb every time, making excuses to get out of it. If I accepted their offer, I would be a Judas, and the Lord would not be pleased.”
This preacher told Bitter Winter that he was also being monitored long-term by the spy installed in his church by the CCP, which is why the officials of the Bureau of Religious Affairs knew his preaching was good.
The placing of spies in churches is common in China, and authorities are expanding the practice. According to the minutes of an internal meeting, all police officers of a National Security Brigade in a city of Jiangxi Province attended a symposium in December 2018 held by the public security sub-bureau. The meeting demanded more effort to be devoted to the work of intelligence collection on religious groups, especially those listed as xie jiao. The symposium also required that elite intelligence agents be cultivated; that the secret forces be strengthened; and that high-quality intelligence operatives who can infiltrate targeted organizations and get close to key figures be emphasized.
The ubiquitous presence of spies has driven churches to become paranoid and to treat outsiders skeptically. During an interview with underground Catholics, the believers repeatedly tried to discover how the stranger had come to them.
“We have no choice. We have to be on guard,” one elderly Catholic said. “The government is redoubling its efforts to monitor underground Catholic churches. Something like this happened before: there was a mole in the church who was on good terms with all of us. But after he got some information from us, he turned around and reported it to the government. We’ve been tricked and conned, and now no one dares to trust anyone.”
Guarding against spies has become a habit for members of many underground churches. Their caution and their wariness of one another is a result of the CCP’s long-term persecution and surveillance.
Reported by Zhou Xiaolu