The label xie jiao, reserved for banned “heterodox teachings,” is now increasingly applied to “normal” house churches.
They do not accept government control; have overseas ties; have a large number of members; actively preach the Gospel; read banned spiritual books… These are the characteristics of the largest house churches in China today. But these are also the characteristics of the so-called xie jiao groups that the government violently suppresses. Chinese publications in English misleadingly translate xie jiao as “evil cults,” but a better translation is “heterodox teachings.” In theory, what teachings are “heterodox” and prohibited is determined by the government, an old practice dating back to the Ming Dynasty era. Your religion is a xie jiao if the CCP has included it in the list of the xie jiao.
In Xi Jinping’s China, however, general hostility to religion leads to administrative practices going beyond the laws and regulations. Increasingly, the label xie jiao is used against groups that are not in the list of the xie jiao.
A junior government official in northeastern China’s Jilin Province posted the following notice last July on the WeChat group for villagers under his jurisdiction, “The central government is now making great efforts to arrest those who believe in God and is taking down all the crosses hanging in homes. If [a religion] doesn’t have a permit, then it’s designated as a xie jiao, and you must not attend gatherings anymore.”
“If it doesn’t have a permit, then it’s a xie jiao?” some Christians in the village asked each other. “Does that mean every house church is a xie jiao? What exactly are the government’s measurement criteria?”
In the minds of some Chinese officials, making veiled criticisms of the government and not accepting the government’s leadership means that a person or group is anti-Party and anti-government. These are among the standard characteristics of a xie jiao.
Two high profile closures of non-official churches in 2018 illustrate the trend to label all non-permitted churches as xie jiao: Beijing Zion Church and Chengdu Early Rain Covenant Church. During the official investigation before the closure, believers from Zion Church reported that police claimed the church was “anti-Party, anti-government, politically incorrect and xie jiao.” Similarly, Christians arrested at Chengdu Early Rain report that police accused them of attending “an illegal church and a xie jiao organization.”
Pastor Francis Liu from the San Francisco-based Chinese Christian Fellowship of Righteousness said, “It has been reported through many channels that the police tell the people they have arrested that their churches are illegal churches, that their religious beliefs are wrong, and that their organization is a xie jiao. As long as the organization is unfavorable toward them [the government], or they believe that it is organized and poses a threat to their rule, they will brand it as a xie jiao.”
Many Chinese house churches have faced the same predicament as Zion and Early Rain Covenant churches. Some churches have been regarded as being a xie jiao because they “didn’t obtain a permit” for using the premises they own or rent for worshiping purposes, “didn’t listen to the government,” or were suspected of being linked to foreign countries.
Since May 2018, a Great Praise house church in Tanghe county, in central China’s Henan Province, has been ordered repeatedly to cease gatherings. The female preacher refused to comply.
In August, government officials threatened to demolish the meeting place unless it was completely emptied, claiming it was an illegal meeting place, that the church was a xie jiao, and that anything not allowed by the state must be eliminated. On September 11, the government sent more than 100 people to vandalize the meeting venue.
Afterward, the preacher was arrested and interrogated twice. The police questioned her about whether she had contacts with foreigners and who the church’s top leaders were. They asserted that having contact with foreigners is tantamount to being a spy.
Some believers think that the preacher’s “disobedience” was the trigger for the government’s accusations she was operating a xie jiao and serving as a spy. “The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) doesn’t care whether you actually violated the law or not. If you don’t obey them, they will find a way to punish you.”
An Apostolic house church meeting venue in Chongqing city’s Tongliang district in southwestern China has also been deemed as a place of worship for a xie jiao. In April 2018, more than 20 government officials stormed into the meeting venue, asserted that it was an illegal gathering of a xie jiao, and threatened detention for 15 days for minor violations in the future, and prison sentences for major offenses.
“They say that if the place of worship has a permit, it’s orthodox Christianity; if it doesn’t have a permit, it’s a xie jiao. What kind of logic is that?” one church co-worker asked. “My name has already been listed as someone belonging to a xie jiao organization. The pastor has also been restricted. Every three days, he has to report to a grid administrator and must also be photographed.”
Some observers have noticed the move to label house churches as xie jiao since the so-called McDonald’s murder of 2014 when a salesgirl was killed in a McDonald’s restaurant in Zhaoyuan city, Shandong Province, and the Chinese government falsely blamed The Church of Almighty God for the murder. Subsequently, it used the incident as propaganda in their anti-xie jiao campaign.
They worried that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) government would use this designation to eliminate those house churches that the government “dislikes” or that cross some “red lines” by becoming too large, criticizing the government, or maintaining contacts with foreign organizations.
Commentator Guo Baosheng previously warned that people should guard against house churches being branded as xie jiao, saying: “… In the future, in its treatment of house churches and in particular rural house churches, the authorities will increasingly treat them as being guilty of the crime of being a xie jiao. In the list of 20 different xie jiao organizations published by the China Anti-Xie Jiao Association (or China Anti-Cult Association), 15 of them are associated with Christianity. Based on certain characteristics of these 15, many house churches could easily be designated as xie jiao. It would also be very difficult for house churches to draw a clear dividing line between themselves and these 15. … As long as it doesn’t join the Three-Self Church, it could be branded as a xie jiao and dealt with under Article 300 of China’s Criminal Law.”
Reported by Yao Zhangjin