A British researcher encounters a book about a persecuted Christian religious movement in China (1 in a series of two articles)
by Ruth Ingram
A disturbing book
“In 1997, the year I turned 17, police officers arrested my father and persecuted him to death for no other reason than his faith in God. Unable to endure the pain and sorrow of losing his son, my grandfather, too, passed away after poisoning himself several years later. Having had a nervous breakdown after my father’s wretched death, my mother also recently left our side.”
“The dead do not come back, yet we had nowhere to direct our pleas. In the face of persecution and oppression under the dictatorship, we simply swallowed our feelings of injustice as we suffered, thinking that the light at the end of the tunnel was hopelessly out of reach. Time continued its ceaseless march, but the thought of my father, who met a terrible death, remained with me like a bar sinister, as an indelible lifelong pain.”
Zhou Tao’s parents’ crime was none other than membership in The Church of Almighty God, a Christian new religious movement established in China in 1991. Also known as Eastern Lightning, the now 4-million strong movement believes that Jesus Christ has returned to earth incarnated in a Chinese woman (who they worship as Almighty God, and whose civil name they never mention nor use), who was born in northwestern China. She now directs the movement from abroad, where she lives in exile. Persecuted and wanted by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Zhao Weishan, the administrative leader of the movement, also had to leave China and lives abroad.
Since the establishment of the movement, the CCP has hounded members of the group mercilessly, arresting hundreds of thousands, and relentlessly pursuing the leaders. Capture almost always involves torture and at least 121 deaths have been recorded under interrogation or as a consequence of mistreatment by police. The persecution was further stepped up in 2018, involving several special arrest operations resulting in the capture of over 11,000 believers, and is continuing to this day.
Hundreds of arrested and sentenced members are still unaccounted for. Countless properties owned by the church and individual members, have been confiscated. Literature and electronic equipment has been impounded, and believers are pursued to the extent that normal life has been rendered impossible.
An exiled North Korean protestant author has taken it upon herself to record testimonies of “Those who stood firm against relentless violence” in a recent book published by The Pen Centre International Publishers Association, which singles out five particularly graphic stories of suffering experienced by The Church of Almighty God members at the hands of the CCP.
Zhou Tao’s final memory of his father was of seeing him under a white cloth and placed on an emergency stretcher. The body was dressed only in his undergarments and covered with bruises. The area below his Adam’s apple and around his neck showed traces of choking, with the surrounding skin torn and blotched with blood, large amounts of which had splattered on the stretcher.
“A wound, about 3 cm long, ran across the right side of his head, as though he had been hit with a blunt object,” he recounts. “The bridge of his nose, the corners of his eyes, his cheeks, and lips, among other areas, showed dark cuts, as though he had been struck with a club. On his back and waist, there were about four gashes roughly 4 cm long, and his hands were balled tightly into fists. His face was badly disfigured, his eyes open and mouth agape. Even at a glance, it was apparent that he had thrashed around in terrible agony before taking his last breath.”
Despite the family courageously pursuing his father’s killers, police officer Wang was sentenced to a desultory three years served in the community. Tormented by guilt and shunned by her former village friends, his mother died a broken woman.
The stories told by the author are harrowing in the extreme, and each one a tale of senseless barbarity aimed at a group of people who only ask that they be allowed to practice their faith in peace.
Each new chapter opens with an emotional barrage of cruelty and senseless violence wrought against men and women, young and old, as the CCP’s campaign of hatred towards the group gathered pace. Confidential CCP documents, detailing long term plans to annihilate the CAG entirely, explained police hostility and heavy handed methods employed to force ordinary members to denounce leaders and at the very least renounce their faith.
Member of the movement Lin Lin after managing to escape to South Korea recounts in vivid detail the arrest and murder in custody of one of their leaders, Ma Suoping, after several months on the run in 2009, as the Ministry of Public Security “Operation Thunder” in Zhengzhou got under way and church members in 100 households that received them were arrested.
On July 17th that year, a small group of church members just got up from an afternoon nap when suddenly ten or so plain-clothed officers climbed over the wall. Bludgeoning four big dogs in the yard to death they forced their way in. A large officer grabbed group leader Ma Suoping by the hair, triumphant that they had finally captured a key leader of the movement. It had taken forty or fifty police cars blocking roads in every direction, and several hundred police officers to bring these believers down. When Lin Lin asked why they had been arrested, she asked, “Have we killed anyone? Did we set something on fire? Or maybe we committed theft? Did we rob someone? Why are you arresting us?”
She was met with the retort, “Murder? Arson? Those aren’t a big deal. Faith is a much more serious crime. This operation is under the direct supervision of the Ministry of Public Security. Over the past six months, we’ve mopped up the head honchos in your church in several provinces. And now we’ve nabbed the big prize, Ma Suoping. Belief in God? Not in China!”
Taken away for questioning and refusing to betray fellow church members, the torture was brutal. Two men held Lin Lin against the ground while pinning her arms behind her back, grabbed her hair, and slammed her face into the ground. Her screams were ignored and they were oblivious as to whether she lived or died. Taunted in different ways she was made to stand in a half squat with arms in front of her, but unable to endure for long she fell over and couldn’t get up again. She was prodded with toothpicks and beaten in the face with a slipper, and threatened with water boarding with a chili solution or the rack. Worse than all these however was hearing the blood curdling screams of a sister upstairs being tortured.
The tales are relentless and speak of the Communist Party sledgehammer trying to crack the tiny nuts of ordinary everyday people living life according to their private conscience.
Wang Xiang and Wang Mei
58-year-old housewife Wang Xiang received no justice after her daughter Song Xiaolan was pushed out of a fourth-storey rooftop in 2015 simply for being a church leader. On the contrary, police fabricated a web of lies concerning her death ranging from suicide, to self inflicted pesticide poisoning and even to accusations that Wang Xiang herself was responsible for her daughter’s demise.
Wang Mei, 70, tells how her 75 year old husband, incarcerated simply for being a member of the CAG, passed away in prison due to complications arising from diabetes. She vividly remembers October 2003, when the government’s persecution of family churches became so severe that members were forced to hold services in hidden locations deep in the forest, caves, cellars, and corn fields. She tells how her husband suggested building an underground cellar in the kitchen where they could meet. They used to pray as they carried the dirt, load by load, with sweat on their hands until by December, they had finished the cellar. “I was so grateful to God,” she said, “With His protection, we had created a space where our brothers and sisters could hold services.” But the joy was not to last long as her beloved husband was arrested after a meeting one afternoon. From then till his death, she only briefly met him twice.
Finally Zou Demei, also known as Lu Yao, overseer of The Church of Almighty God in Jiangxi Province in 2009 and later leader of the churches in Yunnan, Guizhou, Chongqing and Sichuan, told her story from detention in the USA while awaiting a verdict on her asylum application. As readers of Bitter Winter know, she is now free and allowed to remain in the United States, thanks to an international campaign on her behalf. She speaks of 14 long years on the run between 2002 and 2016, during which the Chinese government’s Ministry of State Security started its joint arrest operation against their movement. High ranking church leaders had targets painted on their backs, with the operation unfolding through phone wiretapping and location tracking.
The authorities had narrowed their search to the home of Sister Gao, where Zou Demei and other two sisters were received, which fortuitously for Zou Demei she had left two days before, but not so for the sisters who were then subjected to the most cruel ordeal.
At 3 a.m., two hundred police officers were mobilized and surrounded the house where sisters Li Jie and Xiao Lan were fast asleep. Special operatives burst in through the windows and before the two women could even come to their senses, they found themselves being viciously beaten. Soon they were bloodied and battered. Their blood spattered up the wall and over the bed sheets.
Electric batons were used on the two sisters in an attempt to extract information about their leader and in the process their clothing was ripped and their bodies covered in wounds. When both sisters refused to talk, the officers focused the torture on a third woman, Sister Gao. She was deprived of food and sleep and with the air conditioner on high, placed barefoot on the concrete floor and doused with cold water. Chilled to the bone, officers continued to torment her in other ways, including subjecting her to extreme heat.
For fourteen long years, she had been living like a fugitive. “I made careful plans whenever I went out,” Zou Demei explains detailing her secret life under the CCP radar. “When it was time to worship, I put someone on the lookout outside and fled the scene if there was so much as a stranger loitering in the area. For fear of being followed, I could never go to big supermarkets even when I needed something, nor could I walk on major roads. I was unable to get medical treatment when I was sick and needed to see a doctor because of the policy requiring patients to register their personal information. Not knowing when the police might burst through my door, I dressed in layers even when I slept, haunted by nightmares of being captured and taken away. With no end in sight to my life in hiding, I spent every passing day in agony. For 5,110 days, I was gripped with constant terror, while my mind and body grew weary from the endless moving. My only wish was to be able to freely live a life of faith.”
She reluctantly concluded that the only way to survive was to seek asylum overseas. Incredibly despite constant monitoring, she managed to obtain a passport and eventually go to the USA. But not even exile would prove to be straightforward and it was not until two years later after more than 830 days in detention and numerous threats of repatriation that she was finally given her liberty.
But even freedom in the West would be bittersweet. After one of the many unsuccessful attempts by the US government to repatriate her, she called a sister from China who had also escaped to the US with the good news but was met with the shocking tidings that her mother was dead and her father missing. It seemed that the CCP had finally caught up with the elderly couple after 16 years on the run and they too had been captured. Their crime, membership of the church.
“Before I knew it, tears began to stream down my face, while my hands trembled and my heart felt as if it were about to split in two,” she sobbed from her exile. “I cried in a loud voice. For the first time since beginning life as a fugitive in 2002, I cried with abandon. I had become accustomed to internalizing all the sadness and pain, big and small, that came from my never-ending life on the run. In dealing with the difficulties of life in American prison, shedding a quiet tear here and there had been enough. But upon hearing that my parents had been captured and my mother killed, I couldn’t contain my emotions any longer. I cried my heart out.”
These are five tragic and personal stories of cruelty and sadism, courage and faith under extreme and gratuitous abuse. But the books that could be written are many and similar tales persist, not only at home in China where members of this church live furtive, secretive lives not knowing what each moment could bring, but also among those exiled, torn from loved ones and not always understood or welcomed by their new host nations.