World Watch Monitor hears from two Chinese church leaders about the challenges facing Christians and whether the crackdown in Zhejiang is likely to be repeated elsewhere. Both wished to remain anonymous, so we’ll call them A and B.

What is your reaction to the situation in Zhejiang?

A: “In Zhejiang, the context is demolition of illegal construction. TSPM* [state-sponsored] church buildings are considered government property. From the perspective of the government, it is legitimate for them to manage their own property according to the laws.

“Pastor Joseph Gu [of Chongyi Church in Hangzhou, the capital of the province] was sacked and charged because he spoke against the demolition of crosses. The government treats TSPM pastors like Gu as their children and it is common in Chinese culture for parents to discipline their children.”

B: “The Zhejiang authorities’ hardline policy has aroused substantial concerns. We should bear in mind that Zhejiang province – precisely the Wenzhou region – is the heart of Christianity across the whole country.

“On 1 October, 2015 the government implemented the ‘Discretionary Guidelines for Administrative Penalties of the Ethnic and Religious Affairs Committee of Zhejiang Province’, by which it imposes rigorous fines against religious activities, donations and training.

“Under these measures, local churches in Zhejiang – particularly unregistered churches – are very likely to suffer from financial difficulties. According to Christians in Hangzhou, the maximum fine is three times the amount they receive through donations, so churches may go bankrupt.”

What challenges have you faced as a church leader?

A: “I personally feel there has been less control over my church and me by the authorities in recent years: we continue services in a commercial building without any interruption. The authorities occasionally have tea with me to receive an update on what happens in my church. But it’s getting less frequent – just two to three times a year.

“As I’m part of the top leadership of my network, I expect tighter surveillance by the authorities than an ordinary pastor. While hundreds of thousands of church leaders can freely communicate with local and overseas parties online, I often expect irregularities with my online service or electronic devices.”

What are the challenges facing the Chinese Church as a whole?

B: “Leaders are under the threat that the authorities can punish them with charges like ‘illegal fundraising and money collecting’. At present, most local churches are able to provide pastors with a salary or living support, which is sufficient for the basic livelihood of their families. Some even provide quite reasonable salaries – comparable to secular occupations. If the situation [deteriorates], pastors will not be able to receive a salary – to avoid being accused of committing financial crimes. This would bring about tremendous financial pressure.

“[With] the registered churches, an abrupt change has been seen recently. Since the founding of new China, the party has managed the registered churches rather indirectly – namely to control [them] through the two social institutions: TSPM and CCC [The China Christian Council]. Gradually, in recent years, the authorities have directly deployed United Front [Bureau] executives into churches, set up offices, addressed the Communist Party’s religious policies from the pulpit, appointed Party cadres as seminary vice presidents, and carried out ‘patriotic education’.

“Undoubtedly we can expect that most churches are not willing to succumb to [such] control, [but] the authorities will raise the price for not registering under TSPM and CCC. Churches will be overseen and inspected by local authorities at a community-level, which is a much lower level than previously. As such … the room for unregistered churches will be further narrowed.

“The climate for unregistered churches is also expected to be hampered. To start with, unregistered seminaries, which act as important training centres, are under pressure. Unregistered churches should prepare themselves for the possible worst environment… Local churches have to adapt back to the old mode of house gatherings, after striving over a decade to operate in public spaces – such as in office buildings.

“Pastors also need to discern spies.”

What have you made of the rumours about new plans for unregistered churches?

Earlier this year, a message was circulated via the popular Chinese social-media site, WeChat, which was understood to show the government’s new plans for dealing with unregistered churches. It translated:

1. Churches that are willing to join the TSPM system and be managed by the authorities will be granted registration.

2. Churches that decline to join the TSPM system, but are willing to be managed by the authorities, will have an informal registration, for reference.

3. Churches that neither join the TSPM system, nor agree to be managed by the authorities, will need to continue to be ‘educated’.

4. Churches that neither join the TSPM system, nor agree to be managed by the authorities, and also continue to be infiltrated by foreign forces, will be cracked down upon.

A: “These four measures are consistent with the pattern of current restrictions and I personally believe they are not merely rumours. It is common that the government conveys messages on new policies through informal channels to test the water, in particular when those new policies are controversial and might arouse public opposition. In this situation, the government may ascertain how the local churches and authorities respond and then determine to what extent they can be implemented.

“I personally find this new policy is not necessarily a sign [of worse things to come]. On the contrary, it even creates more space for church ministries. One might find the crackdown mentioned in measure #4 very negative for the Church. But this is exactly the approach taken for decades, so it is no worse now. Yet, in this generation, the overwhelming majority of churches in China are indigenous ones and not funded from overseas. Overseas funding is usually taken as a sign of control and is not acceptable by the government.

“Measure #3 is the situation of most unregistered churches now. The authorities attempt to educate and manage them by having tea meetings with pastors. Again, this is no worse than now. Once the authorities continue to have dialogue, the churches can, on the contrary, grasp the opportunities to educate them on how churches can benefit society.

“Measure #2 is a new measure that provides the opportunity for church registration, which has been called for by unregistered churches for years.

“Measure #1 won’t be a preferred choice for unregistered churches.”

What next for the Chinese Church?

B: “Chinese churches have gone through over 200 years of ups and downs. If the situation gets worse, local churches will be compelled to break into small pieces. As the government prepares to [control] donations, churches may then face financial hardship.

“Delegation of religious control to the authorities at a community-level on the one hand narrows the space for unregistered churches. But on the other, to survive, local churches are motivated to gain favour from the local authorities by doing good deeds in the community.”

Learn more: What’s behind the pressure on the Church in China?

*TSPM churches, initiated in the 1950s, promoted a strategy of “self-governance, self-support and self-propagation” in order to remove foreign influences from the Chinese churches and to assure the government that they would be patriotic to the newly established People’s Republic of China. The National Committee of TSPM in China and the China Christian Council (CCC) are known as the ‘lianghui‘ (two organisations), which form the state-sanctioned Church in China.