Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Underground, Not Extinct: South China Church

An open letter from the daughters of Pastor Gong Shengliang to then-President George W. Bush. The letter includes a picture of the Gong family (Gong Shengliang seated bottom left). Image credit: Boxun News 

The lack of recent information about South China Church has led to questions about its continued existence. Dui Hua’s research, including a criminal judgment issued in 2016 involving its members, suggests, however, that the group continues to operate even as its founder remains incarcerated. 

Founded in Hubei Province in 1991 as an offshoot of Full Scope Church, South China Church (华南教会) was designated as an “evil cult” by the Chinese government in 1995. At the time, the church was thought to have 50,000 followers across central China (some sources reported nearly 100,000 members). In 2001, the trial of 17 leaders of this Protestant house church sparked an international outcry. Church members submitted sworn statements to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention claiming that the church leaders had been tortured into confessing and making false statements prior to and during the trial. 

Among those sentenced was church founder Gong Shengliang (龚圣亮), who initially received a death sentence for “organizing a cult to undermine implementation of the law,” aggravated assault, and rape. Responding to international pressure, the Hubei High People’s Court dropped the death sentence and ordered a retrial. Gong was granted a two-year reprieve from his death sentence in September 2002 after making a successful appeal. 

Reporting on Gong Shengliang’s two-year reprieve from the death penalty: (left) A reprinted Baltimore Sun article from 2002 on Gong; (right) a BBC article mentioning Gong’s case from November 9, 2004. Image credits: The Tech; BBC News 

Gong’s sentence was commuted to life in prison in 2006. Gong was granted a six-month sentence reduction in 2008. As he has been held behind bars for twenty years, updates about him and his church have been sparse. An exception came in December 2012, when his family members spoke to foreign press about Gong’s deteriorating health in prison. Gong was reportedly paralyzed by stroke. He was unable to speak or move the left side of his body and kept drooling from his mouth. However, prison officials have not conceded to his family’s request to release him on medical parole. 

Compared to Falun Gong and Almighty God, South China Church has not been a prime target of attacks by China’s anti-cult propaganda since its 17 church leaders were put on trial in the early 2000s. As recently as March 2020, a county government in Gansu mentioned South China Church only in passing alongside other seemingly inactive unorthodox Christian sects such as Anointed King, New Testament Church, Dami Mission, World Elijah Evangelical Mission, and Buddhist sect Yuandun Famen

Partly because of a lack of recent information about South China Church since Gong’s imprisonment, questions have arisen as to whether the group still exists. Some leaders left the church after 2002, while other members have continued to meet and have accepted the teachings of orthodox pastors. In the early 2010s, www.kaiwind.com, a so-called non-governmental website claiming to reveal facts about Falun Gong, ran at least four reports covering South China Church. The interviewees were allegedly abused by South China Church members. The series appears to be a response to the brief foreign media exposure in 2012 resulting from Gong’s family members speaking out about his deteriorating health.

A screenshot of a search on Kaiwind.com showing reports on South China Church, including alleged abuses. Image credit: Kaiwind.com 

South China Church is a subject of research in at least two academic journals published after 2015. Their findings affirmed the church’s continuing operation. Huang Jianbo, anthropology professor at East China Normal University, wrote in Chinese Journal of Theology in 2015 that South China Church members continued to proselytize and that they administered the now-defunct website www.huananchurch.org. The journal was published by Institute of Sino-Christian Studies in Hong Kong. 

As recently as 2018, Beijing-based Christian Times (基督时报), which claimed to be independent of house churches or other religious organizations, also provided updates about South China Church. The in-depth article, authored by prolific Christian researcher Liu Yanyue, stated that Gong continued to decree that church members must read John Calvin’s seminal work of Institutes of the Christian Religion. The church might soon become marginalized, wrote Liu, but he also cited a church member he had interviewed as saying that many of its members are still longing for Gong’ release. 

(Left) The cover of a 1995 translation of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, said to be required reading for South China Church members; (right) the first page of the book’s first printing, from 1536. Image credits: The Book Depository; Public domain 

Dui Hua’s research into court websites also uncovered a judgment involving seven South China Church members who made an unsuccessful appeal in Jiangxi to overturn their conviction in December 2016. They were sentenced to 20-36 months in prison for “gathering a crowd to disturb social order,” instead of Article 300. One of the defendants was previously sentenced to a 10-year prison sentence in October 2002 for aggravated assault, the same year when Gong’s death sentence was reduced to death with two-year reprieve. 

In May 2015, the defendants organized over 40 church members to travel from their home province Hubei to Gao’an City, Jiangxi, to protest the police’s handling of a traffic accident that had left one of their church members dead. The judgment stated that they chanted slogans, unfurled banners, placed wreathes, and held photos of the deceased while protesting and blocking traffic for four hours. Forty-one protesters were taken away at the scene. 

All the defendants have been released from prison at the time of writing. Two other court rulings Dui Hua uncovered indicated that Ding Zhicheng (丁志成) and Zhang Chengqin (张成勤) completed their sentences about four months early in January-February 2018 after being granted a sentence reduction. Ding and Zhang received the longest prison sentences, consisting of three years each, among the defendants in the case. Another recently uncovered official document from 2015 helped Dui Hua identify another defendant named Mei Yuqing (梅宇清) who received a two-year sentence while defendants Dong Hualing (董华玲), Dong Nengjun (董能军), and Wang Tiantian (万甜甜) both received sentences of one year and eight months in prison. 

Gong is believed to be the only South China Church leader still imprisoned. He has been a source of controversy due to questions concerning the orthodoxy of his teachings and his personal conduct. In 2007, reports by rights monitoring groups overseas found some evidence corroborating accusations against Gong, including that he molested female church members and that he encouraged the use of violence against the church’s perceived enemies. Yet, Dui Hua’s recent research on unorthodox religious groups and their treatment by the CCP suggests that the great majority of unorthodox religious prisoners are nonviolent.  

Like many other unorthodox religious groups suppressed by the Chinese government, South China Church has not been rendered extinct. Many of its activities appear to have been driven underground. With two more years to serve in prison, Gong is scheduled for release in April 2024.