November 26, 2002
God and China
But now, months later, Ma Yuqin abruptly chokes and her eyes well with tears as she recounts her worst memory: As she was being battered in one room, her son was tortured in the next so that each could hear the other's screams, as encouragement to betray their church.
"They wanted me to hear his cries," she said, sobbing. "It broke my heart."
Ms. Ma, a steel-willed woman of 54, was brave enough to tell her story of the persecution that Christians sometimes still face in China. Dozens of members of her church are still imprisoned, and those free are under tight scrutiny, but several church members dared to meet me for a tense interview after we all sneaked one by one into an unwatched farmhouse near Zhongxiang, a city in central China, 650 miles south of Beijing.
China is in many ways freer than it has ever been, and it's easy to be dazzled by the cellphones and skyscrapers. But alongside all that sparkles is the old police state. Particularly in remote areas like this, police can arrest people and torture or kill them with impunity, even if they are trying to do nothing more than worship God. Accordingly, Washington must press China hard to observe not only international trade rules, but also international standards for human freedom.
Secret Communist Party documents just published in a book, "China's New Rulers," underscore the grip of the police. The party documents say approvingly that 60,000 Chinese were killed, either executed or shot by police while fleeing, between 1998 and 2001. That amounts to 15,000 a year, which suggests that 97 percent of the world's executions take place in China. And it's well documented that scores of Christians and members of the Falun Gong sect have died in police custody.
In some parts of China Christians worship completely freely. But in other areas the authorities brutally crush the independent churches, and that's what happened to the South China Church, an evangelical Christian congregation active here.
Ms. Ma said she and her family were sleeping one night in May 2001, when police burst into her house and arrested her, her son and her daughter-in-law. The police left her 5-year-old grandson alone with nobody to take care of him. A 27-year-old woman friend and fellow Christian named Yu Zhongju who dropped by the house was promptly arrested as well.
Ms. Yu died in custody, and one can surmise that she was beaten to death. According to interviews with church members and statements smuggled out of prison, dozens of church members were arrested at the same time and were beaten with clubs, jolted with cattle prods and burned with cigarettes; when they fainted, buckets of water were poured on them to revive them. Interrogators stomped on the fingers of male prisoners and stripped young women prisoners naked and abused them.
"They used the electrical prods on me all over," Ms. Ma said, fighting back the tears again. "They wanted to humiliate us."
The government initially sentenced five church members to death. Ms. Ma herself was released because she was so sick that the authorities feared she would die in prison, but her son, Long Feng, was sent to labor camp where the guards told criminals to beat him up.
One of the ironies of Christianity in China is that in the first half of the 20th century, thousands of missionaries proselytized freely and yet left a negligible imprint. Yet now, with foreign missionaries banned and the underground church persecuted, Christianity is flourishing in China with tens of millions of believers.
To his credit, President Bush has emphasized the issue of religious freedom in China, and there is progress. Last month a court overturned the death sentences of the South China Church leaders, replacing them with long prison terms. Increasingly, a historic change is visible: Citizens of China are becoming less afraid of the government than it is of them.
I had assumed that Ms. Ma,, like all the other church members I interviewed, would not want her name published. "No," she said firmly, "use my name. I'm not afraid. The police are afraid of foreign pressure, but I'm not afraid of them."