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Cablegate: Religious Freedom in China: Case Study of Rural Jintang

DE RUEHCN #0289/01 3410849
R 070849Z DEC 09




E.O. 12958: N/A

REF: A) 07 Chengdu 272; B) Chengdu 102; C) Chengdu 270

CHENGDU 00000289 001.2 OF 004

1. (U) This message is contains sensitive but unclassified
information. Not for Internet distribution.

2. (SBU) Summary. Sichuan's rural Jintang County has a small
Protestant community of 1000 persons organized under one
"patriotic" church (a legally registered religious venue), with
about 30 house churches (illegal, unregistered but affiliated),
a recent trip by Consul General indicates. The community has
applied to open a second, official church; a lack of funding,
not corruption or bureaucratic resistance, appears to be behind
any potential rejection. County government's attitudes in
Sichuan toward churches vary widely, from outright hostility to
welcoming. Maximum memberships of tolerated albeit illegal
house churches in Sichuan before local authorities crack down
are apparently 30 members in rural areas, and 15 in urban
settings. Church members described physical and verbal abuse of
Christians during the Cultural Revolution. Like much of rural
China itself, the members of this Protestant community were
predominantly elderly and poor, with a sprinkling of
grandchildren left behind by a middle generation that has left
the villages for jobs in cities. End Summary.

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Introduction: Chengdu Expat Christians Visit Rural Sichuan

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3. (SBU) In the run-up to the December 10-13 visit of DRL/IRF
Emilie Kao to Chengdu, Consul General visited December 5 a
Han-Chinese, protestant community in Jintang County, located 1.5
hours northeast of Chengdu, as part of a group from the
International Christian Fellowship of Chengdu (ICFC). (Note:
after several years of unfettered but unofficial operation, ICFC
recently came under pressure from the Chengdu government --
exerted through its landlord -- to regularize its situation.
Consul General has been working with the Municipal Government to
assist ICFC in this regard. End Note.)

4. (SBU) Rural Jintang County, in several respects, seems
typical of rural Sichuan: in late fall, the landscape was
shrouded in a light fog, making the rolling hills of vegetables
and mandarin oranges appear like a blurred, impressionist
painting. We witnessed a mini-duck processing line, with a
husband plucking wing feathers off live ducks, chopping their
heads off, the wife next to him boiling the ducks, continuing
the plucking process, and then piling up the naked carcasses
only two yards from terrified, live ducks. This ICFC group,
coming from English-speaking countries as diverse as the United
States, India, and South Africa, made its way to a "meeting
place" (euphemism for a home church) along winding dirt paths,
alternately climbing hills, or along narrow, elevated paths
between flat, irrigated fields.

Government Reviews Applications for Churches, OKs Ordinations

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5. (SBU) Jintang County's protestant community has 1,000
members, 31-year old church leader Ms. Cao told CG. While there
is only one Church building in the county that is registered as
a religious venue (zongjiao changsuo), there are about 30
affiliated house churches under it where Christians meet. This
community has applied to establish a second "patriotic" church
recognized by the government, but this process has been lengthy,
Ms. Cao said, and should take "several months - but less than
2-3 years." Cao claimed that (at least in Jintang County) the
process was according to the law, and that government officials
(of the Religious Affairs Bureau) did not ask for bribes. The
officials were, however, insisting that the community have a
sufficient capital fund before they could begin operation.
(Note: a UK anthropologist in the ICFC group, who teaches at a
local university, told CG that Chinese government regulations
for establishing churches did, indeed, require a minimum amount
of capital. End Note.)

CHENGDU 00000289 002.2 OF 004

6. (SBU) The American head of the ICFC delegation, who has spent
years in Sichuan supporting house churches, explained to CG that
Ms. Cao was the co-leader, along with an elder male pastor, of
Jintang's protestant community. Ms. Cao, always cheerful and
energetic, told CG that she had not graduated from high school
because economic difficulties in her family forced her to quit
school in the mid-1990s, leave Jintang, and seek employment in
Chengdu for 9-10 months at a stretch. As a child, she
explained, her mother had converted to Christianity, something
that had enraged her father. Now 31 years old, Cao had begun
her own work as a lay leader in the church nine years earlier,
and after 2-3 years of theological training under the elder
pastor, had been ready to be ordained for quite a while. She
explained that the delay in her ordination was because the
pastor (and other church elders) was "too busy." This situation
had nothing to do with the government, she insisted, which would
eventually examine her qualifications to be a pastor in the
patriotic church, but was unlikely to question these.

7. (SBU) Note: The Three Selfs Patriotic Church has a seminary
in Nanjing. The self in the Three Selfs: self-governing,
self-supporting and self-propagating stress independence from
foreign influence. The Three Self Church was founded in 1951;
all protestant denominations in China were folded into this
non-denomination protestant church in the late 1950s. The Three
Selfs Patriotic Association and the Catholic Patriotic
Association are the only Christian churches recognized by the
PRC government. Reftel A, a report on official religious
restrictions and the religious affairs bureau mission and goals
in the Yunnan provincial capital of Kunming, applies generally
to Sichuan as well since the Sichuan regulations are based on
national regulations. Reftel B discusses two Sichuan urban
congregations, one catholic and one protestant, in the southern
Sichuan city of Xichang, that the consulate visited last June.
End Note.

Government Attitudes Toward Churches: Varies Greatly By County

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8. (SBU) Government officials in Jintang Country were fairly
positive in their attitudes toward her Christian community, Cao
said. She explained that, as long as the church groups "did not
break the law" and were "consistent with the directions of the
government," then there were no problems. In Jintang, she said,
government officials perceived that local church groups actually
contributed to China's stability (wending) and harmony (hexie).

9. (SBU) Cao added, however, that in other counties in Sichuan,
treatment of Christian groups varied widely. The American
delegation head agreed that this was the case, citing two
examples. In Nanjiang County, a seven-hour drive northeast of
Chengdu, government officials were strongly anti-Christian; for
this reason, ICFC had targeted the county for donations of
school book bags in order to win favor with local officials. By
contrast, in Yilang Country, a four-hour drive northeast of
Chengdu, local officials were even more positive about Christian
groups than in Jintang. This was because of the leadership of
the church there, a kind-hearted local man with a reputation for
helping strangers, had dedicated his life to doing good works in
the county. So strong had his "relationships" (guanxi) become
over the years, and those of his son who is also now a pastor,
that country officials actually gave the church for free a large
parcel to rebuild on after its sanctuary partly collapsed during
the May 2008 earthquake. [Note: Underground churches are
illegal everywhere, but tolerated within limits in many places,
quite similar to the situation of Chinese NGOs, which do not
have a solid legal basis, but are tolerated to varying degrees
by local officials. This situation maximizes official power
since they can arbitrarily enforce the law whenever they wish,
producing the very large variations in religious freedom from
place to place. End Note.]

30 House Churches Under

One Patriotic Church, But Limits to Membership

--------------------------------------------- -

CHENGDU 00000289 003.2 OF 004

10. (SBU) At least in the rural setting of Jintang, there
appears to be little difference between the day-to-day
operations of its single (legal) "patriotic" church, a
registered religious activities site, and the 30 illegal
unregistered "meeting places" that are de facto satellite house
churches under it. Cao explained that Jintang authorities do
not bother members of their "meeting places" as long as their
memberships do not exceed 30 persons. This 30-person figure
appears to be a province-wide threshold above which authorities
are under pressure from the central government to crack down on
unofficial house churches. When CG stated that he had heard
that in Chengdu the municipal government had limited membership
in house churches to 15 (not 30) members, Cao agreed that the
government probably had two limits in size of house churches: 15
members in urban areas, and 30 in rural areas. End Comment.)

The Cultural Revolution: Christians Suffer for Their Faith

--------------------------------------------- -------------

11. (SBU) The American delegation leader told CG that, among the
20-30 pastors and 20 lay leaders that she knew in various
churches in Sichuan, about half came from families where one or
more parents had also been Christian. These multi-generational
Christian families had suffered greatly during the Cultural
Revolution she said. One Sichuan Christian spoke to this
American of how both of her mother's arms had been broken
because of her faith. One Pastor had told her how Communist
(perhaps Red Guard) leaders had beaten his father severely and
screamed that he risked severe consequences if he "spoke of
Christianity outside of his house."

12. (SBU) At one of the "meeting points" an elderly gentleman in
his 70s or 80s spoke of his conversion to Christianity about 25
years ago after having been visited by Christians from Shanxi
Province. He told the ICFC delegation that he knew of a case
during the Cultural Revolution where a Christian woman's hands
had been nailed to a stool as punishment. (Note: This man's
adoption of Christianity would been in the mid-1980s, well after
the Cultural Revolution had ended, and just after China inserted
freedom of religion in its 1982 Constitution. See also reftel C
for former President Carter's comments on religious freedom in
China, made during his recent, October 19 visit to Chengdu. End

Christian Community Typical of Rural China: Elderly and Poor

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13. (SBU) While we have heard that many members of house
churches in urban China are young, economically better off, and
well educated, Church members that we met in Jintang County were
elderly, poverty stricken, and poorly educated. The meeting
point that the ICFC delegation met it was in a small home
surrounded by agricultural fields. It was drafty, had no heat,
was barely wired for electricity, and had only a latrine. The
walls appeared not even to be made from brick, but instead of a
mud composite crooked with age. The "church" had a strange
mixture of unframed posters, faded and warped. In the front
"altar" there were two images of Jesus, one above a peace dove
and the world, another above the Chinese character for "wealth"
(fu). One the side wall were two more Christ images,
accompanied by another poster of Mao talking before a crowd, and
two posters of what appeared to be 10 People's Liberation Army
(PLA) generals riding side-by-side on horseback.

14. (SBU) The ICFC delegation then separated and visited four
different families. The woman that we met was probably aged
beyond her years, with tanned, weathered skin that made her look
in her 60s. Her life was one of the grinding poverty -- the
"forgotten China," still poor, rural, and backward that Chinese
leaders like to remind the world of when fending off trade and
climate change negotiators, and appealing for aid. When we were
departing, a large crowd gathered to send off the delegation,
one that might have been representative of tens of thousands of

CHENGDU 00000289 004.2 OF 004

Chinese villages. Virtually all were elderly, taking care of a
few grandchildren. The middle generation had virtually
abandoned the village to seek jobs in Sichuan and coastal
cities. The only exception that day was a teenage girl, a
second-year high school student that CG had met, still clutching
her bible from a publishing house run by China's patriotic
churches, as well as two hymnals.

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