Expelled from China
Missionaries say the Communist country is kicking them out, one by one
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Last fall, missionary John Miller sat in the back row of an unregistered church in Sichuan province, worshipping as he had every Sunday morning for the past year and a half. Then eight police officers walked in. As the only foreigner in the room, Miller tried to sneak out of the building, but police noticed him and ran down the aisle to stop him. They asked for his passport and took down his information before allowing him to return to worship.
Two days later, Miller heard the police knocking on his door but didn’t answer. Miller had no idea how police had found him—he was staying in an apartment rented by local church member John Wu (for security reasons, I’ve given pseudonyms to Wu and the missionaries in this story), and Miller had not registered the address. He moved to another apartment owned by church members. One week later, police contacted Wu and insisted he bring Miller to the station the next morning to register his address.
Miller and Wu complied, arriving at the police station at 10:30 a.m. For the next nine hours, local police as well as officers of the Bureau of Ethnic and Religious Affairs interrogated Miller about what he was doing in China and why he attended the unregistered church. He refused to implicate the Chinese believers, but spoke openly about his faith. “I respect and obey the laws of China because God has given this authority to you,” Miller recalls telling the officer. “But if your laws contradict God’s laws, I must obey God’s laws.”
‘[Officials] view foreign missionaries as infiltrators.’ —Ying Fuk Tsang
Eventually officers handed him a written statement that he would be fined RMB 2,000 ($296) for not registering his address. They gave him 10 days to leave the country. After ministering in China for five years with a focus on Christian education, Miller flew home to the United States. Since then, he’s continued teaching his students through video chat.
“When I went to the police station, [I felt] joy to be able to give witness to the gospel,” Miller said. “As a foreign worker, we spend all our time trying to avoid the religious affairs people … but here they were sitting across the table and I didn’t need to worry about saying the wrong thing. … I could tell them to their faces that I’m a Christian and yes, Jesus is worth all this. … I could openly identify myself as a brother to these persecuted Chinese Christians.”
Miller’s story is becoming increasingly common in China as the central government cracks down on foreign missionaries in the country. Beijing has made a targeted effort to rid the country of all foreign influences, especially Korean and Western missionaries who work with house churches. The government has even kicked out entire mission agencies—and missionaries who remain in the country recognize their time is limited.
MISSIONARY JAMES YOUNG also experienced the new hostility. He had ministered to an unreached ethnic minority group in China for 13 years before taking a furlough two years ago for his children’s education. Young continued traveling to China to help mentor church leaders there: Last August, 11 officers showed up in the parking lot of the hotel where he was staying. They handcuffed him, placed him in the back of a minivan, then drove to his apartment in a neighboring city. Rummaging through his apartment, they found Bibles translated into a minority language and information regarding his international mission agency.
They took Young back to the station and for the next eight days interrogated him, keeping him inside a room at a hotel where they had booked every room on the floor to keep watch over him. For several hours each day, the agents repeatedly asked him about the work he was doing in the country, why he was interested in ministering to ethnic minorities, and who his co-workers were. He refused to answer the last question but provided information about his missionary endeavors.
Unbeknownst to him, the Ministry of State Security had also detained and interrogated eight other missionaries in his organization in order to compare answers and grill them if they differed. Although the authorities confiscated Young’s phone and laptop, he was able to hide a microchip that contained his most important information.
Between grueling interrogation sessions, Young had the opportunity to chat with his head interrogator, who slowly began to open up about his personal life. As Young gained the officers’ trust, he was able to stay in the room by himself and make calls on the landline phone to his wife. Yet on the sixth day, a new head interrogator took over and yelled at Young, asking what he would do if the “good news” he brought the ethnic minorities caused them to rise up against the government. Would he take responsibility for that? Feeling physically and emotionally fatigued, Young began doubting his work. Back in his room, he wept.
One night he paced back and forth in his room, apprehensive that he might never get out. Talking to himself, he realized his biggest fear was what would happen to his family if he were to die. “But if you happen to die, who is still in charge?” he thought. “My life is in God’s hands, whether I die or continue to live, everything is up to God.” Suddenly, he felt enormous peace.
Officers forced Young to write a confession—a process that took four to five hours as they demanded rewrite after rewrite until it was satisfactory—then gave him his sentence: He could not return to China for five years. He had to pay a fine. He had to close down a small business that he had used to provide visas for short-term missionaries. He was finally allowed to leave, and the next day 20 officials, some with cameras and video recorders, met him at the airport to ensure that he left the country.
“I’m very confident that we have shown [the local believers] everything that we can offer,” Young said. “I really do have the conviction that it’s time for them to go at it alone, and I believe they can. That doesn’t mean they’ll do it all well, but I think even when they hit rock bottom that’s part of their journey.”
Young believes it would be naïve for missionaries to assume they could come into China without attracting the notice of authorities. Surveillance cameras equipped with facial recognition technology and set up along the streets and outside buildings make it hard to hide. Police detained one missionary after they caught on camera the license plate number of a vehicle they had seen going to remote villages where Christian literature had been handed out. They tracked down the plate, spotted the car parked outside the missionary’s house, and detained him after finding bags of illegally printed literature inside.
The experience of Miller and Young is part of Beijing’s plan to “Sinicize religion”—to place it under the authority of the Chinese Communist Party—as President Xi Jinping amasses power and tightens control over all aspects of Chinese society. Yet the expulsion of missionaries also provides an opportunity for local believers to step into the roles left behind and even step out into cross-cultural missions. Rather than despair, many point to the last time China expelled foreign missionaries from its shores, in 1949, and how by the grace of God the number of Protestants in China tripled during the oppressive 27-year rule of Chairman Mao Zedong.
THE CRACKDOWN represents for China a radical left turn of the kind not seen since Mao’s reign. During China’s opening up and reforming period in the 1980s, it eagerly welcomed foreign English teachers, businessmen, and experts in various fields to come in and help aid China’s economic development. Even though China officially banned foreigners from evangelizing, many Christians jumped at the opportunity to go into China and teach at schools and universities. They developed relationships with students and fellow teachers, started Bible studies, and explained the gospel one-on-one.
Many first-generation Christians in China credit those missionaries with bringing them to Christ. The Chinese government quickly caught on to the dual purposes of these foreigners, and in some cases used visa denials to get rid of influential missionaries—yet often China’s desire for teaching, medical care, and business expertise outweighed religious concerns. As the Chinese church grew and matured, local believers successfully evangelized and planted churches. Foreign missionaries began to work in areas that required greater training or experience: theological education, Biblical counseling, ministry to ethnic minorities, Bible translation, and compassion ministries.
Now, though, a national security campaign is warning Chinese about “friends who wear masks,” foreign spies who come as tourists, journalists, researchers, or diplomats. Laws widening definitions of punishable actions among foreigners include provisions that bar those deemed national security threats from entering or exiting China. A law about foreign nongovernmental organizations has created crushing burdens for foreigners hoping to run charities inside China. Ying Fuk Tsang, director of the divinity school at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says officials “view foreign missionaries as infiltrators … and will pressure them and expel them from the country.”
The Ministry of State Security, the country’s intelligence agency, has coordinated nationwide investigations to bring down entire networks of missionaries. In some cases the missionaries have been forced to leave, while others left on their own volition, knowing the government would soon find them. Politically sensitive areas such as Xinjiang have been largely cleared of foreign missionaries.
The pressure on missionaries goes along with demolishing crosses of state-sanctioned Three-Self churches and barring Communist Party members and minors from attending church services. Officials have shut down influential house churches such as Beijing’s Zion Church and Chengdu’s Early Rain Covenant Church and are cutting Chinese church ties with the global church. They want all house churches to register with the government.
The crackdown on South Korean missionaries has been even more severe, as the Chinese government is less afraid of diplomatic pushback. China first started to crack down on South Korean missionaries in 2014, targeting those working with North Korean refugees in northeast China. In 2015, authorities began to close churches built by Koreans by deporting missionaries and confiscating buildings. The spotlight on Korean missionaries intensified in 2017 after ISIS killed two young Chinese missionaries working in Pakistan with a Korean missions group (see “Eastern approaches,” March 31, 2018).
At their peak, Korean missionaries in China numbered in the thousands and were influential in both urban and rural areas through evangelism, church planting, and training of Chinese missionaries. Last April local religious affairs departments began a “special action plan to investigate and prosecute Korean Christian infiltration,” Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post reported. Officials canceled visas, interrogated missionaries, and in some cases even detained them for a week.
Isaac Kim’s experience was typical: He taught at an underground seminary in northern China for five years until one day last fall police contacted him through the language school where he studied. He and his family had one week to leave the country. Kim believes police know the whereabouts and activities of all missionaries in China, and simply kicked him out to meet a quota. Since leaving the country, Kim has continued his work training Chinese missionaries by meeting with them outside China.
THE FUTURE OF FOREIGN MISSIONARIES in China looks bleak, and those who remain in the country are uncertain how much longer they’ll be able to stay. Some like Miller and Kim are able to continue their ministry from abroad by working online or gathering with Chinese believers outside of China. Kim said his expulsion left his family in deep sorrow and anger as they suddenly had to leave their home, school, and community.
Still, the expulsions provide an opportunity for foreign missionaries to help Chinese missionaries planning to minister in the Middle East or Southeast Asia. China has started its own mission movement, but Chinese missionaries often say the lack of training, education, and support hinders their work. Foreign missionaries with experience in China can welcome teams of Chinese missionaries into different countries around the world, helping them adjust and work in new settings.
New missionaries with teaching positions and business connections are still heading to China: Some who were unsure about going have decided to take the plunge after seeing so many workers expelled. For Miller, his interrogation experience helped him feel closer to his students and friends in the Chinese church. After returning to the United States, Miller framed the document that spelled out his official crime and hung it on his wall. “It’s a sign of God’s faithfulness, I take that as a great honor. I look back on that time with great fondness and joy.”
The web version of this story has been updated to identify Ying Fuk Tsang as the subject of the photo.