Foreign missionaries in China say they are bracing for more trouble after two South Koreans were arrested – the latest in a nationwide crackdown targeting “Korean Christian infiltration” that is expected to be ramped up in the coming months.
The two South Korean men were rounded up during a raid on their hotel near Wenzhou in Zhejiang province on May 27, according to a source from the city’s Christian community. About a dozen local Chinese were also arrested in a second raid on an underground church there the same day, the source said. More than 20 law enforcement officers were seen at the Protestant church – one of many unregistered places of worship in China that operate out of living rooms or factory buildings in violation of state regulations – which was set up by one of the two South Korean missionaries. It remained closed last week, the source said.
In the last month alone, more than 30 South Koreans and Japanese have reportedly been arrested across the country, including in the Ningxia region and in Shanxi, Hebei and Henan provinces. All of them are believed to be members of foreign religious groups, and most have already been deported.
Foreign religious activities came under close scrutiny after an amendment to the religious affairs regulation took effect in February, but sources close to the missionaries said the full impact of the crackdown would not be felt until October, when local authorities are expected to have finished carrying out investigations.
The campaign began in earnest in April, when local religious affairs departments were told to engage in a “special action plan to investigate and prosecute Korean Christian infiltration according to the law”. At the same time, the ruling Communist Party’s United Front Work Department began overseeing religious and ethnic affairs as part of a sweeping restructure aimed at strengthening the party’s control over all aspects of life in China.
Official documents on plans to clamp down on Korean Christian missionary activities in China – including implementation goals, crackdown measures and progress reports – have since been posted on government websites across the nation including in Gansu, Hubei, Jilin and Zhejiang provinces and in the Guangxi region.
“We have worked with the United Front Work Department to organise township and community authorities, police and cyberspace affairs authorities on the special action plan to investigate and prosecute Korean Christian infiltration according to the law,” a work report posted on the official website of Minle county, Gansu reads.
The “special action plan” against Korean Christian activities is expected to last until September, according to government documents, and it could see more South Koreans being denied visas and expelled from China as they come under greater scrutiny.
Those documents put Korean Christian activities on a par with Beijing’s other religious targets – Tibetan Buddhists and Muslim Uygurs in the troubled Xinjiang region.
While China is officially atheist, its constitution does allow “freedom of religious belief” and religious groups that register with the state may possess property, conduct services and collect donations, among other activities.
But over the years, China has taken a tougher line on unsanctioned religious gatherings. Those efforts have become more sophisticated, well-planned and less fragmented in the months since the amended regulation on religious affairs came in, giving local authorities more power to enforce the rules and penalise anyone involved in unsanctioned religious gatherings.
The South Korean embassy in Beijing has yet to respond to the South China Morning Post’s inquiries on the Wenzhou detentions.
An officer at Japan’s embassy meanwhile said they had “appropriately addressed” the protection of the arrested Japanese nationals, all of whom have been deported, saying Chinese police had accused them of violating local laws and regulations, without elaborating.
Foreigners are prohibited from setting up religious organisations or proselytising in China, but the rule was not stringently enforced until President Xi Jinping took office in 2012, according to a South Korean pastor who gave his name as Peace Wang. The pastor spent more than 20 years preaching in China until he had to leave because his visa was not renewed in 2013.
Despite the ban, a large number of foreign missionaries have flocked to China – working as English teachers, businesspeople or studying – since the 1980s, when the nation began to open up.
South Korean missionaries numbered nearly 4,000 “in country X of northeastern Asia” as of December, according to a yearly national poll conducted in South Korea by local website Christian Today.
Wang, 60, said “country X of northeastern Asia” was a common reference to China among South Korean missionaries. The pastor estimated there were more than 1,000 South Korean missionaries deported between 2013 and 2017, and he expected large numbers to be expelled by October, once the amended regulation had been fully implemented and the authorities had carried out investigations.
“We entered using different visas – everything from student to tourist visas. The local authorities knew of our existence but most turned a blind eye,” Wang said. “As soon as Xi took power from the end of 2012, the rules and regulations started being more effectively implemented, and more missionaries were deported.”
In the past 18 months to two years, more than 1,000 South Korean missionaries have either had visa applications rejected or been expelled from China, according to Reverend Eric Foley, CEO of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, a Seoul-based non-government organisation that works with persecuted Christians.
“Korean churches have a long history of missionary work in China … but what we have seen in the past 18 months to two years has been a steady crackdown on the part of Chinese officials on South Korean missionary activities in China aimed at helping North Koreans,” Foley said. “It’s a story that has not been told in China or Korea.”
Last year, two Chinese Christian missionaries were abducted and executed by Islamic State militants in Pakistan. In response, Pakistan tightened up business visas and sent 11 Chinese missionaries who were part of the same group, run by a South Korean missionary agency, back to China. It was followed by a crackdown on the church in China that had sent them to Pakistan. Foreign groups have since been blamed by the authorities for training Chinese missionaries, as Beijing tries to minimise religious influences from overseas.
Ying Fuk-tsang, director of the divinity school at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said there would be more deportations of missionaries as “Chinese authorities tighten their grip over religious affairs to limit foreign infiltration”.
“China has never welcomed foreign missionaries … and it has become more visible, the Chinese authorities limiting the activities of missionaries by cancelling their visas or restricting visa extensions,” Ying said, adding that this had seen long-term missions replaced by more short-term and underground ones.
He added that the growing number of Chinese Protestants, particularly university students, was also worrying the government.
The number of Christians in China has been rising over the past decade. There were more than 38 million Protestants in the country in 2017, up from 10 million in 1997, according to official data. There were also 6 million Catholics in China last year, according to the official estimate, up from 4 million in 1997.
Additional reporting by Lee Jeong-ho