Ming* in China faces increasing digital surveillance and persecution - but continues to take great risks to serve the church. Find out how digitial surveillance is increasing in China - and how Open Doors partners are helping Ming trust again.
Imagine that someone knows that you’re reading this article. They know where you’re sitting, and who you’re with. They know the last thing you looked at on your phone, the last thing you searched for online, the last time you went to meet people. Your moves are watched – not just by cameras in the street, but online too.
That’s a little like what life is like for Ming* in China. Digital technology is increasingly being used to target Christians, and surveillance systems are being used to track people’s movements and what they do online. It makes following Jesus and sharing the gospel really hard – but Ming’s determined to do it, no matter the cost.
The greatest risk Ming has taken is delivering secret Bibles. In parts of China, it’s relatively easy to get a physical Bible – but where Ming is from it’s much harder, particularly if the Bible is translated into the language of his ethnic group.
Like Brother Andrew smuggling Bibles into Communist Eastern Europe in the 1950s, Ming has had to go to great lengths to hide his operations. He would load the Bibles into his car in a hidden alley, and send a message to his contacts: “I’m on my way to the old place.” ‘The old place’ is code: he knew that citizens’ phones were being monitored. Any wrong word could cost him his freedom.
“I could be arrested, interrogated and even imprisoned,” he says. “But I knew that God called me to share the gospel by distributing Bibles.”
And one day his fears came true. Ming and his friends were arrested. Miraculously, he was set free – but his friends weren’t. To make matters worse, they could no longer use the company that Ming and his fellow believers had worked so hard to set up as a cover for their smuggling.
The arrest put him firmly on the radar of the authorities, and they remain determined to restrict his Christian activities. “I knew it would be harder to dodge the police and I’d have to live even more cautiously. I’m [officially] not allowed to attend church or even own a Bible anymore,” he says. “At first, every one or two months, the police searched my house.” They come less often now, but they still regularly search Ming’s home.
Persecution at home
Ming has sacrificed a lot for his faith. In China, persecution and level of restriction can look very different from province to province – where Ming lives is among the most restrictive places. Even hearing the gospel can be difficult because the surrounding community has a different faith.
He first heard about Jesus while he was away at college, and eventually chose to follow Him. “I told my father about my faith and hoped he could accept me, but he reported me to the police,” says Ming. “I was devastated that we could not reconcile.”
Ming was confined to his home for a few months. Even after that, his father prevented him from attending school in their area. So Ming was forced to relocate to a city in southern China, where he had to start from scratch. It’s a city with fewer restrictions, and he was able to go to church. He even married – then he and his wife Hua* had a little girl called Mei Mei*.
God’s call to Ming
“I learned much more about Christ and how good God is,” he shares. “This was also the turning point for me. Learning about Jesus made me realise that my friends and community back home needed Him, too.”
Ming heard the Lord softly speak to him: “Go back to your hometown. Tell people about Me there.” Like so many people in the Bible – from Moses to Gideon, Mary to the first disciples – Ming was scared but obedient. He gave up everything to move home – including being with his wife and daughter, which Ming’s father-in-law forbade because of his faith. He chose to go back to a place where his every move was observed, catalogued and filed away, to be used against him if necessary. And that’s where he started smuggling Bibles.
In many countries where getting a Bible is difficult, Open Doors partners can distribute digital Bibles. In China, the digital world is often even more dangerous than the physical world. To make matters worse, China is exporting its surveillance technology to other countries around the world – including countries where Christians are persecuted by the authorities, such as Myanmar, India, Iran, Cuba, Turkey and several nations in sub-Saharan Africa.
“We are not allowed to officially purchase a Bible online,” shares Moli*, an Open Doors partner supporting the Chinese church. “Last year, a new regulation that restricts and monitors religious online content was rolled out. Right after that, a lot of religious websites and accounts were blocked or removed, and articles disappeared.” She adds that there are ways around this, and Christians are still taking risks to share Christian content and messages.
“What is required by the law is an official permit that allows churches to post and share religious content,” says another partner, Yangyang*. “Religious content refers to religious videos, Bible verses, religious encouragement and so on. Our partners shared that they received phone calls from authorities warning them to remove their religious content posted online.”
Restricting the church
Yangyang continues: “In my opinion, this law hampers the growth [of the church]. First, it could hinder online evangelism. Second, the room for spiritual nourishment has become narrower: some sermons and Christian materials are no longer available. The availability of children’s materials in China has also decreased significantly.”
China is currently number 16 on the World Watch List. Only five years ago, it was at number 43. These new restrictions and pressures are key reasons that it has shot up the list.
Another Open Doors local partner, Yuhua*, has seen this shift: “A few years ago, when I went to interview churches, persecution was not a subject that concerned anyone,” she says. “Nowadays, it is totally different. Average believers now feel the pressure, and many of them are not well-equipped.”
CCTV in churches
Even within the state-approved Three-Self Patriotic Movement, this pressure is very present. Churches and church leaders are rigorously monitored.
“Registered churches have cameras installed,” says Moli. “Every week, registered churches must have their sermons reviewed, and adjustments in the content are very likely. Some registered churches are unable to preach the gospel fully.”
House churches and small groups– like Ming’s – don’t have cameras. But that’s because they’re illegal, and so operate under the radar. “To avoid getting in trouble, house churches divide themselves into small groups,” says Moli. “In bigger groups, police might barge in when they receive reports from neighbours.”
Learning to trust
As Moli suggests, the threat of surveillance doesn’t just come directly from the authorities. There’s always the danger that somebody you know will inform on you. After his arrest, Ming struggled with this.
“I had no one to trust,” Ming says. “I felt insecure and isolated. I need to make friends cautiously, since there may be spies pretending to be Christians. I need to stay vigilant.”
Without the gifts and prayers of people like you, Ming might have remained in this difficult position. But thanks to Open Doors supporters, he was able to meet Hao Ran* - a local Open Doors partner who is offering discipleship, as well as some financial aid. He is a friend in times of struggle.
“Brother Hao Ran is trustworthy,” say Ming. “He is someone I can do life with. At least twice a month, we pray and study the Bible together . We share happy and sorrowful moments together. We have built a bond of trust, and I know I am with a brother who cares, who nourishes my relationship with the Lord.”
Persevering for God
“Ming is strong in faith, but I can tell he’s been mentally exhausted in this journey,” Hao Ran says. “At the beginning, he was so suspicious that he would trust no one. I believe the Holy Spirit moves in his heart and he has been able to develop trust again. Now, he is starting to lead a small group again.”
With your support, Ming can continue to serve God in this difficult region, even as restrictions and dangers increase. At the risk of his own life and freedom, Ming keeps sharing God’s Word. “We listen and follow,” says Ming. “He will guide our paths.”
Psalm 121 says, “He will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and for evermore.” In a world where every move Ming makes could be tracked by the authorities, experiencing this loving, protective watchfulness brings comfort and strength.
Life for courageous believers like Ming is likely to get harder, Open Doors partner Yangyang recognises. “We are definitely entering an era of more restrictions and challenges,” she says. “My vision for China is for our brothers and sisters to be well-equipped through our persecution survival training – to shepherd their flock. Many pastors might not know how to respond when faced with persecution, and this makes it so important for our ministry to fill the gap.”
We can’t all stand next to believers like Ming. But you can make sure that local partners like Han Rao are able to do so – to strengthen and sustain risk-takers experiencing extraordinary digital persecution, yet persevering for God in China and in other countries where this persecution is growing. Today, your gifts and prayers can help the church keep going. You can help ensure that digital persecutors won’t win.
*Name changed for security reasons
Source: Open Doors