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detail from Wu Guanzhong, The Yangtze River in 1974 oil painting

Bonhoeffer in China

An Interview

Yu Jie

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  • ONI PAUL KOLAPO

    THE SPIRIT OF GOD WILL NEVER LEAVE YOU FOREVER.

  • Chris Russell

    After the writer's conversion, he realized that he was a sinner. That was the most compelling and powerful idea in this article. It was a little hard to marry that with everything else.

  • Erna Albertz, Plough.com

    Thank you for reading. Please share your thoughts: were you aware of the persecution and yet growth of Christian churches in China? What ideas expressed by Yu Jie did you find to be most compelling and powerful?

  • chris russell

    I'd rather have Jesus in China.

Plough: You’ve been described as “one of China’s most prominent essayists and critics” (New York Review of Books). Yet your books are now blacklisted in China, and you’ve been living in the United States since 2012. What made you seek political asylum abroad?

Yu Jie: On October 8, 2010, it was announced that Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese dissident writer, had been chosen to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. At the time, he was in prison serving an eleven-year sentence for inciting subversion (he remains a prisoner today). The authorities knew that Liu and I were good friends – we had known each other for twelve years and I was writing his biography. Immediately after the announcement, my wife Liu Min and I were placed under house arrest.

The ceremony to award the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu in absentia was on December 10. The day before this was the darkest of my life. Plainclothes agents of the secret police kidnapped me from my home, pulled a black hood over my head, and brought me to a detention room. For six hours they tortured me almost to death. They told me: “If our supervisor gives the order, we will dig a hole and bury you alive.” I was stripped of all my clothes and beaten badly as they took pictures. Then they forced my fingers backward one by one, saying that they would break the fingers I had used to write against the Communist Party. Eventually I lost consciousness.

The first hospital they brought me to refused to treat me. So they brought me to a more advanced hospital, where physicians told me that if the torture had continued another half hour I would not have survived.

Do you remember what you were thinking during the interrogation?

Before I lost consciousness I prayed to God in my heart. I clearly sensed his presence and felt the assurance: without the permission of God, not one hair of my head will fall. These words came to me as well: “Do not fear those who can kill the body, because they cannot kill the soul.” Those two promises of Jesus were my prayer.

After my kidnapping, my wife was still under house arrest. All phone lines and the internet were cut off, and for five days she had no way of finding out where I was. She was under such stress that she lost half her hair. Fortunately, by divine providence, we had sent our two-year-old son for a visit to his grandparents shortly before, so he was spared this experience.

After my arrest and torture, they tried to bribe me – they promised that if I would stop criticizing the regime they would provide a platform for me to write popular literature, and I would get rich.

Even after my release, the harassment and periods of house arrest continued. I could not go to church or attend Bible study; I was cut off from my Christian brothers and sisters. I looked in my son’s eyes and asked myself what kind of father I could be to him if we remained in China in this impossible situation. And so in January 2012 we came to the United States.

Awakening

You weren’t raised as a Christian. Were there influences in your childhood and youth that laid the groundwork for your conversion later?

I was born in the city of Chengdu in the province of Sichuan, a beautiful, mountainous region with a long history of resisting the imperial power in Beijing. So from the beginning of my life I drank in a dislike for centralized power.

My father is an engineer. His thinking and lifestyle were quite westernized, and even as a young boy he treated me as an equal. In a Confucian culture that emphasizes hierarchy, this was rare.

The moment of my political awakening came when I was sixteen and attending high school. I still remember hearing the news of the mass murder of students protesting on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. That day, June 4, 1989, marked a turning point for me – I began to realize the true nature of the Communist regime. I would never believe their lies again.

Three years later, I arrived in Beijing myself, as a student at Peking University, China’s oldest and most selective institute of higher learning. I studied there for eight years, earning a master’s degree. But far more important to me than my formal coursework were my independent studies in the library. Thanks to a friendly librarian who bent the rules, I had access to restricted books published in Taiwan. I read accounts of the campaign of civil disobedience against Taiwan’s authoritarian government in the 1970s and 80s, and learned how a pro-democracy movement can be successful. What especially impressed me was the prominent role that Taiwan’s churches played in this movement.

But you were still just a secular observer.

That’s right. In 1998, while still a graduate student, I published my first book, Fire and Ice, a collection of satirical essays criticizing Chinese society. Looking back, it amazes me that the book ever made it past the censors. But that was the year Bill Clinton visited China – the first US president to do so since the Tiananmen Square massacre. The Chinese leadership wanted Western media to portray China as a free society. What better way than to allow publication of a book critical of the regime?

Though the authorities’ motives were cynical, my book benefited, and I gained one of my best friends: a copy reached Liu Xiaobo in prison. Two years later, he was released and we got to know each other. He introduced me to the Tiananmen Mothers, whose sons and daughters had died in Tiananmen Square. As a result, I became involved in the movement for human rights in China.

Our wish is to overcome the separation based on class and social status.

That year, 2000, I finished graduate school and Liu Min and I were married. We spent our first year together in the southeastern province of Guangdong, editing a pro-democracy textbook for schoolchildren – we wanted an alternative to the propaganda in government textbooks. One of our collaborators, a Christian, suggested including readings from the Bible, since it is a historically important text. His proposal was controversial, but my wife and I were intrigued. When we moved back to Beijing she began reading the Bible on the subway to and from work. Over time, what she read convinced her, and she became a Christian.

It took me two years to follow her. One reason was the high status that traditional Chinese culture gives to scholars. Despite the Communist Party’s official hostility to Confucianism, in reality we Chinese are still born and bred into a Confucian worldview. This has very positive aspects: we are educated to put the good of the whole nation – in fact, the whole world – above selfish goals. Yet Confucianism also strongly emphasizes self-cultivation: one strives to become a saint through one’s own moral effort. To move from this way of thinking to Christianity’s teaching of the total depravity of human nature – of course Calvinism is especially strong on this – was a huge shift for me.

Without the illumination of the Holy Spirit, I believe that people like me could never be humbled. As Chinese intellectuals, we feel we need to keep our dignity and face. Before my baptism, I remember telling my wife that I could never be baptized because the ceremony involved bowing to the minister.

Yu Jie and his family shortly after their arrival in the United States in January 2012 Yu Jie and his family shortly after their arrival in the United States in January 2012. Photograph by Cliff Owen / AP Photos
detail from Wu Guanzhong, The Yangtze River in 1974 oil painting

The Beijing Ark

So given your reluctance, how did your baptism come about?

I was in a small room with about one hundred people in an underground house church. The pastor called my name and the Spirit came. I saw my depravity, my sinfulness, and the tears started flowing.

We then started a Bible study group of three couples. More and more people came, and we rented an apartment for our gatherings. Soon God sent a pastor to lead the church, which we wanted to be open to the public, not just a private fellowship. We didn’t want to become a megachurch; our vision was to remain a small community in which we could know and love each other. We called it the Beijing Ark.

Many politically “sensitive” people joined our church: dissident writers, relatives of victims of Tiananmen Square, and lawyers who resisted the regime. Usually, people with such backgrounds have trouble finding a church that will accept them – churches fear the secret police. Because we welcomed such people, we faced harassment. For example, in 2006, within two months we were forced to change our gathering place six times because the police pressured the landlords.

But our church isn’t just made up of intellectuals. Migrants from the countryside also joined us, as did others with vocational jobs. One brother, who is now studying for the ministry, had formerly gotten rich through pirating translations of Harry Potter books – after converting, his life was transformed. All the members enjoy an intimate fellowship and relationship with one another; our wish is to overcome the separation based on class and social status.

That is why I will never leave the church community in which I was baptized and became a Christian. Even though I’ve now lived in the United States for five years, I am still a member of that church and stay in touch with the brothers and sisters.

By contrast, most Chinese intellectuals who convert and are baptized do not join a local church. They are scared of losing their independence and submitting to community life, partly because communism’s form of community has brought so much fear and hurt. Even those who do attend church often avoid opening themselves to intimacy with brothers and sisters.

Now, I’m not claiming to be a better Christian than they are. But I do give thanks to God for calling me to a specific church community to which my wife and I can remain faithful. My church helps me live my Christianity in real life – it’s not just an abstract theory. For example, after my wife and I were put under house arrest, none of my Peking University friends and colleagues visited me. But many members of our church did. They had never read my books or engaged with my ideas – they are working people who have to put in long hours – but because we have the same Lord they came to visit us. They could not even enter our house; they had to stand outside the window and sing songs and give verbal greetings.

Christian Politics

What effect did your conversion have on your political activism?

Some people back away from activism after they become Christians, but my conversion made me even more convinced and enthusiastic to promote human rights. In my understanding, human rights are a gift from God, who created us and gave us life, liberty, and dignity. These rights are not determined by any national government. The Chinese government defines human rights as a right to survival – leaving humans little different than animals.

Religious freedom goes together intimately with other human rights; it is part of our comprehensive concern. We cannot isolate religious freedom, and it goes beyond just being free to worship God in a church building. Religious freedom includes freedom of the press, and the natural, God-given right of parents to educate their children according to their own beliefs.

Are there any ways your faith changed the way you approach politics?

Yes, it transformed my attitude quite radically. Before my conversion, I identified as a public intellectual, a scholar who functions as the conscience of society. I believed that since communism was responsible for so many evils and disasters, my responsibility was to help overthrow it. I put all my efforts into exposing the Communist Party’s lies and publicizing its scandals.

If you attend a church that’s being persecuted, you do so only for the sake of truth.

After my conversion, I realized I was also a sinner. The problem isn’t only the Communist Party – we all contribute to our world’s evils. Now my focus is to think prophetically about how we can rebuild the nation after the collapse of communism. This rebuilding will happen through the transformation of human hearts by the message of Christ.

Since my transformation from humanist intellectual to Christian writer, I have gained more enemies. The Confucianists are against me because they see me as hostile to traditional Chinese culture. The nationalists are against me because I promote the universal kingdom of God.

Community and Resistance

You’ve written about the impact of Dietrich Bonhoeffer on you, especially his book Life Together. Why this book?

Life Together is enormously significant for Chinese Christian intellectuals, because so many of them treat Christianity individualistically, as a private matter, and never join in church life. When they talk about the Christian faith, they use a lot of philosophical terminology that excludes those with less education. One respected scholar who translated many Christian books into Chinese isolated himself in this way, and ended up becoming a fascist. So the common life with brothers and sisters is vital for our Christian discipleship. Bonhoeffer realized this. Even in the harshest of times he did his best to share some kind of communal life with others.

But Bonhoeffer also never saw community life as a form of withdrawal.

That’s why he is one of the most important theologians for the Chinese church today. Our situation has certain analogies to that of German Christians under National ­Socialism – particularly since Xi Jinping took power as China’s president four years ago. The church in China largely lacks the spiritual resources needed to face what is a critical moment for our whole society. The older churches tend to be fundamentalist and focused only on spiritual issues – they have little concern for what happens in the public square. Meanwhile, the newer churches emerging in the cities lack a robust connection to the great traditions of Christianity, including the Reformers. They are most influenced by popular American church culture: extremely charismatic worship, the prosperity gospel, and a megachurch model based on numbers. In Beijing and Shanghai, there are even churches whose membership is restricted to wealthy businesspeople.

Lacking roots, these new churches too often fall into a dangerous trap: they acculturate rather than resist. In this sense, I see them as reenacting what happened to the Chinese Protestants who chose to cooperate with the Communists in Chairman Mao’s day by joining the government-controlled church known as the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. This church, which still exists, originated as a political manipulation by the Communist Party during the Korean War that sought to merge Christians into the pro-regime patriotic movement. By acceding, the church surrendered its particular truth and independent voice. Now we’re seeing something similar with the new prosperity-gospel churches, which compromise on matters of principle and conscience in order to stay in the regime’s good graces.

In such circumstances, the testimony of Bonhoeffer is extremely important – not only his ideas, but even more his example of giving his life for the faith. Bonhoeffer personally participated in the anti-Hitler movement. His witness should provoke us to think about how to unite Christian faith with resistance. 

detail from Wu Guanzhong, The Yangtze River in 1974 oil painting

Because of Persecution

Tertullian said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Is that true of the church in China?

Based on our experiences in the Beijing Ark, absolutely, because persecution has purged the church. If you attend a church that’s being persecuted, you do so only for the sake of truth – you cannot have other motives. From the Bible and church history we see that true believers in every age go through persecution of some kind. We have an Asian proverb: “Causes for worry stimulate life, but pleasure and ease bring on death.” 

Because of the persecution of our church community, our bond of brotherhood is really strong. Take, for example, the brother in my church who was shot in the leg in Tiananmen; because he is crippled, it takes him half an hour longer to get to church, and yet he is always punctual. Churches here in America enjoy more freedom, yet many arrive late for worship or play with their smartphones during the service. And because of the relatively opulent lifestyles of the congregants, many pastors are careful not to offend. Their main concern is not the kingdom of God, but retaining members. In their sermons, I hear talk about grace, love, peace, and prosperity – but never a mention of sin, the law of God, or church discipline. This is what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.”

In 2015, in the city of Wenzhou, the authorities forcibly removed crosses from the exterior of church buildings. What significance, if any, does this have for Christians elsewhere in China?

The aim is to destroy all prominent symbols of Christianity in the public sphere. What’s happened in Wenzhou is a preview of what could happen across China under President Xi Jinping. Wenzhou is a large city in Zhejiang, a fertile province where Christianity has developed and increased quickly and where Xi Jinping used to be the provincial leader. This policy of persecution is not accidental – it is being implemented with the president’s knowledge, perhaps as a trial balloon for a policy that will later be rolled out nationally. If they succeed in crushing the churches in Wenzhou, they can easily do the same elsewhere.

We need a life together in small communities where people really care for one another.

What astonishes me is that they are persecuting not just underground house churches but also the government-approved Three-Self Church. In early January, Gu Yuese, senior pastor of the most prominent Three-Self church in Zhejiang and vice-president of the denomination nationally, was arrested after a sermon in which he protested the destruction of crosses. (Of course, this wasn’t the official charge – he was accused of embezzling.)

Although media interest has flagged, cross demolitions are still continuing in Zhejiang. Some Christians have resisted using civil disobedience – we should pray for them! But the majority of churches capitulated.

Did you find that surprising?

Unfortunately, no. Too many churches in Wenzhou were built up with a business-model approach. They sought to attract wealthy businesspeople – never mind if they sold fake products or bribed officials. This attitude infected the churches themselves. Why was there a church-building boom in Wenzhou? Because the congregations that had money bribed local officials and invested millions of dollars in new buildings. Perhaps it would have been better to spend the money on education, publishing, or other ways to build up the Christian community.

As a matter of fact, I actually don’t view the cross on the church building as so important in itself. Even if the authorities remove the physical cross and demolish the church building, the cross of Christ is still in our hearts – nobody can remove and demolish that. What is happening may serve as a healthy reminder: Why invest millions of dollars in building big churches? Why not use the money for discipleship, theological training, and charity?

You’ve written that by 2030, China is projected to have the biggest Christian population of any country. What do you think will be the future of the church in China?

Firstly, numbers aren’t what is most important. To my fellow Christians, I emphasize again and again: Christian life is not just Sunday worship. Our faith must impact our political life and all aspects of personal and social life. Unfortunately, too many Christians in China are still just Sunday Christians. Their faith is separated from their daily life.

Take the example of nationalism. When the government puts on nationalistic ceremonies featuring grand displays of military equipment, many Christians flock to these events enthusiastically. If you mention Taiwan’s independence, they will respond, “If Taiwan tries to assert its independence, we must attack them.” They are indoctrinated just like the ­unbelievers. Similarly, too few Han Chinese Christians feel any sympathy for ethnic groups who are being oppressed, such as the Tibetans and Uighurs. They are Han Chinese nationalists first, and Christians second.

detail from Wu Guanzhong, The Yangtze River in 1974 oil painting

Christian Communism?

How do you suggest addressing this problem? Can the spiritual roots of the church in China be a resource for Chinese Christians today?

There is definitely a strong continuum from Chinese Christianity before communism. The remnants went underground, but the writings and legacy of Watchman Nee and others are still a great heritage and encouragement for us today. We have two groups to look to: the many foreign missionaries who gave their lives in the mission field, and also the many native pastors and church leaders who really loved the Lord and died for the truth.

Even if you might not find spiritual giants like Martin Luther or Bonhoeffer, by the grace of God we also have our saints, such as Watchman Nee and Wang Mingdao. Liao Yiwu, who wrote the book God Is Red, profiles others, such as Wang Zhiming, the pastor martyred in 1973 who is commemorated with a statue in Westminster Abbey. They are also to be found among public intellectuals, such as Sister Lin Zhao, a Peking University graduate who called the rule of Chairman Mao idol worship and demon possession. As a result, she was arrested and executed.

I think we need to go back further, to the model of the early church. We need a life together in small communities where people really know each other and care for one another.

That’s the model of common life described in Acts 2 and 4. And of course, Bonhoeffer’s call for community in Life Together draws on the same early Christian vision. What comparison or contrast would you draw between political communism and the community experienced in the first church in Jerusalem?

To my understanding, Karl Marx stole some ideas from the Bible and tried to realize that ideal community life through evil means, and that deformed the ideal. The biggest difference is that Karl Marx wanted to build a kingdom of heaven on earth by human power, and was willing to accept all kinds of means, such as revolution or mass killings of those who didn’t agree with his ideas. In the Bible Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world.” But the church is really somehow a reflection of the kingdom of God on earth.

As you look to the future, what are the things that give you hope?

First of all, I think our future, both in China and in America, is in the hand of our God. So that is my heart’s comfort. That does not mean we are inactive. We do have a calling. We do have a mission to participate in his plan and to obey his will.

Through all this life experience and struggle, I have gained a clearer vision about God’s plan for me. When the secret police came for me they had to confess, “Your pen is more dangerous than an army.” So I don’t despise my calling.


This article combines interviews conducted by Peter Mommsen on September 11, 2016, and January 12, 2017, with ­assistance from Leonard and Havilah King. Translation by Zhiyong Wang.

Artwork in this article: details from The Yangtze River in 1974, oil, 20 x 603 cm by Wu Guanzhong. Image from China Online Museum

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