Rental leases being used as a new weapon to suppress Chinese house churches.
By SCI China Correspondent
September 1, 2018
Special Note: Since the publication of this story, Zion Church’s facilities have been shut down by the authorities. They vow they will continue to gather for worship at another location. The St. Charles Institute will have more details in the coming days.
On August 20, 2018, a “Contract Due Notice” appeared on the lobby of the Longbaochen Commercial Mansion, at No. 176 Beiyuan Road, Chaoyang District, Beijing. The notice states that the third floor office lease signed under Beijing Jianweitang Culture Co. Ltd. has been terminated early, and the company must move out within 15 days (currently, this eviction has not been enforced). Since August 24, anyone entering and exiting the building has received a copy of the “Contract Due Notice,” notifying all Jianweitang-related members to cease all activities on the third floor.
The third floor, which Jianweitang rents out entirely, covers 2,400 square meters (almost 26,000 square feet). Jianweitang pays three million Chinese Yuan (approximately $440,000 USD) per year for the third floor. The company has never defaulted on rent and has promised to continue paying the full amount of rent punctually in the future.
Why, then, would the landlord, Longbaochen Commercial Mansion, be so eager to expel such a reliable tenant?
To answer this question, it is important to understand a few key pieces of information. Jianweitang Culture Co. Ltd. is a company registered by Zion Church in Beijing. Under the current Chinese system, most Christian churches are unable to gain independent legal status to sign any contracts, including renting spaces or opening bank accounts. Therefore, house churches either empower their pastors to sign lease agreements on behalf of the church, or they register a company to rent a venue for church usage.
Zion Church is currently one of the largest Christian churches in Beijing with over 1,500 people attending its Sunday services weekly. It is well-known by the majority of churches in China and is recognized by the global evangelical Christian community.
Zion Church Beijing, through Jianweitang Culture Co. Ltd., has rented out the office space in the Longbaochen Commercial Mansion since March 2007. Initially, the church rented only one office space on the fifth floor, and it later expanded to include a few more offices. At the beginning of 2013, a nightclub, operating on the third floor of the office building, closed down and vacated the entire floor. This caused a dramatic decrease of revenue stream for the landlord. The landlord took the initiative to reach out to the church asking if they could rent the third floor. Considering the cost of rent for such a massive space, as well as the cost of teardown and renovation, the church was not ready to take on the new lease.
In an effort to maintain their revenue, the landlord continued to negotiate actively with the church and promised the church a 10-year lease commitment. Based on this commitment, Zion Church agreed to rent the building's third floor for a lease agreement of 10 years in August 2013. Since the property is a state-owned asset, however, and the parent company owning Longbaochen Commercial Mansion only permits a three-year agreement in order to allow for changes in pricing. Further negotiation was needed. Finally, after much persuasion, the lease agreement was fixed on a five-year term to accommodate for price adjustments with the 10-year commitment left unchanged.
Since March 2018, however, various external pressures have been exerted on Longbaochen Commercial Mansion. Consequently, the landlord has abruptly and unilaterally backed out of its 10-year commitment. At the end of the first five-year lease term, Longbaochen Commercial Mansion terminated the negotiating process with Zion Church and has since used various methods to force Zion Church to move out.
"Legal" Venues for Religious Activities
Why would an office building landlord, with the self-interest of maintaining reliable revenue flow, suddenly want to drive out a lessee who can and has been consistently paying rent? In fact, this is not just a peculiar phenomenon happening in Beijing. This type of illogical action is widespread across the country. Since the beginning of this year, there have been multiple incidents of landlords evicting individual Christian tenants or churches. The reasoning given for such eviction is their engagement in "illegal religious activities," namely evangelizing, communicating between believers, and holding Sunday services.
These evictions are based on the state's “Regulations on Religious Affairs,” which came into effect on February 1, 2018. The revised regulations specify all venues for religious activities must be registered pending administrative inspection and government approval. All other religious gatherings are identified as illegal.
Christianity requires their followers to live out their faith in all aspects of life. The liberty to practice publicly one’s religion is the concrete manifestation of freedom of religion. Historically, Christians have held worship services in various types of “venues,” such as prisons, palaces, forests, and city plazas. Christianity also requires believers to express their beliefs within their families, at work, and in social activities.
Therefore, enforcing this restriction on venues for religious activities or classifying religious activities outside of registered venues as illegal is absurd. Regulations of this kind only show how seriously the policy writers misunderstand religion and how religious groups operate. These regulations prove in reality to be nearly impossible to enforce. For example, a distinct part of the Christian faith is praying before every meal. This is part of normal religious activity. Under the current regulations, however, this action may be defined as illegal if such “religious activity” was not carried out within registered venues. Would this mean that Chinese Christians would only be allowed to pray before eating in an approved venue?
In China, a considerable number of Christians belong to so-called “house churches.” These are churches not registered under the National Committee of Three-Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches in China (TSPM). Some churches have rented or purchased office buildings for worship. The majority of house churches are still operating in family homes or such small meeting places. If they are all deemed “illegal” and fined, such policy will seriously deprive Chinese Christians of their religious freedom.
Increasing Tension in Church and State Relations
The current issue confronted by Zion Church is not just the simple question of whether or not to submit to the “Regulations on Religious Affairs.” Since February 2018, Zion Church Beijing, as well as many other Christian churches across the country, have witnessed increasing tension between the church and the state. The relevant departments of various local governments dealing with religion have actively confronted churches in order to suppress Christian belief and its life application.
For example, the government demanded installation of surveillance cameras in the auditorium of Zion Church in early April. This was the first time Zion Church had received such a request in its 11-year existence. Such an imposition implies a vigorous tightening of supervision on the church and its congregation by the state. After the church refused the request, the water supply and electricity on the third floor were cut off for a brief period.
On June 12, the official WeChat social media account of Zion Church was blocked after five years of consistent operation. Then, a series of similar removals of alternative Zion Church WeChat accounts happened on June 14, June 20, June 28, August 4, and August 15. On August 2, the church's official video platform, a Youku account, was also taken down.
At the same time, six satellite campuses of Zion Church have been forced to close down. The first one is the Zion Church in Wangjing, which was shuttered on February 7. At the end of March, the Tiantongyuan campus was closed. In mid-May, Zion Church Houshayu was shut down. The fourth closure was Xueqing in June. On July 1, Zion Church Songzhuang was forced to close as well. Four days later, the same thing happened to the Yizhuang campus. Since July, the one remaining Zion Church campus in Zhenguang has also received pressure from its landlord to cease meeting.
In particular, Zion Church Yizhuang's closure illustrates what is transpiring. On July 5, the church suddenly received a text message from the landlord requesting the termination of the contract and refused to refund the initial two-month deposit and the quarterly rent payment, which had just been paid. When members of the church rushed to the Yizhuang campus, they found the door was locked. Six unidentified men stood in front of the entrance and did not allow the members of the congregation to enter the rented space. After all negotiations failed, church members called the police. Four of the six men left before the police arrived. The other two who stayed behind attempted to use a fake ID card to justify their actions, but one of them was identified as a member of a gang with a criminal record. The police, however, claimed no power to deal with the matter and left without any action. Shortly thereafter, the six men returned regularly whenever believers arrived to check on their leased space and continued to prevent entrance into the building. On Sunday, July 8, the hallways and elevators to the venue were locked, and more than a dozen security guards stood in place to stop all attempts to enter the building. As of now, the Yizhuang campus still cannot be used as promised.
The Widespread Strain of Church and State Relations in China
Zion Church in Beijing is among the numerous churches currently experiencing persecution in China. Local governments in Beijing, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Chengdu, Lanzhou, Xuzhou, and other cities have also carried out actions to suppress and persecute local house churches. Similar actions have taken place across the entire provinces of Henan and Jiangxi. Chinese churches are experiencing the climax of the severest persecution seen in the past 40 years.
These acts of persecution against Christians are premeditated and systemically planned. Learning from past experiences, government officials at all levels deal with religious issues through civil laws that are non-religious in nature. These acts are attempts to avoid revealing the blatant persecution of the church and the suppression of religious freedom. Terminating a church’s rental contract is just one such example.
In the future, it is expected the Chinese government will employ similar tactics to increase pressure on the church—through opaque queries of fire protection measures, by questioning the legality of printed materials used by the church, through the harsh and unfair application of business licensing requirements, and so on. The common feature of these legal tactics is the effort to close houses of worship for “non-religious reasons,” and in so doing, sidestep the accusation of suppressing religious freedom. It is difficult to estimate whether such tactics will really accomplish their desired end.
Article was updated on September 7, 2018.
*For a Chinese version of this story, download here.