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5/5/2011 China (Telegraph) – China’s security establishment is in a ruthless mood at the moment, taking on the “tall poppies” of the law, the media, the blogosphere and the arts without apparent fear of a backlash from a public that instinctively knows the value of compliance, and the price of defiance.

However, there is another, much larger grouping, that is also heading for a collision with the “Goon State” (that’s the Economist’s) and with potentially much more serious consequences – the millions of Evangelical Christians who choose to worship outside China’s official churches.

For the last four weeks one of Beijing largest unofficial churches, the Shouwang, or WatchTower, church has been in a stand-off with police over its desire to worship free from state control, with hundreds of its members detained and its leaders put under house arrest.

Now this week Christian groups are warning that the government is preparing to take “new measures” against the Shouwang and some other ‘underground’ churches like the small New Tree Church of Beijing.

It is not yet clear what these measures might be, but if the State really is seeking a confrontation with the house church movement then it is bearding a far bigger and potentially dangerous tiger than the liberal fringes that it has attacked so far.

There are several reasons why China’s security czars might want to proceed with caution:

1. Sheer weight of numbers. The lawyers, bloggers and artists are few. China’s unofficial Christians number into their millions, with estimates ranging from 20m-60m. They are a mass movement.

2. The persecuted have a righteous God on their side. Already the rhetorical temperature is rising, with one Shouwang pastor describing the government as an agent of “Satan” seeking to destroy God’s Church. As Christian martyrs have shown over the centuries, including in China, the religiously motivated are prepared to go to great lengths to defend their faith.

3. The Americans really won’t like it. Despite some international condemnation, China’s leaders haven’t suffered meaningful repercussions for their recent “backsliding” on human rights. The sufferings of artists and lawyers don’t really gain much political traction, but not so the Christians who are a powerful political lobbying force in the US. A widespread persecution holds the very real risk of poisoning a relationship with Washington that, for all its ups and downs, is still Beijing’s number one foreign policy priority.

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