By Linda Burkle, PhD
It was dusk when our plane touched down in China. Along with a throng of other weary travelers, we made our way to the terminal. What struck me was the number of uniformed personnel. Every few yards, it seemed, someone was checking our passports.
After making our way through several checkpoints, we finally arrived at the large baggage claim hall and identified the carousel assigned to our flight. Then we waited– and waited. Finally, the carousel began to move as it spit out all sizes and forms of luggage. Passengers were crowded around watching for their bags and waiting to grab them as they circled around on the belt. One by one passengers and bags were reunited and disappeared through the terminal exit. Eventually, my friend and I stood alone with no more bags on the carousel. We looked at each other, anxiety mounting. We each knew what the other was thinking—we were going to be arrested.
Within both of our large suitcases were books, fifteen or twenty in each, written in Chinese. They were books on Christian discipleship and we had them to give to leaders of the underground church.
We stood there waiting to be approached by uniform officers, not knowing what would happen next. After a short time, a man in street clothes with a pleasant face approached us and, in English, said “I have your bags and will get them.” He returned with all our luggage. Then, without even asking our names or to see our passports, he handed us our bags. How did he know whose bags were whose? We stood there shocked, wondering—could it be? Had an angel protected us by intercepting our luggage, fully intact, books and all? We thanked him and he turned to walk away. We turned back to thank him again and he was gone.
This was not my first trip to China. Two years earlier, we were there in the same area as presenters at a conference for underground church leaders. Now, we were back to convene a follow up conference for generally the same, but expanded group. However, this time it was different. What had been partially open doors to China were beginning to close; there was a palpable change in the atmosphere, level of surveillance, and observed caution of our hosts.
The first conference years before was held during late afternoon daylight hours at some type of meeting room. This time, however, the actual venue changed at the last minute—presumably due to concerns of a raid. I was scheduled to speak on the last day of the conference. I recall meeting under of the shroud of night in a large sixth-floor flat of an apartment building. In darkness, we silently ascended the stairs, not wanting our English-speaking voices to draw unwanted attention.
My friends and I each had a strong sense we would be raided. We passed a note between us urging intercession. People knocked on the door to the flat throughout the meeting. Fear rose with every knock; new people kept coming and I silently prayed they were believers and not spies. As we debriefed after the meeting we thanked God for protecting us from what we sensed was eminent danger.
My experience helped me to better understand a pervasive, if subdued, concern among the Chinese underground church. It is the government’s prevalent use of informants—individuals who infiltrate Christian groups disguised as genuine seekers but who in reality report what they encounter back to the government. The daily risk of informants can cast a shadow of suspicion in evangelism and discipleship activities. Underlying distrust erodes genuine fellowship and impedes authentic Christian community. Despite this challenge, the church in China continues to grow.
While in China we heard firsthand accounts of arrest, travel restrictions, and other harassment and persecution of believers. In more recent years, the surveillance and infringement on religious freedom has dramatically increased with rapid technological advances. The Chinese government monitors every aspect of the lives of its citizens including academic and career pursuits, family size, travel, associations, communication, and social media use. My previous electronic communication with those in China was initially monitored, but, sadly, has since ceased altogether.
I have a young Chinese friend who has lived in the US for ten years. During this time, he became a Christian and led some of his family members still in China to Christ as well. He soon will be traveling to China to visit family. He and his wife are leaving their cell phones here to prevent the Chinese government from accessing the data on their phones because in China, nothing is beyond the eyes of the government.
[Note: I have intentionally left out all identifying information related to people, locations, and years of travel]
Dr. Burkle retired from The Salvation Army in early 2019 where she oversaw an array of social services in a multi-state region. Along with the State Attorney General, Burkle Co-Chaired the Nebraska Human Trafficking Task Force. Dr. Burkle holds a doctoral degree in international relations. Her dissertation focused on religious persecution; specifically, regarding Iran, Iraq, Sudan, China and Burma (Myanmar). Dr. Burkle resides in Omaha, Nebraska. She has three grown children and eight grandchildren.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Christian Concern or any of its affiliates