Sunday 25 November 2018

Breaking the Law

I have struggled to decide whether to include this in ‘Crossing the Line’. 

On the one hand I promised not to speak about it.  

On the other, government policy in China today has not changed and if anything, it has become even more aggressive towards people of faith. Many things have changed beyond all recognition over the last 30 years but the continuing arrest and imprisonment of Christians and the latest “Re-education Camps” for Muslims, show that intolerance for religious freedom remains as strong as ever in the Peoples Republic.  

Indeed, religious persecution is alive and well across the world.  It is often systematic, well-established and long term.  Each small story shared builds the picture so in the end I have decided to include it here.  I hope it will be a reminder of the lengths to which regimes will go to suppress religious freedom and the risks which people of faith live with day by day...

Crossing the Line - part 28

While I was working with drug addicts in Hong Kong, I also came across a different Christian group who were on a mission.  Their mission was just as committed, just as dynamic and required just as much courage.  They supported Christians in mainland China who were being continually persecuted for their faith, risking arrest and practising their faith in secret because of the Communist government’s policy.

For Chinese Christians in the latter half of the 20th Century, life was difficult.  From the beginning of the Cultural Revolution until 1976, all religious expression was banned in China, but churches continued to meet in secret and if anything grew in number.  In the early 1980’s a different tactic emerged, with Christians being invited to register and join the newly resurrected (and state-controlled) Three-Self Patriotic Movement.  Although this might have appeared to be a welcome relaxation, it was a way to monitor and control those who registered, while anyone who did not would still be liable to arrest and imprisonment if caught practising their faith.  This could be for attending unauthorised meetings or having Christian possessions.  Bibles were classified as pornography in China and being found with one was a serious offence.

While some Christians registered, most did not and the greatest desire among underground Christians in China was for Chinese Bibles.  The group I came across smuggled Bibles into China and I volunteered for a trip into the Peoples Republic.

All of this sounds very brave and exciting, but for a westerner, it wasn’t really brave at all.  Such was the desire to keep the persecution of Christians an internal and hidden issue, foreign nationals caught with Bibles were merely given a telling off and then allowed to continue their trip without the Bibles they brought.  The authorities would even give receipts to foreign nationals for any Bibles confiscated which could then be used to reclaim the Bibles when they left the country.  The people who took the real risks were the Chinese nationals who received the Bibles.  For them, the future could be very bleak if caught.

This in turn created an opportunity however.  Foreign nationals could be useful in smuggling Bibles across the border from Hong Kong into China, reducing the risk for Chinese Christians at the border.  I volunteered, booked a few days off, and waited for instructions.

The day came and I was paired up with another English man (let’s call him Andy) who had also volunteered.  We were given 2 back-packs full of Bibles, along with travel documents, tickets and verbal instructions for where and when to hand over our precious cargo.  We found ourselves on the express train from Hong Kong to Guangzhou with our heavy backpacks and hearts beating a little faster than usual.

It was only a short journey – just over 100 miles – but looking out of the train window as we crossed the border into China revealed a very different world.  It felt like travelling back in time as famers came into view, ploughing with water buffalo or working their way across the paddy fields in long human chains.  Rural life in China was just the same as it had been for centuries and I wondered what these rural people made of our sleek, modern express train cutting its way through their landscape.

Andy and I both knew that crossing the border was the easy part.  There were no formalities on the train.  All the document checks would take place at the station in Guangzhou, along with the x-ray scanners for all baggage.  Everyone would disembark and be processed before being welcomed as foreign guests into China.  Foreigners were very welcome in southern China because of the foreign currency we brought.  At that time, visitors could only exchange their dollars or pounds for Foreign Exchange Certificates (FEC) rather than regular currency to ensure that the government received it all.  What is more, FECs could only be spent at authorised shops and restaurants which were owned and controlled by the state, so it was a win-win for the Communist party.

We had our FECs along with our visas but getting through the station in Guangzhou would be the challenge.  To ensure no undesirable foreign material came into the country, every bag was scanned, and then opened if anything suspicious was seen. 

There were only two tactics which could enable Bible smugglers like us to get through. 

The first was to pray, and we had been told how many times this had worked with scanner operators distracted just for a moment when bags went through or technical problems blacking out the screen at the crucial moment.

Secondly, if you were one of first passengers to reach the border controls, there was a chance that the bag scanners were not yet being monitored, as the security staff only started getting themselves ready once the train arrived.  The quick passenger might just get to the scanners before they were fully functional or before the operative had focused on the job in hand. This wasn’t easy however, because the sight of someone with a heavy backpack running from the train through the crowds would look more than a little suspicious.  Drawing attention to oneself was not the way to get through!

So inwardly we prayed and practically we took our places at the train doors as we approached Guangzhou, hoping to be the first out.

When the train arrived, I got off first and couldn’t believe what I saw.  As I stepped onto the platform, there was a Chinese state guide meeting a small group of American tourists in the next carriage.  She was shouting at the small group. “Quickly, quickly, follow me to miss queues!” and immediately led them off at high speed through the station to the border control!  I tagged onto the back of the group and found myself being led by a state official and waved through all the preliminary checks until we reached the final obstacle – passport stamping and the scanners.  I was there in record time and without arousing any suspicion! 

Then I simply peeled off from the group, went to different booth and presented myself to the border guard.  He checked my papers and asked me the purpose of my visit.  I pointed to my backpack and said “Back-packing!”  He stamped my passport, and signalled for me to put the backpack onto the conveyor belt.  I did this with my heart in my mouth, but as it moved through the scanner I realised there was no one sitting in the scanner monitor’s chair yet.  My bag came out the other side.  I picked it up, swung it onto my back, and walked slowly into the crowd of people waiting to meet friends and relatives on the other side.  I had done it – or rather, God had!

My colleague Andy was not so fortunate.  We had deliberately planned to exit from different doors of the train and he hadn’t seen the group I latched onto.  Not knowing which way to go, he ended up being swept up in the crowd making their way slowly to the controls.  As soon as his bag disappeared into the scanner, the belt stopped, and two police officers appeared at his side.  He was led away into a side room where his backpack was unpacked slowly before his eyes in silence.  The intention was intimidation rather than threat of action, but it felt like one and the same.  After what seemed like an age, a more senior officer entered the room and spoke to him in English, asking him why he was bringing pornography into China to corrupt the people.  Then he was shouted at, photographed and left on his own for a while.  After another long period in lonely silence someone else came in, gave him the empty back-pack, passport & a receipt for the Bibles before letting him go.

Meanwhile, waiting in the station my initial joy and elation was changing to worry.  As the last passengers emerged from security I knew what had happened. Andy had been caught.  As I stood in the crowded station getting increasingly anxious, I found it hugely ironic that people kept coming up to me, openly trying to sell me drugs in broken English.  Some contraband was clearly less important than others in China.

When Andy finally emerged, He saw me but headed off in a different direction.  He and I had both thought the same thing - was he being followed?  Were the police checking to see if he was on his own?  For about half an hour he and I wandered separately around the huge station square outside, looking at stalls, consulting guidebooks, and looking for a tail.  Only when he was sure there was no one following him, did he come over and tell me what had happened.  He was shaken but his greatest concern was for the people who would be let down, and that he didn’t compromise their safety. 

Our rendezvous to pass on the remaining Bibles in my backpack was not until dusk and as it was now late morning, we had a most of the day to fill so we decided to carry on with the day as planned. We had been told of an amazing restaurant for foreign visitors and had a map of tourist sites in Guangzhou, so we pressed on, hoping that the drama of the day was now behind us.

Making our way to the restaurant was a crash course in true Chinese culture.  Hong Kong could feel like it was Chinese, but in the 1980’s it was very different to the reality of the People’s Republic.

The first thing we noticed was that everyone seemed to dress and act the same.  Chinese tunics, baggy trousers and sandals seemed to be compulsorily with only slight variation in colour, age and condition.  Then there were the bicycles which were everywhere!  The only cars we saw were taxis for the tourists which ironically, had to drive at the same speed as the bicycles because there was no other way through the throng.

We also became aware of older ladies sitting at the corners of each road junction.  With their red armbands and Mao’s Little Red Book overtly sticking out of their tunic pocket, they simply sat there with inscrutable faces and watched.  These were the committed party members I had heard about, who were paid a token to watch their neighbourhood every day and simply report back anything which was out of the ordinary.  In China, it was ‘Big Sister’ who was watching you!

But the thing that really caught us out was very practical.  

Every sign was written in Chinese characters – street names, directions, information – everything was in a language we could not read.  It may sound obvious, but this came as a completely disempowering shock.  While I was learning spoken Cantonese, I had no idea how to read.  In Hong Kong, all signs were bi-lingual, appearing in Chinese and English; here in China, trying to read a language with no alphabet left us lost. I remember thinking that I now knew something of what it must be like to be illiterate in a strange place.

As a result, we were totally unable to find our way around and after giving up trying to find the restaurant, we finally flagged down a taxi.  We pointed to it on our tourist map and were there in no time.

When we entered the restaurant, we saw yet another side to China.  Sheer opulence.  Inside the ornate doors of the restaurant, we found ourselves in a 3 story lobby with a huge ornamental waterfall cascading down rocky pools with exotic birds perched on the intertwining vegetation.  Around the waterfall, a double marble staircase curved its way up to the main restaurant, which was sumptuously filled with lacquer furniture and traditional carved screens embedded with jade.  The waiters were immaculately turned out in white uniforms and all spoke English. 

It was such a contrast to the ox-ploughing farmers, the throngs of bicycles, and the clothed uniformity of their riders outside.  This was the China which the People’s Republic wanted to showcase to visiting tourists spending their FECs and ordinary Chinese people were not allowed in.  We felt immediately under-dressed in our trainers, jeans and tee-shirts, but without hesitation we were welcomed and shown to a table with its own bamboo tree growing beside it.

The greatest shock was yet to come.  As we were handed the menu which was more like a book with its 30 or so pages, we opened it up to the first page.  After being relieved to find it printed in both Chinese and English, we looked down the list of dishes.  They were all priced in both FECs and US dollars, and to our horror, none of them cost less than $100 per dish!

We couldn’t afford that!  We had less than $100 dollars in FECs to see us through the entire trip.  What were we going to do now?

Hurriedly we turned the page and found the dishes on page two were a little cheaper, if still beyond our means.  Page three prices were a little cheaper again and this continued as we made our way through the menu until finally, on the very last page were a list of dishes in small print, priced only in FECs.  At last there was something we could afford!

But now the issue was that they were too cheap.  Each item on the last page cost just pennies, the most expensive being the equivalent of less than £1 sterling.  Surely these must be tiny side dishes, given the prices in the rest of the menu.

So when the waiter came to take our order, we ordered from this last page, and we ordered lots of them, eight I think, to make up for the bite size morsels we expected.  For just a moment, the waiter looked at us with some surprise breaking through his professional, inscrutable expression but he wrote down the order and returned to the kitchen.

A few minutes later our food arrived, or rather a procession emerged from the kitchen.   The first person in the procession was carrying a table; the second, clean table linen to place upon it; the remaining waiters were each carrying the food we had ordered which were not tiny morsels, but rather silver serving trays piled high with each dish on our order.

To our great embarrassment, the food we had ordered filled both tables!  It was a banquet which would have fed a dozen people and here we were, sharing it between the two of us!  There was food everywhere and it was excellent!

As we tried to sample at least some of each dish, we wondered how on earth this could be, but then noticed that there were a few Chinese eating in the restaurant.  They were smartly dressed.  They had an aura about them, as you would find in someone of high status.  We watched the way in which the waiters served them, with even greater deference than they gave to the tourists.  They also had dishes like ours.  We realised that they must be senior Communist Party officials from the city, who were allowed by virtue of their party rank to eat there, but would not be able to pay the prices aimed at foreign visitors.  By working our way through the menu, persevering out of necessity to the page we could afford, we had stumbled on the page for local Communist Party leaders and dignitaries.

It was the biggest, cheapest meal I have ever been served in my life.  The whole bill came to less than $10 and our only shame was that we couldn’t eat more.  I hope the food did not go to waste.

Emerging from the restaurant an hour later feeling very full, we could see in the distance the high-rise White Swan Hotel, which was another place on the tourist map.  It was in the old diplomatic and trading quarter of Guangzhou where, in colonial times western nationals lived under their own laws rather than Chinese law.  It was an enclave of western power and culture when Canton (as it was known) was the only foreign gateway into the huge Chinese trading market.  The tree lined avenues of colonial style buildings were still there, and it was a peculiar contrast to the rest of the city, even in their shabby dilapidated state.  We decided we would walk off some of our lunch, heading towards this landmark. 

It was during this journey that we realised that we were not alone after all.

As we made our rather hap-hazard way through the blocks of streets towards our distant but occasionally visible goal, we realised that one man was making the same turnings we were.  We tested our suspicion by sitting in a park for about 20 minutes.  He seemed to disappear, but then when we set off again, he re-emerged behind us.  

A chill went down our spines.

Had he been there right from the railway station?  Had he been dispatched because Andy had been caught with Bibles?  Did he suspect that I still had a back-pack of Bibles and would be meeting someone to hand them over?  That would be an enormous risk for the local contact we were due to meet.  We couldn’t lead our follower to the rendezvous or else the consequences would be catastrophic for the local Chinese Christian.

In a rather more sombre mood we continued to make our way to the White Swan Hotel and sat down for coffee in their spacious lobby.  He didn’t follow us inside but a cursory glance through the front doors half an hour later revealed him still to be outside, waiting for us to leave.  There was no mistake.

Somewhat nervously, we hatched a plan.  We would carry on as normal, visiting the tourist areas and using the White Swan as a base until the time approached for the handover.  If he was still there we would swap over the Bibles to Andy’s back-pack and split up.  He could only follow one of us, and our hope was that he would follow me because I was the one who was not caught at the railway station.  If this happened, then Andy would make the rendezvous as planned as I led our follower in the opposite direction.  If it didn’t work and he was still being followed, we would take the Bibles back to Hong Kong with us.  The risk would be too great.

As dusk started to fall, we transferred the Bibles in the toilets at the hotel.  We walked out of the front door, exchanged a short conversation, and went our separate ways. My heart was in my mouth and we were both silently praying for him to follow me.  To begin with, I couldn’t see him as I walked away.  Had we called it wrong?  Or was he hesitating, trying to decide what to do?  After about five minutes I stopped by the Pearl River and sat down at a viewing point.  As I looked around at the boats, the buildings along the waterfront and the continuing throng of cyclists behind me, I saw him leaning against a tree.  It had worked!

Some distance away, Andy made the rendezvous and handed over the Bibles without a hitch.

The only thing remaining for us was to get back to Hong Kong.  We were booked on the overnight ferry which made its way down the Pearl River to Hong Kong at its estuary.  As we prepared to board the boat, we had to go through passport control once again. Then as we boarded, we saw the Red Ensign flying from the stern and realised that we were now technically back in British jurisdiction.  The feeling of relief was palpable and we both broke into spontaneous nervous laughter!

As the boat made its way slowly out of Guangzhou we began to relax, and then to reflect on what it must be like to live under that kind of tension all the time.  For our Chinese brothers and sisters who would be receiving those Bibles, they would carry with them the possibility of being discovered every single day.  For them, this was not some day trip with minimal personal risk.  This was a costly way of life.  Being found with a Bible would have grave consequences for them and their families – and yet having a Bible meant so much to them.

In that short journey I learned so much about the commitment of Christians around the world who live in countries where it is not safe to be a Christian.  Despite the threats of governments, lynch-mobs and terrorists, Christians today in countries like China, Pakistan, and Egypt face so many untold dangers alongside the few we hear about in the West. It is not just Christians who suffer this of course.  Rohingya and Weija Muslims are both being persecuted by different secular regimes in different countries with different motives.  Sikhs and Christians are both being persecuted in India according to UK Members of Parliament who raised the issue with the Indian president this year.

What is remarkable is the steadfast faith of those who are persecuted.  I was deeply inspired by Chinese Christians who chose to risk their freedom by having a Bible.  I bet they read it more than we do in our comfortable western democracies.

They love it enough to live their lives in a constant state of breaking the law, aware of the consequences and wholly dependant on God.  They are the real heroes and this story is for them.


  1. You have experienced some amazing things in your life Benny xxx

  2. Remarkably brave despite your protestations about not being the brave ones. And you were clever too! I bet somewhere in China, those bibles are still being cherished. Thank you for your bravery then and now.

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