CHINA’S RELIGIOUS POLICY: A BALANCING ACT

As Crosses Come Down

For over a year, many are speculating on what Beijing would do with China’s Christian movement as the Zhejiang provincial government continues to take down crosses from church buildings—over a thousand by now, and counting. There are also reports of increased suppression of church activities in other provinces. Is this part of a systematic ideological tightening across the country that may step up in the days ahead?

China is so vast and complex such that attempts to decipher it can be likened to the parable of blind men trying to describe an elephant as each of them touched a different part of its body. At the risk of oversimplifying the subject, we shall nonetheless try to examine some fundamental issues at play.

From Mao To Open Door & Reform

Back in Mao’s day, religion was condemned as the opiate of the masses. When Communism ushers in utopia free of social injustices, religion is expected to die a natural death. To the contrary, however, the house church movement survived the Cultural Revolution and flourished. A shift of viewpoint occurred when, a few years after the Open Door & Reform Era began in 1978, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences announced that religion should be studied as a cultural phenomenon, a legitimate part of human civilization.

Need to Manage “Religious Fever”

Recent statistics show that 30-50% of China’s populace claim to have some religious belief, the great majority of them Buddhist. A third of them are young people, and most conversions have taken place since the 80s. As one of the most significant sociological phenomena in China in the past 30 years, “Religious Fever” is a well-published subject. At the 17th Plenum of the National Congress of the Party in 2007, for the first time, religion became part of the agenda.

Two Major Stumbling Blocks

Despite the rapid growth of churches in the country, church historian Xiyi Yao has pointed out two major stumbling blocks for the Gospel in China. Firstly, most Chinese people see Christianity as a western religion, “洋教”. Secondly, the government basically views Christianity as a tool of infiltration by a hostile West that wants to see the demise of communism in China as a result of “peaceful evolution”.                                                                        

Pendulum Swing—A Balancing Act

A leading Chinese political scientist also pointed out that to ensure stability for her modernization and social progress, China’s religious policy is a balancing act between her need for national security and her need to forge a “United Front” to manage the ethnic and religious diversity among 1.4 billion people. In Chinese, it is 统战与安全的平衡.

 Need For A United Front

Before President Jiang Zemin stepped down in 2002, he urged that religious communities should adapt to the socialist way of life. His successor Hu Jintao went a step further to propose that they should be mobilized to contribute to the building of the country. In 2014, the current President Xi Jinping was reported to have said: “China is a multi-ethnic nation with many faith communities. It is critical for long-term peace and security that we manage diversity well. We should rally the religious sector and faith communities to con-tribute to socioeconomic development.”

 Need For National Security

In 2005, top officials across the country became aware of the rapid growth of the Christian movement. Understandably, China would feel threatened if she also perceived that a hostile West could use religion to destabilize their government.

In 2006, Russia allegedly completed their investigation of the “color revolutions” in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, and concluded that western NGOs, especially those of Christian background, had a key role in instigating mass protests. Their report probably influenced China’s decision to suspend application for registration by international NGOs. Further-more, an “anti-infiltration” task force was allegedly established.

In 2007, the government engaged the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences to study house churches across the country and the possible repercussions of their eradication by force. After a year-long study covering 20 provinces ended in 2008, re-searchers were impressed by their findings and recommended the legalization of house churches so that the 45-60 million believers could be properly managed as legitimate members of Chinese society.

Early 2009, serious dialogue began between the government and key leaders of the house church movement. In December, a full-page article in China Daily called for the registration of house churches and raised the hope of many around the world.

However, in 2010, around the time of the unfortunate confrontation between the government and house churches when 200 pastors were barred from attending the Lausanne Congress in S. Africa, leftist think tanks voiced their warning that the “explosive” growth of Christianity will be exploited by foreign powers to westernize China and challenge the government’s control of society. Again, the tide turned.

Domestic Unrest

The larger context of domestic and international politics also affects China’s religious policy. Early
in 2011, the “Chinese Jasmine Revolution” with “strollers” in a dozen cities was a reflection of wide-spread dissatisfaction with the government across the nation. In 2012, the Bo Xilai incident revealed significant disunity within the Party. Even after the change of guards in 2013, Xi Jinping and his opponents have continued to fight.

As a rule, whenever there is power struggle within the Party, everyone finds safety in taking a leftist stance that aligns more closely with the military.

International Tension & US-China Relations

Since 2012, escalation of the Diaoyu-Senkaku Island dispute has affected US-China relations as the U.S. is perceived to be furthering its foreign policy of “China Containment” by backing Japan.

Whenever U.S.-China relations sours, the Chinese government will tighten its control of the Chinese Church. Sadly, in their eyes, Christians are loyal to a western religion championed by America.

In 2013, the Chinese military released the documentary Silent Combat that articulated the need for China to strengthen its soft pow-er to counter the U.S. strategy of fostering peaceful evolution around the world, beginning with the dissolution of the U.S.S.R.

In 2014, China’s first Blue Paper on National Security named underground religious activities as one of four major threats facing the country. This unfortunately puts the house churches in the same category as religious extremists that have caused considerable disturbance in China over the last few years.

A Time To Pray

God is at work in the midst of China’s socioeconomic and political changes to further His plan of redemption in history. So let us pray for a harmonious, free and just society where the Church of Christ can thrive and demonstrate that the Gospel is good for China.

Pray for courage and protection for our Chinese brothers and sisters as they live out their faith in season and out of season.

Finally, pray for effective bridge-builders among the nations and those in authority in China, Japan, and the U.S., for understanding and reconciliation, that all people may live in peace and come to know the truth (1Tim 2: 2,4).