Can Christianity do for China what capitalism failed to do? Namely, to soften the harsh Marxist/Leninist and increasingly nationalist atmosphere of the society into something gentler and better?
Few Chinese Christians will be celebrating without a shadow of fear hanging over them this holiday season, as severe state repression of their faith has intensified in the past couple of years. But take a few steps back; the longer view of Chinese Christianity remains one of astonishing achievement and growth.
It is tempting to think the big international issue for the future is pandemics, such as COVID-19 that we’re still battling through, or, if you’re so inclined, global warming, which will make a comeback under Joe Biden over the next few years.
But in truth one issue only dominated this year, dominates this moment and will dominate the rest of our lives – how is China going to develop, and how will its government behave?
Chinese civilisation and culture are one of the great engines of human creativity and development. As the late Pierre Ryckmans, the greatest Sinologist ever to work in Australia, observed in the introduction to his masterful translation of the Analects of Confucius: “Whoever remains ignorant of this civilisation, in the end can only reach a limited understanding of the human experience.”
It is the totalitarian ambition by the Chinese Communist Party, ruling the Chinese state, to control every aspect of Chinese culture, civilisation and the Chinese people, which is producing unbearable tension at home and finding aggressive outlet abroad.
Nothing is more important culturally for China than the future of religion.
All religions in China have suffered intensified repression. The most severe treatment is directed at the Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang, followed by the Dalai Lama loyal Buddhists in Tibet.
These religious minorities are also ethnic minorities in specific territories on the periphery of China, territories only spasmodically controlled by Beijing. So while the religious persecution is real it is motivated more by fear of separatism. And whatever happens to these minorities will not change the character of China.
The story is altogether different regarding Christians. Determining how many Christians there are in China, and how many believers of other religions, is no easy task. Ian Johnson, author of the splendid Souls of China, estimates 300m to 400m Chinese are believers in one religion or another. His estimate, full of goodwill but methodically careful, is that there are 60m to 70m Christians. The Economist, in a piece in September, had a similar figure. These are much higher than the government’s official numbers.
Open Doors, an international Christian group which helps persecuted Christians, estimates there are just under 100m Chinese Christians. The highest credible estimate comes from Fenggang Yang at Purdue University in Indiana. He thinks there may be as many as 115m. Some Christians estimate considerably more than this. In one speech US Vice-President Mike Pence talked of “up to 130m Chinese Christians”, though he did not explain where the figure came from. The truth is finally unknowable, and even rests in part on how you define belief, but more than 100m seems an extremely optimistic estimate.
Everybody agrees that the vast majority of Chinese Christians are Protestants, with about 10m or 12m Catholics included in the overall number of Christians. Whether it is 60m or 115m, this is an astonishing achievement for Christianity in communist China. As Johnson records, in 1949 there were perhaps 4m Christians in China; 3m Catholics and a million Protestants. To go from 4m to 100m in that time, during some of the most savage anti-religious persecutions in modern history, is almost miraculous. The 2nd century Christian writer Tertullian observed that the blood of martyrs was the seed of the church. There has been plenty of seed in China.
Initially, after the communists came to power in 1949, they tried to reorganise religion under a united front mechanism. Christianity was seen as a foreign religion and all the foreigners were thrown out.
This particularly hurt the Catholic Church, which had not localised enough of its hierarchy. Without many local bishops it could not ordain priests, which meant that many local Catholic communities could not administer sacraments beyond baptism.
The Cultural Revolution (1965 to 1975) was a period of savage persecution of all religions. Priests and nuns were held in cages, like zoo animals, in cathedrals, and the public encouraged to come in and mock them. When China finally turned towards reform in the late 1970s it loosened up a bit and this is when the huge Christian expansion took place.
In 1982 the Communist Party issued an encouraging document, characteristic for that golden age of Chinese liberalising, known as Document 19. It denounced the “leftist errors” of the Cultural Revolution and allowed normal religious activities.
The 1980s experienced a huge expansion in evangelical and Pentecostal Chinese churches. Christianity moved from the countryside to the cities. But any freedom in communist China is always temporary and provisional. After the Tiananmen massacre in 1989 things tightened up again, though nowhere near as severe as the Cultural Revolution. The Protestant house church movement kept expanding.
The first decade of this millennium was good for Christianity. The Protestant groups that did well in Western cities did similarly well in Chinese cities and with the same methods. City churches, often meeting in rented accommodation in office buildings, would hold Christmas celebrations, charismatic musical services and the like. Young people would come along, enjoy the music, enjoy the fellowship; some became Christians. At this point, going on straight-line projections, some thought China would eventually have more Christians than any other nation.
Some senior churchmen even held out a particular hope for Xi Jinping. Reportedly, he had privately expressed admiration for some elements of Christianity. There was a fantasy that he might be China’s Constantine, the 4th century Roman emperor who converted to Christianity and paved the way for the Christianising of Europe.
Boy, was that ever a mistaken dream.
Since 2016, the Chinese state has become steadily more repressive. Catholic priests and bishops, and a substantial number of Protestant pastors and local church identities, have been jailed.
New regulations were announced in 2017 and formally came into force in 2018. Numerous local party bosses had already taken actions against Christian churches in their own regions, shutting or amalgamating churches, forbidding the public display of crosses and the like, and, while the legality of these moves was unclear, they were never reversed.
Even harsher restrictions were announced this year. Beijing officially recognises five religions – Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism. The constitution notionally guarantees freedom of religion. But its terms are vague and it has had no effect in slowing down persecution.
In 2017, Xi told a Communist Party Congress that “the leadership should persist in advancing the Sinicisation of our country’s religions”. The mantra of Sinicisation has been the hammer the party has used to hit Christianity, but also to hit even Buddhism which came initially from India but has been in China for more than 1800 years.
In 2018 the Vatican signed an agreement with Beijing, recently renewed, which would theoretically amalgamate the underground Catholic church – which has numerous priests and bishops in jail, some for many years and some now presumed dead – with the officially recognised Catholic Patriotic Association, which is officially tolerated but still heavily circumscribed.
It is fair to say the Vatican and the Communist Party want opposite things from this deal. In the short term the Vatican wants more bishops and therefore more priests. In the long term it wants a normalised civic status for Catholics. There has been no sign of either of these developments taking place. The Communist Party views the agreement as a way of taking greater control of the underground church.
The Protestant Christians are also divided into the official Three Self Movement as opposed to the independent, mainly house church, congregations. The term “three self” refers to self-governance (no foreign allegiance); self support (no foreign money) and self propagation (no foreign missionaries). No foreign influence, all control in Beijing, is the big theme.
Some patterns in Christianity recur endlessly. In the New Testament Acts of the Apostles, in Athens, St Paul is accused of “advocating foreign gods”. Christianity’s first big act in China came with the Jesuit, Matteo Ricci, who first went to China in the 16th century. An extraordinary man, he was the first Westerner to master Chinese language and culture. He won the acceptance of the emperor’s court for his knowledge of science and astronomy. He argued that Christianity was compatible with the Analects of Confucius and converted a number of influential Chinese officials to Christianity.
But subsequent emperors saw Christianity as essentially a foreign religion and became uneasy when it started to attract large numbers of converts. In 1724 Emperor Yongzheng granted an audience to Jesuit missionaries and questioned them: “You wish to make the Chinese all Christians, and this is what your law demands. We know this very well. But in this case what would become of Us? Should We not soon become merely the subjects of your kings? The subjects you have made already recognise nobody but you, and in a time of trouble, they would listen to no other voice than yours.” A couple of years later, he would issue a famous edict which said: “China has her Chinese teachings just as the West has Western teachings. Western teachings do not need to be practised in China.”
This is more or less just exactly what Xi Jinping has decided. Nonetheless, the 18th century emperor never wholly suppressed Christianity, nor has Xi.
At one level, the idea that Christianity must Sinicise to be successful in China is not unreasonable. Chinese Christians don’t wish to impose Western norms – many of which are now so gross that Western Christians do not like them – on China. Nor do they have much wish to interfere in Chinese politics.
But Sinicisation of religions in China today means explicit support for the doctrines and leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and an acknowledgment of the superiority of CCP doctrine to any religious doctrine. Churches have famously been forced to hang pictures of Xi Jinping. Even Buddhism, which is integral to Chinese culture and is generally apolitical, has found its traditional statues disappearing at temples. Those temples most favoured have a photo or statue of Mao. Schools have had to eliminate their Buddhist symbolism.
The Chinese Communist Party is itself a religious institution which cannot allow a heretical religious body to coexist, or certainly to compete by offering an alternative credibility structure.
It is far too simple to think that Chinese culture was previously unreligious and had not discovered God. Geremie Barme, perhaps Australia’s most brilliant contemporary Sinologist, explains: “China has had a concept of a monotheistic entity from very early on. They tried to combine the abstract workings of heaven and integrate these with the emperor. The emperor incarnates the principles of the workings of heaven. The last dynasty called themselves the Celestial Dynasty.
“There have been a lot of communist-era attempts to meld the party with the sacred workings of heaven. The communists will always regard Christians as competitors for the hearts and minds of the Chinese. When they ask: do you believe in Marxism/Leninism, they use the same word as do you believe in a religious faith. (Russia’s) Josef Stalin, who had been a seminarian, introduced many aspects of eastern orthodoxy into communism which the Chinese inherited, such as confession, and seeking redemption”.
With Xi’s ideological assertiveness a wide range of actions have been taken to hamper Christianity. The most famous Protestant pastor, Wang Yi, who had built up a huge following, was sentenced to nine years in prison in 2019 on charges of subverting state power and conducting illegal business operations. Dozens of his leading followers were also jailed. Wang Yi’s movement had set up schools, he had hundreds attending his services, he was building a national network and he expressed views about the morality of abortion. This was all way too much for the Chinese authorities who cracked down very hard.
That crackdown has become pervasive. Video cameras have been installed in and around tolerated churches to record everyone who participates. Since early 2020 churches are positively required to support and spread Communist Party teachings, something of a contradiction given that the party is formally atheist. Churches have been forced to amalgamate. It is impossible to get permission to build a new church. It is illegal for people under 18 to attend church. Private or religious school education is illegal. Bibles may be sold at churches but not in regular bookshops. It is illegal to sell Bibles online. Communist Party members may not belong to a church.
Through contacts organised by the Open Doors movement, I have had the chance to speak to a number of Chinese Christians within China. The underground Catholic churches and Protestant home churches have never really operated in secret. The government knows about them but tolerates them up to a point so long as they remain very small and absolutely apolitical.
Peony, a woman in her 50s, and Caleb, a man of a similar age, both tell me it is now very difficult even for the Protestant house church movement to attract and instruct young people. If a house church has more than about 10 people involved at any one time it gets into trouble. This makes it extremely difficult to run a youth group or a Bible study class.
Peony shares her own story: “I was 16 when my classmate shared the Gospel with me. She invited me to join a small Christian fellowship. I found that God was touching my heart and I found a peace with Jesus which is hard to express.
“Persecution in China varies from region to region and decade to decade. Because I live in a big city I don’t feel too much pressure.
“The situation changed quite dramatically from the second half of 2018. Unregistered churches need to conduct services in a very low profile. Registered churches can continue but are often forced to amalgamate. In China all students are forced to attend public schools. Ten years ago a lot of Christians were trying to home school.”
That’s happening much less now, she says. “Christians who work in the government sector or for big institutions need to be very, very careful. They will be warned not to share the Gospel.”
Caleb tells a similar story: “In the last few years everything has tightened up. Christian materials other than the Bible are now mainly imported illegally from overseas. Before the crackdown there were lots of Christian book stores and lots of material on the internet, even if they were technically illegal. The government now tries much harder to limit that.”
With the inability of Christians to create interactive and innovative services, Caleb says it is now very difficult to launch effective youth ministries.
So far the Chinese Communist Party has decided to radically curtail Christianity, rather than totally outlaw it.
But this is a long, long story.
The purpose of Christianity is to preach the Gospel, but this always has social consequences.