What I didn’t expect was to see a Christian “fish” on an auto. In traffic. In Beijing. Christianity is real, growing, and visible. “Religion is on the rise,” one U.S. diplomat told me.
Religion also is under attack by the Chinese government. When it comes to religious liberty in the People’s Republic of China, there’s the (surprisingly frequent) good, the (not so constant) bad, and the (still too often) ugly.
Long the target of Christian missionaries, China turned hostile to Christianity after the 1949 revolution. Religion threatened the Communist Party’s totalitarian vision and Christianity was associated with foreign influences. Persecution grew particularly harsh during the Cultural Revolution, a mixture of political purge and civil war. Since then the PRC has routinely been ranked among the worst religious persecutors.
For instance, Beijing is listed on the Hall of Shame from International Christian Concern. China makes the Open Doors World Watch List. The State Department labels the PRC a “Country of Particular Concern.”
In its latest report on religious liberty State reported: “The government exercised state control over religion and restricted the activities and personal freedom of religious adherents when these were perceived, even potentially, to threaten state or Chinese Communist Party (CCP) interests, including social stability. The government harassed, assaulted, detained, arrested, or sentenced to prison a number of religious adherents.” Nevertheless, the experience varied geographically: “In some parts of the country, however, local authorities tacitly approved of or did not interfere with the activities of unregistered groups.”
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom noted that those individuals and groups perceived to be out of the ordinary or to pose a threat “face severe restrictions, harassment, detention, imprisonment, and other abuses.” Believers could be arrested, tortured, and imprisoned and pressured to renounce their faiths. The Vatican and Beijing remain at odds over the official “Catholic Patriotic Association.” while “Protestants and Catholics who refuse to join the state‐sanctioned religious organizations continue to face severe restrictions, including efforts to undermine and harass their leaders, arrest and detentions, and property destruction,” according to the Commission.
The group China Aid, headed by Bob Fu, a former house church pastor, compiled a long list of repressive incidents: arrests, detentions, imprisonments, and church attacks. China Aid’s overall persecution measure, which includes incidents of persecution and of people persecuted, rose 38 percent in 2013 over the previous year. Fu feared that the anti‐Christian campaign is spreading.
The authorities in Zhejiang Province have been particularly repressive. In April the province destroyed the 4,000 seat facility in the city of Sanjiang. The church, built with private donations, was a government‐approved member of the Protestant “Three‐Self Patriotic Movement.” In one day in mid‐May, observed journalist Steve Finch, “authorities quietly removed or destroyed crosses at 50 churches in Zhejiang in what appeared to be a widening campaign against Christianity.”
Provincial officials pointed to zoning laws, but Renee Zia of Chinese Human Rights Defenders argued, “Nobody has any illusions that citing zoning law is nothing but looking for an excuse for the current wave of clamping down on Christian churches.” The government’s real concern is Christianity’s growth. Provincial party chief Xia Baolong reportedly complained that Christian symbols were too “conspicuous.” Another Zhejiang official, Feng Zhili, charged that Christianity’s spread was “too excessive and too haphazard.” Indeed, the city of Wenzhou has been called the “Jerusalem of the East” because of its large number of churches, around 1,000, and sizeable Christian population.
An internal provincial report cited by the New York Times, “Working Document Concerning the Realization of Handling of Illegal Religious Buildings,” targeted “excessive religious sites” and “overly popular” religious activities. The paper emphasized bringing down crosses from “expressways, national highways and provincial highways,” and from “the rooftops to the façade of the buildings.”
Some observers wonder whether the Zhejiang campaign might act as a test run for a new national campaign. Christianity and Islam, centered outside of China, are seen as particularly suspect. Finch reported that a party “Blue Book” warned: “Foreign religious infiltration powers have penetrated all areas of Chinese society.” The CCP also objects to the role of universal values, which have caused Christians to play a disproportionate role as human rights lawyers. Prof. Fenggang Yang, a sociologist at Purdue, told the Daily Telegraph that government officials feared Christianity could “become an opposition political force” and be used by “Western forces to overthrow the Communist political system.”
However, religion is not unique in this regard. Shannon Tiezzi of the Diplomat contended that increasing government pressure should be seen in the context of the larger crackdown on liberty. Chinese officials emphasize harmony and the Chinese constitution bans “disruption of the socialist system.” Tiezzi wrote: “it’s clear that tightened controls on religious movements are merely one face of a broader campaign to assert CCP control over Chinese society.
China Aid acknowledged that “The escalating severity of persecution every year, and its continuous worsening in 2013 was not singular and accidental, but a part of the Chinese government’s overall escalated suppression of political dissenters, rights defense activists and ordinary people.” Added Tiezzi, “Beijing is particularly sensitive to the specter of ‘foreign influence’ over sub‐groups of China’s population, whether moviegoers or prominent state‐sanctioned academics.”
Despite the seemingly abundant bad news for Christians, the situation in the PRC is far better than it was a decade or two ago, let alone during the Cultural Revolution. Last year China Aid concluded that 7,424 people were victimized in 143 cases. That is too many yet, with tens of millions of believers, it actually is a relatively small number. Blogger Renee Riley cited a 2013 report pointing to only two incidents involving more than 3,000 Beijing house churches. The majority of persecution cases, wrote Riley, involved Christians who “were either engaged in activity which the government perceived as a threat, or they ran afoul of the economic or political interests of corrupt local leaders.”
For instance, Reuters described as a “wider sweep of Christian‐run NGOs and businesses along the Chinese side of the border with North Korea.” The government apparently has forced hundreds of Christians, mostly from South Korea, home and closed many churches. But this effort appears to be more political than religious, since Christians have been disproportionately involved in helping refugees fleeing the North. Beijing remains committed stabilizing its decrepit neighbor.
To some degree the CCP appears to be shifting in practice from repression to mitigation. Open Doors ranked Beijing at number 37 of 50 on its World Watch List, unchanged from last year. But China was in the top ten only a decade ago. The organization reported that the government has “chosen not to strictly control Christian activities in most regions in China,” and that the majority of churches “are not registered, but tolerated.” Officials meet with ministers to discuss restrictions, such as foreign involvement. Provincial officials who pull down crosses are attempting to hide rather than suppress the faith.
Still open in Zhejiang Province is the 5,000 seat Liushi Church, thought to be the largest in China. The church was founded in 1886 but closed during the 1950s as the Communist Party targeted Christianity. The congregation reformed in 1978 and has grown ever since. The new building opened last year. Minister Shi Ziaoli said “Our old church was small and hard to find.” In contrast, “the new one is big and eye‐catching.”
Moreover, the PRC has very little social hostility, in contrast to Islamic countries, which makes China especially fertile ground for growth. Gao Shining of the Institute of World Religions at the Chinese Academy of Social Science observed that religious beliefs “have mushroomed in China over the past 35 years,” with some 300 million Chinese claiming some faith.
The number of Christians was estimated in 2011 by Pew Research at 67 million. However, the number may be substantially higher today. One study found more searches for “Christian Congregation” and “Jesus” than “The Communist Party” and PRC President “Xi Jinping.” The Daily Telegraph’s Tom Phillips noted that “From Yunnan province in China’s balmy southwest to Liaoning in its industrial northeast, congregations are booming and more Chinese are thought to attend Sunday services each week than do Christians across the whole of Europe.”
Yang figured there could be 247 million Christians by 2030, more than 160 million of them Protestants. That most likely would be more than in any other country, including America. Party members dismiss his claim, but recent experience backs Yang. Moreover, while during the 1980s and 1990s Christianity grew most in rural areas, today the better‐educated also are joining Christian churches.
Indeed, there already may be more Christians than Party members. Argued China observer Gordon Chang, “the number [of Christians] is undoubtedly in excess of a hundred million, far more than the 85 million members of the Communist Party.” Moreover, those who become Christians possess greater faith and exhibit more enthusiasm than those who sign up with the CCP.
The Party hopes to constrain Christianity by forcing it into a “patriotic” channel. For instance, Wang Zuoan, director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, stated that “The construction of Chinese Christian theology should adapt to China’s national condition and integrate with Chinese culture.” Of course, the Party’s ultimate goal is atheism: “For a ruling party which follows Marxism, we need to help people establish a correct world view and to scientifically deal with” life issues, he explained. Gu Mengfei of the Three‐Self Patriotic Movement, under which Protestant churches operate legally, said the government hoped to “encourage more believers to make contributions to the country’s harmonious social progress, cultural prosperity and economic development.”
Nevertheless, the PRC may not find it easy to create a Sinicized Christianity. Even government‐approved churches can sound more like churches than government‐approved. I attended the Beijing Chaoyang Church in Beijing. State‐sanctioned, its congregation approaches 1,000. There were 70 baptisms on the day which I happened to attend. The sermon was orthodox theologically (simultaneous translation was provided for foreigners).
My friend Phil Sheldon, who regularly attends the church with his Chinese wife, spoke positively of his experience. He earlier wrote that “many of the bad things you have heard are generally true,” but “persecution does not cover China like the smog.” He emphasized the good. In malls, he wrote: “I have seen and heard Christianity expressed in public. I have been in restaurants with Christian music playing. I was moved to tears the first time I heard a real Christmas carol proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord in English, coming through the background music loud and clear. I have seen people sitting out in public, witnessing over a dog‐eared, well‐marked Bible. There are many malls in America where neither could occur.”
And then there’s that car sporting a “fish”!
While visiting East Asia Pope Francis publicly urged a dialogue with Beijing. Today the government discourages Catholic activities outside of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. He said that the church “only asks to have freedom to do its work. No other conditions.” So far the CCP isn’t willing to grant that. But ultimately it may not have a choice. Even some CCP members recognize the challenge. Admitted Wang: “If we rush to try to push for results and want to immediately ‘liberate’ people from the influence of religion, then it will have the opposite effect.”
Despite sometimes frenetic attacks on particular Christians and Christian churches, the PRC no longer appears to be as serious as it once was about suppressing the Christian faith. These days Beijing’s actions may do more to inconvenience than penalize most believers. Indeed, the CCP may be inadvertently encouraging Christianity’s growth. Argued Chang: “Beijing’s coercion, such as tearing down crosses from churches and even churches themselves, is counterproductive, helping to spread faith. The party does just enough to annoy congregants and create a sense of persecution yet not enough to actually discourage faith.”
Whatever the PRC does, the Chinese people are ever less willing to worship the false god of communism. They are increasingly likely to turn to Christianity — and almost certainly will find their new, real faith to be far more satisfying.