BY JONATHAN CHEN
China has fast become a powerful economic and militaristic force, and the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party know it. The government seems confident, perhaps even brazen, in jostling for global influence and challenging the current political order. From the pervasive cyber attacks on American government entities and corporations, to the pouring of billions of dollars of foreign aid to Africa in order to gain clout and economic resources, and their desire to establish sovereignty over disputed territories in the East and South China Seas in spite of escalating geopolitical tensions, China demonstrates a willingness to assert its supremacy and fight off any opposition it sees.
A similar narrative is taking place internally, within China’s borders, as the government swiftly counters or suppresses whatever they deem a threat or risk to its rule. Among these perceived threats are Christianity and the local church.
When the People’s Republic of China was first established in 1949, there were fewer than a million baptized Protestant Christians out of an estimated population of 450 million.1 Foreign missionaries were prevented from staying as the atheistic Marxist ideology was directly at odds with religion, but Christianity sustained as Y.T. Wu, a Chinese Christian leader opposed to capitalism, brought together Protestant sects through the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM). Under the banner of self-government, self-support, and self-propagation, the TSPM accommodated the Party’s demands and alleviated fears of foreign imperialism.
The toughest wave of persecution took place during the Cultural Revolution, when all forms of religious expression, including the TSPM, were strictly banned. Christians were forced to worship in secret to avoid arrest, imprisonment, and sometimes torture, resulting in the expansion of the Chinese underground house church movement. In 1979, three years after the end of the Cultural Revolution, China loosened its restrictions on religion and reinstated the TSPM in response to Deng Xiaoping’s reformations and also to discourage unregistered church meetings. Since then, four decades of Christian revival have resulted in an estimated 60 to 90 million Evangelicals today, who comprise the largest single civil society group in China.2
Still, the relationship between Christianity and the Party remains tense, and persecution of Christians has been on the rise in recent years. Unregistered house churches and their members have typically been the focus of government harassment, but in 2014 even sanctioned and registered church buildings have been targeted and TSPM leaders put under arrest. That year, officials arrested sentenced Zhang Shaojie, the leader of Nanle County Church in Henan province, to 12 years for “gathering crowds to disrupt public order” and demolished the ten-story Xiaying Holy Love Church in Ningbo as well as the equally monumental Sanjiang Church in Wenzhou, a city known for its sizable Christian presence.345 All three were officially sanctioned churches. More than 1,300 crosses were removed from the roofs of churches in Zhejiang province under the pretense of “safety concerns.”6 In all, the 2014 Annual Report published by the Christian NGO China Aid identified 572 cases of religious persecution, in which more than 2,994 were detained and another 1,274 sentenced.7
Christianity’s unrelenting presence appears both troubling and unwanted for a country that is regarded as one of the most powerful and economically successful in the world. For a religion that originated two thousand years ago by a Jewish prophet from an obscure town whose teachings did not advocate brutality or pose a conventional threat to power, it’s interesting to consider why China might react to Christianity in this way.
There’s no straightforward answer to this question, but one possibility is that the Christian life prescribed and described in the Bible runs against cultural and guiding principles the Party sees as critical for its economic rise. Zhao Yukong, author of the book “The Chinese Secrets for Success,” identifies strong Confucian and Chinese values as the reasons behind its citizens’ strong emphasis on education, ambition (“zhixiang”), and thriftiness, with a remarkably high personal savings rate of nearly 30%.8 These attitudes are consistent with a 2013 survey that named China the most materialistic country in the world: more respondents from China measured their success on the basis of material possessions and felt under a lot of pressure to be successful and make money than those from any other country.9 Coupled with Deng’s reformative policies, such values and sentiments, Zhao argues, are what have driven much of the recent economic achievement in China.
If that is the case, then from an economic standpoint, the Party has much to be concerned about regarding Biblical teachings that the Chinese, in rapidly increasing numbers, are choosing instead to adhere to. Whereas the values of Chinese society might cause someone to be preoccupied with achieving wealth, success, and power, Scripture warns the believer that “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15) and to not serve money as a “master” in place of serving God (Matthew 6:21, 24). The believer is exhorted to redirect his ambitious desires not to please man but Christ and his greater mission (Galatians 1:10, cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:4). It follows that the government has been quick to rout out the church, lest Biblical teachings take root in devout followers and potentially adversely affect the nation’s economic progress and financial prosperity.
Another view is that the Christian faith creates a form of solidarity, a type of unity among people, rooted in something apart from their common nationalistic identity as countrymen. Though estimates vary, the number of Christians in China is comparable to or potentially greater than the number of members in the Communist Party (87 million). China’s history of religiously inspired movements resulting in violence, most prominently seen in the Taiping Rebellion, is a concern, so the sheer size alone is enough to draw attention from the Party. Perhaps just as the government sought to eliminate Falun Gong, whose Chinese practitioners numbered 70 million at its peak in 1999, it is doing the same, this time with another religion.
But the threat is not in numbers alone. The kind of community and solidarity found in Christianity is uniquely far-reaching and close-knit. Believers do not come to church together because of their good moral deeds, or accomplishments, or common ethnic and cultural identities. Rather, they are brought together by their sin, guilt, and shame. In the three years of his ministry, Jesus chose to connect with the poor, the adulterous, the demonic, the leprous, the greedy – people shunned from and despised by society – and bring them together through physical and spiritual healing. Likewise, the body of believers today is a community of once-broken and once-ostracized people. It is composed of those who acknowledge that they are sinners before a holy God, who rightfully deserve God’s wrathful punishment, yet who humbly receive God’s mercy and forgiveness through the blood of Jesus as substitutionary atonement for their sins.
The implications of this kind of radical community are enormous. For one, Christianity is astoundingly inclusive. The Bible states that no one is without sin, yet all are offered this grace of forgiveness through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Any person from any background who confesses his sinfulness and faithfully acknowledges Jesus as his Savior and Lord would be considered a Christian and included as part of the body of the church. There really is no limit to the number of people that might be added to this community. Moreover, the nature of this community is not merely a group of people with shared beliefs. It is, quite literally, a spiritual family, born “not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13, cf. Matthew 12:46-50), with God as the Father and Jesus a brother of his fellow believers. For the Christian, while the biological family remains significant, the spiritual family transcends the biological family. This is a direct challenge to traditional Confucian and Chinese values and their view of family as the most important relationship a person has.
While the size and nature of Christian community is in and of itself a source of unease, a greater worry to the Party is what their faith in Jesus is causing believers to do. The earliest followers of Jesus were continually harassed, tortured, and sometimes even martyred for their faith and belief in Jesus’ resurrection, yet they did not cave in to outside pressure or deny Jesus as the Son of God. This pattern of following Jesus to the very end is being repeated among Chinese Christians today. In the past few years, countless worshippers were detained or beaten, churches demolished, leaders placed under house arrest or taken away, members forced to conduct worship service outdoors, Bibles and religious publications confiscated. Yet rather than move away from Christianity, as the government would like for them to, the believers remained strong and were even empowered in the faith, and the number of Christians in China continues to be added each year.
It is this fervent and unyielding faith of the believer that gives us a clue as to what might be the fundamental reason why China is opposed to the growth of Christianity within its borders. It is not an issue of how many Christians there are, or preserving traditional culture, or maintaining economic viability, though these all certainly play a role to some extent. It is ultimately a question of authority.
Who has the final say in a person’s decision-making process? This is the question that concerns China the most, and of course the government would want its citizens to let the Party have the final say. But for the Chinese citizen who is also a Christian adherent, his highest authority is not the Party, but God.
Now, Christianity does not seek to put itself as an opponent to civil government. Rather, the Bible commands believers to “be subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1, cf. 1 Peter 2:13). When governing authorities are in conflict with the authority of God’s Word, God’s authority is supreme and believers “must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Still, even in their disobedience, submissiveness to the government is maintained. A biblical example can be seen in Daniel 3, in which Daniel’s three friends disobey the king’s command to bow before an idol yet still submit to the government by not overthrowing the king and by being willing to face the death penalty.
China’s treatment of Christianity and the church, then, seems to reflect the government’s suspicion and fear of the church and a stubborn need to have the ultimate authority and remove any threat at any cost. One way the government has tried to increase the Party’s influence and authority is by working within the TSPM, the official state-recognized Christian church. According to a report from the inter-denominational Christian organization Voice of the Martyrs, believers of official TSPM churches must support the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and value socialism above their faith, cannot teach their children about Christ, cannot publicly evangelize, and cannot plant new churches unless authorized by the State.10 Another way the state has tried to limit the growth of Christianity is by capping the growth of trained clergymen. The thirteen TSPM seminaries have produced about 3,000 graduates since the 1980s, an obviously inadequate number when compared to the 20 million TSPM church members they’ve been sent to serve.11
Still, it is not enough. As the persecution of Christianity has expanded from unregistered house churches to even TSPM churches and pastors since 2014, the Party seems to be indicating that Christianity has grown so rapidly that it does not know how to control it. And ironically enough for a Party that is officially atheist, the government has turned to tacitly approving traditional Chinese folk religions and Confucianism in order to curb the spread of Christianity. For example, feng shui, once considered by the Communist Party to be a “feudal superstition” a decade ago, is now protected to support “intangible cultural heritage” and used to stop the development of church buildings in some areas.12 Such policies reflect the state’s nervousness in dealing with the rise of Christianity in China. For a country that is seemingly so powerful, it’s surprising that China fears and feels threatened by Christianity in this way.
Christianity offers a narrative counter to the conventional power narrative that the Chinese government displays. Through the person of Jesus Christ, we find that true power means having no fear. The Almighty God and Creator became at one point limited in time and space, descending into earth and embodying flesh, as Christ incarnate. Christ descending into earth is a reflection of his power. As C.S. Lewis puts it, “Everywhere the great enters the little – its power to do so is almost the test of its greatness.”
China’s notion of power is focused on size and centrality. Any threat to its perceived power is another opportunity to expose its fear and insecurity. There is no descending involved, no willingness to take in the threats lest China exposes its weaknesses and pitfalls. There is certainly no space for humility or room to acknowledge the truth of the Gospel or the existence of God.
Christ challenges this traditional notion of power with a picture of power that is voluntarily self-limiting. Christ is able to descend into time and space because God, who is almighty in every way, can be fully vulnerable and still have nothing to fear. In this sense, true power belongs not to China but rather to Christ the King.
The pattern of Christian persecution in China does not seem to be subsiding, as the country continues to hold on to a flawed notion of power. For the believer, when trials get difficult and outside pressures unbearable, consider the example Christ revealed to us, Christ who himself was faced with many threats, yet not once caved into Satan’s temptations, or the Pharisees’ allegations, or the crowd’s insults, or the Roman soldiers’ beatings, or his own anxieties at Gethsemane, but kept on descending, enduring the shame and dying the lowliest of deaths on the cross. All to show the world his perfect love.
“For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” – 2 Timothy 1:7
1. Fenggang Yang, Chinese Christians in America: Conversion, Assimilation, and Adhesive Identities (Penn State Press, 2010), https://books.google.com/books?id=Jw1TV4VvY8IC&pg=PA206&lpg=PA206.
2. Robert Marquand, “Xi Jinping State Visit: China’s Arrest of Southern Christians Intensifies,” The Christian Science Monitor, 25 Sept 2015, http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Asia-Pacific/2015/0925/Xi-Jinping-state-visit-China-s-arrest-of-southern-Christians-intensifies
3. Didi Kirsten Tatlow, “Christian Pastor Sentenced to 12 Years in Chinese Prison,” New York Times, 8 July 2014, http://sinosphere.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/07/08/christian-pastor-sentenced-to-12-years-in-chinese-prison/
4. Tom Phillips, “China Denies Declaring War on Christians After Mega-Church is Razed,” The Telegraph, 29 April 2014, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/10794749/China-denies-declaring-war-on-Christians-after-mega-church-is-razed.html
5. Tom Phillips, “Thousand Christians Forced From Church as Demolition Campaign Spreads,” The Telegraph, 19 May 2014, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/10841738/Thousand-Christians-forced-from-church-as-demolition-campaign-spreads.html
6. See endnote 2.
7. Rachel Ritchie, “China Aid 2014 Annual Report Indicates Rising Trend in Persecution Cases,” China Aid, 21 April 2015, http://www.chinaaid.org/2015/04/china-aid-2014-annual-report-indicates.html
8. Yukong Zhao, “What Drives China’s Success?” Forbes, 2 Oct 2014, http://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2014/10/02/what-drives-chinas-success/
9. Bree Feng, “Chinese Respondents Top Materialism Poll,” New York Times, 20 Dec 2013, http://sinosphere.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/12/20/chinese-respondents-top-materialism-poll/
10. “The Empty Cross: The False Doctrine of China’s Official Church,” The Voice of the Martyrs, 2008, http://www.persecution.com/uploads/media/downloads/144_TheEmptyCross.pdf
11. Yalin Xin, The Future of Christianity in China: An Internal Reflection (Asbury Theological Seminary, 2009), http://place.asburyseminary.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1035&context=asburyjournal
12. Ian Johnson, “Church-State Clash in China Coalesces Around a Toppled Spire,” New York Times, 29 May 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/30/world/asia/church-state-clash-in-china-coalesces-around-a-toppled-spire.htm
Jonathan is a senior at UC Berkeley who is continually amazed at the story God is unfolding in China and inspired by the faith of brothers and sisters who endure in spite of persecution and lack.