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How China’s Religious Affairs Bureaucracy Works

One way to understand the workings of the religious affairs bureaucracy is to follow the story of an aspiring pastor as he goes from being a lay person, to a seminary student, to serving as a pastor. After approaching an official church pastor, he is encouraged to apply for the entrance exam that decides whether he will attend the national seminary, a regional seminary or a local Bible school, all under government authority. After a successful examination, his application passes from the local official church pastor to the provincial Protestant Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) association leaders who then contact the government Religious Affairs Bureau (RAB). If the RAB background investigation does not turn up any links to unregistered (i.e. house) churches or criminal activity, then the aspirant enrolls as a student. Upon graduation, the student typically returns to the sending church where he or she serves an apprenticeship before the provincial TSPM association approves ordination which is dependent on a second background check by the RAB and local authorities.

Clearly, authorities are closely involved with the selection, appointment, ordination and approval of church pastors, and this is even truer for those Protestants who lead the associations.

Another way to grasp how the religious affairs bureaucracy works is to view it historically, which is especially useful as the structure today is a holdover from the 1950s. When the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) came to power, it organized all non-communists who wished to cooperateor collaborateinto a “united front,” by which allies could be arrayed against CCP-identified enemies. The CCP’s United Front Work Department (UFWD) is the most important office overseeing religious affairs because it is a party office and the CCP is more powerful than the state. The UFWD reports directly to the highest level of the CCP and generally sets broad policy directions for religious affairs. (The UFWD also oversees work with overseas Chinese and ethnic minority affairs.)

In the 1950s, the Chinese Communist Party selected a few Protestants to launch a bridge organization to corral Protestants and their churches under party authority and ensure the loyalty of Chinese Protestants. These few Christian elites established this organization to be autonomous of Western “imperialist” control, as it was explained in the ideology of the Mao Zedong era (1949-1976). The name of the organization itself emphasized autonomythe Chinese Protestant Three-Self Patriotic Movement Association or TSPM. The “Three Selfs” refer to self-governing, self-propagating and self-supporting to stress that foreigners no longer control Chinese Protestant Christianity. (Although all five officially recognized religions established similar associations, the party only required Protestants and Catholics to insert “patriotic” into their names, a move that highlighted the CCP’s suspicion of where their loyalties lay.) The TSPM has offices at the national, provincial, city and lower levels. TSPM leaders are state employees, receiving state salaries and pensions upon retirement. Although Protestants typically head the associations, a state employee works closely with association leaders and monitors and reports on their activities to the government. This non-Christian is employed by the State Administration of Religious Affairs or SARA (although below the national level it is usually called the RAB), the state’s bureaucracy for religious affairs.

The Chinese Protestant Three-Self Patriotic Movement Association launched with little legitimacy among Protestants until China entered the Korean War in 1951. Mass campaigns then pressured Protestants to demonstrate their patriotism by simultaneously supporting the Korean War and also submitting to the TSPM and the CCP’s leadership. Church pastors across all denominations had to choose whether to affiliate with the TSPM, stop worship or face prison.

Fast forwarding to the 1980s, the TSPM association had left a bitter legacy among Protestants because the CCP used it as the tool to attack missionaries, shutter churches and destroy open worship services. So the party-state approved the launch of the China Christian Council (CCC), designed ultimately to replace the TSPM, but the two ended up operating in such close cooperation that the TSPM/CCC is now called the “two committees.”

To what degree do the TSPM/CCC associations seek to serve the party-state or the churches? In general, the higher one rises in the TSPM/CCC hierarchy, the more one has to prove loyalty to the CCP. Balancing this trend, however, is that these associations are only effective if lower level church leaders and lay Protestants believe them to be legitimate. So in practice, TSPM/CCC leadership staff often has one devout Protestant seeking to protect and expand church interests while the CCP installs another “loyalist” leader who is a “yes man” to the party-state’s interests.

In any case, all Protestant churches operating in the open legally have affiliated with the TSPM/CCC, even if no external markings indicate so. (House church leaders refer to these as “Three-Self” churches.) Church pastors and other paid staff are trained by, or at least receive approval of, these Protestant associations and the Religious Affairs Bureau. Hence, the Protestant associations act as bridge organizations composed of Protestants and state bureaucrats to supervise the churches. The highest association leaders typically also head the largest, most important urban churches.

In terms of new policy development and its implementation, the United Front Work Department is most important because it receives direction from the Central Committee of the CCP. (The most consequential documents on religious affairs over the past 30 years have been issued by the party). While the UFWD is a party office, the state offices for religious affairs are the SARA at the national level and are under the State Council. SARA and its local RAB offices are charged with daily monitoring of all religious associations.

Two things complicate the workings of the religious affairs bureaucracy. One might expect the functional specialization of the United Front and RAB offices in religious affairs work to mean that local religious issues are the domain of these party cadres and state officials. However, this is not true because at each level of bureaucracy it is the party secretary and his party committee that hold ultimate responsibility for whatever happens in that (provincial, city, district or village) jurisdiction. So, for example, the vertical line of authority running from Beijing to a city like Shanghai is fragmented by the authority of the Shanghai party secretary and his party committees. Everything that happens within the Shanghai jurisdiction is the responsibility of the party secretary. This is the “fragmented authoritarianism” of the Chinese Communist party-state.

Second, in contrast to the way that government runs through rational, regularized procedures of laws and regulations in Europe and the U.S., Chinese party-state governance operates much more on informal norms of trust and personal connections (guanxi in Chinese). This means that policies that are “on the books” may be bent, ignored or violated altogether by Protestant association leaders or pastors who have developed a relationship of trust with their RAB counterparts. This is good to the extent that personal relations enable Protestants to defend and even expand church interests, but it creates instability because when government personnel are rotated, the trust relations no longer exist and must be reestablished. Also, it means that uniform, standardized implementation of policies is unlikely because of the fragmented nature of the state and the personal trust relationships.

Image Credit: By Flsxx (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons
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Carsten T. Vala

Carsten T. Vala

    Carsten T. Vala is Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science at Loyola University Maryland. He published a book on the rise and fall of public house churches like Beijing Shouwang church in 2017 (The Politics of Protestant Churches and the Party-State in China: God Above Party?), and …View Full Bio