This article is an abridged version of “Adapting in Difficult Circumstances: Protestant Pastors and the Xi Jinping Effect” by Sarah Lee and Kevin J. O’Brien, published in Journal of Contemporary China in 2021.1
Since 2012, life has become more difficult for religious believers in China. However, in accounting for those harmed by the Xi administration’s new policies, there is one tendency we ought to avoid: treating them solely as victims. Even relatively powerless people are subjects as well as objects and retain agency2 of their own. In other words, there is a bottom-up element to the Xi effect, and the consequences of leadership change are mutually constituted by society and the state.
Protestantism showcases the dynamic between leadership initiative and societal adaptation particularly well because of its complicated relationship with the Communist Party.3 The Party has always been wary of Protestants for three main reasons. First, their religious faith is viewed as an ideological threat because they are loyal to an authority other than the Party. The transformative faith of many Chinese Protestants is seen to be in competition with ideological teachings of the atheist ruling party.4 Second, Protestant churches raise the specter of foreign influence. As China’s defeat in the First Opium War in 1842 and the resulting Treaty of Nanking forcibly legalized Christian evangelism, the religion has served as a painful reminder of Western imperialism and China’s national humiliation.5 Since 1949, nearly every law and regulation related to religion has emphasized the need to root out foreign influence6 and make churches “self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating.”7 Third, Protestant churches are thought to be a collective action threat because they regularly organize and mobilize followers and comprise a vibrant civil society.8 This threat is amplified by China’s history of protests and a Leninist fear of organizations outside Party control. Combined with a competing belief system and foreign ties, Protestant believers’ desire to gather together to worship, and their willingness to take to the streets when they are stopped from doing so, make them a potential source of social and political instability.
The Xi administration has adopted a raft of repressive religious regulations, some of which were implemented specifically to hold Protestants in line. To start with, the Party has sought to maintain its ideological primacy by monitoring sermons. Many pastors before Xi’s rise speculated about occasional unannounced visits by local officials to observe their Sunday sermons,9 but the recent installation of security cameras inside buildings, including church sanctuaries, has turned this into an everyday reality.10 The government has detained an increasing number of Protestant ministers that speak out against demolition of crosses, religious persecution, and limitations on religious autonomy.11
The Xi administration has also sought to combat the perceived security threat arising from Protestants’ ties to foreign countries.12 Whereas regulations prior to Xi laid out general rules for handling financial transactions and internal accounting, a 2018 measure specifically required registered churches to “derive their funding solely from legitimate sources” (zijin laiyuan qudao hefa),13 and to only accept overseas donations under 10,000 yuan (US$1462) that are in “accordance with relevant provisions.”14 Foreign donors, in addition to foreign money, are also being increasingly segregated from domestic Protestants, as regulations require separate locations for worship and forbid foreigners from proselytizing Chinese nationals.15
Finally, the Party has addressed the collective action potential present in big groups by shuttering hundreds of churches.16 Officials have also banned domestic and international “praise conferences” (zanmei juhui), leadership seminars, and missionary work meetings while blocking travel by pastors to assist small rural churches or to participate in conferences abroad.17 In addition to discouraging physical gatherings, the authorities have increased monitoring of online religious activities. Pastors reported that the intensity of surveillance had increased markedly in recent years in addition to the employment of high tech tools.
In this repressive environment, many Protestant ministers receive signals from the government about acceptable behavior, reconfigure what they hear to be compatible with their faith and church-building, and then translate policies and guidelines for their congregations. Without ever being able to prove they are innocent of all the charges leveled against them, these pastors actively seek to allay concerns that Protestantism generates an ideological, security, and collective action threat to the regime.
One way pastors strive to show Protestantism is ideologically harmless is through the content of their sermons. Pastors with close ties to officialdom are notorious for their anodyne sermons filled with innocuous moral lessons. In contrast, pastors from unregistered churches are more likely to preach about God’s kingdom, the resurrection, and the afterlife. Even so, most of them also stay away from issues that might suggest frustration with Party rule or divided loyalties. Many interviewees distinguished between suitable subjects for sermons—such as love and filial piety—and worldly matters with which the church should not (and need not) concern itself.18
Moreover, these pastors also demonstrate that their beliefs are compatible with Party policies by dissociating themselves from activists who speak out against religious restrictions. When asked about ministers who challenged the regime for its human rights violations, many interviewees argued that they were “doing politics” (gao zhengzhi) and not ministry while others offered qualified support but distanced themselves from such acts.
Beyond steering clear of politics and activists, some seek to dispel concerns that they hold anti-government views by attributing repression to missteps they or their fellow pastors had made. Some interviewees also claimed tighter control of religion was understandable given the upsurge in the number of Protestants and the difficulties of ruling such a large and diverse country. For them, the best way for pastors to reduce this ideological concern was to watch what they preached, keep a safe distance from dissidents, and even come to believe in (or at least profess to believe in) the Party’s approach to religion. Whether what they say and do always reflect their real views is an open question, but whatever the case, the accommodations they make help shape Protestant practice on the ground.
Additionally, many are aggressively shedding connections to foreign countries that lead churches to be perceived as a security threat. To free their churches of outside influence and achieve self-sufficiency, many pastors were focused on finding and training more domestic staff so that Chinese congregants could take on positions once held by missionaries.19 Other interviewees emphasized how they had reduced reliance on foreign donations.20 All of these efforts have taken many Protestant churches closer to the Three-Self principles prioritized by the Party.21
Beyond revamping their staffing and financing, pastors are also reducing communication and ties with foreigners. Interviewees were fully aware of the government’s stance on foreign influence. When asked about how to avoid government interference in running their churches, pastors frequently mentioned not involving missionaries in church affairs and not inviting foreign pastors to give sermons. One interviewee whose education was heavily influenced by American missionaries said that he no longer allowed visits by overseas ministers to the point of being perceived by them as a “heretic” (yiduan).22 In this way, many interviewees proudly claimed to have severed all international connections and felt confident this would serve them well at the next government inspection.23
These actions are more than a response to regulations designed to reduce foreign influence. They also reflect a degree of buy-in to the larger project of Sinicizing Christianity.24 Many interviewees expressed growing pride and determination to minister to a purely Chinese church. Although Chinese Protestantism still bears the imprint of missionary efforts and still partly benefits from overseas assistance, most pastors are just as ready to argue that the era when foreign guidance and help was needed has run its course.25
Collective Action Threat
Many pastors have sought to address concerns about collective action by splitting their congregations into smaller groups. After being forced to relocate several times, one pastor decided to turn his church into several house churches.26 Another pastor described a protocol he drew up detailing where and when his congregation should meet in the event of a raid.27 Some pastors did question the wisdom and practicality of separating into smaller churches, noting that a dollop of security was gained at the cost of losing the decorum and formality of collective worship,28 but many said this was a tradeoff worth making.
Many are also refraining from building and taking part in cross-church networks.29 This has not always been the case. In the early 2000s, church leaders often came together to host conferences, organize seminars for Chinese students studying abroad, and engage in community outreach across different regions. In the Xi era, however, pastors have begun to break off relations with other ministers and their congregations. One of the motives for severing ties with fellow pastors is fear of repercussions. More than a few had experienced the authorities stymieing network-building, as attempts to participate in a multi-church forum were thwarted by the local police and permission to travel to an overseas conference was revoked at the airport and instead brought on threats to close their church.
Breaking up congregations and cutting ties to other churches are more than a reaction to repressive policies. Many interviewees argued that big churches are not suitable for China, as smaller congregations allow believers to have closer interactions and form deeper personal relationships with each other. Some saw value in not emulating pastors who sought to increase the number of congregants and construct large church buildings.30 They believed that God had “blessed” (zhufu) China with modest-sized churches which kept them safe, reduced the risk of permanent closure, and promoted the development of Chinese Christianity.
For some pastors, these accommodations are simply an effort to hang on in the face of growing repression. They and their churches are doing what they must do to survive in a difficult position.31 For many of our interviewees, however, there is also a larger purpose at work. Experiencing and figuring out how to adapt to repression is said to be a part of God’s grand plan. These pastors may be deluded about their ability to dispel the threats the Party perceives, and they may not be able to create much more space for their churches to operate. But they do seem to believe that God is giving them a trial, and that in the end they will emerge stronger than before. This is rooted in a worldview that accords both the government and believers a critical role in fulfilling God’s design for Chinese Christianity.
As these Protestant pastors are perched between the authorities and a congregation, translating new strictures into action, they have become willing (or unwilling) partners in making the regime’s policies real. In the best-case scenario, these pastors are suggesting a path toward mutual co-existence and the tamping down of conflict. Our interviewees were certainly doing everything they could to diminish the perception that Protestantism is a threat and to persuade their congregations that new restrictions do not matter much for what is important about being a Christian. Still, accommodation has taken place almost exclusively on one side, as pastors steer away from anything conceivably oppositional and seek to put the lie to the idea that they are the firebrands they are portrayed to be.32 Unfortunately, there are few indications so far that their efforts have been noticed or will elicit a positive response. Our interviewees have accepted the hand that the Party has dealt them but are still waiting for signs that the regime may work with them to slot Protestantism into a less contentious political landscape.
- This is an abridged version of Lee and O’Brien’s 2021 article. The first author conducted 120 semi-structured interviews with Protestant pastors in fifteen cities in China between 2017 and 2019. Interviewees were affiliated with both unregistered house churches and registered Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) churches in several coastal provinces and the southwest. See Sarah Lee and Kevin J. O’Brien, “Adapting in Difficult Circumstances: Protestant Pastors and the Xi Jinping Effect,” The Journal of Contemporary China 30 (2021): 132, 902-914, https://doi.org/10.1080/10670564.2021.1893556.
- I borrow Sibeon’s (1999) definition of agency as used in political science to refer to the “capacity to act upon situations.” Paul A. Lewis, “Agency, Structure and Causality in Political Science: A Comment on Sibeon,” Politics 22, no. 1, (2002), 17.
- Karrie J. Koesel, Religion and Authoritarianism: Cooperation, Conflict, and the Consequences (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014); Marie-Eve Reny, Authoritarian Containment: Public Security Bureaus and Protestant House Churches in Urban China. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018); Carsten T. Vala, The Politics of Protestant Churches and the Party-State in China: God Above Party? (New York: Routledge, 2017).
- Heike Holbig, “Ideology after the End of Ideology. China and the Quest for Autocratic Legitimation,” Democratization 20, no. 1, (2013), 64; Benjamin Kang Lim and Ben Blanchard, “Xi Jinping Hopes Traditional Faiths Can Fill Moral Void in China: Sources,” Reuters, September 29, 2013, accessed March 7, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-politics-vacuum/xi-jinping-hopes-traditional-faiths-can-fill-moral-void-in-china-sources-idUSBRE98S0GS20130929.
- David H. Adeney, China: The Church’s Long March (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1985), 33; Carsten Vala, The Politics of Protestant Churches and the Party-State in China (New York, NY: Routledge, 2019), 28.
- “Constitution of the People’s Republic of China,” Article 36, 1982, accessed March 1, 2023, http://www.npc.gov.cn/englishnpc/constitution2019/201911/1f65146fb6104dd3a2793875d19b5b29.shtml; “Regulations on Religious Affairs,” Chapter I, Article 4, 2004, State Administration of Religious Affairs, accessed March 1, 2023, https://www.cecc.gov/resources/legal-provisions/regulations-on-religious-affairs; “Regulations on Religious Affairs,” Chapter I, Article 5, 2017, State Council of the People’s Republic of China, accessed March 1, 2023, http://www.gov.cn/zhengce/content/2017-09/07/content_5223282.htm, unofficial English translation, accessed March 1, 2023, https://www.chinalawtranslate.com/en/religious-affairs-regulations-2017/; “White Paper—Freedom of Religious Belief in China,” Section IV, Beijing: 1997, accessed February 23, 2023, http://us.china-embassy.gov.cn/eng/xnyfgk/200310/t20031023_4501075.htm.
- This is a guiding principle for all TSPM churches in China as laid out in the Constitution of the National Committee of Three-Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches in China. Zhongguo jidujiao sanzi aiguo yundong weiyuanhui zhangcheng, National Religious Affairs Administration (guojia zongjiao shiwuju), November 30, 2018, accessed March 1, 2023, https://www.ccctspm.org/cppccinfo/52.
- Civil society is often discussed in relation to democracies and democratization though the direction of relationship is still up for debate. See Robert D. Putnam, Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993).
- A pastor (Interview PYB11887, Beijing, 2017) noted, “Since my church is small, I notice visitors sitting in the congregation. It’s only after the church was closed down that I realized he was probably sent by the government.”
- Anna Fifield, “With Wider Crackdowns on Religion, Xi’s China Seeks to Put State Stamp on Faith,” The Washington Post, September 15, 2018, accessed March 7, 2023, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/with-wider-crackdowns-on-religion-xis-china-seeks-to-put-state-stamp-on-faith/2018/09/15/b035e704-b7f0-11e8-b79f-f6e31e555258_story.html.
- Pastor Wang Yi of the Early Rain Covenant Church, for instance, was jailed in 2019 after voicing disapproval online of the government’s mistreatment of house churches and for drafting a petition to separate church and state and increase religious freedom. Paul Mozur and Ian Johnson, “China Sentences Wang Yi, Christian Pastor, to 9 Years in Prison,” The New York Times, December 30, 2019, accessed March 7, 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/30/world/asia/china-wang-yi-christian-sentence.html.
- Xi’s efforts to root out foreign influence are a continuation of policies that trace back to the creation of the TSPM organization in 1954.
- Article 20, 2018 Regulations on Religious Affairs.
- Article 57, 2018 Regulations on Religious Affairs. These provisions specify the level of government to report donations, depending on their size. They also define acceptable donations to be those that “do not attach political conditions and do not interfere with China’s religious affairs.” Guanyu jieshou jingwai zongjiao zuzhi he geren juanzeng shenpi quanxian wenti de tongzhi, State Administration for Religious Affairs (Guowuyuan zongjiao shiwuju), July 30, 1993, accessed March 7, 2023, https://www.pkulaw.com/chl/cdfeec2e72a32cd3bdfb.html.
- Article 17, “Rules for the implementation of the provisions on the administration of religious activities of aliens within the territory of the People’s Republic of China,” State Administration for Religious Affairs, January 11, 2011, accessed March 7, 2023, http://www.lawinfochina.com/display.aspx?lib=law&id=1673&CGid=.
- ChinaAid Association, “2018 Annual Report: Chinese Government Persecution of Churches and Christians in Mainland China,” accessed March 7, 2023, https://www.chinaaid.org/p/annual-persecution-reports.html.
- Pastors reported being limited to ministering in specific cities. International travel was often blocked through visa denials or in person at the airport. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government was able to employ additional methods to restrict meetings of all kinds. Interview with pastor PYS11907, eastern province, 2017.
- Reny reports a pastor saying that he “believed he could criticize the government, but not in the church.” She finds, however, that pastors typically refrain from mentioning politics and also try to show that there is no “political intention” underlying their religious practice. Marie-Eve Reny, “Compliant Defiance: Informality and Survival among Protestant House Churches in China,” Journal of Contemporary China 27(111), (2018), 482.
- Interview with pastor PYC11329, southwestern province, 2019.
- One pastor described how the rent for his church buildings was paid off the previous year by a generous offering from a wealthy congregant. Interview with pastor PYC11698, northeastern province, 2018.
- The Three-Self principles for churches to be “self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating” were initially articulated and supported by the foreign missionary community and later became the Party’s guiding principles for religious organizations.
- Interview with pastor PYC11329, southwestern province, 2019.
- Some interviewees valued support provided by foreign Protestants. Pastors who maintained ties with overseas churches tended to be more antagonistic towards the Party and more outspoken in fighting for religious rights. Vala suggests possible variation by type of church and a pastor’s age. He argues that young pastors in TSPM churches are more willing to learn from and cooperate with foreigners because they have “no memory of pre-1949 foreign exploitation, reject the anti-foreign perspective…and see considerable benefits in foreign cooperation.” Carsten Vala, “Protestant Resistance and Activism in China’s Official Churches,” in Teresa Wright, ed., Handbook of Protest and Religion in China, (Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2019), 319.
- Sinicization of Christianity is part of a broader Sinicization effort by the Xi administration to assimilate ethnic and religious groups while promoting Chinese culture. See, for example, David R. Stroup, “Why Xi Jinping’s Xinjiang Policy Is a Major Change in China’s Ethnic Politics,” The Washington Post, November 19, 2019. In the case of Protestantism, the campaign encourages Chinese over Western hymns, incorporates Chinese-style architecture into churches, advocates that pastors wear traditional Chinese garb, inserts Chinese folktales into the Bible, and displays the national flag at all times. “Protestant five-year plan for Chinese Christianity (tuijin woguo jidujiao zhongguohua wunian gongzuo guihua gangyao), 2018-2022,” jidujiao quanguo lianghui (CCCTSPM), December 2017, accessed March 7, 2023, http://www.ccctspm.org/cppccinfo/10283; Hualongqu jidujiao, tianzhujiao zongjiao tuanti kaizhan “sitongyi” huodong changyishu’, Hualongqu jidujiao xiehui and Hualongqu tianzhujiao aiguohui, May 15, 2019, accessed March 7, 2023, http://hlq.rootinhenan.com/rootinhenan/html/2019/5/12111.htm.
- The increase in deportations of missionaries in recent years has made the end of this era even more clear. According to the Korea World Missions Association (KWMA)’s 2019 Report on Mission Work Statistics, the number of missionaries in China decreased by over 400 due to “involuntary movement” of missionaries out of China during that year. Another organization estimated more than 2,000 deportations between 2018 and the first half of 2020. Korea World Missions Association, 2019 Report on Mission Work Statistics.
- Interview with pastor PYS11618, northeastern province, 2018.
- Interview with pastor PYQ11519, southwestern province, 2019.
- These ministers were worried that worshipping in homes on weekdays without ordained pastors would lead congregants to forget the correct order of worship (prayer, hymns, sermon, benediction) and they would just share what was happening in their lives, pray and eat, and then go their separate ways.
- Koesel similarly found that churches were kept small and “self-contained, rather than being dependent on other units,” and argued that this was done to protect the larger network of churches to which individual churches belonged. Karrie Koesel, “The Rise of a Chinese House Church: The Organizational Weapon,” The China Quarterly 215, (2013), 584.
- Several said that the cross-demolition campaign in Wenzhou was proof that God was reprimanding those who had gone astray by constructing grandiose buildings.
- Reny argues that pastors are engaging in “compliant defiance” and following informal rules to “earn respect and reassure those officials they are not a threat to political stability.” Reny, “Compliant Defiance,” 473 (See above, note 18).
- This view is common in Party accounts and also in the international press. Our interviewees are more reminiscent of recipients of the state-sanctioned “National Outstanding Lawyer Award,” who distance themselves from activist lawyers engaged in rights-protection work. See Lawrence J. Liu and Rachel E. Stern, “State-adjacent Professionals: How Chinese Lawyers Participate in Political Life,” The China Quarterly, 247 (2020), 793-813, https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/china-quarterly/article/stateadjacent-professionals-how-chinese-lawyers-participate-in-political-life/A090DD6A9B32135C50A66A552CC511E3.
Sarah Lee is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Baylor University. Her research interests include religion and politics, authoritarian regimes, and state-society relations as seen in the contexts of comparative politics and international relations. Her dissertation explores the Chinese Communist Party’s selective treatment of Protestant churches based on fieldwork in …View Full Bio