Anyone who visits China from time to time would attest to the fact that the nation is changing at breakneck speed, not just in forms of hardware like skyscrapers and new airports but in all aspects of life.
After years of self-imposed isolation, the hermit state has finally reemerged to engage the outside world, and for the 1.2 billion people inside China, the implications and opportunities corresponding to this change are mind-boggling. The international Christian community is watching with anticipation and special interest as the great commandment mandates our focus on this most populous country on earth.
Though the winds of change have affected most aspects of life, the structure of the Chinese churches (official and unofficial) has not changed much. The government-sanctioned "Three-Self churches" still hold political influence, and the central leadership, who have been appointed by the government and report to the government, are as conservative as ever and can be put off as irrelevant as far as spiritual leadership is concerned. The Three-Self Patriotic Committee still controls the seminaries and the appointment of pastors in churches under its umbrella, yet the local pastors are often open-minded and interested in promoting evangelistic outreach, and a large and growing number of new converts worship within these official churches. This phenomenon is especially prominent in the cities where a new generation of middle-class Christians are emerging, some worshipping in the Three-Self churches and others in informal fellowship groups, often with people in their same professions.
In the rural areas, though, most believers (in ever growing numbers) worship in house churches which still maintain their isolation and their antagonistic stance towards the government. Leaders of the house churches still show the scars left on their bodies from mistreatment in prison during the Cultural Revolution days as credentials for their spiritual authority. When describing these churches, I avoid using the term "underground churches," as no one who understands the operation of the communist party at the local community level would believe that any regular gathering of a sizable group of people could go unnoticed. It is not that the government does not know about the activities of such church groups, but rather, in the majority of cases, the government chooses to ignore and tolerate them rather than crack down on every gathering in order to avoid conflict within the communities.
The willingness to selectively ignore or tolerate these gatherings represents a fundamental change in the attitude of the government towards religious groups and is a credit to the strength of the church in China. Despite the years of suppression, the church has continued to grow rapidly, to the point where the government has been forced to shift to selective tolerance. Unlike in the days of the Cultural Revolution, the goal now is not to stamp out religion within the country but rather to monitor it and to make sure that the churches' activities are within acceptable limits. The government's tolerance level can easily wane, though, if the government feels threatened (e.g., by the numbers of party members and university students who are converting or religious groups that are growing), as evidenced by the increasing controls, surveillance and arrests imposed upon believers in 2004.
However, overall, "socialism with Chinese characteristics" has evolved to a stage where religion per se is no longer an ideological concern. People need religion, and a good faith is beneficial to society as a whole. The Chinese government has shown much flexibility in their interpretation and application of their basic ideology—nowadays even capitalists can become communist party members. It is not unthinkable that one day Christianity could find a legitimate place in Chinese society.
Today, the average Chinese citizen—some communist officials included—does not view it as necessarily bad to have a religious belief; at the same time, the average non-believing citizen still does not have a high opinion of Christians in the country. As the Chinese are becoming more conscious of their own rights, they are in turn becoming more critical of others. Public opinion, once formed, is hard to change. Their value judgment about Christians hinges on whether the belief brings benefit or trouble to society.
With China at the crossroads looking for new direction and partners, there is a chance for a fresh start. It is my personal belief that it is high time for the churches to act with vision and courage and adopt a more conciliatory approach towards the government. They should let go of the past and see themselves—and project an image to others—no longer as passive victims of political oppression, but rather as responsible members of society who wish to engage and contribute. The church is a growing social force, and should work with a concerted effort to win respect and trust from the government and society at large.
By actively participating in social affairs and mobilizing their resources to address social needs such as disaster relief and service to the needy, the churches can establish themselves as active change agents in the new China that is developing. Many areas that were once out of bounds for religious groups in China are now open for Christian influence. Since the expulsion of the foreign missionaries in the 1950s, Chinese Christians have been prohibited from being involved in service sectors such as education, social service and health programs. These are the traditional services that Christians excel in and that have brought very positive impact to developing societies. Now we again see examples of Christian groups getting back into these well-known and strategic service areas.
Under the "big society, small government" slogan, the government is open to having many social service needs filled by various groups in society. Local governments, faced with pressing social needs, are less concerned with ideological issues and have allowed creative "pilot projects." Some resourceful local churches have successfully contributed to these needs and have gained recognition from local officials and communities.
However, China's central government, also less concerned about ideological issues, currently is very concerned about national securitythat religion should not be used as a pretext to carry out subversive activities within the country. To the Chinese government, the Falungong incident is a painful case in point. The government firmly believes that foreign powers with hostile political motives are looking for opportunities to create havoc in the country in order to undermine the communist government's rule. Christian missionary activities in the past and at present are suspected of having such evil intent. The assistance given to the house churches by overseas Christian groups has enabled the house churches' widespread networking activities but has inadvertently reinforced the government's misconception of foreign "intervention."
Unfortunately, the stance of some house church groups today does not help to dispel the government's belief. Dwelling on past conflicts with the communist government, they refuse to cooperate or register, regardless. The house churches worry that registration might bring state control and a diluted gospel. Unlike in the past, however, this has not been the experience of all churches that have undergone the process of registration in recent years. Many are still operating with independence and are carrying out such activities as Sunday Schools and evangelical outreach.
Another reason for the house churches' lack of cooperation with the government may be that overseas support tends to favor those persisting in opposing government policies. The prevailing misguided Western mindset is that only the suffering Chinese church that stands up to the government is the faithful and true church, and thus is worthy of support. This view is shortsighted because with such a paradigm the Chinese church will always remain an outcast of society, surviving on outside support, and cannot really become independent.
Paul requested that the Roman church submit to the government for the reason that "all authorities that exist have been established by God." Even though large-scale persecution of Christians did not start until the reign of the emperor Nero, the Roman government in Paul's day was as cruel and oppressive as any in history. Yet, we are told to submit and, "If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone."
Jesus' own teaching points in the same direction. As citizens, our call of duty is to "render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God." Unlike in the Cultural Revolution days, in China today there need not be a total irreconcilable conflict between these two lines of duty. By accepting the authority of the state to govern, the churches could, for a start, begin negotiating with the authorities about conditions that would be acceptable with a view toward complying with local regulations for registration. After all, most churches in the democratic world also need to register for certain types of permits from their governing authorities.
I believe this is a good juncture for the Western churches and the overseas Chinese churches that have been actively supporting the church in the Mainland to reexamine their strategy. It is God's sovereignty to establish or change governments. The church's role is not to be antagonistic or subversive toward a government, but to courageously engage and be actively participating in society, and in so doing "you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life," bearing witness to the gospel of Jesus. As such, we should be encouraging our brothers in the churches of China to be dutiful citizens, engaging in peaceful ventures serving the government and society. While serving the needy, we engage with people, and our lives bear witness to the good news of Jesus. Evangelism is more than words and proclamation; it also involves deeds and the demonstration of Jesus' love. Our support should be channeled to help organize church-based service, encourage self-reliance and avoid dependency.
Image credit: Gaylan Yeung.