The development of Christianity in China over the past thirty years has been extraordinary both in terms of number of followers and influence. The official figure for the number of Christians in China is 18 million;* however many scholars believe that this figure is under estimated. Outside of China, the estimated figure is higher with some researchers suggesting 100 million. However, over the past few years, the study of Christianity in China has become more rigorous with the result being a greater understanding of Chinese Christianity, both in China and abroad. While scholars generally agree that the 100 million figure is over estimated and cannot be considered as reliable data, they tend to accept a range of 30 to 60 million Christians in China. According to a survey done by the Lingdian Survey Company, Christians in China are still in the minority accounting for less than three percent of the national population.1 However, in terms of absolute numbers, this represents the highest number in the history of Christianity in China. Today it is impossible for Christians to go unnoticed in society. Although Christians are not typically thought of in the same way other communities or ethnic groups are, they form a unique community within Chinese society.
It is important to note that, prior to the 1980s, Christianity initially developed in rural areas, but since the 1990s it has entered a new phase of rapid development in urban areas. As a result of urbanization, many Christians have left their villages and moved into cities, substantially altering the distribution of Christians in China. It is also important to note that since the 1990s, many young people and professionals have converted to Christianity and have established churches in cities. Although their numbers are still small, and they are not yet the mainstream of Christianity in China, these believers have a strong voice and have attracted extra attention from society at large. Notable examples would be writers and artists such as Yu Jie and Bei Cun, as well as legal scholars and attorneys such as Fan Yafeng and Wang Yi.
A Brief Evaluation of Current Religious Policies and their Effects
From a sociological perspective, the rapid growth of Christianity and the revival of other religions, such as Buddhism, have taken place within the context of rapid social change. This phenomenon is not the result of ineffective religious policies but rather is typical in societies undergoing transition. Recent religious-sociological research has shown that the demand for religious belief among human beings is constant and exists even where there are attempts to minimize or destroy it. When restrictive policies lose their ability to achieve total control, religion revives. It can be said that religious belief is a human necessity and therefore can never fully be extinguished. One way or another, it will always exist.
We can also see that Christianity has grown rapidly even with policies that restrict religious practices, especially those with foreign roots. In other words, our religious policies have not achieved their intended results. In fact, they occasionally backfire as the policies facilitate faster growth among some religions as opposed to others. For example, under the current certification system, the Religious Affairs Bureau (RAB) has, in effect, regulatory supervision and guidance over only five major religions. This means that a great many religious groups are outside of their control and are, in fact, probably the fastest growing religious groups in China. As a result, some religious groups do not have the legitimacy that they should have.
A close look at these issues causes us to wonder if it is necessary to re-evaluate our attitudes towards religion and religious policies. The two are intertwined: our basic idea and understanding of religion affects the formulation and execution of religious policies. Up to now, the state’s belief has been that religion is a problem although it does not state explicitly what kind of problem.2 Nevertheless, we can identify three possible categories or ways in which the government might perceive religion to be a problem. These vary, depending on the particular religion and the state’s concerns.
First of all there are problems related to national and cultural security, especially for those religions that are considered to have foreign roots (Protestantism and Catholicism). Second, there are problems related to territorial integrity, national unity and social stability with religions associated with certain ethnicities (Tibetan Buddhism and Islam). Third, there are problems related to economics and social stability associated with religions that are rooted in Chinese tradition (Buddhism and Daoism).
It is within this context that the state has formed its attitude towards religion in general and different religions in particular. For instance, an official from the RAB once stated that traditional Chinese religions should be used to counter religions with foreign roots. Yet this understanding is misguided and impractical. Since it is obviously biased, the state should not be the arbiter of relations between various religions. Such efforts would likely backfire and involve high social costs as well as being ineffective and even contradicting the intended objective.
As senior government official, Li Weihan, pointed out some time ago, religion has unique characteristics; however, this does not mean that people with religious beliefs should be treated as a special group. In fact, religious believers are citizens just like anyone else, and their choice of religion should not prevent them from enjoying the same rights and having the same obligations as other religious believers as well as those who have no religious beliefs. Religious policies and regulations are not about personal belief, something which has been confirmed and is protected by the constitution. The freedom of belief is now widely respected and practiced. The key issue is the regulation of religious groups and the manner in which the state treats them. Religious regulations should not confine and limit the internal affairs of religious groups.
Since religious believers are citizens, religious groups should be regarded as civil organizations. Like other civil groups, they have a distinctive focus and agenda. Environmental organizations focus on environmental protection, children’s groups focus on the rights of children and poverty relief organizations pay attention to poverty. In the same way, religious groups are concerned with developing more followers (group members) and taking care of their members. This is not only natural, it is essential for their existence and development. To disregard or prohibit these essential functions only leads to unnecessary resistance and deepening mistrust between religious groups and the state.
Current religious policies have not been effective in regulating religious groups. The fundamental reason behind this failure is that the state does not have a proper understanding of the nature of religious groups and attempts to use administrative orders to regulate people’s need for and practice of religion. Just as the use of administrative orders is ineffective in regulating economic activities, so, administrative orders are ineffective in regulating religious activities. In both cases the results are unsatisfactory.
Regulation of Religions
Today, everyone acknowledges the failure of the planned economy and the success of the market economy. If, in the sphere of religion, we want to have a “win-win” situation and effectively regulate all religious groups, we need to change our thinking. We should seek to guide religions rather than inhibit them. We should give up planning the “religious market” and allow it to operate according to its own rules.3
From the perspective of the state and government, following are three suggestions for altering the thinking and implementing policies.
The first is to adhere to the principle of equal treatment for all religions. The state should not promote any religion nor should it oppress any religion. Rather, different religions should be allowed to operate according to the rules of a market economy; there should be a “religious market.” By doing this the state would reduce both administrative and social costs. This would also encourage different religions to live in peace and engage in healthy competition. At the same time, this competition would motivate different religions to provide the best “religious service.” This, in turn, would help to prevent the emergence and expansion of evil cults and promote the stable development of society.
The second principle to adopt is that of equal treatment for different sects in any religion. The state should not support any sect nor should it suppress or inhibit any sect. As regards Christianity, the state should allow the current Three-Self churches to exist and develop, and, at the same time, take proper measures to legitimize the churches that exist outside the Three-Self structure. This would benefit both the church and the state. If the churches currently outside the Three-Self structure are given legitimacy, they will no longer need to take measures to evade government regulations in order to protect themselves. They would no longer be closed or secret communities. The state would benefit as it would no longer have to be suspicious of the “secret” activities of the churches and would no longer fear the churches remaining outside of its control.
Third, the state should reclassify religious groups as civil associations and should not set up a dual review process for registration of religious groups. A dual process means that the Civil Affairs Department reviews and accepts qualifications of civil associations with the Religious Affairs Bureau also giving input.4 In fact, the operation of religious groups should be done according to the civil and criminal legal code. If a religious group breaks the law, it should be prosecuted. This would diminish the capacity for administrative staff to behave arbitrarilysomething that has resulted in adverse social impact and clouded the image of China in the international community.
As to the issue of national security, special departments should be given the authority to investigate and safeguard national security. Other government agencies should fulfill their respective responsibilities. In this way, administrative and social costs are reduced, and the problem of religions and religious groups is solved.
These principles cannot be implemented merely by administrative measures which are just more regulations; they need to be implemented by rule of law and flow from the line of governance. The meaning here is rule of law, not rule by law which is a system where laws are only tools for regulation. We need legislation governing religion, and the legislation needs to answer the following questions: Who makes the law? For whom is the law made? What kind of law?
For their part, Christian churches should have a more realistic view and understanding of the current social environment and religious policies and should adjust their judgments and responses accordingly. One basic thing they need to understand is that, within the whole scheme of the political and regulatory system, the freedom of (Christian) religion is not merely a religious issue. Rather it is part of the broader issue of religious freedom (for all religions) and freedom of assembly, and both of these issues are tied to the fundamental issue of political reform. As a result, they have not yet been dealt with by the government. In other words, Christians and others who advocate religious freedom should not dream that religious freedom (especially American style religious freedom) can be realized in China without a fundamental change of the entire political system.5
However, it is not the case that there is no chance for the improvement of Chinese religious policies. In fact, religious policies in China have improved greatly over the past thirty years. For example, it is often mentioned that a pragmatic approach has replaced an ideological approach. In at least some fields, and in some regions, there is more space for the existence and development of religion (Christianity). To be sure, in some regions active and influential religious leaders still face pressure and even the threat of imprisonment; however, in society at large, the space for ordinary religious believers is unprecedented and would have been unimaginable ten years ago. This improvement is largely due to government reforms and the rapid development of social and civil forces. Civil society, which had been completely destroyed, has recovered, and a normal relationship between the state and individuals has been rebuilt. Religious groups such as Christian churches are increasingly accepted by society as legitimate social associations. Although their development is still slow and limited, they are playing a significant role in community service, charity, and poverty and disaster relief.
Christian churches now need to think about how to build churches that can be rooted in belief and at the same time participate in social development within the context of Chinese culture. On the one hand, Christianity in China should identify with the suffering and struggle of the nation and not be a passive observer. On the other hand, it should offer good advice regarding the improvement of Chinese society and should provide practical service. However, it should not advocate a social gospel that has no basis in sound religious doctrine. A healthy solid church is a foundation for reaching out into the community.
* Editor’s note: the original version of this article was published before the most recent government survey which found that there are 23 million Protestant Christians in China.
1 This number is obviously under estimated. Yet based on the rigorous sampling and investigation process, it is an important reference.
2 Liu Peng, Guanyu zongjiao dingwei yu guanli moshi wenti (The position of religion and regulatory models), International Symposium on Religious System and Religious Identity and the Fourth International Symposium on Religious Social Sciences, Shanghai, July 2007.
3Liu Peng, Guanyu zongjiao zuzhi de guanli wenti (Regulations of religious associations), http://www.pacilution.com/ShowArticle.asp?ArticleID=1398
5 In this sense, religious issues are political issues to a certain extent. Yet it is necessary for us to depoliticize the religious issues. We shall regard religious belief and religious associations as social life and put them in the framework of rule of law.
This article has been adapted from Zhongguo Jidujiao jiating jiaohui yanjiu (Research on Christian house churches in China) by Liu Peng, et al, posted on November 8, 2012 on the Pacific Institute for Social Science web site, http://www.pacilution.com/english/ShowArticle.asp?articleid=3148. Used with permission.