Understanding the Complexity


This past year alone has seen a spate of headlines that purport to show the attitude of the Chinese government towards religious activities. Often, the headlines seem to be contradictory with one reporting the government’s plans to eradicate house churches, and another reporting on the government’s plan to enlist churches and religious organizations in their efforts to meet China’s numerous social needs. Like everything else in China, it can be very confusing.

In this regard, there are two sets of misconceptions. The first is in what is meant by “the Chinese government.” We mistakenly view “the Chinese government” as a monolithic entity that not only has a single will but can (and does) impose that will with impunity. This may have been the case under Chairman Mao, but that was because Mao was the government and his personal will was supreme.

In fact, “the Chinese government” is a vast and complex network of competing entities and interests at all levels (national to local) that sometimes works together and sometimes works at cross-purposes. The United States Congressional Research Service published a report for Congress in March 2013 titled “Understanding China’s Political System” that highlights the diffused, even competitive nature of the bureaucratic system.

Today, although the Party is committed to maintaining a permanent monopoly on power and is intolerant of those who question its right to rule, analysts consider the political system to be neither monolithic nor rigidly hierarchical. Jockeying among leaders and institutions representing different sets of interests is common at every level of the system. Sometimes fierce competition exists among the members of the Communist Party’s seven-man Politburo Standing Committee and 25-member Politburo, China’s highest decision-making bodies. It also exists among ministries; between ministries and provincial governments, which are equals in bureaucratic rank; among provinces; and among the headquarters departments and service branches of the military.[1]

It is within this context that religious affairs are managed within China today. This means, that when seeking to understand the relationship between church and state or the attitude of the government towards religion in general, and Christianity in particular, we need to have a better understanding of what we mean by “the government.” Which department? Which level? Are we talking about a government body or a party body? Or both? What about the policewhere do they fit in the mix, not to mention the Ministry of State Security?

The reality is that there is a vast bureaucracy (both government and party) that has the task of overseeing religious activities in Chinese society. This system is largely unknown to outsiders, other than those who study these things.

Secondly, there are numerous misunderstandings and misconceptions regarding what is permissible, and how churches (registered and unregistered) actually relate to government organs. Is personal evangelism allowed? Is the Bible available? Is the Bible “edited”? Are there topics that pastors are not allowed to preach on? Are children allowed to go to church? What is the nature of the relationship between the state and religious organizations?

Many of these questions can be answered by looking at the reality on the ground, but it is also helpful to look at the regulations that govern religious activities. By doing so we see that many of the things we think we know about the church in China are, in fact, no longer accurate.

For those engaged with China and seeking to serve the church, it is important to deepen the understanding of the complexity of the religious regulatory system and the complex (and changing) nature of the relationship between the state and the church. It is our hope that this issue of the ChinaSource Quarterly will be a valuable resource toward that end.

Image Credit: Joann Pittman
Share to Social Media
Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University …View Full Bio