Mixed Feelings on July 1st
As a prelude to marking the centenary of the Chinese Communist Party, a high-profile symposium on the success of “one country, two systems” was held in Hong Kong on June 12. In contrast to previous low-key public remarks on the Party’s success in Hong Kong, this year citizens are seeing a series of triumphal celebrations of a political party being held locally in Hong Kong for the first time. I think most people in Hong Kong have mixed emotions regarding July 1, a day associated with overlapping memories of several historical events: the founding of the Communist Party in 1921, the handover of the colony to the motherland in 1997, the destructive intrusion of protestors into the Legislative Council in 2019, and the implementation of the National Security Law in Hong Kong in 2020.
During the past few months, I have been invited to several churches to talk about how we should prepare for the coming challenges under the National Security Law. This is a huge topic entailing reviews of past Chinese church development, the current religion policies, and the responses of faith communities facing persecution.
Yet, with so many uncertainties that lie ahead in Hong Kong, I have found that referencing the past carries little value unless we look at it from a biblical perspective—God was present in all developments with an ultimate end to bless all nations. History has convinced me that God cares about China in his missional plan. This anniversary carries spiritual meaning when we see that the Chinese church has witnessed God’s protection and guidance over the past 100 years.
I have divided the historical review into two parts. This post covers the first part which shows how the restrictions imposed on Christianity by the Communist Party turned into opportunities for church growth. Part two will give an account of how some measures of the government favored the advancement of Christianity, albeit unintentionally. We will see that, after all, God’s sovereignty is made visible as we review the whole sweep of progress in history.
Turning Adversity into Blessings
The Chinese Communist Party started to develop during the New Culture Movement in which an abundance of new thought was brought forth in society for liberating the people from traditional Chinese ethics, philosophy, religion, and socio-political systems. Among this abundance of contemporary ideas including humanitarianism, science, democracy, and cosmopolitanism, both Marxism and Christianity introduced hope for revolutionary advancement to strengthen China’s power against foreign intimidation and invasion. Out of patriotism both Communists1 and Christians2 made an effort to transform the whole society,
Accelerating Church Independence During the Anti-Christian Movement
The fundamental contradiction between atheistic communism and Christianity surfaced after the founding of the Communist Party in 1921. The Socialist Youth League fanned the flames of anti-imperialism associated with the rejection of Christianity. They also promoted strategic action to save the country through Leninism while abandoning religion as a hope for social improvement. Such influence became a significant catalyst in the nationwide anti-Christian movement in 1922–1927.3
However, God turned the turbulence into energy for church reform, integrating faith with rational reasoning, reshaping a Chinese identity for the church, and casting off its foreign image. More and more independent, local churches were established. This was a major step towards indigenization so that the public could identify better with Christian culture.4
The Rise of Local Spiritual Leadership
Another serious blow to Christianity happened after the founding of New China in 1949. At that time, the development of Christianity was constrained. All foreign missionaries were ordered to leave. All funding for churches and ministries from abroad was curtailed. Through the declaration of the National Committee of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches in China, all church members were required to affirm their loyalty to the Communist Party. At the time of the Korean War in the 1950s, Christian organizations that had received subsidies from the US were required to find fault with their supporting missions in order to affirm their political alignment with the Communist Party.5 The denunciation evolved into an accusation campaign affecting all members of the Three-Self Church. Members were forced to find some reason to blame their brothers and sisters including their deacons and pastors. Local churches were pressed to merge their operations and reduce the number of meeting places. Local authorities gradually confiscated church property for other purposes until the church found no room to survive.6
However, such persecution gave birth to house churches following the model of gathering during the Apostolic Age. In advance, God prepared faithful leaders even before the need for house churches came about. After the Anti-Christian Movement, quite a few prominent evangelists and revivalists emerged to preach independently throughout China and abroad. Such luminaries, including Andrew Gih (計志文), John Sung (宋尚節), Watchman Nee (倪柝聲), Timothy Dzao (趙世光), and Ming-Tao Wang (王明道), represented the rise of authentic spiritual leadership free from the supervision of foreign missions.
Back to Basics in Response to the Situation
Jin-Ying Zhao (趙君影) was brought to faith in this wave of evangelism. He was committed to campus ministry because universities on the coast of China withdrew to Chongqing in the west in resistance to the Japanese invasion. In 1946, he co-founded the China Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship with Paul Contento of the China Inland Mission. Soon, David Adeney also joined their ministry which became the incubator for house church local leadership.
Hundreds of students committed fervently to becoming preachers and shepherds. They spread to different parts of the hinterland and later pioneered the formation of house churches in response to persecution.7 While those in rural areas found refuge in underground churches, they were shepherded by these well-educated leaders. During the rule of Ahab, God reserved seven thousand Israelites who never bowed down to Baal (1 King 19:18). In the same way, God had trained and reserved shepherds to care for his sheep to pass through the darkest two decades until the Cultural Revolution came to an end in 1976.
Chinese Diaspora as Seed for Future Thriving
God also reserved other soil for Chinese churches to grow in. In additions to Hong Kong where we enjoyed religious freedom under British rule, God also opened other doors for those in search of a new life. In fear of the class struggle advocated by communism, many Chinese fled to different parts of the world. These became Chinese diaspora communities in Asia, Europe, and North America where they had the opportunity to hear the gospel.
In North America and Europe, many fellowships and cell groups for overseas Chinese were formed in the 1950s. Many of them grew into churches in the following decades, retaining their ethnic identity.8 God blessed these congregations with both spiritual and material riches. Indeed, Chinese congregations seemed to be the richest in comparison to other minority Christian groups. The growth and wealth of these overseas Chinese churches enabled them to take an active part in the world mission movement resulting in the founding of the Chinese Coordination Centre of World Evangelism in the 1970s.9
God orchestrated more wonders for the Chinese. In 1978, the Chinese government relaxed the policy for students to study abroad. These students were attracted to overseas Chinese churches where they could meet kindred companions in a distant land. There were no language and cultural barriers for them to understand the Good News. Their conversion and growth could have been much more challenging if God had not already planted churches retaining Chinese culture in these countries. After they studied for a few years, many returned to their homeland to join church gatherings and serve Kingdom ministries.
Growing Stronger in Persecution
The Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) brought disaster to political stability, economic growth, and cultural liberty. All religious activities were banned. Even churches under the sanction of the government were closed while house churches still held gatherings underground. But unintendedly, the communists sowed seeds for the growth of Christianity. Some tenacious disciples experienced God’s presence in harsh oppression and imprisonment. They became a new generation of indigenous witnesses whose faithfulness was powerfully convincing as they carried no trace of imperialistic infiltration.10 Their piety influenced both the house churches and later the official churches when their activities resumed after the revolution. Just like the persecution of Jerusalem in the Acts of the Apostles, Christianity became stronger and spread further in facing suffering (Acts 8).
Preparing Receptive Hearts
Another unintended consequence favorable to Christianity was the eradication of idolatry and ancestral worship throughout the land during the Cultural Revolution. Previously, these deep-rooted cultural practices were the most complicated issue for missionaries to deal with.11 The removal of superstitious customs left an emptiness in the heart of most Chinese. The void could only be satisfied by God’s love.12 The aspiration for higher meaning in life was also evidenced after the shocking incident at Tiananmen Square in 1989. Many intellectuals flocked to the church for an answer.13 Moreover, Christian fellowship, a comprehensive moral system, well-organized worship, an emphasis on relationship, and a modern image all appealed to traditional Chinese.14 As a result, many turned to Christ rather than putting their hope on a disappointing ideology.
If I had lived at the time of Jeremiah, I could never have accepted the prophet’s announcement that the whole earth would be given to Nebuchadnezzar who would be a Gentile king destroying the homeland of God’s people (Jeremiah 27:6). Only when everything had gone by could the Jews understand why the Lord said, “For I know the plans and thoughts that I have for you, plans for peace and well-being and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. (Jeremiah 29:11).”Image credit: LN9267, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
- 郭德雲, “陳獨秀評議”, 二十一世紀,網絡版第三十五期 2005年2月28日.
- 楊劍龍，基督教文化對五四新文學的影響，（台北市：新創文創，2012), p. 16.
- 趙天恩, 中國教會史論文集, （台北: 宇宙光, 2006), pp. 200-209.
- Ka Lun Leung, Blessing Upon China – Ten Talks on the Contemporary Church History of China, (HK: Tien Dao Publishing House, 1988), pp 158-166.
- One reason for China’s intervention in the Korean War was the threat to territorial sovereignty and economic control posed by the US presence in the Korean Peninsula. Reference: Bangning Zhou, “Explaining China’s Intervention in the Korean War in 1950”, Journal of International Affairs, 2015, Vol 2014/2015 No. 1. p. 1-2.
- 陳智衡, “淺談基督教政教關係變遷”, 基督教與中國文化研究中心通訊, 2016年4月第64期, p. 4.
- Edwin Su (蘇文峰), “主愛在校園”, Great Commission Bi-Monthly, Issue 110, Jun 2014, p. 5.
- Gail Law, Chinese Churches Handbook, (HK: CCCOWE, 1982), p. 243, 259, 266.
- Gail Law, Pass the Torch—Mission Training for the Church, Renewed Edition, (Hong Kong, E-Tendance & Goodnews Communication International Ltd., 2018), Chapter 1 C01B Miracles in the 20C, Video 00:08-10 – 00:10:45
- 趙天恩, 中國教會史論文集, （台北: 宇宙光, 2006), p. 83-84.
- James Thayer Addison, “Chinese Ancestor Worship and Protestant Christianity”, The Journal of Religion, Vol. 5, No. 2 (March 1925), University of Chicago Press, p. 140-149.
- William Wood, Blaise Pascal on Duplicity, Sin, and the Fall: The Secret Instinct, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 20-22.
- Fenggang Yang, “Lost in the Market, Saved at McDonald’s: Conversion to Christianity in Urban China”, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 44,4 (2005), Blackwell Publishing Ltd., p. 437-439.
- Francis Khek Gee Lim, “Shields of Faith” in Christianity in Contemporary China: Socio-cultural Perspectives, (NY: Routledge, 2013), Acknowledgement.
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