In this vein we often hear that "China" persecutes Christians. The assumption behind this statement is that the Chinese government has a specific policy of cracking down on the church, and that this policy is uniformly implemented across China.
As Joann Pittman points out in the current issue of the ChinaSouce Quarterly, the idea of "China" doing anythingin this case persecuting Christiansis itself problematic. It assumes a monolithic government structure, united in purpose and capable of exerting its will whenever and wherever in the country it pleases. In reality "China" is composed of many bureaucratic actors, often working at cross purposes with one another as they compete for goods and resources.
In the case of religious policy the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) ostensibly sets policy, which is carried out at the local level by the Religious Affairs Bureau. However, the blueprint for whatever policy the SARA sets is decided in advance by the Communist Party. Legislation that touches the lives of religious believers, along with other Chinese citizens, is approved by the National People's Congress. Procedural matters within China's officially sanctioned churches are dealt with by the Three-Self Patriotic Movement and its sister organization, the China Christian Council. Where believers are perceived to have transgressed law or policy, the police get involved. In cases involving illicit foreign intervention in religious affairs the secretive Ministry of State Security may intervene.
Add to this mix competing agendas between government bodies and officials at different levels, local political and financial priorities, and differences in the church itself from place to place in China, and it becomes clear that there is hardly a cohesive religious policy in force nationwide in China today. Rather, China's Christians come under the jurisdictions multiple political entities, any one of which can potentially stifle or encourage Christian activity. As Pittman says, "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."
The absence of a cohesive religious policy leaves both Chinese believers and Chinese officials operating in a nebulous gray area. What is allowed or not allowed often needs to be negotiated at the local level, and it is always subject to change. Hence the vast disparity in freedom of Christian activity and expression that may be observed across China.
Anecdotal evidence may suggest a straight-line relationship between "China's" policy and the treatment of China's Christians. In reality such a line does not exist.
For more information read the current issue of the ChinaSource Quarterly "Religious Policies in China and Their Influence on the Church."
Photo Credit: Chinese Flag, by Philip Jagenstedt, via Flickr
Brent Fulton is the president of ChinaSource and the editor of the ChinaSource Quarterly. Prior to assuming his current position, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding US director of... View Full Bio