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Chinese Christians in the New Era—Hope and Overcoming

The articles written for the winter 2022 issue of ChinaSource Quarterly are thought provoking, perceptive, and disheartening. From Peter Bryant’s overview pieces to the supporting articles by Brent Fulton, Luke Wesley, Xingwu Lin, Caleb Ai, and Swells in the Middle Kingdom (Swells) on China in the world, the church in China, and then Chinese missionary, nonprofit, and expatriate worlds, the messages offer perspectives like a plane dropping from thirty-thousand feet to ground level, as they shift from high-level and mildly optimistic (or at least more analytical) to close up, personal, and much more pessimistic. Together, they offer helpful insight on what’s happening in China after ten years of new political leadership by Xi Jinping.

Peter Bryant charts changes that are both novel and continuations of earlier trends. Perhaps all countries are mixtures of the old and the new, but this is all the more evident in considering President Xi Jinping’s policies for the People’s Republic of China. Even Xi’s language of a New Era echoes language used by the PRC’s founding leader, Chairman Mao Zedong and its second major leader Deng Xiaoping, both of whom discussed their reigns in terms of “new” periods. And each period was new in its own sense; Mao’s period newly united China and expelled foreign influence, while Deng’s period reversed Mao’s policies to reopen China to foreign influence, investment, and rapid economic growth. Both Mao and Deng made deep and lasting changes to the fabric of Chinese society, first by communalizing it and then by individualizing it. Whether Xi leaves such an impact remains to be seen. At the very least, he seeks the same mantle as these major leaders.

But things are not looking favorable right now. To date, Xi’s signature policy has been zero-COVID. Initially, it appeared to spare China from the high rates of infection and deaths that afflicted other countries, but as more virulent strains outmaneuvered the isolation and lockdown strategy, zero-COVID drew intense opposition. Nationwide protests against it were sparked by the economic toll of the shutdowns and an avoidable tragedy in Xinjiang province. Rather than being undone in a careful way, as many policies are implemented piecemeal then spread nationwide, Xi’s government abruptly imposed the policy reversal without consultation with local levels, leaving Chinese healthcare workers little time to prepare and avoid tens of thousands of covid-related deaths.

This statistic spotlights the challenges of Xi’s rule: as Xi stokes nationalism and touts the PRC’s return to global importance, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has squelched diverse opinions and attempted to project a singular voice from Party and society. Silencing alternative power sources and views, however, also closes the door to participation in governance by a range of non-Party figures and organizations. Logically, if the CCP under Xi prohibits broader discussion of policies, then Xi’s CCP must bear responsibility not only for every success but also for every failure of its policies.

Bryant notes the securitization of everything (as does Swells) and the centralization of power; the “old” here is that these trends predate Xi’s rise to power. For example, in my research on house and official churches in China, I noticed the Three Self Patriotic Movement for Protestants already began centralizing power over official churches before 2012 (when Xi took power). Inside the Party-state, Xi’s CCP removed the state in order to directly manage religion through the Party’s United Front Work Department. Whether this tighter administrative oversight actually improves governance is an open question, because the religious affairs management sphere has long been one of the least attractive areas for cadre appointment and lowest priority areas for the CCP’s rule. More generally, the CCP’s fixation on using the language of security to explain its approach to governing suggests two things: first, that it is perhaps less ambitious than imagined because stability—an absence of change—rather than transformation is the end goal; and second, that the CCP it is in fact anxious, not confident, about maintaining popular support and power. Confident rulers would not need to concentrate attention on popular unrest and tout the need for stability.  

Peter Bryant also repeats the CCP’s ideology about building China into a “strong, democratic, civilized, harmonious, and modern socialist country.” Here is an irony: that all-encompassing CCP power is trying to turn the meaning of familiar concepts on their head. Academics studying the Party’s use of human rights language have pointed out its double-speak, as human rights are taken to mean collective livelihood (naturally under the Party) rather than protection of individual rights. This also led me to think about something that was missing from the articles, namely the repression of the Uyghur ethnic minority. As many as one of every five Uyghur Chinese citizens has been interned in a camp in Xinjiang Province. How democratic or civilized can China be with such phenomena?

Another way to view the changes under way in China is from a political-economic perspective. The Party’s increasing exercise of power over various groups in society, whether rights defense lawyers, feminists, journalists, workers, or others, makes some sense by reference to China’s stage of development. The key issue is that the PRC may have reached a plateau in terms of the economic growth it can gain from manufacturing and assembly. To reach the next stage, it needs to move up the value chain, and replace factory production and state investment with research and development, services provision, and additional private investment. This is the pathway that developmental states1 in Taiwan and South Korea trod decades ago, and in those transitions, each country was marked by harsher political control as less-skilled workers were thrown out of work when the economy upgraded its key sectors. So as the CCP aims to rise out of the “middle-income trap,” it is unsurprising that it represses labor and society.

I therefore appreciated Brent Fulton’s suggestion of a third way forward between the liberal values of the West and the socialist alternatives proposed by China’s leaders. Surely, the Chinese people have to develop their own values, appropriate to their stage of development and national context. Luke Wesley’s description of “Living in Babylon” is an evocative reminder that the church has been here before. He notes the presence of posters with images from the Cultural Revolution, particularly that of Lei Feng, a “model” worker who only wanted to serve the Party wholeheartedly. It is important to remember that the CCP also emblazoned Lei Feng across the country in the aftermath of the June 4, 1989 democracy movement repression. Wesley’s reminder was helpful, namely that a clear purpose or mission is needed for the Chinese church to unite and to survive, and even grow stronger, in the midst of such intense pressure.

Caleb Ai’s explanation of Chinese Christian nonprofits is illuminating as it shows that despite increasing pressure from the Party, there is still room for improvement in the sector. He points out that building capacity—becoming more professionalized and skilled, not governmental barriers—was the biggest problem among Chinese Christian organizations surveyed in the late 2010s. It also helpfully illustrated that a transformation in Christian views in the direction of a fully embodied gospel, one with deeds as well as words, is a continuing need.

Swells in the Middle Kingdom ends a sobering piece on expatriates’ work in China with a challenge: that it is missionaries’ “endurance in the face of suffering that so profoundly demonstrates the power and truthfulness of their Christian faith.” I’m brought back to stories I have read about foreign Christians who stayed in China during the Japanese invasion in the 1930s to protect their congregations and lost their lives as a result.  Swells is right, of course, that a focus on the numbers of converts was always misplaced; the focus should always be on the faithfulness and integrity of those who do convert, not on whether they are numerous or not.

Beyond China—the Chinese Missionary Movement

Looking beyond China’s borders, Xingwu Lin’s piece begins by underscoring the Party’s attempt to unify all under itself as it collapses distinctions inside China. Differences between the Party and the government, between different ethnic groups and the “overbearing Han culture,” as he puts it, and even between “China” and the “People’s Republic of China” are all blurred to bring about an all-for-one (Party), and one-for-all reality. To take the last collapse as an example, the CCP promotes the idea of a “5,000-year unbroken Chinese history,” but in fact the PRC period is a remarkable disjuncture in Chinese history. The CCP radically altered the fabric of society, prohibiting traditional religion for decades, and violently reorganizing society. Thus, China and the PRC are no more equivalent to each other (and much less equivalent) than America and the US government are to each other.

Lin’s point about developing a strong Christian identity links to Wesley’s point about unity and mission. With a strong sense of their Christian identity, Chinese believers can resist these attempts to meld them with others. Chinese Christian leaders in the house churches have been hard at work in crafting such an indigenous theology. In addition, Christians may then engage other religious believers in an inter-religious dialogue that lightens the Western cultural baggage of foreign mission originated Christianity and reaches out to indigenous Chinese.

An Essential China and an Overcoming Hope

In all these pieces, I am struck by two things. First is how Xi Jinping is trying to turn back the clock in China, as if to return to some notion of a “real China,” an essentialist China in which a “Chineseness” somehow exists without embodying the creativity, openness, and multiplicity characterizing the China or “Chinas” I have been surprised and delighted by. In its place, Xi seeks to impose one with sameness and a monotonous singularity of perspective and appearance. As Caleb Ai puts it, the People’s Republic has indeed traveled far from the “honeymoon” period of the 2002–2012 era. However, these articles shine a light not just on key features of the political and spiritual landscape under Xi Jinping. They also spotlight the hope and historical tenacity of the Christian faith to overcome any repression.

The spring 2023 issue of the ChinaSource Quarterly will take another look at the way Chinese Christians are living out their faith in the New Era. Consider subscribing to get the issue delivered straight to your email inbox.


  1. That is, government-led development.
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Image credit: Denny Ryanto via UnSplash.
Carsten T. Vala

Carsten T. Vala

    Carsten T. Vala is Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science at Loyola University Maryland. He published a book on the rise and fall of public house churches like Beijing Shouwang church in 2017 (The Politics of Protestant Churches and the Party-State in China: God Above Party?), and …View Full Bio

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