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Christianity and the State—Dispelling a Myth

From the series Our China Stories

It was bound to happen. Educational exchanges like this one inevitably expose students to new ideas, and now some were becoming Christians.

“Pull the plug!” came the stern official reply; send them back to China.

In an ever-tightening environment, with the Party demanding unquestioned control over every area of society, including religion, such a response should come as no surprise. As the country’s Communist leaders double down on Marxist doctrine, it seems there is little room for Christianity in today’s China. 

Perfectly understandable, except this incident did not take place in today’s China.

The year was 1880. The students—as Stacy Bieler relates in the autumn 2021 issue of ChinaSource Quarterly—were among the first crop of Chinese high school boys to come to America as part of a study abroad program pioneered by Rong Hong (Yong Wing), an official who had graduated from Yale in 1854.

Faced with the probability that more young Chinese would become Christians, commissioner Wu Zideng did not order the students back to China because he was a good Communist. This was twenty years before Karl Marx’s name first appeared in print in China; more than 40 years before the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. Chinese Communism had not been invented yet. Why, then, the striking similarity between Wu’s attitude toward Christianity and the stance of Chinese leaders today?

Embedded in today’s evangelical China narratives, particularly the narrative of the persecuted church, is the assumption that regime change will inevitably bring about greater openness for the gospel in China. Since it is the atheistic Communist Party that is responsible for the harsh repression of the church, it follows that Christians will be free to live out their faith once the Party is no longer in power.

This is the “myth” of the atheistic state—not that China’s leaders are opposed to religion, (which they clearly are), but the belief that, were it not for Marx, China’s Christians would be enjoying full religious freedom. The experience of Chinese Christians under successive regimes, from the Tang Dynasty to the present, suggests otherwise.

As foreign observers it is easy to overlook the deeper dynamics at work in China’s historic ambivalence toward Christianity. We tend to forget or to minimize the cultural insensitivity of past gospel messengers, the identification of the gospel with foreign aggression, the inability of foreign Christians to recognize how their presence threatened existing Chinese social relationships, and the unfortunate entanglement of foreign Christians in the power struggles that would eventually recreate China’s political landscape. Rather than grapple with the consequences of these realities, it is more convenient—and politically expedient—to lay blame for the current wave of repression solely at the feet of Marx, Mao, and Xi. Yet in doing so we overlook the historic tensions that have complicated the spread of the gospel ever since the name of Christ was first proclaimed on Chinese soil.

It remains an open question whether those who stake their hopes for greater religious freedom in China on regime change will ultimately be disappointed. At the time of this writing, the Party has just celebrated its 100th anniversary and appears to be firmly in control, so we may be waiting for a while. In the meantime, recognizing that the obstacles facing the gospel in China go far deeper than any one political ideology or system is an important first step in fostering an honest conversation about China and its church.

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Image credit: Ye Zhang on Unsplash.
Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, 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 …View Full Bio

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