Hearing from the Church in China in an Increasingly Challenging Environment
We are living in an age of abundant information and countless sources and our challenge is mostly to choose from this wealth and fish out the most relevant reports. Or so it seems. Isn’t it therefore strange to be writing about the lack of sources and information-gathering possibilities when it comes to the situation of the church in China? This blog post is written from an analyst’s perspective, and it comes with an important caveat: it relies exclusively on non-Chinese language sources (which in practice means relying on English-language sources). Parts of this post are taken from the World Watch List Full Country Dossier, which can be accessed here (an update will be published in January 2024).1
Trying to Make Sense of the Wealth of Opinions
The number of China-related books, reports, articles, and blog posts published over the last couple of years has not decreased but risen exponentially. In these times of de-coupling, de-risking, and disseminating opinions about how China’s relationship with the United States and the broader West should be shaped, the number of publications has multiplied. More and more people on various platforms are sharing their views—some decidedly more expert than others—but there is one important distinction to make: many items are opinions, some of which even supply recommendations for political or business policymakers. The author reads hundreds of these reports and articles on China each year, and the number to choose from is as high as ever. It has become increasingly difficult to find distinctive criteria for determining which sources to follow.
This is not to say that all opinions about China should be dismissed out of hand. In many cases, they are trying to make sense of the increasing limitations in China’s political environment. Two recent examples illustrate this point: The decision made by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) to stop publishing youth unemployment rates, citing a revision and “optimization” of collection methods, led to a flurry of comments and opinions in an effort to fill the resulting gap.2 Similarly, after lifting the strict COVID-19 measures in December 2022, authorities did not publish its quarterly cremation numbers of the last quarter of 2022, which led to another string of opinions, calculations and best guesses of the “real numbers.”3
Reports about How the Church Is Coping Are Becoming Thinner on the Ground
Let’s have a look at the data, as found in a database kept with the author. For years, the number of articles published in both Christian and secular media relating to church restrictions and the persecution of Christians in China was rather stable. From 2019 to 2020, this number decreased by around 13% (1126 to 974). While this could initially have been dismissed as an outlier, it turns out it was instead a harbinger of things to come, as in 2021, there was a sharp decrease of almost 50% (974 to 490). The number of reports has stayed below 500 until now. However, keeping in mind that several articles often report on the same incident—e.g., in 2023, the “regulations for religious activity venues” and the renewal of the Vatican agreement as well as the inauguration of several Catholic bishops triggered a host of articles, the decline is felt even more strongly.
One obvious reason for this drop in the number of publications can be seen in the measures introduced to combat the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in borders closed and less direct contact. However, this explanation in itself is not sufficient to explain such a major decrease in available information. First of all, the decline started before the arrival of the pandemic and secondly, the Communist Party had already been busy for many years in its efforts to control the information environment, even before the watershed 2018 regulations came into force.
Editor’s note: As the challenges confronting the church in China grow in complexity, it is imperative to consider the intricate layers of Chinese society to comprehend the evolving dynamics. Be sure to read part two of this post. In it, Thomas Muller explores the profound implications of China’s restricted international interactions, delving into the nuanced dance between global perspectives and China’s self-imposed isolation. He looks at the wider framework which makes it so difficult to receive reliable information from China, before turning to the more important question “Where we go from here?” How do we continue hearing from the church in China and amplify their voices? Throughout this exploration, we hope to illuminate the daunting hurdles faced by both the church and the broader community within this multifaceted landscape. For a deeper understanding of these complex threads, check out the whole series, “How We Hear from the Church in China.”
- “China Full Country Dossier—December 2022,” Full Country Dossiers, OpenDoors, accessed October 12, 2023, https://www.opendoors.org/en-US/research-reports/country-dossiers/.
- Laurie Chen and Albee Zhang, “China Suspends Youth Jobless Data after Record High Readings,” Reuters, August 15, 2023, accessed October 12, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/china/china-stop-releasing-youth-jobless-rate-data-aug-says-stats-bureau-2023-08-15/.
- Sylvie Zhuang, “China Drops Cremation Data from Quarterly Report, Raising Questions about Key Covid Death Indicator,” South China Morning Post, June 15, 2023, accessed October 12, 2023, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/politics/article/3224233/china-drops-cremation-data-quarterly-report-raising-questions-about-key-covid-death-indicator.
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