A recent article appearing in Global Times, the English-language mouthpiece of the authoritative People's Daily, raises interesting questions about how China's leaders view the relationship between the official and unofficial church.
Entitled "Estranged Brethren," the article deals forthrightly with the longstanding division between Christians in churches under China's official Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) and those who worship outside the TSPM umbrella. Delving into the genesis of this division in the 1950s, the author acknowledges many who refused to cooperate at that time with the TSPM were imprisoned. The author also quotes one of China's well-known "public intellectuals," a scholar on Chinese religious policy, who asserts that today more than half of China's believers are likely in the unofficial church.
In a section curiously subtitled "A forceless amnesty," the article refers to an open letter issued last month on the occasion of the Ninth China Christian Congress. According to TSPM Chairman Fu Xianwei, the TSPM desires to work with all Protestant believers in China. However, Fu also stipulated that these Christians must be "law abiding," and that leaders who desire to work within the TSPM system must have undergone formal theological training within China, including the study of Marxism. Leadership in an unofficial church is technically "illegal," and many such leaders were trained in unofficial Bible schools in China or in seminaries overseas. Hence these requirements effectively disqualify many unofficial pastors who otherwise desire to carry out their ministry legally.
The article acknowledges as much in its treatment of Shouwang Church, a large unregistered fellowship in Beijing's university district that had purchased its own facility with the knowledge of the government but was subsequently denied access to the premises. According to the article, Shouwang was refused legal registration after refusing to join the TSPM. Sun Yi, an elder at Shouwang, is quoted as saying that the TSPM, as an arm of the government, cannot represent the majority of Christians in China, nor can it provide legitimate leadership for the church.
At the heart of the current dilemma is a religious policy which, according to Yang Fenggang, a Purdue University professor also quoted in the article, is out of step with the times. Rather than expecting all churches to come under the TSPM, Yang says, the government needs to recognize China's different kinds of churches and allow for their natural development.
Nevertheless the current policy of China's State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) is to "persuade" all Christians to join the official church, according to the SARA web site. As the author of this article points out, how SARA plans to accomplish this task is not clear.
The article concludes with an interview with TSPM Chairman Fu, who, not surprisingly, played down the differences between the TSPM and the unofficial church, ascribing the division to demographic factors, weaknesses among individual TSPM pastors, or church splits.
This article lays bare current contradictions in policy toward the church, including contradictions within the very entities charged with carrying it out, and raises the question of why such a forthright treatment would be allowed in the Party's official English-language newspaper. One might answer cynically that such analysis is reserved only for foreign consumption, served up in an attempt to demonstrate the open-mindedness of the Party even as SARA continues its efforts to bring all believers under the TSPM's leadership. On the other hand, the article's appearance may point to the existence of a healthy debate within the Party, where at least some have realized the futility of current policy and are seeking a way forward.
The full text of the Global Times article may be found on Chinese Church Voices.
Image credit: Joann Pittman
Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. 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 China Ministries International, and from 1985 to... View Full Bio