According to the latest statistics from China Aid 13.8% more Christians in China were persecuted last year as compared with 2011, continuing a trend of increasing persecution that goes back to at least 2007.
On their face these numbers appear to be cause for serious alarm, and the China Aid report has in fact spawned headlines decrying the beginning of the end of the house church in China. However, upon closer examination these statistics do not support China Aid's assertion of a nationwide government-sponsored campaign against Christianity in China.
Without a doubt, Christians in China face many obstacles as they live out their faith in an often hostile environment. But Christians are not persecuted simply for being Christians, nor are house churches targeted for attack simply for being house churches. If this were the case one would expect to see hundreds of house churches being closed down each week. (Beijing, which had the highest number of persecution cases in 2012, reportedly has more than 3,000 house churches, yet the China Aid report mentions only two cases involving Beijing house churches for the entire year.)
As I've said previously, there are certain triggers that prompt authorities in China to take action against Christian activities. These include directly opposing the Communist Party (especially in a public manner, which embarrasses government officials and is bound to provoke a response); engaging in political activity, openly championing human rights, or being identified with a group that does so; and having foreign involvement. With China's rapid urbanization, property disputes are often another factor, with Christians being forced out of their churches (whether registered or unregistered) at the hands of greedy developers collaborating with corrupt local officials. A related factor is simply local abuse of power, especially in regions where there is a history of tension between Christians and officials, or in ethnic minority areas, where Christians may be seen as a threat by the dominant religious majority.
Of the nearly 5,000 Christians reported by China Aid to have suffered persecution in 2012, more than two-thirds were involved in cases where one or more of the above triggers were present. These Christians were either engaged in activity which the government perceived as a threat, or they ran afoul of the economic or political interests of corrupt local leaders. Examples of the former include Christian dissidents, human rights lawyers, and those who attempted to utilize public space for Christian activities (the most well-known being Shouwang church in Beijing, whose outdoor worship drew international attention and incurred the wrath of Beijing officials). Not a few cases cited by China Aid involved members of the China House Church Alliance, which was specifically designated illegal by the Chinese government some years ago.
The point here is not in any way to minimize the seriousness of these cases, but simply to point out that these believers were not persecuted for their faith or even for belonging to a house church (a few, in fact, were serving within the official Three-Self Patriotic Movement). Many more people in China, religious or not, face the same consequences for engaging in similar activities. The larger issues here are an authoritarian regime that is obsessed with maintaining stability at all costs, an immature legal system, and a very well-resourced security sector that has become a law unto itself. All Chinese, whether Christian or not, are suffering the consequences.
The remaining cases cited by China Aid mainly center around two issues: 1) the ability of unregistered churches to obtain facilities in order to meet openly and 2) Christians desiring to serve through educational or social service projects but having no legal platform by which to engage in these activities. Both of these point back to China's immature legal system, mentioned above. As many scholars and even government officials in China would agree, China's religious policy is broken. Until China's leaders take action to fix it, there will continue to be major tension as an increasingly dynamic church bumps up against China's rigid bureaucracy
The real story is not that China's Christians are being singled out for repression, but rather how their creativity and resilience enable them to thrive amidst such opposition. Most do not view themselves as passive victims of persecution. They instead see the church as poised to bring renewal to their society. Some, as documented in the China Aid report, are taking significant risks and paying a personal price to bring this about as their faith compels them to enter the public arena. For most, however, it means persistently living out their faith day by day in a manner that touches the lives of those around them.
Image credit: Security guards, by Martin Eckert, via Flickr
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