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Is There a Campaign against Christianity in China?

Churches have been demolished in Wenzhou, Christian workers detained on the North Korean border, and a leading religious official proclaims that a "Chinese theology" is needed so that the church can serve socialism. These developments have featured prominently in the news in recent weeks, with more than a few commentators concluding that a crackdown on Christianity in China is underway or soon will be. However, a closer look at the events in question suggests otherwise.

As is often the case in China, focusing narrowly on the involvement of Christians in a given situation can obscure the larger political agendas at work.

Reports out of Wenzhou, for example, point to an over-zealous provincial Party official intent on cleaning up the urban landscape as the motive force behind the demolition of several churches and the removal of more than 100 crosses. He was, by all accounts, embarrassed by the proliferation of churches that had occurred under his watch. However, his actions were less about the Christians themselves and more about burnishing his own reputation. By tying bureaucrats' rewards and promotional opportunities directly to their performance in ridding the province of illegally constructed buildings, he assured their complicity in carrying out a crusade of destruction that has since drawn the ire not only of believers in Wenzhou and across China but also of Christians worldwide.

Foreign Christians who had operated for years in a low-profile manner on China's border with North Korea have apparently become casualties in a much larger international relations drama. This drama involves not only China's reclusive Communist ally but also Canada, the home country of one Christian couple currently under detention. What prompted Chinese officials to suddenly go after those on the border who were aiding North Korean refugees is currently the subject of much speculation. So is the relationship between a recent spat between Ottawa and Beijing over accusations of Chinese cybercrime and the detention of the Canadian Christian couple. What does seem clear is that this unfolding drama is less about Christians per se than it is about China's complex relationship with North Korea.

A third recently cited indicator of China's crackdown on Christianity is State Administration for Religious Affairs Director Wang Zuoan's statement at a forum in Shanghai, "The construction of Chinese Christian theology should adapt to China's national condition and integrate with Chinese culture."

There is nothing new here. As my colleague Joann Pittman pointed out last week, China is not nationalizing religion. It already has! The mandate that religion should serve socialism has been around for decades. Wang was simply doing his job by repeating the mantra. His audience, leaders in the Three Self Patriotic Movement, China's official Protestant organization, likely did theirs by nodding in agreement.

Pulling together these three events and concluding that China is in the midst of a campaign against Christianity ignores the vast body of evidence throughout the rest of the country suggesting that, for most of China's Christians, it's business as usual. For every detained foreign Christian, one could point to a thousand others who are still going about their everyday lives in China. For every demolished church, one could point to thousands of others filled to capacity last Sunday with Christians who worshipped relatively unhindered.

This does not in any way diminish the seriousness of the incidences in Wenzhou or in northeast China. Christians in these places have suffered and continue to suffer. However, to suggest based on their experiences that China is undergoing a campaign against Christianity is, at this point, a significant overgeneralization.

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

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