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No, China Is NOT Nationalizing Christianity

I had seen headlines and stories all weekend about China's supposed launch of a new campaign to establish a new theology for China and had found them all to be misleading. This Diplomat article, however, seemed to kick it up a notch.

"Is it possible," I wondered, "that a writer for The Diplomat thinks that Christianity (or any religion) in China is not already under state control (nationalized), that it has some measure of independence from the state?"

Here's the thing: China is not nationalizing Christianity. Christianity has never not been nationalized in China. The fact that there is a government agency called the State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA) is the first clue that religion (including Christianity) is already nationalized in China.

It appears that the source of this, and all the other stories of the past six days, was a piece in the English language China Daily on August 7 which reported on statements made by Wang Zuoan, Director of the State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA) at a recent event in Shanghai:

China will continue to promote the development of Christian theology and establish a Chinese Christian theology, a top religious affairs official said on Tuesday.

"Over the past decades, the Protestant churches in China have developed very quickly with the implementation of the country's religious policy. In the future, we will continue to boost the development of Christianity in China," said Wang Zuoan, director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs.

Wang said Chinese Christian theology should be compatible with the country's path of socialism.

"The construction of Chinese Christian theology should adapt to China's national condition and integrate with Chinese culture," Wang said at a seminar on the Sinicization of Christianity in Shanghai, part of an event to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the National Committee of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches in China.

In other words, he is not announcing some new policy; he is merely stating that China (SARA) "will continue" to try to establish a Chinese Christian theology and that it should "adapt to China's national condition and culture."

Except for the period during the Cultural Revolution, when religious activities were banned, keeping religion (not just Christianity) in line with Chinese society, culture, and "the country's path of socialism" has always been the goal of the SARA, and practically every time a SARA official speaks, this goal is affirmed.

In recent years, there have been actual "campaigns" (the Chinese government loves campaigns) to promote this. Probably the most famous was the late Bishop Ding's "Theological Reconstruction" campaign (starting in the late 1990's), which sought to construct a "Chinese theology" and de-emphasize "justification by faith."

Interestingly, this was met with much resistance among many Three-Self pastors, and in the period since the campaign was launched many Three-Self churches have become more evangelical.

The China Daily article also notes that the current campaign to promote a Chinese Christian theology actually began in 2013.

So, no, there is not a new campaign on the part of the Chinese government to create a new Chinese theology. That has been a goal for years.

And China is not planning to nationalize Christianity. That was done in the 1950's.

Wang Zuoan merely issued a boilerplate statement in a boilerplate speech at a boilerplate event. All he really said was that China is going to continue its efforts to keep Christianity (and religion) in line with Party goalssomething that has been its goal since 1949. Again, this is nothing new.

Mostly what we saw last week was lazy reporting and even lazier headline writing, even on the part of China Daily.

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is senior vice president of ChinaSource and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University... View Full Bio