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Official Protestant Groups Plan Next Five Years of Sinicization

What Does the TSPM/CCC 5-Year Plan Tell Us about the Direction of Official Protestantism?

What are we to make of last year’s announcement that the official Protestant group leadership, the national Three Self Patriotic Movement association together with the China Christian Council, gathered to discuss a five-year plan for 2023–2027? Do China’s official churches typically have five-year plans like any other Communist Party organization? What is new about this five-year plan?

In this analysis, I compared the 2023–2027 plan1 with the previous plan2 for 2018–2022 to see what’s new and what is the same. The most important conclusion is that the TSPM/CCC now lays far greater emphasis on political loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party and comparatively weaker emphasis on traditional Christian ideas.

Five-year TSPM/CCC plans are not new. In fact, since its formation in the 1950s, the TSPM—like all other societal organizations under Chinese Communist Party (or CCP) leadership—was required to formulate plans in step with the five-year plans of the CCP. In this way, the priorities of the Party are passed on to society through organizations like the TSPM that act like a “transmission belt” from Party to grassroots.

Now on to a close analysis of the text of the latest plan.

From Studying Exemplary Christians to a Standard for All: “Shared Heart and Mind” with the CCP

The 2018–2022 plan exhorted to “promote the deeds of Christians who have been of one heart and one mind and walk in the same direction as the Party,” which basically meant to identify exceptional role models for other Christians to emulate. By contrast, the newer plan makes this political standard apply to everyone. It advocates in 2026 that the churches should go much further than studying exemplary Christians “who…supported the Chinese revolution” and instead “strengthen the belief that Christians and the Communist Party share one heart and one mind and move in the same direction.”

Much of the concern overseas has been that the official church is rewriting the Bible or changing traditional theological concepts. In fact, in more than 20 years of studying the church in China, this is the closest that I’ve seen such efforts actually taking place. To be sure, since the late 1990s, under the late Bishop Ding Guangxun, the official churches began actively seeking to “reconstruct theology.” But as I discuss in my book, that campaign faced stiff resistance as young seminarians at the national seminary publicly opposed the campaign and were thrown out of the seminary as a consequence.

Replace “Old Ideas…Inconsistent with Biblical Principles” with a Theology with “Chinese Characteristics”

How is this transformation to be done? The newer plan still emphasizes ways that Christianity should absorb “Chinese excellent traditional culture to express Christian faith” and both plans also point Christians to “deeply explore the content in the Bible that is consistent with the core values of socialism.”

Yet the newer plan goes further. It advocates that Protestants should “abandon content that cannot keep pace with the times in interpretation of the Bible and doctrine” and to “reform old ideas that are out of date and inconsistent with biblical principles…”3 In principle, this is a good idea. How could one advocate for unbiblical principles? Yet, given the top-down nature of the effort, one wonders whether the TSPM/CCC is targeting content not aligned with the CCP agenda.

That agenda includes themes promoted over the last 20 years by the TSPM/CCC leadership in the name of “Chinese theological thought construction:” “patriotism” and the “running the church well.”

But the agenda is more ambitious still, to dig deeply into what pastoral staff think and believe and practice, in order to generate an entirely fresh set of theological concepts.

Collecting Information for Protestant Pastor Dossiers

For example, the newer plan advocates collecting and studying pastoral staff’s views on theology in order to develop a range of Christian theologies from a “view of God,” a “Christology,” a “theory of man,” to an “ecclesiology,” all with “Chinese characteristics.” The phrase “with Chinese characteristics” has been a covering phrase used in multiple arenas to justify unique changes. For example, in economics, “Chinese characteristics” in practice has translated into partial state control of the economy (rather than a liberal market economy). In this context, Chinese characteristics might mean integrating “inclusive characteristics of traditional culture” as it states, or it might mean bundling political values into church teaching.

Does this mean throwing overboard traditional and orthodox theological concepts? And integrating traditional culture into theology? Yes to both! For example, the outline calls for efforts to “construct a ‘theory of man’ with Chinese church characteristics” that draws on traditional culture and biblical teaching to “correct the negative and one-sided ‘human theory;’ that overemphasizes ‘original sin’ and ‘total depravity.’” In its place, the call is to “build a Christian ‘theory of man’ that combines the tradition of the ecumenical church and the excellent Chinese cultural tradition…in line with the middle way.”

From Traditional Theology to….? The New Direction of Christian Thinking

But if the theological goal is to reorient away from traditional theology, what is the new direction and target for Christian thinking? Consistent from the previous plan, the new plan similarly touts “cultivat[ing] and practic[ing] socialist core values” because Christianity “shares the same breath and destiny with the motherland and people.”

But at their core, the two plans highlight different purposes. From its beginning, the newer plan sharply stresses Communist Party political goals whereas the previous plan touts “the goal of Sinicization of Christianity is to build a church that exalts Christ and preserves unity.” These phrases—“exalting Christ and preserving unity”—get buried in the new plan in the middle of longer sections of text. For the first time, a Protestant five-year plan elevates politics to its topmost level, with “clarify political goals, strengthen political beliefs, and improve political standing” as a primary goal of the next five years.

Stronger Emphasis on Patriotism and Party-Focused Nationalism

The newer plan sharpens its integration with broader CCP agendas by including for the first time (and twice!) a goal to “safeguard national unity.” It also trumpets the “glorious tradition of patriotism” in its opening paragraph and echoes earlier statements to “guide believers to be more patriotic” and “cultivate” Christian leaders who are patriotic and to “follow the path of patriotism” for 2023.

By contrast, the older plan had only noted “cultivating concepts such as [national] unity” and that Protestants should “further stimulate” staff and believers’ patriotism and “advocating patriotism, dedication, integrity, and friendliness…” and “strengthen patriotism education.” Only down further in the task list do other references to patriotism appear, such as in 2019, to publish historical materials that “make patriotism a Christian responsibility.”

The Logical Endpoint of Politics and Religion: Not Just Being a Patriotic Believer, but “Loving the Party”

Comparing all previous plans to the current plan,4 never before were Christians directed to love the Party. Instead, they were exhorted to “be patriotic, love religion” or literally, to “love country, love religion.” In other words, to be a patriotic believer.

Yet, Protestant leaders over the last five years have been touring sites to understand “excellent traditional Chinese culture.” They have also received training by the Party’s United Front Work Department and other offices on Sinicization of Christianity. And so, for the first time, the national TSPM/CCC exhorts lower-level leaders to “…cultivate love for the Party …”

The 2023–2027 Five-Year Plan for Protestants in Official Churches

What the latest plan for Protestant leadership in the TSPM and CCC tells us is that Xi Jinping continues to attract or compel Christians to align themselves with traditional Chinese culture and, as important, with the Chinese Communist Party’s agenda. This holds several implications. First, divisions within the official churches will sharpen, as Protestants more swayed by political pressures will strengthen in comparison to those holding to more traditional and theologically orthodox beliefs. In particular, the cleavages between higher levels of bureaucratic leadership, particularly between the national or provincial leaders and individual church pastors, will become a chasm. Second, the theological distance between orthodox unregistered “house” church congregations and the official churches will widen considerably, as house churches will increasingly criticize official churches for “playing politics.” The claims launched by Chinese believers in years past against the “compromised” nature of the official churches will be so much easier to justify and paradoxically it may strengthen the “witness” of believers worshipping apart from official churches. Third, if Protestant churches more and more “toe the Party line,” their distinctiveness to members of society who are not affiliated with the churches will wane, weakening the attraction of the Christian faith. And, perhaps, this has been Xi Jinping’s vision for a Sinicized Christianity all along.


  1. 深入推进我国基督教中国化五年工作规划纲要(2023-2027年), accessed February 16, 2024,
  2. 推进我国基督教中国化五年工作规划纲要(2018-2022),, accessed February 16, 2024.
  3. The phrase is, “Fully understand that the Sinicization of Christianity is essentially a profound self-adjustment. It is necessary to reform old ideas that are out of date and inconsistent with biblical principles, to promote the advantages and eliminate the disadvantages, to reform the old and innovate, and to promote the positive energy of Chinese Christianity with a renewed self-awareness.”
  4. “Five-Year Planning Outline for Advancing the Sinification of Christianity (2018-2022),” China Law Translate, published June 18, 2019, accessed April 2, 2024,
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Carsten T. Vala

Carsten T. Vala

    Carsten T. Vala is Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science at Loyola University Maryland. He published a book on the rise and fall of public house churches like Beijing Shouwang church in 2017 (The Politics of Protestant Churches and the Party-State in China: God Above Party?), and …View Full Bio

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