The 2022 winter issue of China Source Quarterly, “Chinese Christians in the New Era,” is well worth reading, offering helpful insights for anyone interested in China.
Luke Wesley’s article, “The Church in China: Living in Babylon” particularly caught my interest as the title could describe most of modern Chinese history for Christians. What makes the recent years in China any more a “Babylon” for the church than it was in years past? According to Wesley, starting in 2018, the government’s policies distinctly shifted to target the formal practice of religion (especially that of Muslims and Christians). Wesley observes the way signage and propaganda in China within the last five years has mimicked that of the horrific Cultural Revolution (1966–76), wondering if the present time in China is not similar in many ways. The external pressure facing Christians today is undeniable and, indeed, in some sense comparable to that of previous times (more on this below).
What I especially appreciated about Wesley’s article was his reflection on the internal pressure faced by Christians within the Chinese church. This internal pressure is seldom reported in the West, which has a tendency to glorify religious persecution without recognizing the real conflicts between Christians that bubble up as a result. The fact is, the government’s shifting policies are designed to create fear and confusion within targeted groups, and Christian churches, schools, and ministries are no exception.
When pressure comes, Christians generally respond in one of three ways: fight, flight, or somewhere in the middle. When “fight” Christians and “flight” Christians fellowship in the same local church, it is not difficult to imagine the kind of conflict that results. When praying for the Chinese church, we must not fail to pray, perhaps above all, for the unity of Christians under pressure.
Returning to Wesley’s comparison of present-day China with the Cultural Revolution, Peter Bryant’s excellent article speaks to this issue. Bryant sees the Communist Party’s (1) ideological campaign, (2) obsession with national security, (3) rise of nationalism; and (4) centralization of power as four key dynamics in modern-day China which are similar to that of the Cultural Revolution era.
In general terms, I agree that today’s China bears striking similarities to the Cultural Revolution era. There is also no doubt that Xi-style totalitarianism has in many ways led to a level of state-sponsored control comparable to that of Mao’s regime.
However, there are several reasons why I do not think that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) can or will successfully exert the type of control and create an atmosphere of pressure mixed with violence like that of the Cultural Revolution. I see cracks in the foundation of the CCP that I believe will one day lead to some sort of collapse, be it internal (the fall of individuals and not that of the whole structure) or that of the whole system. Here are my reasons:
1. The propaganda and ideology, as visible and present as it is, does not have the same hold on Chinese society that it once did. Anyone who has read books about the Cultural Revolution like Wild Swans has read about the zeal that newly “liberated” Chinese citizens had toward their country and their leadership. The degree to which many Chinese blindly followed their leaders is scary. Remnants of this fervor have existed in Chinese society even up until early 2022. Before this time, when asked what they think of the Chinese leadership or government, by far the most common response I received was, “China’s richer—of course I like the leaders and the Communist Party.” And even many of the most dyed in the wool communists are ultimately pragmatists when it comes to their ideology, as if to say, “The proof is in the pudding, is it not?” Not anymore. And the more China’s prosperity declines, the louder doubts about the Chinese socialist system will become. More on this in #3 below.
2. The common people in China (老百姓) are, for the first time in decades, beginning to see through attempts to veil power grabbing political policies as matters of national security. Even as recently as early 2022, Chinese people that I spoke with were generally of the opinion that the COVID-19 policies were best for “security” (keeping everyone as healthy and safe from foreign harm as possible). Then, starting in the spring of 2022, close to the time that Shanghai was locked down, there were rumblings of discontent directed toward the Party that I had never heard before. Most people who have lived in mainland China know that citizens are by default trusting of their government (unlike we in the West who inherently distrust our government). Even so, Chinese people in the spring of 2022 began to express shockingly critical opinions toward the CCP. The previous narrative they had been fed about covid (“Look at how badly Western governments have handled covid and how well we here in China have handled it.”) was starting to unravel. For the first time people privately expressed doubts about whether the Party really is for “the people.”
3. Nationalism is sharply declining. Allow for a brief disclaimer. Most of my interaction has been with Chinese in the cities. There is a massive difference between Chinese in big cities versus those in smaller cities and the countryside. The latter are consistently more conservative (that is, devoted to the Party), less educated, and therefore less exposed to anything except communist propaganda. But the average big city dweller, especially college-educated ones, are exposed to quite a lot from outside of China and indeed were those most involved in the White Paper Protests late in 2022. The decline in nationalism seen in the White Paper Protests is not only a product of the harsh COVID-19 measures; nationalism in China has always been delicately propped up on a house of cards of unsustainable economic prosperity, which was bound to fall at some point. Also, the demographic collapse brought about by the one-child policy, the current real estate bubble many times larger than that of the West’s 2008 crisis, or the broader debt crisis—economists say that any one of these alone can ruin China economically. All three of them together make it imminent. Chinese prosperity-based nationalism is quickly coming to an end.
4. Xi’s hold on power is weaker than it was even just last year, not stronger. His stubborn insistence on the reversal of the dynamic zero-COVID policy is just the beginning of signs of inner-Party turmoil that suggest his hold on power is not what it once was. One can also look to policies that never materialize as evidence of this (such as the March 1, 2020 internet censorship campaign or the campaign to combat “fraud” through forced phone app installation), or to the mixed messages sent from the top like the chaotic dismissal of Hu Jintao from the 20th Party Congress in October and the demotion of “wolf warrior” diplomat Zhao Lijian. Even an uptick in reluctance of local officials to whom I have spoken to implement edicts from above—all of these are indications (though not proof) that Xi’s hold on power is waning and moreover of a Communist Party with tension on the inside.
We will see where China goes from here. The uncertainty of it all brings into sharper relief the promises of Scripture, which remind us that it is God who, “changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings” (Daniel 2:21) and also speak about trial as one of God’s many means of sanctifying his people in Christ (James 1:2–4). The above assessment may very well be proven irrelevant even weeks from now. If there is even a grain of truth in what some of the above observations mean, then the end of this new era of tightness, this “Babylon” for the church, may be over a lot sooner than many of us anticipate.
Find out more about how Chinese Christians are dealing with the tightening of regulations in the spring 2023 issue of ChinaSource Quarterly, which will be published in March. Become a subscriber (it’s free!) to get the issue delivered to your email inbox.
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