For those in long-term service in China, one of the difficulties in discerning where things are headed politically and socially is knowing how to separate out significant long-term trends from those events that, while appearing important in the moment, may prove to be mere distractions. This is particularly true for those working with the church in China, who often attempt to "read the tea leaves," through the lens of religious policy and its immediate affect upon China's Christians.
In reality China has precious little religious policy from which to derive any sense of either the Party's priorities or the country's overall direction. What policy does exist has remained virtually unchanged for the past thirty years. During this time the situation of China's Christians has changed remarkably, underlining the need for Christian China watchers to step back and take in the forest rather than contemplating the proverbial "trees" of Christian experience in China apart from the larger context.
China's leaders (unfortunately) do not spend much time thinking about how to improve their country's religious policy. But (fortunately) neither do they stand about continuously wringing their hands over spread of Christianity in China, devising new ways to limit its growth. Religious policy and its implementation are generally the by-products of larger policy decisions. Where leaders do make deliberate decisions regarding religion, it is in pursuit of some greater ends.
As China has pursued economic development during the past 35 years, for example, a relatively tolerant policy has allowed and encouraged religious believers to engage in economic activity and to develop friendly overseas relationships that benefit the country. The formation of the Amity Foundation in 1985 to promote overseas Christian contributions to China's development is a prime example. Under Hu Jintao's "harmonious society" push, the church was called upon to do good and to promote unity.
In recent years, amidst growing concerns over social instability, China's leaders have become more concerned about any social entities, religious or otherwise, that are beyond their direct control. Religion in particular has come to be seen as more of a threat in light of well-publicized cult activities and unrest among some of China's larger ethnic minority populations. Meanwhile, as China has become more assertive on the international scene, suspicion about foreign "infiltration" in business, politics and culture have increased. These suspicions have in turn exacerbated perceptions that foreign governments or other entities are colluding with religious bodies in China for political ends. China's Christians have thus felt the effects of the regime's increasing wariness toward organized religious groups.
Tea leaves are useful if you need a hot drink to cut the chill on a frigid morning. If you want to know why it's cold, look out the window.
Photo Credit: CRW_8668 by Paul Watson, on Flickr
Brent Fulton is the president of ChinaSource and the editor of the ChinaSource Quarterly. 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... View Full Bio