Blog EntriesChurch and State

Religious Policy Development in the PRC since 1949--An Overview


In today's blog, Dr. Timothy Conkling discusses the influence of PRC religious policy on the church in China.

Religious policy developed after 1949 in the People's Republic of China (PRC) in a historical context of anti-foreign sentiment, concern for domestic stability, and an attempt by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to exercise control over all areas of society. Although the PRC Constitution grants PRC citizens (over age 18 and not CCP members) the freedom of religious belief (or the freedom not to believe), the freedom granted is merely that of personal inward belief. The Constitution does not grant to religious believers the right of assembly or autonomy in their expression of personal faith. Since Imperial times, China has always had an apparatus of state control over religious affairs. The PRC state, operating under the authority of the CCP, thereby exercises sovereign control over all spheres, including religion. It decides which religions are legal, institutes religious policy, defines orthodoxy, prosecutes heterodoxy (as in the case of the 1999 Legislative Resolution Banning Heretic Cults, and creates "patriotic" political administrative bureaucratic mechanisms and organizations to register, control, and channel religious conviction unto patriotic and political ends.

Thus, in the PRC, the realm of the political encroaches on the religious in such a way as to deify the state and its religious administrative apparatus and policies. This creates conscientious tension for many Christians, Protestant and Catholic, who, for reasons of faith convictions, refuse to accept the State as the highest authority in the propagation, regulation, or definition of religious affairs. In the PRC, as in the period of Imperial China, there is no distinct separation of Church and State into two separate spheres, each operating with a measure of sovereignty according to its realm. Religion in and under the sovereign Communist state becomes politicized and politics assumes a religious character and role. It is in this historical context of official Chinese state control over all matters, including religious affairs, stretching back through imperial dynasties, and evidenced in the modern-day political context of a Party-State which emerged as the People's Republic of China since 1949, that the development and growth of the Protestant Church in China, and particularly the emergence of the Protestant house-church movement, must be understood.

There are three specific state organizations that control and govern "Patriotic" Protestants in the PRC. The Religious Affairs Bureau (RAB) or State Association for Religious Affairs (SARA) as the name was changed to in 1998, defines and regulates the activities of all "normal" religious bodies in China.1 Under the SARA, the China Christian Council (CCC) functions as a regulatory organization over the Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), whereas the TSPM structures and regulates the belief and practice of China's official Protestant churches by channeling them unto a patriotic end. The "three-self," designation refers to a policy of churches being "self-propagating," "self-governing," and "self-supporting."

There are four important implications that flow from the policies and the administrative apparatus established in the PRC to govern church affairs.

  1. The policies have created a crisis of authority within the Protestant Church and the Catholic Church. Many Protestants who worship in house-churches do so because they believe that alliance with the TSPM and its restrictive policies is paramount to exchanging the lordship of Christ for obedience to the Communist State. In the Catholic Church, the issue is even more complicated. While disavowing the official state appointed bishops, underground Catholics struggle to know which bishops actually carry authority to administer church sacraments- those only ordained by Rome, or those who actually have risen through the ranks of the underground Catholic church. This crisis of authority in the Catholic Churches leads many believers to question their salvation.
  2. The policies have created a division between Christianity and between Christians in the PRC. In both branches of Christianity in China, believers who align themselves with the official church have turned in their "underground," or un-registered, brethren to the authorities. As a result, house-church Protestants and underground Catholics have at times, been arrested, detained, or incarcerated because of the patriotic loyalty of official believers who felt obligated or pressured into reporting the activities of un-registered groups. Although in many areas (typically urban rather than rural), Christian believers move freely between house-church or official churches, in many rural areas, specifically Henan and Anhui, there still exists a sharp division between house-church and TSPM Protestants.
  3. The policies have created an official justification for harsh punishment of house-church believers by re-labeling them as "evil cultists" according to the 1999 Legislative Resolution Banning Heretic Cults. Although this particular law was drafted with the problem of the Falun Gong in mind, it has been used repeatedly against house-church Christians because any group that rejects official registration with the TSPM can be labeled as an evil-cult. Once thusly designated, extreme measures and harsh tactics for apprehending and treating house-church believers have been used. Re-labeling sincere believers who refuse to compromise their religious convictions as "evil-cultists" or "criminals" leads the authorities to justify violence and even torture against house-church Christians.
  4. The policies have been used under the sovereign hand of God to strengthen and purify the faith of house-church believers through suffering with and for Christ under the shadow of His cross. While the suffering of house-church Christians has resulted from the restrictive policies put in place by the CCP, it has led multitudes of Christians to be willing to boldly evangelize and spread their faith, regardless of the consequences. This example of house-church believers has inspired those inside and outside of China to reflect on what it truly means to be committed to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

Image source: tam5 by drnan tu, via Flickr

1 Five religions are granted legal status; Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism. In the case of PRC Catholics, Catholic believers, priests, and clergy are able to claim loyalty to the Pope's "spiritual authority," although they are not permitted to accept the Vatican's authority over the organization and administration of the church. They must remain loyal to the Chinese Communist Party and submissive to the policies and dictates of the Catholic Patriotic Association. All other religions are not recognized, considered as heterodox, or branded as "evil cults," under the 1999 Legislative Resolution on Banning Heretic Cults.

Timothy Conkling

Timothy Conkling

Rev. Timothy Conkling, PhD, is a cross-cultural worker with China Ministries International. He has been a pastor and church-planter in Taiwan and a researcher of the church in China. His book, Mobilized Merchants-Patriotic Martyrs: China’s House Church Christians and the Politics of Cooperative Resistance, chronicles the development of the church... View Full Bio