In Mobilized Merchants - Patriotic Martyrs, Dr. Timothy Conkling sheds much-needed light on the relationship between China's unregistered church and the Chinese Party-State. The dissertation research that forms the basis for the book set out to answer the question of why Chinese Christians are persecuted and how they respond to this persecution.
In the process of answering these questions Conkling offers valuable insights into the growth of China's house church movement, the state of China's religious policy, and the role of international actors in supporting Christians in China who face persecution. His chapter on the South China Church and its leader Gong Shingling — who became for a time a "poster child" for the persecuted church in China — shows how an orthodox house church movement can become a cult, and offers a cautionary tale to those who might rush to take up the cause of Chinese believers who have run afoul of the law.
Eschewing a simplistic antagonistic paradigm, Conkling asserts that the real tension is not between church and state but rather between the church's dual responsibilities, both based in scripture, to obey the government and to preach the gospel. Drawing upon a range of sources, Conkling shows that, where these two conflict, the church's response is to affirm its loyalty to the government while at the same time exerting its rights — ostensibly guaranteed by the government — to carry out its religious activities. Contrary to many popular and even scholarly assessments of the church/state relationship, this "cooperative resistance" is not viewed by most Christians as a direct challenge to the government. Rather it is seen as an act of dual obedience to both the state and to Christ.
Giving the example of Christians in Wenzhou who work in official positions, Conkling insightfully introduces the "guanxi factor" as the intervening variable that makes possible behind-the-scenes negotiation with the government based on personal relationship, allowing both sides to save face while heading off direct confrontation. This mutual accommodation leads Conkling to conclude that China's Protestant house church movement "is not a movement that is motivated or specifically positioned to bring about revolutionary change in China's political system."
Conkling's treatment of the 2001 standoff between churches and the local government in Wenzhou, resulting in several churches being demolished, is particularly instructive in light of the crackdown now underway in the city. His now somewhat ominous statement that "there has not yet been a public and bloody suppression of the house church movement" raises questions about the future of "cooperative resistance" now that Wenzhou has in fact witnessed confrontations between believers and local officials that have been both bloody and public (although even in these recent confrontations the believers themselves continued to refrain from violence). As Conkling acknowledges in his conclusion, the cooperative resistance strategy could lead either to greater cooperation or to heightened conflict, depending on the future actions of government officials and of China's Christian
Image credit: And as the Fear Grows, by Shawn Clover, via Flickr
Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. 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 China Ministries International, and from 1985 to... View Full Bio