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The Chinese Church’s Context May Be More Complex than You Thought


In a blog published a couple of months ago I argued that the church in China may be more complex than you thought. In fact, I believe our tendency to ignore the complexity of the church in China has to do with our failure to take the complexity of the Chinese church’s context, namely their country, seriously enough. Without grappling with the complex social and political context of the Chinese church, we are not able to fully understand why the church itself is so complex or how to develop a proper relationship with the church in China.

China’s Public Image in America

It is fair to say that the public image of China in America in particular, and the West in general, is greatly shaped by the mainstream media. For quite some time, the mainstream, popular media’s reading and coverage of China tends to reflect a kind of ideological and political dualism. In other words, the story of China is often told and interpreted predominantly or even solely through the lenses of good vs evil, democracy vs dictatorship, and freedom vs authoritarianism. Even after more than four decades of economic, social, and cultural transformation in the wake of the Great Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), China is still often portrayed as a “communist” country with a power hungry Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its leadership oppressing the majority of the country’s population. The image is very much reminiscent of the so-called “Red China” of the 1950s. It is no wonder that the news media in the West are obsessed with religious persecution when reporting on the church in China.

We must acknowledge there is some truth in this perception of China. But it is also evident that China today is not the same as the Soviet-type communist state of the Cold War era; in fact, China has been changing rapidly in the past forty years or so. In comparison, the picture the media often presents in America, and the West generally, tends to be static and one dimensional. Consequently, the gaps and contrasts between the American perception of China and the reality in China are mind-boggling.

Contrasts and Ironies about Reality in China that Defy Western Stereotypes

Let me name a few of these contrasts or ironies.

In America, Mao Zedong is considered one of the top modern tyrants on a par with Hitler and Stalin. However, in China, after Mao’s reputation dipped considerably in last few decades of the 20th century, it has bounced back quite amazingly. Nowadays there are many Chinese people who revere Mao as a national hero who successfully completed China’s quest for full national independence, had the courage to stand up against the super powers for China’s sovereignty and dignity, and who championed the interests of little guys and the voiceless in society. Mao’s huge popularity among the people has drawn occasional attention in the media in the West. 1

In my opinion, this seemingly impossible turn-around of Mao’s reputation is just one indicator of profound change in the public mood and social dynamics in China. From around the 1980s to the dawn of the 21st century the consensus across the country was that China badly lagged behind the West in economic and social developments and they needed to learn much from the West. That open-mindedness marked the majority of the Chinese population’s attitude toward the world.

As China rose quickly in economic and geo-political might and gained international prestige and influence in the early decades of the 21st century, the national self-confidence, pride, and patriotism have been steadily on the rise. Having achieved remarkable economic and social transformations without copying everything from the Western model of modernization, the Chinese nation found less to learn from the West. It is an overstatement to say that China has closed its mind to the world, but in general the public mood of the country today is vastly different than in the 1980s. Most Chinese people feel good about their country’s standing and where it’s going; and they are increasingly critical of the West. There is significant evidence for strong public support of the CCP’s leadership. Given China’s deep integration in globalization, this trend cannot be simply explained away by the CCP’s censorship and propaganda.

At least in modern history, contemporary China is arguably a unique phenomenon that combines political authoritarianism with economic capitalism rather successfully. In many ways, China is a country full of paradoxes, where horrifying human rights violations co-exist with unprecedented government poverty alleviation campaigns. This paradox has not been captured by careful and thoughtful China observers. The CCP and the state machine’s Confucianism-rooted pragmatism, sophistication, and creativity in governing have gained growing attention and recognition from the academia around the world.2

In any case, I have no intent to give a wholesale endorsement of the political establishment in Beijing and each of its policies. All I am trying to highlight is the complexity of China and its society. A black-or-white mentality and stereotyping are not going to help us gain a deeper and genuine understanding of reality in the country.

What Does This Mean to Those of Us Who Care about the Church in China?

Interestingly, even with our skepticism of mainstream news media coverage of domestic issues nowadays, many Christians in this country seem to accept unconditionally and uncritically whatever the news media say about China.

I am not interested in mainstream media bashing, but to me, most popular news coverage of Christianity in China is too simplistic. If for no other reason than our biblically grounded approach toward human society and culture, I believe we Christians can do better in understanding the church in China and its context than secular news media. When we come to news media’s coverage of China and its Christian community, a healthy skepticism is highly desirable—even necessary.

Let us take seriously the complexity of China—the context of the Chinese church today. If we do, we might ask these questions:

  • Is it right to blame the ongoing crack-down on Christianity solely on the CCP’s top leader, without considering the larger social trends and changing public mood in the country?
  • As the Chinese context changes, should ways of doing ministry in China change accordingly?
  • Is it acceptable for Chinese Christians to support certain governmental policies, and thus be patriotic?
  • Should we try to understand why the registered church under the Three-Self Patriotic Movement takes certain social stances?

When we begin to ask these kinds of questions, we may discover the genuine dynamics and real opportunities and challenges that Chinese Christians face in their social, political, and cultural context, and be better equipped to explore constructively the future of the church in the country.

After all, we as American Christians share the same gospel as our Chinese brothers and sisters. What the Bible teaches about facing the principalities of this world in America is the same as in China. If we intentionally, or unintentionally, see the Chinese church and their context primarily through the lens of politics and ideology, we risk forgetting our top priority: the kingdom of God, which unites us from different contexts together.

Endnotes

  1. See a 2016 Financial Times’ story entitled “The Return of Mao: A New Threat to China’s Politics.”
  2. For example, see the following recent publications: Sebastian Heilmann, Red Swan, How Orthodox Policy Making Facilitated China’s Rise, Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2018; Daniel A. Bell and Wang Pei, Just Hierarchy, Why Social Hierarchies Matter in China and the Rest of the World, Princeton University Press, 2020.

CHEN Jing

CHEN Jing (pseudonym) is a theological educator teaching in North America and extensively involved in theological education for the church in China since the beginning of the 21st century.View Full Bio


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