Mention the church in China and the conversation invariably turns toward China's religious policy, the underlying assumption being that the Chinese government is bent on suppressing Christianity. In the most recent issue of ChinaSource Quarterly we take a closer look at this question. As with most things in China, both the stated policy and the observable reality belie a complexity that makes it extremely difficult to generalize about the relationship between church and state in China.
The policy itself has remained basically unchanged for the past 30 years. New regulations have sought to clarify or to underline certain points, but the official line on religion has seen no major revisions. Yet even a cursory comparison of Christian activity in China in the early 1980s vs. today suggests significant growth in its scope, visibility, and impact, and in the acceptance of these activities by the society, including government entities. While still technically illegal, activities that in past decades brought quick reprisals by Chinese officials are often today overlooked, and in many cases are tacitly encouraged.
If the policy has not changed, then what has?
As official priorities have shifted away from ideology correctness and toward pragmatic concerns, China's leaders have had little incentive or desire to meddle in the area of personal belief. So long as religious believers, including China's Christians, do not openly oppose the Party or otherwise cause problems in society, their activities are of little interest to Chinese officials, whose primary concern is social stability. Christians may not have the legal right to exercise their faith in all its aspects, but neither are their expressions of faith automatically subject to official censure.
Secondly, the church itself has undergone a significant transition, from a largely marginalized peasant movement, based primarily in the countryside, to an increasingly urban, mainstream, and socially recognized faith community. Both registered and unregistered Christian groups are increasingly seen as playing a meaningful role within the larger social structure, with the emphasis being more upon what they actually do than on their legal status.
The space between policy and practice continues to grow, and with it the space for many Christians in China to live out their faith. For a closer look at China's current religious policy and how it is carried out in practice, see "The Present Condition of Christianity and Religious Regulations in China" in the latest issue of ChinaSource Quarterly.
Image credit: by Marc Veraart, 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