According to China Aid Association's 2013 Persecution Report, a total of 7,424 Christians were persecuted in China last year. This is not an insignificant number; 7,424 believers facing persecution is 7,424 too many. However, it is worth looking at this number a bit closer in order to put it into perspective.
Assuming there are roughly 70 million Christians in China, 7,424 would amount to about 0.01 percent of China's Christian population. Clearly persecution of Christians is not the norm in China today. The question then emerges: why were these believers apparently singled out for persecution?
Analysis of the China Aid data as well as other documented cases over the years suggests there are several triggers that prompt government officials to take action against Christians:
Foreign involvement (real or perceived) will greatly increase the chance of activities being restricted. The presence of foreign personnel or funds suggests to Chinese officials that these activities are being engineered or at least supported from abroad, perhaps for political ends.
Political agenda. Related to the first trigger would be whether the Chinese Christians are perceived as having a political agenda. Criticizing the government, taking an activist stance on sensitive issues such as urban migrant or ethnic minority rights or AIDS, or supporting those who do would likely provoke a negative response; hence the recurring crackdowns on Christian human rights lawyers who take up such cases. Openly challenging the government on issues of religious policy, which may be justified, is nonetheless also deemed a political act and, predictably, results in official reprisals.
The size and scope of unofficial Christian groups is also a factor, and explains why some large urban "house churches" are singled out for pressure while scores of smaller gatherings nearby continue unhindered. A group that is part of a larger network, particularly if the network spans several provinces, is more likely than an isolated entity to draw official attention.
Complicating the effects of these factors are the political winds that blow frequently across China, sparked by the efforts of top leadership to address some pressing issue or crisis. While generally not directly related to Christian activity, these political winds can nonetheless create great difficulties for believers.
Corruption and greed among local officials has become an acute factor affecting both registered and unregistered churches, as local officials in collusion with developers engage in land grabs in order to top off the government coffers (and, more often than not, to line their own pockets as well). Often what appears on its face to be a case of persecution for reasons of faith is in actuality a land dispute.
Finally, there are incidences of Christians breaking the law, a recent example being the well-publicized Sanjiang Church case in Wenzhou. Having received permission to build a 2,000 square meter sanctuary, leaders of this registered church took the liberty of building facilitates totaling 12,000 square meters. The standoff that resulted between church members and local officials was resolved after these leaders admitted their own wrongdoing and subsequently negotiated a settlement with the officials.
I explore these triggers further within the context of China's growing church in the new publication, China's Next Generation: New China, New Church, New World, available for free PDF download or in Kindle version at Amazon.
Image by Matthew Stinson, via 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