Reports of Christians being detained, harassed, fined or otherwise hindered from living out their faith have led many to conclude that persecution is the norm in China. Yet while such incidences do occur, a much larger number of Christians engages seemingly unhindered in a wide variety of activities on a daily basis.
Where, then, is the tipping point? Why are some (in reality, most) activities ignored, while others are attacked with a vengeance? A review of numerous cases through the years suggests the following "triggers," which are likely to prompt official action directed 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. Christian groups can run afoul of the government by receiving foreign funding, allowing foreigners to preach or teach, or utilizing overseas entities as a mouthpiece when they face government pressure.
Related to this first trigger would be whether the Chinese Christians are perceived as having political motives. 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. Leaders even in the official church, although enjoying a somewhat protected status, risk quick censure and loss of position should they become involved in any unsanctioned political activities.
The size and scope of unofficial Christian groups is also a factor. It is generally considered safe to have unofficial "house" meetings of 30-40 people. 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.
Criminal activity on the part of Christians is obviously grounds for prosecution (although it can be missed or conveniently overlooked by outside observers eager to identify cases of "Christian persecution").
Finally, the degree of corruption and greed among local officials will have considerable bearing on how Christians are treated. If Christians are seen as an easy mark for finesparticularly when it is known that the believers in question can attract funds from overseasthen local officials may prey upon them for personal gain. Anti-crime campaigns with quotas for a certain number of arrests can also prompt local officials to crack down on Christian activities that had previously gone on unhindered. On the other hand, in areas where Christians enjoy good relations with officials (some of whom may be believers themselves), church activities are less likely to encounter interference by local authorities, unless or until a directive comes down from higher in the system requiring official action.
President of ChinaSource. Follow Brent on Twitter - @BrentSFulton.
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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