Has the government really launched a nationwide crackdown on Christianity or is it just in Zhejiang? Is it all just a problem of "illegal structures, or is "belief" the problem?
In a very helpful article titled "China's Churches: Growing Influence and Wariness Present Twin Challenges" posted to the Lausanne Congress site last week, three writers teamed up to provide an overview and assessment of the current climate for the church in China.
This section gets to the heart of understanding what is going on:
Certainly, the growing size and social stature of Christianity discomfits some high officials. Grand complexes are significant culturally and politically in China. Gleaming sanctuaries project the growing social and political power of Christians and churches in society. This explains the uneasy and uneven responses of government officials to these churches in urban centers:
For some, the churches and their members represent key constituents who can contribute to wider society.
For others, they represent a powerful ideological challenge in a nation that is officially atheist and Marxist.
Thus, the building of these churches is fraught with disagreements between contending officials at the local, provincial, and national levels.
Accordingly, the demolition of Sanjiang Church and the arrest of Shouwang Church members are far more complex than a mere Marxist reflex against Christianity. Given the mixed and muddled responses coming from different layers of government officials, it would appear that there is some disagreement as to how the CCP should respond to the changing situation.
Some argue that these incidents are the beginning of a national campaign to stymie the growth of Christianity in China and to test its popular strength. A recent New York Times article examines an internal government document that "makes it clear the demolitions are part of a strategy to reduce Christianity's public profile." On the other hand, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs official, in response to the wave of church demolitions, has openly rejected accusations of a renewed campaign against Christianity as a "misunderstanding."
This uncertainty would explain the fact that, in spite of the recent crackdown in Wenzhou and Beijing, churches across China continue their regular activities without interference.
Nonetheless, it does appear that the tearing down of church buildings and crosses comes with the sanction of the central government. As such, they reflect a growing wariness of Christianity by government leaders, although not so far the nationwide crackdown that some have predicted.
In other words, despite the dramatic headlines and images, this crackdown has remained localized. So far.
As for a proper response on the part of Christians in China, the authors write:
One would hope that there would be some self-reflection and even self-criticism by Chinese church leaders, given these setbacks. Triumphalism that seeks to proffer Christianity through appeals to grand buildings and accumulation of power, wealth, and influence rather than humility and the cross will ultimately fail.
And that is a good reminder to Christians everywhere, no matter the political or social system we find ourselves in.
Image credit: Joann Pittman, via Flickr
Joann Pittman is senior vice president of ChinaSource and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University... View Full Bio