In June, I reviewed Loyola Professor Dr. Carsten Vala’s book The Politics of Protestant Churches and the Party-State in China. Dr. Vala recently returned from a trip to China, and kindly agreed to share his thoughts and observations on the current situation.
1. In your book you write about the “public transcripts” that churches are required to produce. What is that public transcript coming out of the official church in China today?
As I discussed in the book, the public transcripts are the visible interactions and discourse produced by church actors, often in the presence of state agents. That performance exemplifies the kind of compliance that the Party demands: at least on a surface level, you must publicly submit to the limits and demands that are placed on you. Away from my presence may be a different matter.
I think today the public transcript is shifting. Established expectations connected with the old public transcript demanded routinized expressions of support at key events—CCP anniversaries, May 1, the anniversary of the founding of the TSPM, even seminary graduations—but reports from China seem to indicate that pastors are being required to somehow embrace "core socialist values" and perhaps even more. Whether this is happening only in Henan or more broadly, and whether it is required during church services or only in meetings with officials, is unclear. What is clear is that Christians have not escaped the wider clampdown on civil society, human rights activists, feminists, lawyers, and other groups seeking justice.
2. Based on your recent visit to China, how do you see the house churches reacting and/or adapting to the “new normal” of tighter regulations and stricter enforcements?
"House churches are under great pressure these days." The previous sentence has been so over-used in reporting on China by our national news media and by Christian advocacy organizations that it may be hard to rouse attention when in fact there is a substantially higher level of pressure. I saw discussions among Christians about how to respond to government shutdown of their meeting places: should house churches pay fines or refuse to do so? In these discussions, the questions hinged on the ethics of paying what amounted to a ransom that guaranteed no further legal protection and would even set a terrible precedent as other congregations would be expected to pay similar fines when they too faced pressure.
Some house churches, such as Beijing Zion church before the crackdown in mid-September, undoubtedly would like to return to small group gatherings instead of a single united worship service, but even those smaller groups may not be safe from state pressure. Looking back, it's clear that the years from late 2000s to early 2010s were somewhat of an easier period, generally speaking. There were certainly congregations that were under severe pressure (such as Shouwang in Beijing) and shut down, but there was no general campaign to shut down congregations. Today, if the house churches have not already prepared their congregants theologically for why they do not join the Three Self, and strategically with alternatives when the pressure ramps up, they will find a difficult road ahead.
It is a truism to say that Christianity survives under repression. That is surely true, and such pressure often "separates wheat from chaff," as believers examine their faith to plumb the depths of their commitment and willingness to risk punishment for their faith. But it is also true that congregations are composed of humans, who can be better or worse prepared, depending on whether their theology, congregational leadership, and recent experience with authorities prepares them for enduring such repression. The chapters in the book comparing Beijing Shouwang's endurance with Shanghai Wanbang's disbandment make that point.
3. In March the government announced that the State Administration of Religious Affairs would be abolished at the end of the year and management of religious affairs would be put directly under the Party’s United Front Work Department. In your view what are the implications for this move, both for the registered churches and unregistered churches?
In the short term, there is likely to be little change, as officials from SARA (at national level it was SARA, at lower levels it was RAB) are shifted into the United Front and continue to do the work they had previously done. For example, Wang Zuo'an, formerly the head of SARA is now second in charge in the UFWD. It will also take time for this bureaucratic change to be implemented across the multiple levels of state and Party jurisdiction. In the longer term, I expect that this will lead to a hardening of attitudes and treatment of both types of churches. Before the change, the UFWD had been more influential than SARA (for example in determining pastoral candidates for ordination) but it had also been less involved in daily supervision and management than SARA/RAB had.
Because the RAB was a state office, it was possible for non-CCP members to work there and thus for Party influence to be somewhat diminished; that is no longer the case now. This mirrors the apparent long-term plan of Xi Jinping to make all entities in China—media, social organizations, and religious groups—come under direct CCP management.
At the same time, the danger for the CCP is that the impact and influence of Christians will grow inside the Party, as an intermediary buffer is removed. Already, in my research, I found that spouses of RAB officials at lower levels in several areas had reportedly become Christians (and that they preferred to worship in house churches to avoid giving their husbands any political trouble). As CCP officials come into direct contact with Christians, and if those Christians express concern, attempt evangelism, and even pray for the Party authorities tasked with monitoring them, it may well be that the Party authorities become even less committed to tight enforcement and more sympathetic to the plight—perhaps even won over!—of the patriotic believers they now have to police regularly.
For registered churches, ironically it could prove to be a boon, if the people in the UFWD positions serve for a longer term than people who had occupied RAB posts did (which have been described as being low-prestige and low-morale positions in the bureaucratic hierarchy). The benefit would be that registered church leaders would be able to develop longer-term relations of trust with the UFWD cadres, similarly winning them over to understanding the plight of Christians in registered churches. In fact, even Party manuals direct cadres to "make friends with" religious leaders as the CCP views this as the best way to influence them. But that influence may go the other direction, especially if low level officials consider the charges laid on them by superiors to be onerous, thankless, and ultimately counterproductive to reining in Christians.
Dr. Vala’s book, The Politics of Protestant Churches and the Party-State in China is available here.
Image credit: by 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 of Northwestern-St. Paul …View Full Bio
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