China’s increasingly repressive political environment presents new challenges for Christians in China, many of whom came to faith during the past two decades and have, until now, enjoyed a period of relative openness and tolerance toward religious activity.
The demise of the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) and the consolidation of religious work directly under the Party’s United Front Department signals a new approach in dealing with religious believers. As the Party moves from simply managing to “actively guiding” religion, local Christian leaders may be forced to make difficult choices regarding their relationship to a government that has become increasingly controlling in all areas of social life.
Conflict will be inevitable as Chinese pastors respond in different ways, some choosing to espouse loyalty to the Party in order to continue their church ministry, and others taking a firm stand against working with the government. The resulting lack of unity could severely weaken the church, giving the Party leverage with which to turn believers against one another.
For the past two decades Christians have made progress in taking their faith beyond the bounds of the church and into the public square. In the publishing sphere, for example, commercial or academic presses had been willing to produce books with Christian content, provided funding was available.
Now the Chinese government is endeavoring to put religion “back in the box.” It has already gotten extremely difficult to publish Christian books legally outside of official church channels. Education officials have stepped up actions against church-sponsored activities, including campus Bible studies, Christmas parties, and children’s camps. While a dynamic Christian online community has blossomed in Chinese cyberspace over the past decade, the revised religion regulations that took effect in February of this year specifically mention religious activity on the Internet. This door of influence may begin closing at some point as well.
On the positive side, the current tightening under Xi Jinping has caused some local Christian leaders to rethink questions of church structure. Rather than continuing to pursue a mega church model—which may not be realistic should the government aggressively crack down on standalone unregistered congregations—many are making plans to divide up into small groups, potentially expanding the church’s presence into new geographic areas.
Officially sanctioned churches under the TSPM are being pushed, in the name of “religion serving socialism,” to do more in their communities. Meanwhile, the 2016 NGO law has encouraged the formation of local nonprofit organizations to address recognized social needs. While the law specifically restricts such organizations from engaging in religious activities, many Christians have nonetheless seized this opportunity to engage in serving their communities.
Finally, the church’s contemporary history indicates that persecution has consistently served to strengthen the faith of believers China. As China has urbanized and individual freedoms have increased over the past two decades, it has become much easier to be a Christian, or at least to be involved in Christian activities. Urban pastors complain of the “Sunday Christian” syndrome; believers seem eager to show up for worship, yet their lives during the week exhibit little evidence of a faith commitment. Should policies toward Christians continue to become more repressive, the church might well face another season of pruning, leading eventually to further growth.
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
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