ChinaSource Blog PostsChurch and State

Religion Returning to the Center


I recently ran across an e-journal titled Religions & Christianity in Today’s China, published by China Zentrum (China Center). China Zentrum is a Catholic organization based in Germany whose mission is to foster “encounters and exchange between cultures and religions in the West and in China.”

The September issue of the e-journal has a number of articles that are worthy of the attention of those seeking to understand the church in China.

The first article is a helpful round-up of religion-related news items in China from March to June of 2018. The explanations of the United Work Front Department’s being given responsibility for managing religious affairs is particularly helpful. This restructuring was announced in March.

In the course of the recent restructuring of party and state organs (see above), announced by the Central Committee of the Communist Party on March 21, 2018 and confirmed by the State Council on March 24, the SARA has been dissolved as an independent government agency and has now been placed directly under the Party’s UFWD, with all of its functions being taken over by the UFWD. The UFWD will continue to use the governmental “label,” i.e., the name of the SARA, in dealing with the outside. This means that specific religious affairs and organizations will in future be administered exclusively by the party and not by the state, even if, in addition to the name, personnel and structures of SARA might also be brought into the UFWD.

According to AsiaNews, some observers think that SARA will now become the executive arm of the UFWD. This seems feasible given that the “Plan to Deepen the Reform of Party and State Institutions” in listing the future tasks of the UFWD, lacks the previous concrete tasks of the old SARA, such as drafting legal norms or supervising religious organizations. It also remains to be seen what impact this restructuring of institutions will have on the local level.

Ian Johnson, author of the book Souls of China, contributed an article “Religion in China: Back to the Center of Politics and Society.”

All told, it is hardly an exaggeration to say China is undergoing a spiritual revival similar to the Great Awakening in the United States in the nineteenth century. Now, just like a century and a half ago, a country on the move is unsettled by great social and economic change. People have been thrust into new, alienating cities where they have no friends and no circle of support. Religion and faith offer ways of looking at age-old questions that all people, everywhere, struggle to answer: Why are we here? What really makes us happy? How do we achieve contentment as individuals, as a community, as a nation? What is our soul?

He argues that Chinese leader Xi Jinping is trying to construct a “new spiritual world,” and that Christianity and Islam are viewed as challenges to that vision because they are considered to be “foreign faiths.” Writing particularly about Christianity he notes,

Christianity is a deeper and arguably a more profound challenge to the government’s effort at constructing a new spiritual world. Islam is limited to ethnic minorities and has little appeal to the Han majority – conversions are almost nil – but Christianity appeals to China’s Han majority. Without stretching too much, one can say that Christianity is the first major religion to find a permanent foothold among the Han majority since Buddhism arrived two millennia ago.

His conclusion helps us understand the context of recent reports of suppression and harassment of Christianity in China:

If we take all this together, the most important conclusion is that religion, far from being an issue of fringe or esoteric interest, is back in the center of Chinese politics. This is the result of hundreds of millions of worshippers pushing for a place in society. And now, because they have not died out but instead proven to be an irreplaceable part of modern-day, the Communist Party has decided to try to coopt some of this new social force, creating opportunities but also growing tensions.

For millennia, religion was the ballast that kept the Chinese state stable. For over a century, the state cast it overboard and Chinese society heaved to and fro, swinging from dictator-worship to unbridled capitalism. Now, religion is back but the question is if it will be a stabilizing force in society, or unmoored by counterproductive government policies, a loose cannon that crashes through the decks.

Fredrik Fällman, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden provides a fascinating look at the role of women in the Chinese church in his article “’Two Small Coins’ and Much More. Chinese Protestant Women and Their Contributions to the Church–Cases from Past and Present.”

Observations of Christian congregations around the world, including China, will show that women make up the majority in most given settings. One could say that women have been, and are, the backbone of the Church, from the women around Jesus to the studies today that show how women make up the majority of active church members, in China as much as elsewhere. The comparative lack of male churchgoers has been discussed at length in many Churches and denominations in the West, and there have also been a number of surveys and studies trying to document and analyse this situation. Recent studies also indicate that women are more religious than men in general, especially among Christians.1

For a deeper understanding of some of the issues facing the church in China today, I wholeheartedly recommend this e-journal.

Image credit: Catholic Church, by Francisco Anzola, via Flickr.
Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

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


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