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The Politics of Protestant Churches and the Party-State in China

A Book Review

The Politics of Protestant Churches and the Party-State in China: God above Party? by Carsten Vala. Oxon, UK and New York: Routledge, 2018.

I remember talking with a house church pastor in China years ago who said to me, “our church is illegal, but it’s free.” To someone accustomed to a western legal tradition, that statement doesn’t even make sense. In a society where religious life is tightly proscribed and managed (controlled) by the Party-State, how is it that so many independent (“illegal, but free”) churches have sprung up and not only survived, but thrived?

This is the question that Dr. Carsten Vala sets out to answer in his book, The Politics of Protestant Churches and the Party-State in China.

The answer can be found in the complexity of the religious landscape in China that goes beyond the popular and simplistic paradigm of “persecuted church against the state.” Drawing from research and extensive interviews with religious leaders and ordinary believers in China, Vala notes that there are, in fact, various modes of interaction between the Party-State and unregistered churches.

One mode is domination. This is most evident in the way in which the Party-State uses the official associations (CCC/TSPM) to supervise and control the registered churches.

A second mode is confrontation, which is employed when the Party-State feels threatened by the activities of a church, be it registered or unregistered.

The third mode is negotiation. This is used with both registered and unregistered churches. Registered churches negotiate with the Party-State on matters such as building projects and programs, while unregistered churches negotiate with the Party-State on matters of their very existence. Even though they are technically banned, they have learned that what is actually permitted is determined at the local level, and that building and maintaining relationships with local religious affairs and public security officials gives them space to operate.

Vala also gives a helpful explanation of the roles of the different Party-State agencies tasked with managing religious affairs. The United Front Work Department (UFWD) is a Party organ whose mandate is to ally non-Party groups and individuals with the Communist Party. Historically, it has played a backstage role, even though its ranking was actually higher than the State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA). SARA is responsible for daily administration and supervision of religious affairs as well as the implementation of the religious policies of the Party-State. The Public Security Bureau is responsible for suppressing illegal religious activities and monitoring foreign influence.

It should be noted that, following the National People’s Congress in March 2018, it was announced that SARA would be abolished and the UFWD would take direct control of managing religious affairs. The implications of this are still unfolding.

In the final two chapters of the book, Vala shows how all of this works by doing a comparative analysis of two different prominent house churches in China, Shouwang in Beijing and Wanbang in Shanghai. Each church ran into trouble with the Party-State around 2008, the outcomes of which were very different. I remember these incidents well, and his detailed descriptions of what was going on behind the scenes are fascinating.

The book is a textbook, and is, unfortunately priced as such. A Kindle version is, however, available for a lower price. For those wanting to understand the complexity of church-state relations in China, this book is worth the cost.

Consider it an investment.

Image credit: Joann Pittman, via Flickr.
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Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement 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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