Chinese Church VoicesChurch and State

Christianity and Regulation in China

Chinese Church Voices is a weekly column of the ChinaSource Blog providing translations of original writing by Christians in China. The views represented are entirely those of the original author; inclusion in Chinese Church Voices does not imply or equal an endorsement by ChinaSource.


In China today there are scholars and researchers who are doing serious analysis of the situation for Christianity in China, and are openly calling for the government to make changes to the ways in which religious affairs are regulated.

A think-tank that compiles much of this research is the Pacific Institute for Social Sciences, which has recently begun to translate some of these papers and policy proposals into English.

On their website, they recently posted a paper titled The Present Condition of Christianity and Religious Regulation in China. In the introduction, the author gives an overview of Christianity in China:

The development of Christianity in China over the past thirty years has been extraordinary, both in terms of the number of followers and influence. The official figure for the number of Christians in China is 18 million; however many scholars believe that this figure is under-estimated. Outside of China, the estimated figure for the number of Christians is even higher, with some researchers suggesting 100 million. In the past few years, the study of Christianity in China has become more rigorous, with the result being greater understanding of Christianity in China, both in China and abroad.Scholars generally agree that the 100 million figure is an over-estimate, and therefore cannot be considered to be reliable data. Instead, they tend to accept a range of 30 million to 60 million Christians in China. According to a survey done by the Lingdian Survey Company, Christians are still in the minority in China, accounting for less than 3% of the national population. [1] But in terms of absolute numbers, this already represents the highest number in the history of Christianity in China. Now it is impossible for Christians to go unnoticed in society. Although Christians are not typically thought of in the same way other communities or ethnic groups are, they in fact form a unique community within Chinese society.

In part I of the paper, the author briefly evaluates the current religious policies and their effects:

From a sociological perspective, the rapid growth of Christianity and the revival of other religions such as Buddhism have taken place within the context of rapid social change. This phenomenon is not the result of ineffective religious policies, but rather is typical in societies undergoing transition. Recent religious-sociological research has shown that the demand for religious belief among human beings is constant and exists even where there are attempts to minimize or even destroy it. When restrictive policies lose their ability to achieve total control, religion revives. It can be said then that religious belief is a human necessity, and therefore can never fully be extinguished. One way or another, it will always exist.We can also see that Christianity has grown rapidly even with policies that restrict religious practices, especially of religions with foreign roots. In other words, our religious policies have not achieved their intended results. In fact, they occasionally even backfire, as the policies facilitate faster growth among some religions as opposed to others. For example, under the current certification system, the Religious Affairs Bureau has, in effect, regulatory supervision and guidance over only five major religions. This means that a great many religious groups are outside of their control and are, in fact probably the fastest growing religious groups in China. In other words there are more religious groups and followers outside of the control of the Religious Affairs Bureau, since their jurisdiction is only over the five major religions. Furthermore, these outside groups tend to be the fastest growing religious groups. As a result, some religious groups do not have the legitimacy that they should have.

He then goes on to explain how these policies have been ineffective and suggests a re-evaluation of the governments attitude towards religious policies:

Religious believers are citizens and religious groups should be regarded as civil organizations. Like other civil groups they have a distinctive focus and agenda. Environmental organizations focus on environmental protection, childrens groups focus on the rights of children, and poverty relief organizations pay attention to poverty. In the same way religious groups are concerned with developing more followers (group members) and taking care of their members. This is not only natural, it is essential for their existence and development. To disregard or prohibit these essential functions only leads to unnecessary resistance and deepening mistrust between religious groups and the state. To take another example, a person needs food and sleep. If we forbid him to eat and sleep he will become suspicious and take other measures to meet his basic needs. When he does this, then we become suspicious of him and fear that we will lose control over him. A final analogy can be found in the manner that Emperor Yu controlled the flood. He didnt block the water; he guided it.

In Part II, he lays out some specific recommendations for changing the way in which religious affairs are regulated in China. They include the following:

  1. Treating all religions equally
  2. Treating different sects within religious groups equally
  3. Reclassifying religious groups as civil associations, and abolishing the dual registration system for religious groups

Finally, he addresses the increasingly visible role that churches have in Chinese society:

For their part, Christian churches should have a more realistic view and understanding of the current social environment and religious policies and should adjust their judgments and responses accordingly. One basic thing they need to understand is that, within the whole scheme of the political and regulatory system, the freedom of (Christian) religion is not merely a religious issue. Rather it is part of the broader issue of religious freedom (for all religions) and freedom of assembly, and that both of these issues are tied to the fundamental issue of political reform. As a result, they have not yet been dealt with by the government. In other words, Christians and others who advocate religious freedom shouldnt dream that religious freedom (especially American style religious freedom) can be realized in China without the fundamental change of the entire political system. [7]However, it is not the case that there is no chance for the improvement of Chinese religious policies. In fact, religious policies in China have improved greatly over the past thirty years. For example, it is often mentioned that the pragmatic approach has replaced the ideological approach. In at least some fields and in some regions, there is more space for the existence and development of religion (Christianity). To be sure, in some regions active and influential religious leaders still face pressure and even the threat of imprisonment; however in society at large the space for ordinary religious believers is unprecedented and would have been unimaginable ten years ago. This improvement is largely due to government reform and the rapid development of social and civil forces. Civil society, which had been completely destroyed, has recovered and a normal relationship between the state and individuals has been rebuilt. Religious groups such as Christian churches are increasingly accepted by society as legitimate social associations. Although their development is still slow and limited, they are playing a significant role in community service, charity, poverty, and disaster relief.Christian churches now need to think about how to build churches that can be rooted in belief and at the same time participate in social development within the context of Chinese culture. On the one hand, Christianity in China should identify with the suffering and struggle of the nation, and not be a passive observer. On the other hand, it should offer good advice regarding the improvement of Chinese society and should provide practical service. However, it should not advocate a social gospel that has no basis in sound religious doctrine. A healthy solid church is a foundation for reaching out into the community.

Image credit: Joann Pittman

ChinaSource Team

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