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Protestantism and the Future of 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.


The article translated below is from a Chinese website called Urban Mission (jidutu123.com). In it the author ponders what role Protestantism can play in the future development of China. He begins by talking about the transitional nature of Chinas current social and political systems and where Chinas current reforms may or may not be headed. He then draws on the writings of German sociologist Max Weber to understand the current situation in China today, to the point of comparing contemporary Chinese society with the German Weimar Republic. Finally, he argues that the main contribution Protestantism can make to the development of China is constitutional government.

It's important to note that many Christians writing about Christianity in China these days do so from an academic social science perspective. While its a perspective that many in the west are unfamiliar (and perhaps uncomfortable) with, its still important for us to listen in on this particular conversation.

Protestantism and the Future of China

Tremendous political and social reforms are taking place in China. The current round of reforms is sometimes believed to be the continuation of Deng Xiaoping's reforms. In fact, according to the view of economist Zhang Jun of Fudan University, reform of the economic system had already been finalized after Deng Xiaopings inspection tour of the south in 1992. However, because of Dengs "do not argue" stance, political reform was temporarily shelved.

The result is a transitional political system: one that is not yet a modernized system of government, and no longer a Soviet system or the system in place during the Cultural Revolution.

According to popular perception, this type of system is designed to benefit influential officials, or those in control (权贵体系). In other words, a small number of people rely on their power to obtain resources; they exploit the market to get rich. This highlights the incomplete nature of the Deng-era reforms. The current reforms of Zeng Qinghong (曾庆红) and Xi Jinping (习近平) are to a large extent a new set of reforms, as opposed to a continuation of Dengs reforms.

The starting point for Deng's reforms was the system in place during the Cultural Revolution. While it is true that there are still voices that harken back to the pre-Cultural Revolution era, they are few and lack influence. What is true is that those governing society, that is, those with vested interests, certainly do not want a return to the old system of central planning. That system benefits no one.

The power to block political reform lies in the hands of those people who benefit the most within the incomplete system of Deng's political reforms. Zeng and Xi's new overhauling reforms are presently being carried out with uncommon authority and political wisdom. Even though in the public domain it is very difficult to see these "being carried out," however, to those in an academic or political "vocation," the speed at which these are "being carried out" is not at all slow.

Furthermore, during this period of political modernization, the Chinese society and economy are rapidly integrating with the international systems. This should also facilitate modernization. The national slogan of the previous decade was "harmonious society and new countryside." In this decade, the national slogan has been replaced with "the Chinese Dream and new urbanization." The former, due to its having specific, practical indicators that could be manipulated, turned into a poisoned institution of bloated and embarrassing social burdens. Looking at the current Chinese Dream slogan, it can hopefully detoxify those specific indicators of social stability. In addition, this corresponds to market economics and the global trend of urbanization, echoing America's second industrialization strategy, and is a tremendous action to pull Chinese society into the global system.

Furthermore, there is another matter related to the founding of the "Contemporary Weber Institute." That is, the growth in the number of Chinese Christians is predicted to reach 150 million by 2020 and by 2030 will have grown to over 249 million people. And if the Communist Party were to abandon its official "atheist" position, the growth in the number of Christians as well as other religions could increase. Although currently maturing, Christianity in China is still not prepared to greet a fresh, new China; at the same time, society as a whole also has not formulated a necessary response to the rise of Christianity.

But there are problems. The first that we need to be aware of is that many are not yet prepared to understand the fundamental distinctive features of modern society or modern Chinese-speaking societies. In Weber's Germany, people were faced with the rise of a post-war Weimar government and in the eyes of most Germans the Weimar government became known as a symbol of "defeat and humiliation." In other words, a standard constitutional and independent political entity turned into a symbol of humiliation. Part of this lies in the fact that after the 1848 revolutions in Europe, when the Holy Roman Empire dissolved, German society experienced big changes that would surpass even the changes in China today. These transformations forced German society to give up its rosy ideals of "ancient society" and embrace modernity. Unfortunately, the German people were not able to adapt. This was embodied in their inability to "play" politics, their inability to concretely implement political life in the public sphere. Parliament's endless debates stopped short of actually addressing the bitter lives of the nation's people, causing Weber to start thinking deeply about German society's "separation of ancient and modern." He suggested that there needed to be reflection on what modern society should look like. In addition, there needed to be an examination of bureaucratic patterns of modern society. Since this new system was untested, implementation would need to be done incrementally, so as to ensure success.

Chinese society is very likely to follow in the footsteps of the Weimar government. One reason is that there are already large numbers of "political romantics" gathering on the edges of power, waiting to once again contend following a political vacuum. This time, however, they are depending on the tools of "natural rights" and "democracy." When the power of society needs to be mobilized, natural rights is always a good call to arms. Yet, the current standards in Chinese-speaking society are most likely to suffer harm there. Weber naturally regarded "modern society" of his time in this way. He did not pass judgment on ancient and modern, rather in a pertinent and practical way he spoke out on the modes and rules of behavior operating in society. Adopting these modes and rules would prevent people from being used by the "scum of society" (troublemakers). The majority of Weber's social analysis has applicable lessons to draw on for today. Because of its analysis of the advancement of "history" in Chinese society, it helps us to accurately find our individual place among various means of political mobilization from a rational standpoint.

The second problem we must be aware of is that we need to build the structures of a modern rational society, particularly civil society organizations such as the church. At present, Chinese-speaking Christians do not possess a notion of "modernized governance" because, according to Weber's definition, Chinese-speaking Christians at best are believers ruled by charismatic leaders rather than looking towards God; in the absence of a bureaucratic polity, there is rule by charisma. Therefore it can be asserted that Chinese-speaking Christianity is situated within an organizational pattern similar to that of pre-16th century Europe. Such an assertion is not an exaggeration, because a rational and predictable Christian organization that runs in accordance with certain rules can become a tremendous force for social stability. If not, it will be "separated from heaven" and taken advantage of beforehand by people. However, rational organizations are not a panacea. How does one know the secrets of success to an "administrative organization?" This is what Chinese society needs to learn.

With this awareness of the problem, the study of Weber and Chinese society will carry real meaning. A number of years ago, people widely believed the growth of Christianity to be God's "eclectic talent," a "blessing" for the growth of Chinese civilian society. The expansion of civil society and the middle class is the real pillar needed to transform a great power. Yet, as Xi and Li launch their new policies, the strength of Christianity is far from being evident. Instead of promoting political reform, it has created conflicts, such as the PX event,* which allowed for the denunciation of intellectuals. This confrontation between two parties (the urban middle class and the state) within a one-party system was a pivotal moment sociologically and politically.

Weber's importance for post-transformational Germany is just as important as the study of Christianity and society for China today. The goal of China's modernization is to thrust China into the modern world. Under this reasoning, various "isms" have taken hold in civil society. However, civil society remains just a politically created double-edged tool. The power of the tool may still be weak, but it cannot be ignored. Chinese-speaking societies have long enjoyed making political proposals for future social development. What Christianity can deliver at the present time is a covenant constitutional government. These "-isms" are already granted around the world, but in today's Chinese-speaking society they repeatedly suffer at the hands of people using them as "tools," which is just like post-war Germany. With such a challenging problem as this, Weber helps us view it all. However, If we really understand Weber we would have expected to see Weber teach us to first understand this society, including the true internal nature of politics. In this way, aside from "teaching people to be bad ()," people could experience the study of and teachability of virtues.

Original article:  新教与中国的未来(translated and posted with permission)

*This refers to a protest against the relocation of a chemical plant in Dalian, China, an event which was significant because the protesters were urban middle class residents.

ChinaSource Team

Written by members of the ChinaSource staff.  View Full Bio


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