The Lantern

Examining China’s Religious Policy

One of the questions frequently asked about China concerns the degree to which Christians in China face persecution, the default assumption being that China has a specific policy of repressing Christianity.

To address this question we focused the most recent issue of the ChinaSource Quarterly on China's religious policy. Our contributors, from China, Hong Kong and North America, examined both legal developments and the actual implementation of policy as it affects Chinese believers.

As Joann Pittman, ChinaSource Senior Associate and guest editor of this issue of the Quarterly, points out, the notion of "China's" religious policy is itself problematic: "We mistakenly view 'the Chinese government' as a monolithic entity that not only has a single will but can (and does) impose that will with impunity." In reality a host of political actors are vying for power throughout the various spheres of society, including in the area of religion.

Looking at China's official religious bureaucracy, Carsten T. Vala finds a mix of leaders whose priority is looking out for the interests of religious believers and those who are there to exert the will of the state.

An example of the former is provided by a Three Self pastor who was interviewed for this issue and commented, "Even though there is supervision from government bodies, the church does not belong to the government; it belongs to Christ. We are not serving the government; we are serving Christ. Once we clearly understand this, then we can know how to have a relationship with the government and help them understand what the church is."

"In general," states Vala, "the higher one rises in the [official church] TSPM/CCC hierarchy, the more one has to prove loyalty to the CCP. Balancing this trend, however, is that these associations are only effective if lower level church leaders and lay Protestants believe them to be legitimate."

Another misconception is that current policy is solely a product of China's Communist system. Although the structures currently in place date back to the 1950s, the underlying mindset regarding the relationship between church and state has deep historical roots. In Pittman's words, "This view of the relationship between religion and the state was not a Communist invention. The Confucian tradition maintained an active role for the state in religious affairs, and the emperor had a semi divine status. The state always had the right to identify those religions it deemed correct or incorrect and limit or ban those that were in the latter category."

Although China's religious policy has not fundamentally changed in the past thirty years, treatment of Christians in China has changed dramatically. Even a cursory comparison of Christian activity in China in the early 1980s vs. today suggests significant growth in its scope, visibility, and impact, and in the acceptance of these activities by the society, including government entities. Sociologist Huang Jianbo says, "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."

A house church pastor interviewed for this issue said succinctly, "It's simple. We're illegal, but free!"

Such is the paradox of religious policy and its implementation in China today. For more, please see Religious Policies in China and their Influence on the Church.

The ChinaSource Team

For Prayer:

  1. Pray that scholars concerned with religious policies would have wisdom and discernment as they draft laws and work to bring them to the attention of the government. Currently, dealing with religious issues does not seem to be a priority for the Chinese government.
  2. Pray that pastors, Christian administrators and leaders will have wisdom, grace and discretion to know how to deal with the various government agencies that regulate religious activities.
  3. Pray that Christian churches will develop a more realistic view and understanding of the current social environment and religious policies, and that they will be able to adjust their judgments and responses accordingly.
  4. Pray for pastors and congregations as they determine whether or not their church should register with the government.
  5. Give thanks for the increased freedom for religious practice that has taken place over the last thirty years.

Remember Christians across China this season as they proclaim the true message of Christmas in church services, home gatherings, holiday parties, and public events.

Pray that God would raise up committed youth workers in Chinas churches to shepherd the 4/14 generation and equip them for their future roles as leaders in the church.

Pray that Chinas Next Generation would be used of God to spark new awareness, understanding, and prayer among believers worldwide who care about China.

Lift up ChinaSources year-end financial needs, and thank God for His provision throughout 2013.

Image credit: Lanterns in London, by Taro Taylor, via Flickr