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China's Best Bet

Christianity: China's Best Bet

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15 July 2011

Christianity in China

As more Chinese turn to Christianity, the state is torn between embracing its benefits and the desire to assert control.


Donata Hardenberg     July 1, 2011

Every night, when Yang prays with her seven-year-old daughter, she knows that she is doing something illegal. Like millions of other Chinese Christians, Yang refuses to be a member of one of the official state-sanctioned churches. Instead, she gathers twice a week with two dozen other Protestants in a private living room to pray and sing - far away from the gaze of the Communist Party.

She says she is not opposed to the Chinese government at all, but just wants the freedom of religion that is guaranteed in the Chinese constitution. And she wants her daughter to grow up as a Christian. In China's state-sanctioned churches it is prohibited to share faith with anyone younger than 18.

"Our life has become so hectic, there is so much pressure. When my husband left me, I was devastated. But one of my friends took me to one of their gatherings and I realised that someone loves me. I want my daughter to grow up knowing that there is more in life than just money. I want her to care more about other people," Yang says.

Officially atheist, Communist China is witnessing a massive rise in religiosity. Recent surveys have found that one in every three Chinese consider themselves to be religious.

"All Chinese religions have been growing, especially popular or 'folk religion'," explains Daniel Bays, a professor of history and the director of the Asian Studies programme at Calvin College in Michigan.

"Protestant Christianity seems to be growing fastest, because it is congregational, providing a social-belonging aspect, leaders can be self-proclaimed, not needing formal credentials."

Historically, China's policies on religion have veered between approval, bloody repression and grudging tolerance.

After the establishment of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, the new regime was largely tolerant of religion, believing it to be a backward vestige of the country's imperial past and thus doomed to extinction. But, like other religions, Christianity suffered during the mass nationalism and atheism of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Under the leadership of Mao Zedong, it was viewed as a foreign doctrine that served the interests of capitalist imperialism - an ideology that led to decades of bloody persecution.

A 'thirst for spirituality'

But economic reforms, changing attitudes towards Communism and the liberalisation of religious policies during the 1980s have led to a dramatic growth in Christianity.

According to China Aid, a US-based human rights group, the number of Christians in China has increased 100-fold since the PRC was founded. Current estimates range from 80 million to 130 million active Christians, including members of so-called house churches. In a country of 1.3 billion that figure may not seem too high, but its significance becomes more apparent when compared to the 78 million Chinese that China Daily reports were members of the Communist Party as of June 2010.

"The Cultural Revolution disillusioned Chinese people and the brainwashing atheist education made people thirsty [for] spirituality," says Mark Shan, the spokesperson for China Aid.

Over the past 30 years, Christianity has gradually adapted to local realities and is no longer seen as a faith imported from the West. And while in the West, Christianity may be widely associated with tradition, in China it is increasingly identified with modernity, business and science.

"We should view Christianity as a Chinese religion, not a Western one any longer," says Bays. "There is very little left of viewing Christianity as the religion of the West as it was in the 1950s."

Some experts believe that China could soon be home to the largest Christian population in the world. And the Chinese government has been surprisingly open towards Protestantism - funding the construction of churches and providing seminaries for the training of new church leaders - at least until recently.

But, Carsten Vala, an assistant professor and expert on Chinese Christianity at Loyola University Maryland, believes the Chinese government's position may have been more tactical and pragmatic than reflective of a genuine step towards religious freedom.

"It's good public relations to build churches. Overseas, they get good press, such as when they built the first church in Beijing in more than 50 years for the Olympics in 2008. It immediately was overflowing with Protestants," Vala says.

"But Beijing had more than 60 churches prior to 1949; in the early 1980s that number had dwindled to less than 10."

China's 'lost soul'

Some believe that Christianity could help fill a moral void in an increasingly self-centred, materialistic and corrupt society, as well as helping to meet the demand for social services.

"Immorality, especially sexual immorality, greed and corruption are soaring in China," says William Jeynes, a professor of education at California State University and a non-resident scholar at Baylor University. "The government acknowledges this. One Chinese government leader was even quoted as saying 'China has lost its soul.' Immorality in China is out of control and many in the government believe that Christianity might be the nation's best hope to establish morality."

Jeynes suggests the Chinese government may be adhering to the perspective of German sociologist and political economist Max Weber who believed that a strong work ethic, love for one's neighbour, self-discipline and trust often accompanies Protestantism and can be essential to keeping a nation's economic machine in working order.

China's government must ensure that the country's economy keeps booming to feed its 1.3 billion people in order to prevent social and political unrest. And it may just see Christianity as beneficial to the maintenance of social stability and economic growth.

"They believe that Christianity is responsible for much of the historic success of Western Europe and the US," says Jeynes.

"Similarly, many Chinese believers see the current economic decline of the US and Europe, as a direct result of the decline of serious adherence to the Christian faith in these countries. The Chinese believe that as a result what arose was greed on Wall Street, government corruption, and greed among many people causing them to buy homes that they could not afford. China hopes that by embracing Christianity and learning from both the past success and the present failures of the US and Europe, it will be able to prosper rather than fall as a result of immorality produced by secularism."

But, Jeynes stresses, the attitude of Chinese leaders towards the growing number of Christians can be best described as a "confluence of seemingly contradictory attitudes".

Means of control

While embracing Christianity for its supposed economic and social benefits, the Communist Party still wants to assert control over the country's Christians - dictating where they worship and what is preached there.

"By building churches and requiring Protestants to worship inside registered churches, they can exert some control over the training and appointment of church staff, where churches are established, how many services are held, and in some cases even try to pressure church pastors in the content of their preaching," Vala says.

In 1978 and 1979, party and state leaders re-established an apparatus for monitoring religion and implementing religious policy that had originally existed in the 1950s. All Protestants whose churches were reopened after the Cultural Revolution were expected to register their congregations with the government.

But many Chinese are members of unregistered churches, small congregations who meet privately, usually in apartments and houses. Some say that the registered churches do not include all sects of Christianity, particularly in rural areas where there may not be enough registered churches to meet believers' needs.

"Among these unregistered groups, some consciously avoid association with the three-self [official church] structure because of memories of radical politics and persecution in the church in the 1950s. Some refuse to register out of theological principle. And some have strong leaders who do not want to be in a system where they would be accountable to anyone, especially not to a government or party body," says Bays.

As long as they avoid confrontation and keep their congregations small - 25 is the maximum gathering allowed by law without official permission - the Protestant house churches are mostly tolerated by the government. Catholic ones are kept under closer scrutiny because of China's tense relationship with the Vatican over its continued diplomatic recognition of the government of Taiwan and disagreement over who has the final say on the consecration of Chinese bishops.

By keeping house churches small, the Communist Party may be attempting to ensure that no church becomes large enough to threaten the power of the local party chief. But, paradoxically, this policy also helps to ensure the spread of Christianity, for as congregations grow they are forced to split up and create new branches.

"The state fears religion, the more organised the more it fears it," says Bays. "There have been several successful religion-led rebellions in Chinese history. You could say the state and party are paranoid; after failure to eliminate religion at times of extreme Maoist radicalism, the recent leaders have resigned themselves to religion remaining a social feature for a long time. So they try to control it through bureaucratic means."

Chinese authorities fear that massive oppression could lead to organised resistance, while too much freedom could also impact their leadership. It is conscious of the fact that the church played an important role in the events that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and in advancing democracy in Eastern Europe.

"They want to learn from the lessons of the former Soviet Union in this regard. The effort to overthrow Communism was largely a Christian-based effort," Jeynes says. "China's government leaders are also well aware that it is estimated that Christians constituted about 30 per cent of those who protested in the Tiananmen Square uprising of 1989. Therefore, these facts have caused China's leaders to be concerned about Christianity and persecute Christians."

Jeynes says that the 'Arab Spring' coupled with the Nobel Prize being awarded to Liu Xiaobo, a major critic of the Chinese government, in December 2010 has also caused China to become more cautious about Christianity.

"With the spawning of these events government crackdowns against Christians and other people of faith have increased substantially. The Chinese are especially nervous because they believe that the 'Arab Spring' ... could easily make its way into China," Jeynes says.

Increasing pressure

The result has been an increase in the amount of pressure exerted on members of unregistered churches and unofficial groups.

One of them is Shouwang Church, Beijing's biggest house church with more than 1,000 members. Shouwang means "to keep watch" in Chinese, and its members refuse to let themselves be absorbed into the official churches.

Over the past 12 weeks, Shouwang has become a major annoyance for Beijing's authorities because it insists on trying to hold outdoor services.

According to China Aid, 15 church members were detained for showing up at Shouwang's designated outdoor worship site on Sunday, June 26. Some Shouwang members claimed they were detained in hotels to prevent them from going to the site and several Shouwang leaders are under house arrest.

But despite repression, house churches seem to be retaining their popularity among the Chinese. Vala believes that the main reason for this is that there are too few registered churches and that those that do exist may be too formal for some.

"Unregistered churches offer frequent services every week, including prayer, Bible study, and worship services. They also offer an intimacy among members who meet often and get to know each other much better than when hundreds gather in large registered churches," says Vala, adding: "There is also a population that attends both registered church services on Sundays and then attends unregistered churches for Bible studies, too."

China Aid's Mark Shan stresses that many Chinese Christians actively choose to join house churches because of the freedom of speech they allow.

"It is safer for those social professions who are forbidden to be religious: such as government-paid jobs, students, teachers, anyone under 18 years old. Three-self [official] churches have many spies to watch people, and their sermons have limited freedom. For example you cannot mention anything about social injustice, political corruption, and mass abortions driven by Chinese birth-control policy brutally enforced in the last 30 years, even from a perspective of Christian ethics," says Shan.

Huang Jianbo, an anthropologist at Beijing's Renmin University, says migrant workers in particular seem to be attracted to Christianity and often join house churches.

"Migrant workers are regularly victims of discrimination. Despite the fact that China's cities are being built by them, they are just treated as second-class citizens," he says, adding that most migrant workers tend to prefer house churches because they often feel unwelcome in urban church communities.

"Churches in China generally have no interest [in] involving [themselves] in social changes or revolutions because they focus on spiritual matters .... However, such a spiritual ... focus will accelerate a cultural or even a social change unconsciously and naturally," says Shan.

"Yet if persecution [by] the government [does] not leave room for churches to survive, churches may become more like a catalyst [for] social change through exercising non-violent civil disobedience, as [the] Beijing Shouwang Church [has] in the past 12 weeks."

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