Changing contours in China
The church in China is beginning to cast off its chains and is emerging as a powerful force for change. Is this phenomenon likely to transform the communist culture of a repressive regime and create a more open and tolerant society?
Article 13 of the Constitution of the Republic of China provides that the people shall have freedom of religious belief, yet the government restricts religious practice to government-sanctioned organisations and registered places of worship. It also controls the growth and scope of activity of religious groups.
Despite formal recognition of religious liberty, religious freedom is accorded little respect in China. Every year since 1999, the US State Department has designated China as a country of particular concern with regard to religious freedom.
Anecdotal accounts through clandestine mission agencies report widespread abuse of human rights with regard to religious freedom, including ‘disappearances’, imprisonment and torture.
Many Chinese people today still regard the militantly atheist Mao Zedong as a national hero. Mao detested religion almost as much as capitalism and was responsible for the execution of clergy, expulsion of foreign missionaries and destruction of churches.
But China is now undergoing a new kind of revolution, not just in terms of phenomenal economic growth and rapid development, but also in the growth of religion, particularly Christianity. The cynical may say that the pace of change is driving people to seek the consolations of religion, but, whatever the reason, this is a new reality that cannot be denied.
Official Chinese government statistics indicate that the number of Christians rose from 14 million in 1997 to 21 million in 2006, with an estimated 50,000 Protestant and 4,600 Catholic churches.1
The government incorporated religious freedom into its constitution in 1982, although it restricted worship to five official religions — Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism and Catholicism, each overseen by a ‘patriotic association’.
These statistics do not include house churches or the underground Catholic Church, believed to be larger than the official one.
One source suggests: ‘A conservative guess is that there are at least 65 million Protestants in China and 12 million Catholics — more believers than there are members of the Communist Party. Some local Christians think that the flock is well over 100 million’ (John Micklethwait and Adrian Woolridge, God is back: how the global rise of faith is changing the world; London: Penguin, 2009).
Official figures indicate that there are about 25 million Muslims in China. This is likely to be an underestimate. But, even if that number is taken to be the real figure, China has almost as many Muslims as Saudi Arabia, and almost twice the number in the European Union’s 27 countries.
In the Xianjiang Province, the mosques have so much control that the state government is worried about Muslim separatism. In a few decades from now, China could well be the world’s largest Muslim nation as well as the biggest Christian one.
With regard to first place as a Christian nation (speaking of numbers of adherents rather than institutions of state), China could well have competition from India.
In the Indian sub-continent the number of Christians is estimated variously at between 3 and 6 per cent. This means that there are between 30 million and 60 million Christians in India, depending on how the head count is conducted.
But the numbers of Christians are growing rapidly. One state in India (Nagaland) is close to 100 per cent professing Christian, which is all the more remarkable when one considers the fact that not too many generations ago they were a tribal people who practised head-hunting. There are people still living in Nagaland who once engaged in this activity, but they have gone from head-hunting to church planting.
There is a Protestant university in China, close to the North Korean border. The Fengcheng Fellowship of house churches (based in the Henan Province) is an association of small autonomous churches which claims to have 10 million members (David Aikman, Jesus in Beijing: how Christianity is changing the global balance of power; New York: Regnery Publishing, 2003).
But the leader of the Fengcheng Fellowship, Zhang Rongliang, has been in and out of prison since the 1970s. China is nervous about independent thought and organisation. This is also evident in the way China has relentlessly persecuted the Falun Gong cult.
Christianity is viewed with suspicion by the Chinese authorities, because it seems to be a force for change; indeed there is hard-line resistance to it. The authorities think that Pope John Paul II played a significant role in the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and many of the protesters at Tiananmen Square in 1989 have become Christians. Mistrust thrives in such an environment.
The house church movement in China is spreading rapidly. This is partly due to the fact that the government has set an informal limit of 25 people for an unauthorised religious gathering. Thus the church is forced to replicate itself in cell-like structures in an ever increasing web.
These churches are autonomous and self-governing, but they are associated under the Fengcheng Fellowship umbrella and are almost a quasi-political organisation, akin to an indigenous Non Governmental Organisation (NGO). They have pastors, schools, libraries and even some unofficial seminaries.
There is no doubt that much of the opposition to the house church movement is politically or religiously motivated. But that is not always the case. Sometimes it can be the outcome of more pragmatic considerations.
For example, when 25 people (or more) gather at a person’s apartment for prayer and Bible study, they take the parking spaces of residents, who become frustrated and report the matter to the police.
The police arrive, disperse the group, take the names of those in attendance and perhaps make some arrests. The same thing sometimes happens when groups of Christians sing hymns in an apartment and occupants of neighbouring apartments complain about the disturbance.
On moral issues such as abortion (which is routine in China), these churches are united in their understanding of the sanctity of life and disseminate this in their teaching.
The regime seems to be increasingly accepting the idea that a moral code can act as a cohesive force in constructing a harmonious society. But some hardliners in the regime are wary that such a force could undermine communist ideology and destabilise society.
In October 2007, the Communist Party amended its constitution and urged members to ‘rally religious believers in making contributions to economic and social development’. This was reported by Jason Dean and Loretto Chao, in ‘In search of … something’, Wall Street Journal, 12 April 2008.
However, the Chinese government seems to be edging towards acceptance of Christianity as part of its progress toward modernisation. Whereas the conventional, mainstream denominational church with its stained glass windows and pews is in decline in Europe, the church in China is new and vibrant and is seen as part of a new order rather than an institution of the old regime.
The world is aware of astonishing and rapid socio-economic development in China. It is also aware (and somewhat concerned) that such a political regime is emerging as an economic superpower. But there is less awareness of the profound changes taking place within the religious landscape of this nation.
The process of transformation in China is well underway, as Christianity continues to win hearts and minds in China. But, it remains to be seen if this process will radically alter political reality in China or will meet with resistance and repression.
1I want to make it clear that I believe that the Roman Catholic Church is not a true Christian church. A church must believe that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, and must accept that Scripture is the ultimate authority in all matters of faith and practice. Therefore I refer to the Catholic Church here only as it is generally perceived by those outside the evangelical Christian community, with the broadest use of the term ‘Christian’.