In discussion of the social and political status of Christianity in China, the relationship of the churches and the government naturally takes centre stage. Nonetheless, how the faith and its growing influence are viewed in China is caught up in a confusing cauldron of competing political and moral ideologies that vie for China’s future. As China’s driving market economy and growing liberalization have rendered the old shibboleths of Marxism, Leninism, and Mao Zedong Thought uncouth, Neo-liberalism, Neo-leftism, and Neo-Confucianism have sought to fill the ideological vacuum. Each has its own view on whether the rise of Christianity in China is bane or blessing.
The Neo-liberals champion further liberalization of markets, wider political reforms, and openness to and deepening engagement with the West. They argue that China can beat the Western nations at their own economic and political game, but to do so requires a more transparent and democratic political system with enhanced protections of free speech, free inquiry, creativity, and freedom of religion. Indeed, some leading Neo-liberal advocates are Christians who have discreetly found influential niches in business, politics, and the universities.
Neo-leftists/Maoists yearn to recover Mao’s ability to mobilize the masses and to exercise state control over society and the economy. They disdain Neo-liberalism and the insidious capitalism and liberalism that they argue fuels corruption, cronyism, and social/political decadence. They point to the growing disparity between rich and poor, the ideological aggression of Western imperial powers, and the growth of Christianity and the influence of Christians who have even discreetly infiltrated the halls of political power. Accordingly, Neo-leftist rhetoric often repeats the old charge that Chinese converts to Christianity are provocateurs and lackeys of Western subversion and aggression, and thus enemies of China.
Neo-Confucianists seek a renewal of China’s moral roots. In Confucianism, they argue, is the seedbed of the ethical, political, and economic renaissance of Chinese culture that empowers the influential Chinese global diaspora. Though diminished in mainland China by Communism and nearly destroyed in the Great Cultural Revolution, they see in Confucianism a moral and religious identity that will rectify and stabilize China in a time of rapid change:
- For some, Christianity is a foreign religion and negative influence on China.
- Others, however, treat it as a benign force or even potential ally.
- Many Christians view Confucian moral principles affirmatively; they resonate in their emphases upon service, honouring of parents, importance of family, integrity, character, and moral education.
- Indeed, in these areas some Christians view Confucianism as crucial to their own moral philosophy in harmony with their faith in Christ.
Why is this important?
Christianity’s growth and increasing influence in China has lent it credibility in some circles, while others remain sceptical and wary. In 2011, 10 neo-Confucianist scholars made national news when they posted a letter on the internet opposing the building approval of a church in Qufu, Shandong, the birthplace of Confucius:
- They insisted that no church be constructed within 30 kilometres of the city.
- Qufu, they argued, much like Jerusalem, Mecca, or the Vatican, is a sacred city.
- Thus, they warned, a church built so close to Confucius’ tomb would trigger “religious confrontation and clashes of civilizations”.
Local officials upheld the church’s building, but they were soon overruled by officials in Beijing when the issue took on national religious and political significance. As a result, heated debates have broken out between political and religious scholars as to whether Confucianism is a religion or a moral philosophy, and whether Christianity is a foreign religion or now authentically Chinese and to be afforded equal protection and rights in China.
Christianity has also been threatened on other Ideological fronts. The negative consequences of China’s vaunted economic miracle have been used to attack Christianity in China. Rising wealth has also witnessed the rise in what many regard as Western vices such as prostitution, gambling, and pornography. The pursuit of wealth and decadent Western lifestyles are seen as the catalyst for official corruption and cronyism. Reports of land grabs and harassment by officials against farmers and workers in pursuit of lucre have gone viral on the internet, further deepening popular discontent with all things ‘Western’ including religion.
Further, strong nationalist feelings have been stirred against what is perceived as Western/U.S. meddling in territorial disputes between China and her neighbours.
Neo-leftists have noted all of the above in assailing Christianity as a Western religion that underwrites decadent ‘Westernism’ and Neo-liberalism. Accordingly, the growth of Christianity in China is viewed as part of West’s subversion and aggression against China and Chinese Communist identity.
The danger politically can be seen in the swift rise of Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai. Before the international graft and murder scandal that led to his disgrace and fall from power, Bo was the rising star of the Neo-Leftists. He styled himself as a modern Mao, championing the cause of workers and peasants and arresting allegedly corrupt businessmen and government officials. His media charm and rugged good looks certainly increased his popularity with powerful leftist party members who championed his rise and ambition to be the future President of China. The downfall of Bo Xilai set back the fortunes of the Neo-Leftists — much to the relief of Chinese Christians.
Certainly, most Chinese Christians in China’s urban centres are more comfortable with Neo-liberalism. Nonetheless, it is important to remember that the great majority of Chinese Christians live in the countryside:
- They groan under corrupt officials and powerful business interests that work hand in hand to deprive them of their rights, their land and their livelihood.
- Further, their growth and numbers owe much to personal and communal transformation.
- The great witness of the churches has been rectitude in spite of poverty, suffering, and great struggle.
- When families and individuals are feeling increasingly isolated, alienated, and uncared for in a society that lacks compassion, the acceptance, care, and fellowship of the church has proved a great draw.
What will happen next and why?
With the downfall of Bo Xilai and less pressure from the Neo-leftists, the conservative, status quo inclinations of the Party leaders will probably lean more towards Neo-liberalism. In terms of policy, that should encourage incremental reforms and more latitude given to Christian churches across the spectrum of official and house churches. Indeed, reliable sources point to indications that a change of religious policy is in the works.
This could well include incorporation of a good portion of the currently illegal house churches into a legal framework. It would fundamentally change the religious framework in China if house churches and their members were granted legal recognition and allowed to worship freely without fear of arrest or meddling by the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA):
- This would be a welcome change for many urban Christians where concerns with persecution and security issues have forced the churches to work secretly behind closed doors.
- It would enable them to relate their faith to others more openly as equal partners in, and contributors to, society.
Indeed, evidence of greater liberty is appearing. One house church pastor, Ezra Jin of Zion Church, invites foreign speakers to preach at his church in Beijing. When questioned by the national security police, his response is that when he is invited to preach in U.S. churches, he does not need the permission of the U.S. government.
The incremental moves over the past decade to dialogue with urban leaders of the unregistered churches should therefore continue and (hopefully) now pick up pace. With increasing freedom, the rapid growth of the churches in the urban centres should continue apace, allowing them to engage in evangelism and mission more openly.
Nonetheless, should tensions between China and her neighbours continue to escalate in regard to disputed territorial rights to nearby islands; this would heighten nationalist fervour, anti-Western sentiment and probably lead to greater suspicion of Christianity as a dangerous foreign and pro-Western force in China. Historically, political tensions with other nations have led to crackdowns on churches and persecution of Christians in China.
Policy implications for missions and engagement with China
It is critical for those interested in China to pay attention to the ideological struggles between Neo-liberals, Neo-leftists and Neo-Confucianists. Opening dialogue between Christians and key scholars and leaders of these movements is essential:
- Oxford Centre for Mission Studies will host the China Theological Forum in August 2013. This will bring a large delegation of leading Chinese scholars and Church leaders to Oxford to examine current ideological trends in China and their impact on Chinese Christianity and secular society.
- The Forum has been quite upfront both in 2012 and 2013 in inviting key individuals from across the spectrum of churches in full view of the Chinese government.
- The Forum is designed to create momentum for regular exchanges and dialogue on critical matters facing society, church, and mission in China. The 2013 forum at OCMS will produce a volume in Chinese and English for future reference from a selection of the papers presented for distribution to key centres both in and outside China.
The question for mission partners outside China is whether they will be willing to now work with a more open church. The challenge to the churches outside China will be to adapt to the change to a more open system and adjust their views and discourse on China accordingly.
It is also critical that Western and global church leaders recognise the divisions in China and base their engagement accordingly. Thus, though they may encourage business, academic and mission engagement, there must be a sensitive awareness to the complications that each of these represent. Though the churches and Christians welcome fellowship with churches outside China, they must be careful not to be perceived as uncritical sycophants of the West and Western ways. Thus, they will at times need to be critical of what they regard as unchristian attitudes in the West and critical of decadent lifestyles that are rightly discredited in China.
Rather than seeing China just as a ‘mission field’, it is important to recognise that the churches of China represent one of the great future missionary churches:
- There is a deep sense of God’s calling to mission among Chinese believers.
- In this regard, it will be key to allow them to take leading roles in global mission and to fashion mission strategies that bring with them Chinese distinctives to mission and mission engagement.
The question of social justice, empowering the poor and marginalized, care for the suffering, and working for personal and social transformation needs to be grappled with by evangelicals both in and outside China:
- Neo-leftism may have suffered a setback, but it will return even stronger if the problems associated with Neo-liberalism grow.
- Emphasis only upon conversion will put the churches in jeopardy.
- Thus, leaders of the churches and mission to China need seriously to seek holistic transformation through practical ministries that care for both spiritual and physical needs in China.
There should be greater appreciation for the need for moral foundations in China, and thus dialogue between Christians and Neo-Confucians, as they share in resisting the onslaught of secular materialism and self-centredness that is shattering traditional communal senses of self and society in China.