The growing influence of Christianity in China and reports of a government crackdown on churches have captured international attention. Much to the chagrin of Chinese officials, the London Daily Telegraph recently claimed that China would become the most populous Christian country in a mere 15 years. A week later, a standoff between parishioners of the Sanjiang Church in Wenzhou and the provincial government ended in the bulldozing of a 4,000-seat mega-church. In Beijing, members of the Shouwang Church were detained by the Public Security Bureau. Unfolding in little over a month, these events have stoked fears of a government campaign against both legal and illegal churches.
The flashpoint in Wenzhou was the status of the Sanjiang Church:
- In September 2013, the Wenzhou government website declared the Sanjiang Church a “model project.”
- Later, the eight-story structure troubled provincial officials who ordered the church to reduce its size or be demolished.
The order to demolish the church quickly took on global significance as international news agencies interviewed church members camped out in the church to prevent its destruction. They accused the Provincial Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Secretary of ordering an “illegal demolition” of a duly registered government church. Members were coaxed out of the church on the promise of negotiations—following which the church was seized and summarily demolished. Meanwhile, other churches in Zhejiang Province have been ordered to take away their crosses or notified that they will be demolished.
Fears of a wider campaign to counter the growing influence of Christianity in China were backed up by an internal Zhejiang provincial document. To diminish Christianity’s public profile, it calls for the removing of “excessive religious sites” and “overly popular” religious practices of Christians through appeal to “building codes.” “The priority is to remove crosses at religious activity sites on both sides of expressways, national highways and provincial highways,” according to the document. “Over time and in batches, bring down the crosses from the rooftops to the facade of the buildings.”
In Beijing, suppression of the unregistered Shouwang Church has increased. Shouwang, whose pastor has been under house arrest since 2011, has seen its members arrested and detained for up to seven days to prevent them from holding indoor or outdoor gatherings.
What makes Shouwang’s situation unique is the church’s open pursuit of the “right” to worship beyond government-sanctioned registered churches:
- In the past, “illegal” house churches have been content to meet secretly to avoid government attention and interference.
- Shouwang Church, however, has openly applied for purchase of indoor facilities for worship and responded to government refusal to grant permission to purchase worship facilities with outdoor worship services in Beijing in defiance of government edicts and threats of arrest.
Inside sources say that a Beijing city official linked with Zhou Yongkang, formerSecretary of the Central Political and Legislative Committee overseeing China’s security apparatus and law enforcement institutions, is behind the crackdown. Zhou has been subject to an investigation on corruption charges as part of President Xi Jinping’s campaign against CCP corruption. Thus, the recent crackdown on Shouwang and Beijing dissidents appears to be a move to prove the loyalty of this Beijing city official to Xi.
Church and state
These incidents reflect the changing nature of Chinese churches—and China itself—and how this impacts the relationship of churches and state in China.
Sanjiang’s demolition belies the notion that Christianity in China is poor, powerless, and hard-put:
- Wenzhou is one of China’s “boom towns,” economically and spiritually.
- Christians represent powerful business and social interests in the growing mega-cities of China.
- In the past, small groups of believers huddled in clandestine house meetings or in government-approved and monitored churches.
- Today Christians in Wenzhou gather in well-appointed worship centers seating thousands of worshippers.
- Their members are technologically savvy and with the press of a button can summon international news agencies to monitor government moves to curb nascent Christian congregations.
Certainly, the growing size and social stature of Christianity discomfits some high officials. Grand complexes are significant culturally and politically in China. Gleaming sanctuaries project the growing social and political power of Christians and churches in society. This explains the uneasy and uneven responses of government officials to these churches in urban centers:
- For some, the churches and their members represent key constituents who can contribute to wider society.
- For others, they represent a powerful ideological challenge in a nation that is officially atheist and Marxist.
- Thus, the building of these churches is fraught with disagreements between contending officials at the local, provincial, and national levels.
Accordingly, the demolition of Sanjiang Church and the arrest of Shouwang Church members are far more complex than a mere Marxist reflex against Christianity. Given the mixed and muddled responses coming from different layers of government officials, it would appear that there is some disagreement as to how the CCP should respond to the changing situation.
Some argue that these incidents are the beginning of a national campaign to stymie the growth of Christianity in China and to test its popular strength. A recent New York Times article examines an internal government document that “makes it clear the demolitions are part of a strategy to reduce Christianity’s public profile.” On the other hand, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs official, in response to the wave of church demolitions, has openly rejected accusations of a renewed campaign against Christianity as a “misunderstanding.”
This uncertainty would explain the fact that, in spite of the recent crackdown in Wenzhou and Beijing, churches across China continue their regular activities without interference.
Nonetheless, it does appear that the tearing down of church buildings and crosses comes with the sanction of the central government. As such, they reflect a growing wariness of Christianity by government leaders, although not so far the nationwide crackdown that some have predicted.
It is hard to say what the central government will do next. Were they to launch a nationwide campaign against Christianity, it would most likely have negative consequences, both nationally and internationally. Such a campaign would most likely fail, exacerbate internal dissension, and alienate key constituencies in China itself:
- Christians are not now all uneducated and relatively powerless rural believers or pockets of clandestine urban groups meeting in houses.
- They now represent successful businessmen and academics, and have even percolated into high government positions.
- They are persons of influence and respected in their professional and personal circles.
Thus, after 25 years of failed attempts to stymie the growth of Christianity, it would appear wishful thinking to imagine that a new campaign would succeed where so many have failed in the past.
Internationally such a campaign would damage China’s relationships with Europe and North America. Perhaps even of greater significance is the damage a crackdown would have on its relationships in Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Global South:
- South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines all have significant Christian populations, many of whom hold positions of influence and power.
- A harsh nationwide campaign on the scale of that against the Falun Gong sect would complicate international relations with China’s neighbors already fraught with tension over border issues and control of controversial territories in the region.
- Relations with Africa and Latin America would be damaged, bearing in mind Africa’s 400 million Christians and Latin America’s 90% Christian population.
The churches of China will continue to grow and exert greater influence upon all levels of society. This will cause social tension, not only with the CCP but also with other religious and ideological groups. Thus, Christians should be attentive to social backlash, especially if the church appears to be triumphalist and dismissive of other Chinese religions, ideologies, traditions, and sensitivities.
Earlier optimism about an open hand toward Christianity during President Xi’s term does not appear likely to be borne out any time soon. Preferential treatment will be given toward Buddhism and Chinese traditional religions. The surge of nationalism and the growing perception of ‘infiltrating forces’ from the West will likely increase restrictions on the church in the near future.
However, one would assume that more moderate policies will prevail over time:
- The presence of Christians in the highest circles of society means that even leading CCP officials have Christian acquaintances, Christians working for them or even family members who are either secretly or openly Christians.
- Once faith becomes personal it gets harder to move against it. In China, if it comes to a choice between fidelity to Party and fidelity to family, family usually wins out, and it is unlikely that even the most zealous party members would sacrifice family members upon ideological altars.
Suggested responses within China
One would hope that there would be some self-reflection and even self-criticism by Chinese church leaders, given these setbacks. Triumphalism that seeks to proffer Christianity through appeals to grand buildings and accumulation of power, wealth, and influence rather than humility and the cross will ultimately fail.
One leading Chinese scholar argues that official change in the government’s attitude lies in the faithful response of the church to persecution:
If local churches hold onto their faith stance, and would grow in the midst of persecutions, the government would change its policy toward Christianity . . . The government does not have a well-planned strategy. Whether a church building would be torn down depends on the attitude of this local church and the response of believers in this region.
This scholar believes that the time is right for the formation of a Christian think-tank in China to address theology, church growth, and social engagement, and to unify the churches facing persecution. He notes that attention should be paid to spiritual matters and world missions and not merely to the grandeur of church buildings: “a church with only a building, yet with no spiritual vibrancy has no future.”
Global evangelical responses
Recent incidents call for Christian organizations to urge tolerance and moderation on the Chinese government in relation to Christians and churches in China. They should also urge Christians in China to work for the common good and take personal and public stands against corruption.
It is important to recognize that the churches of China are not only growing in size, but in maturity. There should be recognition by global church leaders, especially those in the West, that the churches and church leadership of China have a depth of experience, wisdom, and insight that will help them weather setbacks such as these. Historically, persecution of the churches in China has only served to purify and strengthen the resolve of Christian leaders and church members.
It is also important to realise that the relationship between the churches, society, and the state has changed radically over the past twenty years and that our traditional notions of the house churches of China are outdated. Further, just as China has grown in significance as a leader in international politics and business, its significance in global church leadership is beginning to take shape. Thus, just as the size, strength, and influence of the Chinese church has captured the attention of the Chinese government, so it should capture the attention of the global church.
- Ian Johnson, “Church-State Clash in China Coalesces Around a Toppled Spire” New York Times, 29 May 2014, accessed 1 June 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/30/world/asia/church-state-clash-in-china-coalesces-around-a-toppled-spire.html?_r=0.
- Paul Huoshui, co-author of this article.
- Editor’s Note: See also ‘Current Ideological Trends in China: How should the church respond?’ by Thomas Harvey and David Ro in the March 2013 issue of Lausanne Global Analysis, and ‘A Landmark Encounter: The significance of the ACLF for the church in China’ by Ezra Jin in the November 2013 issue of Lausanne Global Analysis.
Johnson, Ian. “Church-State Clash in China Coalesces Around a Toppled Spire.” New York Times, 29 May 2014. Accessed 1 June 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/30/world/asia/church-state-clash-in-china-coalesces-around-a-toppled-spire.html?_r=0.
Phillips, Tom. “‘Anti-church’ campaign a ‘misunderstanding’, Beijing claims.” London Daily Telegraph, 20 May 2014. Accessed 1 June 2014. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/10843215/Anti-church-campaign-a-misunderstanding-Beijing-claims.html?fb.
Phillips, Tom. “China accused of anti-Christian campaign as church demolition begin.” London Daily Telegraph, 28 April 2014. Accessed 1 June 2014. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/10792386/China-accused-of-anti-Christian-campaign-as-church-demolition-begins.html.
Phillips, Tom. “China on course to become most Christian nation within 15 years.” London Daily Telegraph, 19 April 2014. Accessed 1 June 2014. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/10776023/China-on-course-to-become-worlds-most-Christian-nation-within-15-years.html.
Cao, Nanlai. “Boss Christians: The business of religion in the ‘Wenzhou model’ of Christian revival.” China Journal 59 (2008): 63-87.
Thomas Harvey is currently Academic Dean of the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, Oxford, UK. He is author of Acquainted with Grief: Wang Mingdao’s Stand for the Persecuted Church in China (Brazos/Baker Press, 2002). From 1997-2008 he served as Senior Lecturer of Systematic Theology at Trinity Theological College in Singapore.
Paul Huoshui is a specialist on religion and politics in China, affiliated with the Center for the Study of Law and Religion, Emory Law School.
David Ro serves as the Director for the Christy Wilson Center for World Missions at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and as International Deputy Director for The Lausanne Movement in East Asia. He holds master’s degrees from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Peking University, and is a PhD candidate at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies.