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9 Things You Should Know About Christianity and Communist China

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This week China celebrated the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. “There is no force that can shake the foundation of this great nation,” said China President Xi Jinping, as he stood at the gate of Tiananmen Square. “No force will be able to stop the steady march forward of the Chinese people and Chinese nation.”

Here are nine things you should know about the communist state and its historic opposition and suppression of the Christian faith:

1. After achieving victory in the Chinese Civil War, Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China as a Communist state and officially declared the country to be atheist. In 1958, Mao launched an economic and social campaign called the Great Leap Forward, which was intended to rapidly transform the agrarian country from into an industrialized socialist nation. The attempts to collectivize farming led to food shortages and the largest famine in history. During the three-year period of 1959 and 1961, between 15 million and 45 million Chinese died. Because of this policy failure, Mao’s influence in the Communist Party began to wane. He launched the Cultural Revolution in May 1966, in part to reassert his power and prestige within the party and the country.

2. The beginning of the Cultural Revolution is traced to May 16, 1966, when Mao issued a document that included “indictments” against his political foes. In what has become known as the “May 16 notification,” Mao claimed, “Those representatives of the bourgeoisie who have sneaked into the party, the government, the army, and various cultural circles are a bunch of counter-revolutionary revisionists.” Later that year the Communist Party issued the “Decision Concerning the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,” which outlined the chairman’s goals of eliminating education and religion, the main threats to Mao Zedong Thought. During the Cultural Revolution, notes Eleanor Albert of the Council of Foreign Relations, “places of worship were demolished, closed, or reappropriated and religious practices were banned.”

3. After Mao died in 1976 his successor, Deng Xiaoping, instituted reforms and reopened the country to outside influences. By 1980, the total number of Christians had risen to 4 million, and began to grow rapidly, due largely to rural “house churches.” Since then the estimated number of Christians in the country has grown at a rate of 10 percent per year. “In the post-Mao era, there has indeed been an explosive growth in Christianity, particularly in Protestants,” said Xi Lian, professor of Christianity at Duke University. “Its belief system has been able to compete favorably with Communist ideology.”

4. The communist government claims to guarantee freedom of religion. As the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China of 1982 states:

Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief. No state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion. The state protects normal religious activities. No one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state. Religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination.

Yet as Cathy Sun writes in Harvard Political Review, “The term ‘normal,’ however, is ambiguous and leaves room for broad interpretation. In practice, the CCP has exploited this leeway to implement extreme measures of control and attack religious communities threatening its power.” Sun adds, “At its core, China’s rigid political system can only derive legitimacy from continuously relying on instruments of repression, which is why it fundamentally opposes religious freedom.”

5. By law the Communist state requires Christians to worship only in congregations registered with the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. The Chinese Christian Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) is a state-sanctioned Protestant body for the organization of all Protestant churches in China. The organization was created in 1951 to promote a strategy of “self-governance, self-support, and self-propagation,” to remove foreign influences from Chinese churches, and to profess the member church’s loyalty to the Communist government. For churches registered with TSPM, the government pays for many of their buildings and funds the education of its pastors. Because of its alignment with the Communist Party and its promotion of liberal theology, many congregations in China refuse to join the TPSM. Those that refuse to join are often referred to as underground or house churches.

6. In 1971 the Communist government implemented a one-child policy in the country. In 2013—two years before officially ending the policy, the Chinese Health Ministry reported that over the four decades 336 million abortions were performed—the largest single slaughter of human beings in the history of the world. To put that number in perspective, the 336 million deaths in China were more than all the people killed in the 10 ten deadliest wars in human history. [Based on highest estimates (in millions): World War II (72), World War I (65), Mongol Conquest (60), An Lushan Rebellion (36), Taiping Rebellion (30), Qing Dynasty conquest of the Ming Dynasty (25), Conquests of Timur (20), Dungan Revolt (12), Russian Civil War (9), Second Congo War (5.4)].

7. In 2019, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) noted that as a Christian in China, your Bible may have been rewritten by the Chinese government, your church shuttered or demolished, and your pastor imprisoned. In an ongoing effort to “sinicize” religious belief (i.e., make religious belief Chinese in character), the communist Chinese government arrested more than 5,000 Christians and 1,000 church leaders. The government also continued its persecution by closing down or demolishing thousands of churches.

8. The number of Protestant Christians in China has grown from 1 million in 1949, the year the Communist Party came to power, to more than 49 million in 2010. Experts believe that number could more than triple over the next generation, and by 2030 the People’s Republic of China, which still remains officially atheist, could have more churchgoers than America does.

9. While the Communist Party attempts to suppress the Word of God, the country has also become the world’s biggest publisher and exporter of Scripture. China’s only legal printer of Bibles, Amity Printing Company, published its first Bible in cooperation with the United Bible Societies (UBS) in 1987. As of 2018, 80 million copies of the Bible have been printed for the church in China, while 100 million copies have been printed for overseas churches. Currently, China is producing 20 million copies a year—an average of one copy of the Bible every second.

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