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It’s been a confusing couple weeks for anyone paying attention to news about the church in China. If all you did was read Christianity Today, you probably have whiplash by now. On February 18, the magazine posted a story with the headline “How China Plans to Wipe Out Chinese House Churches.” On February 25, it posted a response titled “China Is Not Trying to Wipe Out Christianity.”

The first Christianity Today article was a wire service story about ChinaAid Association’s claim that persecution is getting worse in China. The response, offered by ChinaSource president Brent Fulton and Open Doors International‘s Jan Vermeer, challenged the conclusions of the ChinaAid report and put the numbers in a broader context. Fulton writes:

Without a doubt, Christians in China face many obstacles as they live out their faith in an often hostile environment. But Christians are not persecuted simply for being Christians, nor are house churches targeted for attack simply for being house churches. If this were the case one would expect to see hundreds of house churches being closed down each week. (Beijing, which had the highest number of persecution cases in 2012, reportedly has more than 3,000 house churches, yet the ChinaAid report mentions only two cases involving Beijing house churches for the entire year.)

Those of us who work in China are often asked if we think the situation is getting better or worse for the church here. I’ve always found that to be a problematic question. “Better” and “worse” are relative terms, so the first response has to be, “Better or worse in comparison to what?” Compared to what we’re accustomed to? Compared to a certain time in the past? By what standard should the question be answered?

The second problem with the question is that it assumes only two possibilities: better or worse, good or bad. It’s based on a false dichotomy that leaves little room for the complicated reality—and China is nothing if not a complicated reality.

If we’re comparing the situation to what we’re accustomed to in the West, then of course it isn’t good. There are far too many restrictions on religious practice. Regulations either permitting or restricting activities are arbitrarily enforced. Religious issues are still considered too politically sensitive for open discussion and debate. This certainly isn’t good, but is it “worse” than the situation during the Cultural Revolution?

If, however, we’re comparing the current situation to what it used to be, then there’s ample evidence that things are better, even if they aren’t good. Thousands of house churches operate openly without harassment; Christian books are being published; Bibles can be freely downloaded to computers and smartphones; Christian celebrities are open about their faith; and ordinary believers are using the internet for encouragement and evangelism. All of these things would have been unthinkable even as recently as 10 years ago.

Neither Will Nor Resources

ChinaAid claims its numbers show things are getting worse, but putting the figures in a broader context actually reveals the opposite. Let’s assume the conservative estimate for the number of Christians in China is 50 million (the government acknowledges 23 million). This report says that out of 50 million believers in the country, more than 4,000 experienced some level of persecution or harassment. That’s a small number relative to the total number of Christians. But the report misses this larger context, thus giving readers the impression that persecution in China is more widespread and serious than their statistics actually show. Again, if the numbers are true (or if there are more incidents than reported, which is likely), they indicate persecution isn’t particularly widespread.

Regarding the supposed secret plan to “eradicate” house churches, it’s absolutely true the powers-that-be would prefer such unregistered congregations to ally themselves with the Three-Self associations and register accordingly. But with tens of millions of Christians worshiping in house churches, the government has neither the will nor the resources to force the issue.

In fact, according to Liu Peng of the Pacific Institute for Social Sciences, a Beijing-based think tank focusing on issues related to religion and law, all of the government’s previous eradication attempts have proved ineffective:

They may be effective in the short run, but in the long run, they are ineffective, risky, and lead to escalating conflicts with ever more serious consequences. In the end, they only drive the people opposing the government. At the same time, most house churches have become accustomed to surviving under extreme pressure. They are not afraid of pressure and hold that constant crackdowns only strengthen the unity of the church and foster growth. The crackdowns in the past resulted in revival and the growth of even larger house churches. It is unrealistic and useless to use extreme pressure to force millions of people to change their beliefs and to resolve religious problems. It will never be successful, no matter how much pressure is used.

The government must find a new way of giving house churches legal status—and there’s evidence some officials understand. Nevertheless, the relationship between house churches and the state is extremely complex. Again, I’d direct you to the Pacific Institute for Social Sciences to read analyses written by mainland Chinese scholars of this complex relationship, as well as proposals for resolving problems.

So as to the question of whether or not things are getting worse, I’ve come to this conclusion: when people say “Things are getting worse” in China, what they really mean is, “Things aren’t improving at the rate and scope we’d like.”

That is not the same as “getting worse,” and it’s a distinction we need to be clear about.