Ten years ago, when I was still living in Beijing, I asked a Chinese friend what were the main challenges facing Christians in China. Her answer surprised me. She stood up, banged her fist on my dining room table, and said, “It’s way too easy to be a Christian in China today. We need more persecution!”
It was an interesting perspective.
There are signs today that persecution may be increasing. Stories out of China in recent months report on crosses being torn down, church buildings being demolished, and house churches being forced to close. Further, the government has been promoting a campaign to “Sinicize” religion, to conform it to both traditional Chinese culture and also socialist realities.
Given these stories, it’s tempting to think that Christianity in China is being singled out for pressure, harassment, and restriction. But as is always the case with China, the reality is far more complicated and must be understood within the broader political context; because in China, everything is political.
In the case of the crackdowns we read about, they’re part of something much bigger than antipathy toward religion in general, or Christianity in particular. They are about Communist Party control.
Playing Outside the Sandbox
A useful way to think about it is this: imagine that China is a beach, and on the beach is a sandbox. The walls of the sandbox are the political, civil, and religious boundaries set by the Party-state. In other words, the beach may be China, but society (its people and institutions) is restricted to the sandbox (in theory). However, over the past couple of decades, as the Party-state relaxed its control over and enforcement of these boundaries, individuals and organizations slowly climbed out of the sandbox and began playing in the relative freedom of the beach. Evidence of this move was everywhere:
- Government officials loosely enforced or even ignored Party-state directives.
- Lawyers began paying attention to human-rights abuses, environmental degradation, and other social problems affecting the daily lives of Chinese citizens.
- The internet allowed anyone with a smartphone to report on things happening in society, and provided a new public space for people to express themselves.
- Businesses adopted “anything goes” practices in order to maximize profits.
- Schools, especially universities, opened themselves up to “Western influences.”
- Online booksellers offered anything and everything for sale, including Bibles, even though officially they can only be sold in registered churches.
- The number of Christians worshiping in unregistered churches has exploded.
Now, the Party-state, under Xi Jinping, is attempting to reassert its control over all aspects of China’s political, civil, and religious life. It realizes the boundaries have been ignored. Too many people are running up and down the beach outside of its control. In response, it’s trying to get everyone back into the sandbox.
Getting Back in the Sandbox
Getting back in the sandbox will present challenges for believers in China. As the Party-state attempts to shift from merely “managing” religious affairs to “actively guiding” religion, Christians (and especially church leaders) will have to make difficult choices about how to respond. Some will want to maintain a confrontational stance, while others will seek to function within the space still allowed, even if it may be smaller. Differing opinions regarding these responses may lead to even more division, not just between the registered and unregistered churches, but among house churches as well.
It’s likely that many activities common during the time of relatively more freedom will be curtailed. These include Christian publishing, Christian education, and online religious activities, such as forums and live-streaming of church services. Religious activities within the educational sphere—such as campus Bible studies, Christmas parties, and children’s camps—are also likely to be restricted.
But these new challenges may also provide new opportunities. Many house church leaders are beginning to rethink issues of church structure. The increasingly popular “megachurch” model of large, unregistered congregations gathering publicly may no longer be viable. Dividing into smaller congregations, distributed over a wider geographical area, may actually provide opportunities to affect more communities. Or, as I like to call it, “Communist-Party-led church multiplication.”
As the government encourages registered churches to “serve socialism” by doing more in their communities, believers may also see more opportunities to be salt and light. In addition, the new charity law may make it possible for Christian groups to establish locally run nonprofit organizations to meet societal needs. In some places this is already happening.
Finally, the increasingly restrictive environment may, as persecution did in the past, strengthen the faith of Chinese Christians as it becomes less easy to simply be “Sunday Christians.” As happened before, the season of pruning may well lead to greater growth down the road.
Maybe my friend was right after all.