Persistent reports of Christians in China being harassed, fined, detained, and oppressed through discriminatory policies often lead outside observers to conclude that the Chinese government is pursuing a concerted and consistent policy to restrict Christian activity and stem the growth of Christianity. While these troubling incidents remain a reality of life in China, a survey of the larger picture suggests that they are the exception rather than the rule. Indeed, there may be room for cautious optimism concerning future policy toward China’s Christians.

The Chinese Communist Party’s basic stance toward religion has not changed since it was spelled out in 1982 with Document Number 19. Commonly referred to as the “three designates” formula, this policy restricts religious activities to approved locations, requires that they be conducted by approved clergy, and limits their scope to the geographic sphere in which a given member of the clergy is permitted to practice. In theory, the policy limits the growth of the church by rendering itinerant evangelism illegal, severely restricting the number of leaders qualified to serve in churches, and effectively placing a cap on the number of churches that can operate in any given city or region.

Ever since Document 19 was released, activities neither specifically permitted nor specifically prohibited have existed in this gray area. Although Party policy has basically not changed for more than 25 years, and although the types of incidents mentioned at the outset of this article continue to occur, that gray area has expanded significantly. Without discounting either the reality of incidences of Christian persecution or their seriousness, it is remarkable how much Christian activity takes place on a daily basis that is technically not allowed yet goes unchecked.

Policy Versus Implementation: Unraveling the Mystery

In any given week, somewhere in China, urban believers hold services in rented office buildings, hundreds of unofficial Bible schools offer classes, children attend Sunday schools and youth meetings, books containing all kinds of Christian content are sold openly in bookstores across the country, businesses conduct chapel services for their employees, students meet for campus Bible studies, local Christian-run NGOs offer a host of services to individuals and families with various needs—-and those involved in these activities suffer no repercussions at the hands of authorities. Yet during that same week, somewhere else in China, believers could be detained, fined, arrested, or otherwise harassed for participating in any one of these activities.

Since the gray-area activities are, for the most part, not specifically proscribed by law, it is up to local authorities to decide whether and when to prosecute. Given the sheer number of Christians in China (estimates vary from 60 million to 80 million or more) and the fact that most operate outside the official Three-Self Patriotic Movement/China Christian Council structures, it would be impossible for authorities to systematically and consistently go after everyone whose activities fall within the gray area; to do so would consume an inordinate amount of government resources, and in any case would not be considered a priority for the Party, whose chief concerns are continued economic growth and social stability.

Where, then, is the tipping point? Why are some (in reality, most) gray-area activities ignored, while others are attacked with a vengeance? There are a handful of triggers that, if present in a particular activity or situation, will greatly increase the likelihood of official intervention. Foreign involvement (real or perceived) in religious activities will greatly increase the chance of these activities being restricted.

Foreign personnel or foreign funds suggests to Chinese officials that these activities are being engineered or at least supported from abroad, and that the foreign entity involved is seeking to use religious activities in China for political ends. The recent interplay between the government and ethnic groups that enjoy foreign support from high-profile religious leaders is the most obvious case in point; however, Christian groups can also run afoul of the government by receiving foreign funding, allowing foreigners to preach or teach, or using overseas entities as a mouthpiece when they face government pressure. The Chinese government is particularly concerned about foreign NGOs channeling funds to social groups in China whose agendas are suspect, especially when these NGOs are perceived as having an “anti-China” agenda.

Related to this first trigger would be whether the Chinese group or individual in question is perceived as having political motives. Criticizing the government, taking an activist stance on sensitive issues such as urban migrant or ethnic minority rights or AIDS, or supporting those who do, would likely attract government attention and provoke a negative response. Leaders, even in the official church, although enjoying a somewhat protected status, risk quick censure and loss of position should they become involved in any unsanctioned political activities.

The size and scope of the unofficial group and its activities is also a factor. It is generally considered safe to have unofficial “house” meetings of 30 to 40 people. Beyond that most groups choose to divide and then continue to grow (although there are some unofficial urban groups meeting on a regular basis that number several hundred or more). A group that is part of a larger network, particularly if the network spans several provinces, is also much more likely than an isolated entity to draw official attention.

Complicating the effects of these factors are the political winds that blow frequently across China, sparked by the efforts of top leadership to address some pressing issue or crisis. While generally not directly related to Christian activity, these political winds can nonetheless create great difficulties for believers. In both the run-up to the Beijing Olympics and then the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic, for example, a huge security net was cast over the city of Beijing. Gatherings of Christians that had hitherto gone unnoticed, or at least untouched, were shut down, and not a few Christian leaders were detained.

It goes without saying (although it can be missed or conveniently overlooked by outside observers eager to identify cases of “Christian persecution” in China) that blatant criminal activity on the part of Christians is grounds for prosecution. In a well-publicized case last decade, Gong Shengliang, founder of the South China Church, a large unregistered Christian movement, was arrested and quickly received a death sentence. Apparently framed on trumped-up charges of abusing young women within the church, Gong soon became somewhat of a poster child for the persecuted church in China. As a result of mounting international pressure his sentence was commuted to life in prison. Concern over Gong’s case continued for years until evidence finally came to light indicating that he was indeed guilty of raping numerous teenaged church members, among other crimes. Unfortunately the international community’s unquestioning assumption of Gong’s innocence severely tarnished the image of overseas Christians in the eyes of Chinese officials, who saw Gong’s supporters as uninformed and politically motivated.

Finally, the degree of corruption and greed among local officials will have considerable bearing on how Christians are treated. If Christians are seen as an easy mark for fines—-particularly when it is known they can attract funds from overseas—-then local officials may prey upon them for personal gain. Anti-crime campaigns with quotas for a certain number of arrests can also prompt local officials to crack down on Christian activities that had previously gone on unhindered. On the other hand, in areas where Christians enjoy good relations with officials (some of whom may be believers themselves), church activities are less likely to encounter interference by local authorities, unless or until a directive comes down from higher in the system requiring official action.

Shape of Things to Come?

While in practice the space for Christians to operate (within the parameters listed above) has been gradually increasing, policies, as mentioned earlier, have been basically stagnant. However, recent events suggest that a shift may be under consideration that would bring existing policies in line with reality.

In March 2008, unregistered urban church leaders from across China met to consider how they could more effectively engage in addressing social needs. These leaders not only advised the Public Security Bureau (PSB) of their intention to meet; they even invited members of the PSB to attend as observers.

These theoretical discussions took on a much deeper meaning in the aftermath of the Wenchuan earthquake on May 12. The result was a coordinated and still ongoing relief and rebuilding effort that is indeed precedent-setting. A number of aspects in the past would have been considered threatening to the government. First, it consists of a large number of unregistered churches working together in a coordinated effort. Second, it is very overtly Christian, with the lead organization, an indigenous NGO, using “Christian” in its name and a cross in its logo. The Chinese government has not only allowed this work to continue, but the Civil Affairs Bureau has even helped to facilitate the work.

In November 2008 the Research and Development Center of the State Council (China’s equivalent of a Cabinet) hosted the first-ever official consultation on the house church, drawing together scholars from various universities, government researchers, and a half-dozen recognized unregistered church leaders. One of the house church representatives in that meeting spoke of their need to communicate with the government, while at the same time holding firm on the position taken unanimously by the house church leaders participating in the meeting:

Only God can control the spirituality of faith; no worldly authorities have the right to control a man’s spirit. . . . House churches (any true church) will only submit to Christ and reserve the right to make decisions on their own, and they would rather die than to accept the control of any worldly authorities. . . . The government has been entrusted by God with the authority to maintain external public order. If the government can limit its governing to areas of maintaining public order in external conduct, then according to the teachings of the Bible, the house church will definitely obey those in authority within the boundary that God has set.

A key factor in the current situation is how the unregistered church now engages government. This kind of engagement is happening not only in big events such as the March and November meetings, but more significantly it is also taking place on a routine basis at the grassroots level with profound effect. Many unregistered church pastors and leaders meet on a regular basis with a Public Security Bureau official or a police officer to discuss a broad range of topics. These exchanges in the past were mere interrogations. These days they are more often seen by many church leaders as an opportunity for a discussion about mutual concerns. This act of reaching out exemplifies the manner in which many urban unregistered church leaders are building bridges of trust with government.

Christianity continues to gain ground as a legitimate area of intellectual pursuit as well as a legitimate topic within China’s ongoing social discourse. As recently as 15 years ago, only one Chinese university featured a Christianity Research Institute independent of the religious bureaucracy and control. Today there are more than 30.

The strides for the cause of religious freedom have primarily resulted from positive interaction between China’s own people and their government. Chinese officials are watching and carefully weighing the future role of the church in Chinese society. In this very fluid environment, the international Christian community has an opportunity to be proactive in supporting Christians who are carving out a new space for the church in Chinese society and in encouraging government officials to take risks in not merely allowing but also sanctioning a new degree of religious freedom.

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