Last December, while visiting family in Inner Mongolia, I came across a Bible, buried under a high pile of scrap paper, in my uncle’s study.
I was genuinely surprised. As a government official, he should remain atheist, with his sole “religion” being communism. Buddhism might get a pass in the party, but definitely not Christianity. Out of curiousity, I asked him about it.
“It gives me a different perspective on the world, and I appreciate that very much.” He answered somewhat reluctantly, “Don’t tell anyone else, though.”
According to a study by Pew Research, China is home to a total of 67 million Christians, 58 million of whom are Protestants. Purdue University’s Fenggang Yang, a professor of sociology and Chinese religion, predicts that China’s Christian population will expand to 247 million by 2025, putting it as the nation with the largest Christian community in the world. However, official estimates from the Chinese government dispute these figures and place the population at a much lower number. This discrepancy may came about through accounting methods, as the Chinese government’s figure may only account for those attending official, state-sanctioned Christian organizations, thus ignoring the very substantive underground Christian communities that have grown significantly over the last decade.
This large religious population poses a significant threat to the authority of the Chinese Communist Party, whose official pledge is “to protect and respect religion until such time as religion itself will disappear.” China is officially an atheist nation, and although it has gradually become more tolerant of religion in the post-Mao era, the country still holds antagonistic sentiments towards religion, particularly “foreign religion” such as Christianity and Catholicism. Given years of anti-religion propaganda, many Chinese people are still very ignorant about religion and hold disgust towards the notion of it. However, it is nearly impossible to stop the spread of Christianity, which is destined to grow rapidly due to both increased westernization of the country and the return of college students who have been exposed to western religions while studying abroad. The best tactic for the CCP, then, would be to control it.
In a 2014 forum titled the “Sinicization of Christianity” in Shanghai, a government official stated that “the construction of Chinese Christian theology should adapt to China’s national condition and integrate with Chinese culture”, a softer paraphrasing of “the church should fall under the control of the government”. Over the last three years, China has drastically increased its efforts to nationalize Christianity, or religion in general. It has required the church to register with the government. In addition, all legal Protestant churches must belong to state-sanctioned umbrella organizations such as the Three-Self movement or the Chinese Christian Council. By doing so, the government will not only succeed in controlling the rhetoric and the teachings of religion but also possibly eliminate the threat of underground churches by challenging their legality. For example, in recent discussions on China’s state media relevant to evil cults, there have been attempts to establish links between cults with underground churches. For instance, the People’s Daily website and the Global Time, one of the nation’s top government newspapers, opened a barrage of attacks on China’s underground Christian churches by stating that “underground churches and evil cults are spreading like mushrooms… the problem is very urgent.”
Yet even with such heavy public condemnation, many Christians in China have turned to underground churches. Over the last weekend, up to 100 million celebrated Easter across China, with a significant number doing so in “home churches” hosted by individual believers and information spread via private messaging. Although the CCP has not yet instituted any policy that is in fact against the teachings of Christianity, many fear that the room for freedom of worship is going to become much smaller with the Party’s recent emphasis on making religion “compatible with the country’s path of socialism.” By praying in a private, underground setting, pastors are able to preach their interpretations of the Bible without surveillance and believers are free to voice their concerns and queries about the religion that may sometimes raise an eyebrow in state churches. It could also be argued that these underground churches attempt to establish a fallback network in case the CCP decides to initiate a complete ban of Christianity, an act it is very unlikely to take in the near future but is of concern to many practitioners.
“I certainly will not do what the government does not allow me to do, let’s say, preach the gospel in the subway to cause a lot of people to come to me and as a result the street or the road gets blocked.” In a recent interview with BBC, Pastor Wu from the official church in Beijing gave the perfect answer.
Indeed, in a government that has grown increasingly fearful of public congregation, nationalizing large religions is the perfect alternative to a potential crackdown that may bring the CCP criticisms and negative attentions. The attack on Falun Gong, a new religious movement with cult like characteristics, started when large numbers of believers congregated in public places. It has been argued since then that if the government was able to have control over Li Hongzhi and his believers, such persecutions may not need to be necessary and China wouldn’t have to face many of the human right criticisms it faces today.
Yet the tightening of control around Christianity and other western religion may not have stemmed only from fear of public congregations and religious teachings that may go out of the CCP’s control. From around 2013 onwards, the CCP has launched one of its periodic anti-foreigner campaign. Since Xi’s inauguation, a number of multinational corporations have been targeted, with some ejected from the nation. In addition, the rising number of televised foreigner confessions and arrests of foreign nationals marks Xi’s determination to reduce the effect of westernization on the country. As he continues to push hard on the “China Dream” campaign and the ideology of doing everything the “Chinese” way, acts to nationalize Christianity and other western religions may just be a part of a broader plan aimed at reducing foreign, especially western, influences in China.