The hard choices that China’s churches make

Published September 1, 2005


Westerners are often baffled at the rate of Christian conversions in China – where public evangelism is banned, where the state imposes regulations on religion and where Christianity continues to carry the baggage of a colonial past when missionaries were seen as collaborators of the colonizers.

Three stories illustrate the state of Christianity in Communist China today:

Cao Yu Ling’s journey into Christianity came by way of a miracle a few years ago. Cao had been seriously ill and a neighbour suggested that she go to a “house church,” (a house where people gather to worship) where Christians could pray for her healing. Cao got well. She is now employed as a lay leader at a “meeting point” (an informal worship space attached to an officially-sanctioned church) with about 500 members located in the rural county of Fangshan, about 50 kilometres southwest of the city centre.

Bei Bi Tan (not her real name) says that her mother, struggling with an unhappy marriage, found solace in a Christian church and encouraged her to go with her. Bei, who is in her late 20s, said, however, that her attraction to Christianity came after reading Western novels, which had references to religion. Intrigued by the world outside Nanjing, where she grew up, Bei begged her parents to let her study theology in England. It was the mid-1990s and China’s “market socialism” was underway; affluent Chinese families were sending their children overseas to study. In England, Bei recalled standing in awe at Coventry Cathedral and feeling that she had a calling to serve God. She now teaches medieval history at a theological school.

David Shi, who is in his mid-30s, said that his grandparents passed on their Christian faith to him. His father had been raised a Seventh Day Adventist, his mother a Baptist, but religion disappeared from their lives during the Cultural Revolution. Both are now members of the Communist Party. David chose a different path – encouraged by his grandparents, he studied theology at a seminary in the Philippines; he now works at the overseas relations department of the National Committee of Three-Self Patriotic Movement of Protestant Churches in China/China Christian Council (TSPM/CCC).

Whether by way of miracles, exposure to Western culture and ideals, the influence of grandparents, an aching need to fill a void in one’s life, and for some, the notion that religion fosters material prosperity, the reality is that the number of Christians in China – those attending churches officially recognized by government or the so-called “underground churches” that refuse to register with state authorities – is growing. Protestants who numbered 700,000 before the 1949 Communist takeover are now 16 million in officially registered churches.

The explosion of Christianity in China (although still a minority religion in this land of 1.3 billion) is, however, often greeted with mixed reactions – including suspicion – especially in the West.

The suppression of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, Tibetan Buddhism and groups which rebel against state controls on religion, as well as the government’s insistence that churches register with its Religious Affairs Bureau (RAB), continue to make some churches and human rights groups wary about declaring that religious liberty exists in China.

“Although religious practice is tolerated, official Communist Party doctrine holds that religion, as a belief structure and an organizational arrangement, will eventually wither and die,” the New York-based Human Rights Watch said in its recent survey on religious freedom. “Until such time, the Chinese government believes religion must be strictly controlled to prevent it from becoming a political force or an institution capable of competing with the state for the loyalty of China’s citizens. The state’s policy is to avoid alienating believers or driving them underground, but rather to harness their energies towards China’s development along the lines envisioned by the Party.” Registration of churches, “brings monitoring and vetting of religious personnel, congregant activities, finances and publications,” it added.

Some have viewed the TSPM/CCC – whose leaders have been cooperating with the government and who once recognized Mao Tse Tung’s peasant revolt as a necessary solution to societal ills– as state instruments to control Protestant Christianity.

TSPM/CCC was a creation of the communist government, wrote David Aikman, former Time Magazine Beijing bureau chief, in his book, Jesus in Beijing. “The CCC was formed in the 1980s to provide China’s Protestant Christian church hierarchy just a little distance from the government organization established by the Communist Party in the 1950s to take control of Chinese Protestantism.” The TSPM, he said, was “an administrative entity designed to ensure that all the activities of China’s officially approved Protestant churches conformed to Beijing’s political and social objectives.”

Its leaders have maintained, however, that TSPM was launched as an initiative of Chinese Christians in response to the call of patriotism in the 1950s. To achieve this goal, some church

leaders have become representatives of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), described as “an important organ for the development of multi-party cooperation and political consultation under the leadership of the CPC (Communist Party of China).”

CCC, on the other hand, was launched in 1980 to promote church “unity within diversity,” they said.

Some evangelical churches around the world – who support the underground churches – have labeled officially-sanctioned churches as “not real Christians.”

The Canadian ecumenical delegation that visited China in April disagreed.

“I sincerely believe that they are Christians who are trying to live their faith in difficult circumstances and sometimes they have to live with restrictions in their society,” said Bern Jagunos, the United Church in Canada’s area secretary for east Asia and the Philippines. “We saw the effort of Chinese churches to be real churches in China. They are burdened with a colonial past, of having a religion that is viewed as an imposition from outside. The fact that they’re in a minority church means that they have to prove that they are rooted in the people and that they’re trying to shed their missionary colonial history.” She added: “They have to show the people that the church has a message for them and that it has a role of being a faithful witness in Chinese society.”

Ron Wallace, the Presbyterian Church in Canada’s associate secretary for international ministries, said he believed China’s church leaders were faced with a difficult choice after the revolution. “Do you maintain a visible church or do you go underground?” he asked. “People make different choices. Those who had to make a choice saw a church that in 1949 had 740,000 members and now there are 16 million. When you consider what happened, it’s an incredible phenomenon.”

Canadian Anglican, Presbyterian and United churches have reiterated their commitment to continue their partnership with China’s mainstream churches.

“We don’t do mission work in China, we’re there as partners,” said Ms. Jagunos.

(Historical connections between the Chinese and Canadian churches, which date back to the 1800s, were cut short by the 1949 revolution. “Except as a Cold War ‘bogeyman,’ China largely faded from the Canadian worldview during the 1950s and early 1960s. Little was heard except for the occasional passionate voices of former China missionaries who recalled for Canadians the dire poverty endured by most Chinese people prior to 1949, which was now being addressed and ameliorated by socialism,” wrote Cynthia McLean in an article on the Canada China Programme, published in the book Coalitions for Justice. Contact was resumed in 1972, when Protestant and Roman Catholic churches formed the China Working Group, which advocated for and encouraged the engagement process with China and sought to interpret the new China to Canadians. Relationships were formally re-established in 1981.)

Delegation members said that they are aware that Chinese churches are hamstrung by regulations imposed by government but they believe they are doing the best that they can under difficult circumstances.

“It’s important to impress on people that there are restrictions on how they exercise their faith but they do try to bring better relations with government so that the church can function better,” said Ms. Jagunos. “They’re trying to dialogue so there’s a bigger space.” Some fruits of this dialogue included the return of some churches confiscated during the revolution.

“They (Chinese churches) have to always be careful. But they haven’t compromised the Gospel,” said Mr. Wallace. “There’s no prophetic role for the church under an authoritarian dictatorship. But if you look at the faith of the people in the pews, it’s amazing.”

For now, churches have been living out their faith by engaging in social work all the while mindful that it cannot be seen as competing with the government. (That’s not to say that Chinese Christians have for the most part been silent about social issues. Some seminarians were known to have participated in the 1989 student-led demonstrations in Tiananmen.)

The Chinese government has been tolerant, at least of officially sanctioned churches, which it sees as helpful in promoting “social stability” and creating “good citizens.”

But with the continuing expansion of the market economy in China and a growing restlessness among members of the population marginalized by this new set up, churches in China may have to face the challenge of interpreting their “contextual ministry” even further. How the government will react to a church assuming a more prophetic role is anybody’s guess.


  • Marites N. Sison

    Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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