The state in which Christianity in China finds itself is not obvious for the casual observer. On face value worship is openly allowed (I have attended mixed Chinese-English services for example) and churches are evident everywhere. At the same time one hears of persecution, torture and even executions amongst Christians in China.
Christianity in China is a broad term including Catholics, Protestants and a handful of more Eastern Orthodox Christians. These denominations are controlled by government through several councils and associations. There are also independent house-churches independent from government. It is these house churches who are under pressure.
In a book openly available in Chinese bookshops “Christianity in China” and published by the China Intercontinental Press, author Luo Weihing describes the history of Christianity in China. According to this officially endorsed version, what started out as English missionary work early in the 19th century has grown to 3 million in 1979 and an estimated 16 million Christians in 2002. The composition of Christianity also changed from elderly, women, illiterates and the sick earlier to a larger ratio of middle-aged, youth and intellectuals in the 1990’s. What these numbers do not reveal is the amount of Christians in house churches; one source estimating this to be between 20 at 50 million people growing at 7% pa (see “Acquinted with Grief” by Alan Harvey).
In the transitions towards communist China, Luo describes how as a “foreign religion” Christianity posed many contradictions for Chinese people:
“ Enlightened by Premier Zhou, the Christian leaders realized that the difficulties Christianity faced were due to its notorious history being connected to Western colonialism”
That was 1950 and led to the emergence of the principles of self-rule, self-reliance and self-development in Chinese Christian churches. Around two-thirds of Christians at that time subscribed to this “independence under communist rule”. Patriotism, cutting of ties with Western churches and an anti-US campaign for example quickly became part of official Chinese Christianity. During the cultural revolution from 1966-1976 the Christian churches were closed and religious activities banned. The restoration of these arrangements started again in earnest in 1980.
The 200 000 or so Christians who did not subscribed to this independence under communist rule, formed the backbone of the house churches. The book “Acquinted with Grief” by Alan Harvey describes the role of Wang Mindao, also called the “Dean of the House Churches” and the founder of the Chinese Church in Christ. Wang was arrested and imprisoned for over twenty years up to his release in 1980. He argued that if Christians would go in a union with the state, ideological pressure would gut the church of its message and mission.
In the early 1980’s thousands of house church leaders were sent to labour camps. Up to 1989, two years before Wang’s death, pressure on the house churches has eased. In the build-up to the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989, the ruling Party’s influence eroded and Christian churches grew. Interpreted as a challenge to authority, house church leaders were once again under threat and house church leaders were send to labour camps (2001) or even executed (2006).
It appears as if the communist state wants to portray a sense of tolerance, but at times startle with their fierce crackdowns on those who are independently organised.This includes the house churches, but also other so-called ‘evit cults’ such as the Fulan Gong.
Understanding these contradictory signals from the Party would require a deep study on its roots. One explanation is that an off an atheistic and materialistic state irked by the superstition and anti-scientific behaviour of ‘evil cults’. At a deeper level I think it has all to do with an uncontrollable grass-roots influence on society which seems to challenge the authoritarian and nationalistic nature of the Party. China wants to be the best and biggest in the world, an urge born from sources such as the historical oppression of Chinese by foreigners, the failure of Mao’s 20th century communism and the human urge for absolute power. Earlier rebellions were at times associated with some form of Christianity as well.
In such a context it is not a big step to reason that Christianity, if not contained within and submerged to the purpose of the Chinese state, will be a potentially destructive social force that Party leaders will have to deal with. Given the nature of Chinese ambition, the history of rebellion, the eroding powers of the Party internally, the rise of Christianity and the rise of Chinese power internationally one can reasonably expect a continuous heavy hand on Christians who function independently from the state-controlled churches.
This is not the only way though. One can only hope that the churches will be allowed to show what it really means to be Christian in this world. If Christian house churches are allowed to practice their believes in the open, it will be for all to see that this is not a revolutionary challenge to the state. I agree with Thomas Harvey that the Party leadership need to think seriously about giving Christians freedom to really be self-organised, self-ruled and self-reliant. This will be a tell-tale investment in the harmonious society they so much want.