Christian churches have been popping up in China at an increasing rate since the 1980s, after the end of the savagely anti-religious Cultural Revolution period. While this may initially appear to be a huge step forward for faith in a country that is, of course, still officially anti-religious, it should come as no surprise that the regime’s openness to organized religion is strategic. In a calculated response to the proliferation of rebellious underground churches, the Chinese government has now established a nondenominational “Chinese Christian theology” which seems suspiciously aligned with all the government’s endeavors.
Wu Weiqing is the pastor of one of China’s relatively new religious establishments: Beijing’s Haidian Church. He graduated from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, and also serves as vice president of Beijing Christian Council and as a member of the Beijing Municipal People’s Congress. He reads the Bible daily and preaches the saving message of Christ—but he also spreads a message of cooperation and acceptance of China’s communist government.
John Sudworth with BBC News asked Weiqing during an interview whether he thinks that, were Christ alive today, He would be supportive of communism. “His reply comes without hesitation: ‘Absolutely. I think so.’” Not only does Weiqing believe that the founder of Christianity would support an ideology that has killed 65 million in China alone, he takes it a step further in his reminder to Chinese Christians. “We have to remember first of all we are a citizen of this country. And we are a citizen of the Kingdom of God. That comes second.” The Chinese government has worked very hard to make sure that messages such as this are being preached from the pulpits.
In fact, many church decisions are made primarily by the state. The Chinese government rejects the notion of separate Protestant denominations, and instead insists that citizens be unified within one non-denominational church. Catholics and non-Christian religions are also allowed, but with heavy moderation and state involvement as well. This is only feasible due to the active, controlling presence that the government maintains in church affairs. For example, a government department, the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA), is in charge of interpreting religious texts, assigning members of the clergy (from government-sanctioned seminaries), and ensuring that religious congregations meet Party standards.
The director of SARA, Wang Zuo’an, is quite open about the true goals for the church in China. He has expressed his desire that “each religion will continue to develop love of country, love of religion… [and] vigorously advocate the concept of religious harmony and go a step further in strengthening ideological construction.” His predecessor, Ye Xiaowen, was equally focused on keeping Christianity in line with the communist regime. He took steps to replace loyalty to the Pope with devotion to the government-sanctioned Catholic Association of China for Chinese Catholics; indeed, the Chinese Catholic church is not even in communion with Rome for the time being.
Yet the war on religious liberty is a mere symptom of the overall ideological climate in Xi Jinping’s China. The last year has seen both a renewed emphasis on communist ideology and a violent suspicion of foreign philosophies. Chinese leader Xi Jinping clearly views open access to religion as a threat against his vision for the future, which includes an emphasis on “making religions more Chinese, in part by disconnecting them from foreign ‘infiltration’ and influence.”
This agenda is being pursued with brute force and determination. Attacks on religion are as varied as they are numerous. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom reports that, during 2017, “the [Chinese] government continued to detain, imprison, and torture countless religious freedom advocates, human rights defenders, and religious believers.” They also furthered their campaign to remove crosses and religious imagery from Christian churches, going so far as to command that villagers in southeastern China replace images of Christ with portraits of Xi. Attendees of private churches risk harassment, while members of one congregation were beaten, imprisoned, and forcibly removed from a church deemed illegal. The church in question was later destroyed by government officials. China’s violations against religious liberty have kept it on the US State Department’s list of “countries of particular concern” for two decades.
Evidence suggests that their campaign has not been entirely successful, however. Fenggang Yang, a professor of sociology at Purdue University, calculates that China is on track to become the largest Christian country in the world, with numbers reaching 160 million by 2025. For those worshippers who are understandably suspicious of state-sanctioned churches, millions gather in home churches to pray and study in secret. The thirst for fulfillment has been steadily building throughout decades of sterile and soul-denying communist rhetoric; now citizens are turning to a message of faith, hope, and love. Christianity is proving especially attractive to young adults.
Today, instead of banning religion outright—which always threatens to make it mysterious and countercultural, and thus attractive—the Chinese regime is attempting to appropriate it. In offering their version of Christianity, the state is attempting to take advantage of the draw to religion by making church a platform for its communist message. Any form of worship that does not fall neatly within this agenda is mercilessly persecuted.
In short, the regime is controlling what it can, and destroying what it can’t. Neither government officials nor believers are quite sure where this trend is going to lead. Until individuals in China are free to choose their own mode of worship—separate from government-appointed ministers and government-written texts—the state of religion is still in jeopardy.