The Middle Kingdom’s Problem with Religion

Faced with an astonishing revival of Christianity in China, Beijing is reacting with a mixture of alarm, repression and control

While church attendance continues to fall in the West and Christians are being driven out of the Middle East under Islamist pressure, China is moving in the opposite direction. In 2011 the Pew Research Center, a Washington-based think-tank, estimated that there were 67 million Chinese Christians, about 5 per cent of the total population. Of these, 58 million were Protestant and nine million Catholic. Their number exceeds that of members of the Communist Party (CCP). 

A comparison with the situation just before the Communist Revolution — and even more so with that at the end of the Cultural Revolution — reveals the magnitude of change. In 1949 there were about three million Catholics and nearly one million Protestants. By Mao’s death in 1976 religion in China, including Christianity, appeared to have been snuffed out. 

The rise in the number of Protestants, many of them Pentecostals, has been described as the greatest revival Christianity has ever known. There is even talk that by the middle of this century, Chinese Christians could outnumber those in the United States, at present more than 170 million and declining, making China the most populous Christian country on earth. The emergence of the Middle Kingdom as the second largest global economy is not the only story of explosive growth since Deng Xiaoping wrested power from the Maoists.

Common to both has been the desire of the CCP to retain ultimate control. In material terms that has led to crony capitalism characterised by a widening gap between rich and poor. In the spiritual sphere it has split believers between those belonging to churches registered with the state and those which are not. It is the second category which the government targets.

Life became tougher for dissidents of whatever stripe under the decade-long rule of Hu Jintao. Taking the last few years alone, remember the empty chair in Oslo which should have been occupied by the imprisoned pro-democracy campaigner Liu Xiaobo, winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize; or the arrest of the artist Ai Weiwei the following year. Both cases, deeply damaging to China’s image overseas, betrayed a heightened nervousness among its leaders.

Abroad, this has been fuelled by the wave of protest, revolution and war which since 2010 has swept across the Arab world, a reminder to all seemingly entrenched regimes of the precariousness of power. At home, pressure for political reform, prompted by economic transformation of the cities and disgust at corruption, has grown.

From Zhongnanhai, the Beijing compound of the party leadership, certain forms of protest appear to threaten the fabric of the state itself. In Tibet, the melancholy regularity of self-immolation by fire demonstrates how far the local population is from accepting Han colonisation. And a more militant form of Tibetan Buddhism than that preached by the Dalai Lama is infiltrating other parts of the country.

In the western region of Xinjiang, Muslim Uighurs continue to mount violent protests against Han domination. In 1933 and 1944 the weakness of central rule allowed the local population to declare a Republic of East Turkestan. That lesson is not lost on the CCP.

Christianity does not present the same secessionist challenges. But its links with the outside world worry a leadership which easily imagines that it is surrounded by hostile powers bent on its overthrow. 

In Redeemed by Fire, his book on Protestantism in modern China (Yale University Press, 2010), Lian Xi writes of a movement marked by “a potent mix of evangelistic fervour, biblical literalism, charismatic ecstasies, and a fiery eschatology not infrequently tinged with nationalistic exuberance”. That makes for a volatile mix. Far greater numbers of Protestants belong to unregistered churches than to those affiliated with the government-controlled Three-Self — self-governing, self-financing and self-propagating — Patriotic Movement (TSPM). The former enjoy strong support in the US, where some Evangelicals envisage Christianity’s becoming China’s dominant religion, thus turning the country into an ally in the struggle against radical Islam. 

The sheer diversity of Chinese Protestantism makes such overseas contacts very difficult to control. There are thousands of foreign missionaries, ostensibly students, language teachers and businessmen, from North America, Taiwan, South Korea and Scandinavia, at work in the country. 

With Catholicism, members of the churches registered with the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) outnumber those who are not. But both, in varying degrees, feel the magnetic pull of the papacy. In a letter to Chinese Catholics in 2007, Pope Benedict XVI called on the registered and unregistered churches to unite, so that all of them could come into communion with Rome. Aware of the immense potential of China, he reminded Catholics of their missionary vocation. “For 2,000 years”, he wrote, “Christ’s followers have carried out this mission. Now, at the dawn of the third millennium, it is your turn. It is your turn to go out into the world to preach the message of the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes.”

This astonishing vision of China as a global evangelistic powerhouse — any more than that of their country as an American ally against radical Islam — cannot have made comfortable reading for the Communist Party.

The drive to extirpate religion in China died with the end of the Cultural Revolution. Article 36 of the 1982 constitution guarantees freedom of religious belief and the CCP has since tried to harness what it now accepts as an integral part of national life to promote a “harmonious” society, the leitmotif of Hu’s term of office, and the furtherance of economic growth.

The most striking synthesis of religious belief and material prosperity can be found in the eastern port of Wenzhou, which has become a byword for entrepreneurial drive since Deng opened the economy to the outside world. The city has an unusually high percentage of Christians, among whom are managers convinced that the values of honesty and personal responsibility inculcated by Christian teaching are good for business. The Protestant work ethic has found a new home in post-revolutionary China. 

Provided you are not seen by the government as disruptive, being a Christian is not difficult in China today. If you do step over that line, defined by the constitution as making use of religion “to engage in activities that disrupt public order”, the consequences can be harsh. The authorities believe in exemplary punishment, what a Chinese proverb calls “killing the chicken to frighten the monkeys” and, having identified a target, pursue it ferociously.

For example, the Shouwang Church in Beijing, the largest of the unregistered Protestant groups in the city, has been hounded by the police over the past two years. Having been locked out of property it had either rented or bought, its congregation has been forced to hold services in the open air. Members have been arrested, evicted from their homes and jobs or deported to the towns from which they came. Gao Zhisheng, a Christian human rights lawyer, currently imprisoned in north-west China, has been in and out of detention since 2006. After one of his releases, he said he had been tortured and threatened with death if he spoke about what had happened.

Ma Daqin, the Auxiliary Bishop of Shanghai, has not been seen in public since last July, when he declared at his consecration that he was leaving the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association to devote more time to the pastoral needs of the diocese. The CCPA and its associated Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China promptly withdrew recognition from him. The gravity of this case is that Ma’s appointment was approved by both the Chinese government and the Holy See, part of a slow rapprochement between the two sides which has now suffered a severe setback. Reversing it will be one of the toughest diplomatic challenges facing Pope Francis I.

The life of Jin Luxian, the 96-year-old Bishop of Shanghai, provides a fascinating insight into the Vatican’s attitude towards China under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. A Jesuit, Jin spent 27 years (1955-82) under house arrest, in re-education camps or in prison for being part of a “counter-revolutionary clique”. The devastating experience of the Cultural Revolution convinced him that the interests of Chinese Catholics were best served by co-operating with the government, so he became the CCPA-appointed bishop of China’s most populous city in 1988. The bishop approved by the Vatican, Ignatius Kung Pin-mei, who had been consecrated in 1950, found himself powerless in his own diocese after being freed on parole from a life sentence in 1985. He left to receive medical treatment in the United States and never returned. In 1979 John Paul II had secretly created him a cardinal.

However, the same pope tacitly approved the presence of papal representatives at Jin’s consecration as auxiliary bishop in 1985, and his successor, Benedict XVI, invited him to attend a synod in Rome in 2005, only to have the Chinese government turn down the invitation on his behalf. 

The Vatican’s nuanced treatment of Jin recognises his outstanding success in making Shanghai once again the powerhouse of Catholicism in China. He has reopened more than 100 churches in the city, set up the most important seminary in the country, sent seminarians abroad to study, and created a diocesan publishing house and retreat centre. In considering the spiritual wellbeing of Catholic communities around the world, the Holy See thinks long-term and, in the person of Jin, appears to have concluded that his achievements outweigh his apparent disloyalty. 

Nevertheless, the bishop remains a highly controversial figure, both within the Society of Jesus and among Christians in Shanghai. The first volume of his Memoirs (Hong Kong University Press, 2012) is remarkable for its bitter judgment of Kung as someone who put local Catholics at risk by “mindlessly executing anti-Communist orders” at the instigation of the Holy See. 

Divisions between the registered and unregistered churches are reflected in the Commission for the Catholic Church in China set up by Pope Benedict in 2007. On one hand are those advocating rapprochement with the government on the lines of the Ostpolitik pursued by Cardinal Agostino Casaroli towards the Soviet bloc after the Second Vatican Council; on the other, those who take a harder line. The present Bishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal John Hon, favours the first approach, his predecessor, Cardinal Joseph Zen, the second. Pope Francis, a Jesuit, is likely to give China a high priority.

Christianity as a Chinese-driven phenomenon has entered the DNA of the world’s most populous nation. The government accepts this but will strike hard at any religious activity which it deems to be an existential threat. The supreme example since Mao’s death was its suppression of Falun Gong, a Chinese religion combining Buddism, mysticism and traditional exercises, after more than 10,000 of its followers gathered in silence outside Zhongnanhai in 1999, the biggest opposition protest since Tiananmen Square.

Christianity has been and remains a modernising influence in China. In the 16th and 17th centuries Jesuits brought the latest scientific learning from Europe, in the 19th century Catholic and Protestant missionaries promoted the education of girls. Today the Christian message offers a way of navigating the rapids of breakneck change.

After the Hu decade, the country is waiting to see what his successor, Xi Jinping, will make of his expressed desire for reform. The two years before the change of leadership last December were especially hard for the unregistered churches as the government stepped up efforts to corral them into the Three-Self Patriotic Movement or the CCPA. That experience has widened the gap between those who have registered and those who have not. 

The phenomenal growth in the number of believers may have reached a plateau but Christianity remains a potent, if fragmented, force. If China at last takes the road of fundamental political liberalisation, history indicates that the 5 per cent of the population who follow Christ will play a much bigger role than their relative size would suggest.

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