Government regulation of religion
Governments have regulated, and even restricted, religious activities since very early times. Since 1950, The People’s Republic of China has regulated all forms of public life, including religious life, Christianity included. Even today, all religious bodies in Taiwan must be registered with the government. This is not unique to the Communists.
Governments have usually promoted a state orthodoxy – usually Confucianism – from the Han Dynasty to the “Five People’s Principles” of the KMT and the “Chinese-style socialism” of current CCP. No religious organization in China was able to effectively challenge the supremacy of the state, even in spiritual matters.(1)
Governments have feared rebellions involving religious organizations, such as the White Lotus Rebellion, the pseudo-Christian Taiping Rebellion, and the Boxer Rebellion (which the Qing diverted to anti-Western and Japanese, and especially Christian, interests). These rebellions were especially numerous during the later dynasties, meaning that the historical memory of them is close to the surface.
In particular, especially since the late Qing, itinerant propagators of sectarian religions has threatened the government, which fears that they might lead to rebellions. Such itineration has at various times been legally prohibited.
Christians have been involved in some anti-government movements at various points. Sun Yat-sen, who led revolutionary efforts that culminated in the 1911 revolution, was a professing Christian. Christians were prominent in the government of the Republic of China. For example, the KMT leaders Chiang Kai-shek and Li Deng-hui were professing Christians. Christianity is therefore linked with anti-communism. Other examples include Taiwanese Presbyterian Church pro-independence activism and foreign intervention by the “Free China” lobby in the U.S. in the 1950s especially, which featured prominent missionaries, like Senator Walter Judd.
Of these, perhaps the major fear here is the Taiping Rebellion, even though it was a quasi-Christian movement.
Foreign missionaries – especially Roman Catholic but also Protestant – often invoked their government’s diplomatic and even military intervention to protect their “rights” or those of their converts in the Qing era. These “missionary cases” remain a sore point for historians of Christianity in China. Even today, Christianity and imperialism are closely linked in the minds of many Chinese people, and especially in the thinking of Communist leaders, since this notion has long been an important element of orthodox Communist doctrine.(2)
At the start, when they still thought that the Taiping rebellion was a Christian movement, foreign governments came close to supporting the Taiping effort to topple the Qing.
Foreign Christians have played active roles in anti-government campaigns. Foreign missionaries often approved of, and sometimes participated in, both military and diplomatic efforts to open up China to commerce in the 19th century. Likewise, foreign missionaries made no secret of their support for the Nationalists in the civil war in their struggle with the Communists from the 1920s to the end of the civil war in 1949.
The leaders of China are quite aware of the role of Christians in the toppling of communist governments in Eastern Europe and in later “Color Revolutions.” They know that the United States was fully supportive of these changes in regime. The prominent and influential anti-Communist position of Pope John Paul II reinforced this view of “Western” Christianity as a potential destabilizing influence.
Therefore, the current government of the PRC has reasons to believe that Christian organizations and activity, and foreign connections with Chinese Christians, pose a real threat to their regime.
The government of the PRC continues to regulate all religious activity, including Christians. The Communist Party wants to slow the growth of religion, seeing it as an implicit challenge to their ideological hegemony and fearing that it might be used to mobilize political opposition.
The fact that unregistered house churches often form large, highly-organized networks, and that they grow through itinerant evangelism, reminds political leaders of similar movements in China’s history which, as we have seen, have often proved to be seditious and revolutionary.
The sudden appearance and organizational ability of the Falun Gong sect alerted them to the potential for a very quick mobilization of religious believers for public protest.(3)
They are also fully aware of the presence of thousands of foreign Christians in China today, both Caucasian and ethnic Chinese – many from Taiwan and the U.S. – who live and work in China partly, or even mainly, to propagate a religion which has had volatile political impact in various times and places in the past.
Because of their own obsession with political power, they cannot imagine any non-political motive for maintaining an organization without registering with the government. They assume a subversive intent. Arguments like, “Christ is the head of the Church” mean nothing to them.(4)
Nor can they believe that Christians in China are different from those in some other countries, such as Eastern Europe. They do not understand that the vast majority of Protestant Christians, including those in unregistered churches, are essentially a-political and have no intention of working to overthrow the government. This is simply not something that they can conceive of as a possibility – such is their blindness and prejudice. (Some CCP leaders do recognize to some degree that Christians are law abiding and essentially apolitical, but they fear that this could change, and so they do not trust the Christians.)
The government is aware of the fragile nature of its power, with communism as an ideology widely regarded as bankrupt; rampant corruption deeply resented; and widespread unemployment connected with entry into the WTO and other provocations leading to thousands of violent demonstrations in recent years. It desperately seeks to promote a “harmonious society,” and cannot look with favor upon any group which makes a sharp distinction between different sorts of people – such as “believers” and “nonbelievers” and “saved” and “unsaved.”
Therefore, the government continues to require that all associations of churches and charitable organizations register (individual churches are not eligible to register). Associations of churches do not necessarily have to join the TSPM, but they must give information about membership, leadership, finances, and other activities to the pertinent officials. If they do not, then they are immediately suspect. Furthermore, it seems that even these associations are not accepted, since they are not officially approved, as is the TSPM.
Furthermore, TSPM Bishop Ting’s “theological reconstruction,” with its stress upon “justification by love,” is meant to erase any distinction between Christians and non-Christians, in keeping with the “harmonious society” drive of the government. Evangelicals have been purged from leading seminaries as part of this program.
Constant surveillance by the police and even the National Security Bureau; repeated questionings; breaking up of meetings that are too large; closing down or destruction of unregistered venues; fines; imprisonment; beatings; and occasionally even death have been meted out to those who do not cooperate with the government. The extent of harassment and persecution can vary greatly depending on the attitudes of local officials, but CCP policy leaves the door pretty wide open to harsher interpretations and practices.
Likewise, the government wants all foreigners to abide by its regulations, which mostly require cooperation with the officially-recognized organizations (such as the TSPM and Amity Foundation), and strictly limit contact with Christians from unregistered churches. In particular, foreigners must not seek to proselytize Chinese, to teach in non-official venues, or to organize followers within China. Since March, 2007, there have been reports of a very stringent crackdown upon foreigners in China who are identified as Christians and who engage in any kind of Christian activity with local Chinese, and many have reportedly been expelled from China.
Changes in the State’s Approach to Religious Policy
On the other hand, we can see some development in the government’s policy towards religion in the past two decades:
- From diktat through secret Central Directives (like CD #18 of 1982 and CD #6 of 1991) decided purely in Chinese Communist Party policy making circles and shown only to party and government cadre (all CCP members) so THEY know the policy but no one else does.
- To government regulations (several in the mid to late 90s) based on the CDs, vetted in broader circles before decision (e.g. TSPM and other authorized religious leaders, some trusted think tank types); with national (very general) regulations made more transparent to the public and interested international parties mostly for public relations purposes, while more specific national and local implementing directives still are held in internal channels.
- To much more detailed and more widely-publicized and discussed national regulations (2005) to try to curb local excesses in implementation; with the application of OTHER laws to discipline errant cadre in this arena as well as others. SOME incipient domestic discussion of alternative approaches to policy -- maybe legislation; maybe allowing CCP members to be believers, etc.
At least until after the 2008 Olympics, the current situation is expected to continue. Even after that, however, there is little reason why the present regime would relax its efforts to monitor, and even control, religious activities. It would require major changes in Communist Party ideology, and in the recently-promulgated regulations governing religious groups and activities, for restrictions to be lifted. After all, the Party sees its power as dependent on maintaining ideological uniformity.
It seems that most Chinese Christians are willing to live within the present system of religious regulations. Nor are they inclined to engage in political action. They would like to see more openness and freedom of expression and assembly, of course, but they are not planning to participate in political agitation to gain that desire.
Two exceptions to this are the recent appearance of academic conferences and publications that are indirect “lobbying” for a new religion regime (China Law Project); and legal advocacy on behalf of Christian individuals and churches (as well as other suppressed groups) by a Christian lawyers’ association (although this has been recently suppressed).
Foreigners are another matter. Americans especially seem to want to assert their rights, and fight for the rights of Chinese Christians, as they understand them. Those who irritate the government will be asked to leave. If they continue to agitate for reform from outside of China, those with whom they were previously associated may suffer painful consequences, for this will merely “prove” that they were, all along, primarily politically motivated – just as diplomatic and even military activities by missionaries in the 19th century “proved” that they came to China to change the government, not communicate the Gospel.
What about future influence upon the government? Will David Aikman prove to be right in his conjecture that Christians will someday – perhaps soon – permeate so many realms of society that they will become a major, and perhaps even dominant, political factor? No one knows, of course. Chinese governments have tried to eradicate Christianity in the past, with varied success. Could popular resentment against China’s entry into the WTO and other major social challenges, coupled with state-sponsored traditional beliefs such as Confucianism and Buddhism, produce a massive assault on all that is “new” and connected with the West, replicating the Boxer Rebellion?
Or will Christians become so numerous and rooted in society that a future Constantine decides to co-opt the movement for his own political survival? Is a true separation of religion and the government possible in China, so that Christians serve as salt and light, without seeking to wield the levers of power? The 21st century promises to be an exciting time for future historians to discuss at some conference similar to ours in 2107.
- David Aikman, Jesus in Beijing.
- Jason Kindopp and Carol Lee Hamrin, God and Caesar in China: Policy Implications of Church-State Tensions
- Tony Lambert, China’s Christian Millions
- Weihong Luo, Christianity in China. Beijing: China Intercontinental Press, 2004.
AuthorsBy Dr. G. Wright Doyle with Dr. Carol Lee Hamrin and John Barwick
- This was in part because of a strong central government while religious groups were numerous, fragmented, and not very well organized (the opposite of Europe). It was also because Chinese religions lacked the Judeo-Christian notion of a single transcendent God to which even political authorities are accountable.
- See, for example, Christianity in China, by Luo Weihong, published in 2004, which repeats the official line that missionaries were tools of Western imperialist government.
- The CCP response to Falun Gong has had repercussions for all religious groups, including the Christians, even though they have not become special targets of government suppression like Falun Gong.
- There are, of course, elements within the Communist Party that see religious groups as having some social utility, in providing a moral framework and concern for society that is woefully lacking in China today. But it seems that most Party members see religious groups more as a threat and want to keep them small and highly fragmented to minimize the risk of organized opposition. CCP attitudes towards religion are complex, rather than being monolithic.