Yangshuo, China

Christianity in China

God and Caesar in China: Policy Implications of Church-State Tensions

Jason Kindropp and Carol Lee Hamrin, editors. God and Caesar in China: Policy Implications of Church-State Tensions. Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2004. 200 pages, including Notes, Suggested Reading, and Index. Paper. ISBN 0-8157-4937-6.

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CC Senior Associate Dr. Carol Lee Hamrin co-edited this collection of excellent essays, which delivers more than it promises, which is not surprising, given the credentials of the nine contributors from both sides of the Pacific. All are leading specialists on church-state relations.

Though its title, and especially the sub-title, would lead you to think that God and Caesar in China deals mostly with church-state tensions, this tightly-edited book really represents one of the best overviews of Christianity in modern China.

An unusually fine Introduction by Kindropp describes the basic contours of church-state tensions in China and their bearing on U.S.- China relations; explains the organization of the book; and summarizes the contents of each chapter.

Daniel Bays then shows that the Chinese state has always tried to control religion, and has always distrusted the potentially explosive energy of unregulated popular movements. The Taiping Rebellion, as well as the church-inspired “revolutions” in Eastern Europe, serve as reminders to the current regime of the subversive possibilities presented by Christians if they become sufficiently aroused and organized to take political action.

Mickey Spiegel explains how “Control and Containment in the Reform Era” differs from previous efforts to eradicate religion in Communist China. Detailed examination of the methods used by the government paints a picture of wide-ranging, though greatly-varied, attempts to keep Christians on a very short leash. The question is, however, whether the government realizes how counter-productive such repression may turn out to be.

Kim-kwong Chan explores the implications of entry into the WTO for Chinese society, including the religious sector. There will be great social upheaval as China adjusts to globalization. In particular, “transnational interaction, resurgent regionalism, and internal mobility” will probably lead to continued growth in the number of adherents to all religions, including Christianity. The government has responded with “recognition [of religious groups], containment, guidance, nationalism, and suppression.” The problem is that “the more the government tries to control and suppress religion, the more religion can turn into a destabilizing force by going underground and using discontented social elements to turn against the regime.”

Jean-Paul Wiest gives us a very helpful survey of the successive efforts by Roman Catholics at “setting down roots” up to 1949. Of note: Roman Catholics have almost always had to struggle against the perception (and, often, the reality) that they were working under the authority of foreign powers; this gave their opponents ammunition for criticism and frequent persecution. In “Catholic Conflict and Cooperation in the People’s Republic of China,” Richard Madsen carries the story up to 2003.

Two chapters trace the history of Protestantism since 1949. Yihua Xu demonstrates that the “Official” Church grew out of the “liberal” wing in early – 20th century Protestantism, especially the YMCA- Episcopal Church-St. John’s College nexus. In “Fragmented yet Defiant: Protestant Resilience under Chinese Communist Party Rule,” Jason Kindopp traces the sometimes fierce, yet ultimately futile, attempts of the government to suppress or contain rapid growth. At the grass-roots level, even the TSPM eludes the total control that it seeks. At the same time, unregistered “house” churches continue to increase in numbers, organizational strength, political sophistication, and integration into world-wide Christianity. The government can be thankful that they are so far largely apolitical, but who can tell when sustained pressure will create an explosion?

The final two chapters present policy implications for the governments of the United States and China as they face their own internal political dynamics, the “staying power of religion” in both societies, and the fundamental clash of cultural assumptions that has caused so much misunderstanding and friction.

Peng Liu explains why the U.S. and China approach religious freedom entirely differently, and recommends that “The Chinese government must accept …the fact that there is no way to change the faith of Americans or lesson their concern about religious freedom in other countries. There is also no realistic hope that the U.S. government will support or praise China’s traditional approach to religion…”

On the other hand, “The U.S. government,… should not package religion as an item on the political agenda and should especially avoid using it for political leverage.” This only increases the perception that Christianity in China is a tool of American foreign policy.

Carol Lee Hamrin outlines the history and causes of the current Sino-American impasse over religious freedom. At the same time, there are a number of forces that could, and may, lead to greater religious freedom in China, including the growing awareness that the non-profit “third sector” of society is essential for healthy growth.

She concludes that the U.S. must not rely on public pressure at the top to change China’s religious policy. “Critical publicity and advocacy must continue to address immediate egregious abuses; at the same time, there should be long-term engagement to promote cultural tolerance and institutional change. This… must come from networking with groups that have a stake in human rights protection, both inside and outside of China and at all levels and in all sectors of society.”

Hamrin lays out a very creative approach, which would focus on the provincial and local level in China, and involve a wide array of incentives for Chinese officials to treat believers in accord with international (not just American) norms.

One reviewer put it well: “To my knowledge, there is no other publication that gives such an excellent overview of the Christian experience in China and presents such original discussion of the policy implications of U.S. and Chinese religious policies.”