Chinatown in NYC

Christianity in China

New Initiatives in Religion Circles

T
he official Chinese media in late September reported several new initiatives to be promoted within the TSPM-CCC circles: a “charities” week and a five-year “theological exchange” campaign. As with other such formal pronouncements, "tea leaf reading" is always a fun challenge. The nuances are important; often what is NOT said (the implicit) is more important than what IS said explicitly.

Often too, government pronouncements—in this as in other sectors—in essence are intended to catch up with reality. They legitimize practices already well established.

Reality Check

These initiatives, taken under the umbrella of SARA guidelines distributed in February after the annual religious affairs conference, are yet one more sign that the de facto "competition" between registered and unregistered churches may actually help both expand their scope of action. Whenever the house church pushes the envelope of what is permitted, the TSPM-CCC can argue for the right to do similar things (even if lacking the ability to monopolize them). Just as the official endorsement of churches doing charities is an effort to "catch up" with reality, so the plan to “strengthen” evangelical thinking is an effort to catch the theology train before it leaves the station.

There is a similar dynamic apparent in recent years regarding more and more academic conferences on religion in China, once a taboo topic. These have prompted SARA and other elements of the “religion and minorities” UFD system, including the TSPM-CCC and the Institute of World Religion (IWR) at CASS, to woo universities (such as Georgetown University in D.C.) and think tanks (such as the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in D.C.) to work with them on conferences.

Charity Week

China's State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) launched the first nationwide Week of Religious Charity yesterday (18 Sept), according to its press release and website. SARA hosted a national press conference, with attendants from five "legal" religions and "blessings" from the new UFD head. Perhaps this gathering is intended to extend an olive branch to religious believers and signal better times ahead under new leadership.

The weeklong campaign from September 17-23 began with an opening ceremony and conference in Wuhan. Some 200 representatives from Buddhist, Catholic, Islamic, Protestant and Taoist groups, officials and scholars attended.

Vice-Premier Hui Liangyu urged religious groups to carry out an earlier SARA injunction in February to promote charitable services in a "long-term, institutionalized and standardized" manner. That was the first document officially supporting [registered] religious groups’ participation in public charity, aiming to ensure that these religious groups receive the "same treatment as other social organizations." While Hui’s statement clearly aims to corral social services under the supervision of “patriotic” associations, a level playing field would move “religion” out of the category of especially sensitive groups like labor or political organizations and into the category of civic organizations.

Statistics, for what they’re worth. In SARA's press release, it recognized that China now has more than 100 million religious believers. This is the same “magic” number used since the early 1990s! “From incomplete statistics,” the press release also mentioned that religious donations in China have soared to US$475 million in the last five years, of which more than half are from Christians (especially Catholics).

Theology Exchanges

China Daily reported on 25 September that (with Chinese government backing) the CCC/Three-Self will pursue a campaign to promote theological “publishing, exchanges, discussions and evangelism.” This “theological exchange campaign” to “strengthen theological thinking” will run from 2013 to 2017, and aims to “guide” the country's churches and promote “the spirit of the times” with positive and correct theological thinking through the use of publishing, exchanges, discussions and evangelism. At the announcement ceremony, members of an evangelical group for theological theory were awarded certificates.

The campaign aims to “increase a sense of identification for both pastors and believers and encourage priests and church volunteers to extract morals that are consistent with the times from the Bible, religious doctrines and the traditions of churches in order to encourage believers to make more contributions to the country's economic development, social harmony and cultural prosperity," said CCC president Gao Feng.

Wang Zuoan, director of the State Administration of Religious Affairs, described the campaign as a "major event" in the construction of Chinese Christian theology. Stressing that Christianity should be compatible with the country's socialist society, Wang urged the campaign to make concrete efforts to boost Chinese Christians' qualities concerning politics, belief, law and society.

The good news for proponents of traditional theology here is that Bishop Ting's “theology of love” is nowhere mentioned; this plus an implicit admission of a need for change imply he has no residual authority or even may be on death's door. His liberal "process" theology had been the centerpiece of the Jiang Zemin era’s "theological reconstruction" (in all religions). It inspired a very intrusive government effort to get religions to forgo talk of the supernatural, stress ethics and serve socialism (e.g. "mutual adaptation"). The awards being given now to an "evangelical group," other references to evangelism, plus Gao Feng's guidelines (including Biblical doctrine) are all positive signs.

The possible bad news for unregistered churches: Whenever any government-endorsed agency (here, the TSPM-CCC) is given a mandate to do something (charity; theology), the implicit message is "no one else has the right to do it." From this perspective, a 5 year campaign to "guide" the promotion of "correct" theology is the "same old, same old." Depending on the political "winds" and concrete implementation guidelines (rarely published), this implicit message may be ignored or enforced. Wang Zuo'an's comments not surprisingly put politics first and belief second in the task of improving Christians. But his reference to law, and to society keep the door open for grass-roots efforts to promote rule of law and faith-based NPOs.

Carol Lee Hamrin

For complete reporting in Chinese, please refer to:
http://www.sara.gov.cn/xwzx/xwjj/16524.htm