Tiananmen Square Leader and Other Experts Describe Growth of Christianity in China

Christianity continues to flourish in China. It has spread rapidly throughout Chinese society since the government began relaxing restrictions in 1979. President Xi Jinping is said to have developed a relationship with Pope Francis. Yet tensions and challenges remain for China’s estimated 33 million Christian followers, as the Chinese Communist Party maintains some restrictions and in some cases demolishes houses of worship.

Today, the John L. Thornton China Center hosted two public panel discussions about how Christianity has transformed Chinese society, and continues to do so. For the first panel, Senior Fellow Richard Bush moderated a discussion on the social and political status of Christianity in China with Liu Peng, Carsten Vala and Reverend Zhang Boli. In the second panel, David Aikman, professor of history at Patrick Henry College, moderated a discussion on the ways Christianity impacts Chinese civil society with Jiexia Zhai Autry, Richard Madsen and Zhao Xiao. Below are some excerpts from the first panel. You can listen to the complete audio here:

In their opening remarks, both Cheng Li, director of the China Center, and Richard Bush, director of the Center for East Asian Policy Studies, spoke to the growth of Christianity in China and the link to modern history. Li noted that “Christianity has managed to find a foothold among students, scholars, entrepreneurs and also Chinese in all walks of life including officials. And despite … continued government sanctions of church activities … it is also incredible to consider that Christianity has grown to have more than 30 million followers.”

Bush said that the rise of Christianity is “a key issue for understanding the dynamics of state and society in China. … whether one is religious our not, the survival of religious belief and faith in China from 1949 to 1979 is really one of the most inspiring stories that one could ever come across.” Bush drew a connection to the Tiananmen uprising that began 25 years ago today, saying: “I think it is appropriate to link Christianity in China with Tiananmen because both in a way were a response to the political and moral vacuum in China in the post-Mao period.”

Opportunities and Challenges for Christianity in China

Liu Peng, professor at the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Science, described challenges and opportunities for Christianity in China.

Among the opportunities he described are its rapid growth (some estimate there are over 100 million believers); its broad distribution across China (“it’s hard to find a place without Christian believers,” he said); believers are much younger and better educated now (“it’s no longer considered as old women in the countryside [with] no education,” he explained); and today’s Christians in China have “big social capital with networks, especially for some entrepreneurs and business people.”

Professor Liu pointed to five external challenges for Christianity:

  1. Church-state relations “are not very harmonious.”
  2. QUestions of whether Christianity “is good or bad.” Some in China believe that Christianity “may be a tool used by foreign governments, especially western countries, to overthrow China.” Others see how it can make a “very positive contribution to society to promote social development.”
  3. There is no rule of law on religion, only something between the constitution and administrative regulation.
  4. Social discrimination: Christians cannot join the Chinese Communist Party and become a government employee.
  5. Cultural discrimination:There is a “traditional culture conflict” where people are asked why they believe in Christianity, so there is a feeling of unequal treatment.

Liu also outlined four issues that challenge Christianity in China from an internal, more structural perspective:

  1. Not enough high-quality pastors. “If you don’t have real good, high-quality pastors,” he asked, “how can you make good believers or a good church?”
  2. Insufficient theological training. Liu described theological foundations as “very small and badly needed” and “without a good theological base, you cannot make a good church.”
  3. The negative impact of fundamentalism and charismatic thought. This is a problem, Liu explained, because of the lack of good theological foundations.
  4. Cults, like Eastern Lightning that was responsible for some recent violent crimes, which are growing in China.

Further, Liu explained some challenges stemming from believers themselves. One is that “they don’t have the sense of responsibility as citizens or political and legal rights as constituents.” They don’t “don’t think much about democracy and constitutionalism and how they can make themselves good citizen in modern China. As long as I’m a believer that’s all.”

Finally, Liu spoke to the relationship between China’s Christian sector and the infrastructure of civil society. Just talking religion, he said, “cannot make good religion or good Christianity.” It has to be related with civil society’s infrastructure.

“What does [this mean] for Christianity in China?” he asked in closing. It means:

More challenges with opportunities. … So it depends on Christianity itself. The permit … is not from government. Government may have a good relationship or a bad relationship with Christianity, but what about society? What about culture? What about majority people’s attitude? If they appreciate Christianity or they think [about] Christianity positively, Christianity may have a bright tomorrow. Otherwise, it’s not just simply church-state relations, or religion, or politics. It’s more than that.

Carsten Vala, assistant professor in the department of political science at Loyola University Maryland, spoke on three subjects: he described individual characteristics of Protestants in the Chinese population; he looked at the impact of churches and the Protestant influence on professions; and he examined the relationship of the party state to Christianity.

Characteristics of Chinese Protestants

Professor Vala explained some of the more notable features in the rise of Christianity in China:

  1. It’s rapid expansion. From Prof. Current estimates go as high as 100 million, but Vala thinks the current number is between 40-60 million Protestants and Catholics. He cited one scholar who estimates that by 2030, the population of Christians in China could exceed 250 million, “making it the largest Christian country in the world.”
  2. Chinese Christians are no longer just the “three manys”: women, elderly and sick. Now, the population of Chinese Protestants “looks much like the broader population.” They have “become younger, become more educated, and become more balanced when it comes to their gender.”
  3. Adherents have been believers for only a short period of time. More than 70 percent of Protestants have become believers since 1993.
  4. But Chinese Christianity is maturing and spreading in Chinese society, not only through efforts of Chinese living in CHina but also through ethnic Chinese in the diaspora and non-Chinese Christians living in South Korea, the U.S. and elsewhere.
  5. There are “substantial populations” of Chinese Protestants in universities, including many campus Christian groups that are not affiliated with official churches, which “represents a rise in the status of Christians in society.”
  6. Growth in the arts and writing sectors. In these areas, “there are groups of Protestants who have formed circles on social media … and are expressing their faith through their professions.”
  7. Defense lawyers and constitutional scholars “have made names for themselves by defending weaker groups in society,” including farmers who have had their lands confiscated and members of Falun Gong and other religions.

“If on the one hand Christians are becoming more like the rest of society,” Vala said, “we also see elites in circles such as law, education, the performing arts who are drawing on their faith and their international connections to push for changes in society.”

On the Impact of Churches

“Arguably the greatest impact that Chinese Christianity will have is through the everyday efforts of normal Chinese who are worshipping and attending churches, official and unregistered, in big cities and rural areas,” Vala said. He outlined a few examples:

  1. Chinese Christians gave millions of Chinese yen to help fellow citizens in the aftermath of the 2008 earthquake, and unregistered churches went to the region to do charity work.
  2. Chinese Christians have established hundreds, if not thousands, of schools.
  3. Chinese Christians have created a network of Christian bookstores, “publishing devotionals, study Bibles, popular counseling books” and even translations of works of western religious figures like John Calvin.
  4. They have established marriage and family counseling centers.

On the Church-Party State Relationship

Vala explained the three modes of churches in China: officially registered with the state and supervised by the party organization; unregistered house churches; and “newly emergent urban churches” that try to be above ground and also reject registration.

He said that as relations between the party state and Chinese Christians mature, there is a lessening of distrust as the regime has developed “informal” ways to keep track of what is happening. At the same time, he said, the “Chinese Communist Party state is quite happy to channel the energy of lay people in congregations” to areas such as poverty alleviation and disaster relief as long as the regime does not lose face. Thus, these religious organizations cannot do this work in the name of religion.

On the other hand, the state foes fear an increase in Protestant Christianity. As Vala explained, the Communist Party fears its powers will weaken and in the long-run the rise of Christianity could lead to democracy. He pointed to the experience of the Polish Catholic Church and German Lutheran Church in leading protests that led to the downfall of communist regimes. Also, many in China continue to perceive links between Chinese Christianity and western imperialism, even stemming back to the Opium Wars of the 19th century. “The gunboat and the Bible go together” in party propaganda, he said.

In closing, Vala touched on two key issues: the relative youth of Chinese Christianity and the local reality of local officials getting to know church officials and working together.

Speaking via interpreter, Rev. Zhang Boli, chief pastor of Washington Harvest Chinese Christian Church and himself a leader of the Tiananmen protests, described the fast progress of Chinese Christianity but also significant challenges to it as the government has recently torn down many churches.

Religion a Threat to Chinese Socialism

“In the Blue Book on National Security issued by the Chinese government,” Rev. Zhang said, “it says the pervasiveness of religion is a threat to Chinese socialism.”

“The influence of Christianity,” he said “has now become more important [and is] emerging because of the lack of mainstream values systems in China.” But due to its rapid rise, the Chinese government is starting to crack down, which means not only taking down crosses but demolishing church structures, putting leaders of house churches under house arrest, and doing religious background checks on all government officials. “CCP officials have to sign a pledge not to believe in religion,” he said.

Showing photos to the audience, Rev. Zhang claimed that in 2014, more than 60 churches have already been destroyed according to the same methodology. “The Chinese government,” he explained:

always has this habitual way of doing things in that they will first pick some pilot area to make them examples. They do that because especially when it comes to very sensitive religious of political issues they do a little to see what would be the world’s reaction. Because when the Chinese government started to take down crosses and crucifixes there was no reaction from the West. Many countries considered it as the internal affairs of China. But we know that religion is not an internal affair. Freedom of religion is the first and foremost freedom or right of the people.

Nevertheless, Rev. Zhang said that he is “optimistic about the development of Christianity in China.” But, he added:

I will never be optimistic about the Chinese government’s policy toward religion, because Christianity is in direct opposition to the Communist party as well as one-party leadership. … [But] the churches have grown in the midst of persecutions. The stronger the persecution the purer the church will become. The more persecutions the more lively the churches will become.