World Watch Monitor hears from two Chinese church leaders about the historical reasons for why the Church in China continues to face pressure from the authorities. Both wished to remain anonymous, so we’ll call them A and B.
A: “After the Cultural Revolution [which finished in 1976], more and more registered churches gradually re-opened under the TSPM* system. Those who held regular prayer meetings during the Cultural Revolution started their house meetings at that time. House meetings mushroomed everywhere in the rural areas. Yet religious restrictions were still very tight. In that generation, the authorities were suspicious of the churches and [considered them] the outcome of foreign infiltration under imperialism.
“In 1983, a nationwide crackdown on house meetings swept China; it was considered the hardest time for churches after the Cultural Revolution.
“During the 1990s, the authorities launched [a] campaign to crack down on illegal activities, including organised robbery, gambling, prostitution, etc. To easily meet a quota of arresting a prescribed number, local officials claimed house meetings were “illegal” and so arrested [or fined] attendees.
“In the 1990s, traditional house-church networks originating from rural areas continued to grow rapidly. With little knowledge of Christianity, the government in that generation tended to classify local churches as ‘cults’. Besides, certain large house church networks said the overall number of Christians had reached the millions, and it was reported in overseas media. This alarmed the authorities, who thought that these house-church networks could be a huge force, able to overturn the state.
In 1996, there was a crackdown on house meetings in my church network across the whole country, as well as the few other large networks. Church activities in smaller networks or independent house churches were not affected. The situation gradually eased after several prominent house-church networks openly declared their faith in Christianity, saying it was nothing to do with ‘cults’.
“In 2003, the widespread influence of Eastern Lightning, a well-known cult, drew the attention of the authorities.
“Over the years, a number of cults were active in regions where churches have particularly flourished.
“It was hard for the authorities to separate Christianity from these cults. To show their capabilities before their superiors, local officials chose an easy way to enforce anti-cult measures and avoid potential irregularities – by cracking down on any suspicious church activities. This brought an extensive crackdown in certain regions. Yet the churches took the opportunity to help local authorities differentiate Christianity from cults. The local authorities started to have favour on the churches and this brought about dialogue. When unregistered churches no longer hid or avoided face-to-face contact, the authorities became less suspicious and negative.
“At the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, the authorities started informal research of unregistered churches. They approached leaders, softly threatening them not to conduct activities other than regular Sunday services and small groups during the Olympic Games and other sensitive periods such as National Day, national congress, international events, etc.
“Afterwards, such informal research and management was extended to different cities. By that time, many overseas suspected another round of nationwide crackdown. But eventually it paved the way for churches to dialogue with the authorities to directly explain the good they can bring to the nation.
“The churches can no longer hide and are becoming brave in facing the authorities. They gain favour locally because [the authorities] trust the churches will not create trouble for society. At the same time, the boundary of forbidding foreign infiltration into the churches is becoming more apparent.
“After 2008, [a] systematic crackdown, or even interruption of church activities, has not been seen. Every single incident was in a particular context; other churches of similar background in the same region during the same period have not been affected. Even in my church network, there was a church experiencing difficulty, but it didn’t affect other churches in the network.
“It seems too early to draw a conclusion that [a difficult period is coming for] Chinese churches – even unregistered ones. Some incidents have happened in recent years and still do happen today. At the same time, the majority of churches continue meetings and ministries with unprecedented freedom.”
B: “Historically, Christianity was associated with Western imperialism. It is hard for the Chinese government to forget the painful invasion by Western countries since World War I, coming along with overseas missionaries. Pouring of funding into the churches from overseas in past decades has also caused alarm in the government. It’s deeply rooted in Chinese culture that provision of funds creates a master-servant relationship. The image of Christianity is thus closely related to ‘infiltration by foreign forces’.
“Religious issues are seen as sensitive under the sovereignty of the atheist Chinese Communist Party. The development of Christianity has been alarming for the government. Some officials even perceive Christianity as a destabilising factor. In addition, the Hong Kong Occupy Central incident in the second half of 2014, with Christians playing a pivotal role, was seen as threatening from the perspective of the Communist Party. This has been taken as a more apparent clue that Christianity could initiate and participate in social movements. That gets on the state leadership’s nerves.”
*TSPM churches, initiated in the 1950s, promoted a strategy of “self-governance, self-support and self-propagation” in order to remove foreign influences from the churches and to assure the government that the churches would be patriotic to the newly established People’s Republic of China. The National Committee of TSPM in China and the China Christian Council (CCC) are known as the ‘lianghui‘ (two organisations), which form the state-sanctioned Church in China.