Christianity in China (#39 on the World Watch List) has always lived in tension. Though the Communist Party of China has habitually restricted the freedom of Christians to worship over the last 70 years, the skyrocketing growth of the Chinese church is impossible to miss. Even non-Christian observers have taken notice, with many outlets putting the true number of Christians at tens of millions more than the Chinese government officially recognizes.
The official government line is that freedom of religion is guaranteed in the Chinese constitution. And technically, that’s true—but it comes with a huge asterisk. The constitution enshrines that the state “protects normal religious activities,” which means the Communist Party is responsible for determining what “normal religious activities” are.
Still, the church in China has grown rapidly, even as the government’s tolerance for Christianity seemed to increase. Indeed, theologian Dr. Richard Mouw wrote earlier in 2017 that “[local religious leaders ] do not see President Xi Jinping as hostile to Christianity as such.”
It seems that the days of wholesale persecution are gone … right?
In the last few months, we’ve seen numerous developments that suggest things are not as good for Christians in China as they might publicly seem. What will these trends mean for Christians in China—and how can Christians around the world pray for their sisters and brothers during this period of uncertainty?
1. China’s passage of new religious regulations
Earlier this fall, China announced it had officially adopted new religious guidelines, aimed at curbing “religious extremism.” While some observers believe the regulations are primarily geared toward stopping the rise of radical Islam, others are concerned the wording of the law may allow increased curtailing of Christians’ rights. The new regulations reportedly include “guidelines on religious education, the types of religious organizations that can exist, where they can exist and the activities they can organize.” Obviously, this broad terminology would cover some valid activities that would be concerning to most citizens in any country; but it could also include things like Christian camps and churches. The long-term impact of this rule is unknown, but it is concerning.
2. The increased cult of personality around Xi Jinping
Xi Jinping serves as the current general secretary of the Communist Party of China and president of the People’s Republic of China. He assumed office in late 2012, but in the last several months, his power has increased. In October’s meeting of the Communist Party congress, Jinping was granted another term and the party put his policies into the Chinese constitution, granting it the same level of authority in the country as former Chinese leader Mao Zedong. “Xi Jinping Thought” will now be assumed to be a guiding force for China. The New York Times reported the action “sent a clear signal to officials throughout China that questioning Mr. Xi and his policies would be ideological heresy.”
In the lead-up to the congress, World Watch List (the Open Doors research unit) analyst Thomas Muller said the elevation of Xi’s thought fits into a pattern of increasing restrictions on religion.
“The preferred line of thinking is emphasized by introducing President Xi Jinping’s own brand of ‘political thought’ into the Party constitution, tying ideology closer to the budding personality cult around him,” Muller explains. “Fitting into this pattern is a book recently published by the Central Party School, demanding that all students learn from President Xi’s experiences as a teenager during the Cultural Revolution. As the emphasis on Communist ideology and the personality cult emerging around President Xi gets stronger, the authorities will correspondingly act more strongly against all other ‘ideologies’ not fitting into this system, including the Christian religion.”
3. The positioning of Xi Jinping and the Communist Party against Jesus and His Church
The Washington Post recently ran a chilling report (Nov. 14, 2017) from southeastern China: Thousands of villagers were told that Jesus can’t help them with illness or poverty, and only Xi Jinping can, so they should remove religious images and replace them with pictures of Xi. Another report in the South China Morning Post quotes Qi Yan, chairman of the Huangjinbu people’s congress: “Many rural people are ignorant. They think God is their savior … After our cadres’ work, they’ll realize their mistakes and think: We should no longer rely on Jesus, but on the party for help.”
The increasing cult of personality around Xi (he’s even been referred to in the press as “Great Leader,”–terminology not used since Mao Zedong’s rule) and the emphasis on poverty eradication by the Communist Party suggests that China may be positioning itself and its leaders against Christianity.
These trends are still in their infancy, and it remains to be seen how these things will impact China in the long term. But it’s clear things are changing in China–in ways that seem to be worrisome for Christians.
But while we in the West take a “wait and see” approach, that doesn’t mean we should be passive in our attitudes toward our brothers and sisters in China. God has given us the privilege to join in prayer with the church in China.
- God will protect the rights and abilities of His people in China to worship Him.
- Xi Jinping and other Party officials will hear the voice of Holy Spirit and put their trust in Jesus.
- Christians given the choice between religious displays and poverty rations will have wisdom and courage.