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WHY ARE CHRISTIANS PERSECUTED IN CHINA?

In this series we are examining some of the reasons why Christians in various contexts face opposition and persecution.


 

Christianity in China

Christianity has a longer history in China than many in the West realise. The Church of the East was established by the seventh century, thanks to Syriac-speaking missionaries who brought the Gospel to the people of China. Christianity was officially tolerated by Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty and many of his successors, allowing the faith to thrive in China for more than 200 years.

The Church underwent persecution in the late seventh century when Wu Hou, the former emperor’s widow, used her political power to promote Buddhism as the state religion. Persecution appeared again after a decree issued in 845 by Emperor Wuzong, a committed Taoist, stating that religions from outside the kingdom were to be banished, and by 980 it was believed by missionaries who had travelled from the Middle East that Chinese Christianity was extinct. 

The Church of the East, however, flourished under the Mongol Empire in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries – some of the Mongol leaders themselves became believers – but Christianity was again outlawed after the 1368 revolution that brought to power the Ming dynasty.

“Faithful is the Lord. Your labours are not rejected, ye martyrs. King Christ has not passed by whom ye have loved in the land of China.”

From a commemoration of the
“martyrs of China” in a thirteenth-century Syriac book

The Daqin Pagoda in Zhouzhi, Xi'an County, Shaanxi Province is a Buddhist monastery. Built over a thousand years ago, some historians believe it to have originally been a Christian church [Image credit: World Monuments Fund]

In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, Western missionaries such as the Matteo Ricci helped to restore Chinese Christianity. These were followed in the nineteenth century by men such as Hudson Taylor, and Robert Morrison who translated the Bible into Mandarin.

While Hudson Taylor was among those who demonstrated respect for Chinese culture and norms, many Western missionaries were sadly flagrant in their disregard and even contempt for Chinese ceremonies and values. 

The Taiping Rebellion (1850-64) also created the lasting impression that Christianity was opposed to Chinese interests. Hong Xiuquan – a revolutionary who believed himself the younger brother of Christ – led a revolt against the ruling Qing dynasty in the name of re-forming China as a Christian commonwealth. Western powers also became involved, hoping to destabilise China. This civil war was one of the bloodiest conflicts ever, with a death toll between 20 million and 100 million. 

In the opium wars (1839-42 and 1856-60) European powers fought to force China to accept opium imports and open ports to European shipping. The treaties of Tianjin (1858), which China was forced to agree with France and Great Britain, gave the imperial powers extensive rights over trade within China, and denied the right of China to control its own commerce and economic activity. The construction of railways across China caused offence and resentment towards the West, for lines were often built across land that was considered sacred, including burial grounds.

The treaties also guaranteed freedom of movement for missionaries, thereby linking Western evangelism with Western imperialism. Indeed, some missionaries behaved like imperial overlords – some demanded payment from the local population, and in Shandong one even declared himself governor. Many were openly employed in keeping tabs on the local population and reporting back to Western governments. 

In other colonised parts of the world, mission stations were used as a means of dividing territory, leading to fears that missionary activity was a ploy to carve up China among the Western powers. Resentment flared in the 1899-1901 “Boxer” rebellion, in which around 32,000 Chinese Christians and 188 Western missionaries were killed.

Chinese religions  

China has its own religions, quite different in outlook from both Christianity and Western philosophies. The “three pillars” of ancient China were Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. Although there are key differences, combined these still exert an enormous influence.

Confucianism is derived from the teachings of  Confucius (c. 551–479 BC), who set out rules and guidelines for social behaviour. Confucius taught that all people had unavoidable obligations to other people and to society as a whole. The overarching objective of his principles was to sustain social stability, harmony and wholeness. 

Although Confucianism is more about the proper ordering of society than any afterlife or spiritual realm, the Confucian principle of obligation to one’s own family, including reverence for elders, linked well with the ancestor worship of ancient Chinese folk religion.

Taoism (or Daoism), the other major religion to emerge in China, is associated with the philosopher Laozi who lived in the sixth century BC. Later Taoist thinkers developed the idea of yin and yang – dark and light – which together make up a cosmic whole. Taoism is much more spiritual than Confucianism and represents a pushback against the strict customs advocated by Confucius, but does share a commitment to wholeness and unity that has shaped Chinese culture. 

Buddhism, with origins in Nepal and India, became popular in China during the first century AD. Buddhist teachings further emphasised harmony. Both Taoists and Buddhists in China continued to engage in ancestor worship. Chinese people in general would not regard themselves as belonging exclusively to any one of the three religions, but would draw from all three along with other religious and philosophical ideas.  

A church building in Harbin, Heilongjiang Province. The church was closed in 1967 during the Cultural Revolution, and only re-opened for worship in 1980

This religious and philosophical culture leads to opposition to Christianity in several ways. Firstly, the Gospel – which separates humankind into saved and unsaved – is seen as divisive, opposed to the harmony and unity valued in Chinese culture. The exclusive claims of Christianity – one God, one Saviour, one true faith – are quite different from the Chinese view of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism as distinct but mutually compatible.

Secondly, converts to Christianity will no longer worship their ancestors, regarding this as idolatry no matter how much they love and reverence their elders. This can lead to hostility from family members and from the wider culture, especially as the refusal to continue with rituals around the traditional ancestral tablets or household altars is thought disrespectful.

Thirdly, Chinese society is more focused on family ties, social obligations and duties to others than the individualistic West. Western society is often radically individualistic, atomistic and self-centred. Christianity – generally associated with Western values by those in other parts of the world – may therefore be treated
with suspicion.

Fourthly, the presence of Christianity may be a slap in the face to national pride. One convert to Christianity recalls being asked by family members why she would choose a foreign religion when there are China’s own religions to choose from.

Communism

China has been an officially communist state, governed by the Chinese Communist Party, since 1949. The rise of communism in China creates an additional context for persecution of the church. Religion is viewed by Marxists as a means of subjugation. In Marxist theory Christianity is a man-made system designed to blind the working class to their need for revolution and reconcile them to their oppression, as in the famous remarks of Karl Marx:   

Man makes religion, religion does not make man. […] It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness.

Once established, communism usually results in an authoritarian one-party system that tolerates no competing worldviews. For this reason, the Soviet Union for many years engaged in anti-religious propaganda against its own people and barred the teaching of religion to children. 

In some ways Maoism – the ideology of Mao Zedong, the Communist Party leader who ruled China from 1949 until his death in 1976 – was an even greater threat to Christianity than the Soviet communism. Mao believed in revolution by changing the hearts and minds of each individual – it was not possible that anyone in society should subscribe to any religion or philosophy distinct from Mao’s thought. Maoism was therefore even more likely to insist on unity of thought or to institute brainwashing. 

During the Cultural Revolution – the period from 1966 to 1976 in which the Communist authorities attempted by extreme and brutal methods to re-assert Maoism – Mao urged the supporters of communism to destroy the “four olds”: old ideas, old customs, old habits and old culture. Many Christian believers faced censure and imprisonment, while church buildings and Bibles were attacked and destroyed. In the overall chaos and the subsequent attempt to restore order, between 500,000 and two million people lost their lives. 

Mao himself became the centre of a quasi-religious personality cult. A song about Mao declared, “He is the great Saviour of the people.” George Paterson describes how: 

Mao’s likeness adorned every home, every school, every public office and factory. In many homes his image occupied the central place on the family altar previously held by the ancestral tablets of the family. Mao was compared to the life-giving forces of nature, most especially the sun. 

After Mao’s death and the end of the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese government became more tolerant towards religion. Registered churches, part of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, were allowed to re-open, while in most cases the authorities turned a blind eye to unofficial churches.

The Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) is China’s officially recognised Protestant church, supervised by the Chinese authorities. Unofficial churches – often referred to as house churches – are those that operate outside state control. Technically illegal, such churches have often been tacitly permitted to operate by the Chinese authorities, provided that they do not engage in political activities.

Chinese Christians have more freedom and the Chinese Church is far more resilient that we in the West often realise [Image credit: China Christian Daily]

The present day

The Chinese Church grew rapidly throughout the years of persecution in the second half of the twentieth century. The period from the 1990s until the mid-2010s can be considered a relative “golden age” for Chinese Christianity, in terms of freedom of worship, church planting and tolerance from both the Chinese government and Chinese society. Yet from the mid-2010s onwards the environment began to worsen for Christians. The authorities became less willing to tolerate unofficial churches.    

For example, in May 2020 a church member had two ribs broken when police forcibly shut down an unofficial church meeting in Fujian province. Across the country unofficial church buildings have been demolished. A Chinese Christian reported to Barnabas Aid that “as house churches refuse to register with the state and be managed by it, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) exerts a lot of effort to pressure them”.

At the same time as unofficial churches are targeted, official churches face pressure to teach what the Chinese authorities order them to. China’s Measures for the Administration of Religious Personnel, which came into effect in May 2021, require that pastors and church ministers in the TSPM must be those who “love the motherland, support the leadership of the Communist Party of China, support the socialist system, abide by the constitution, laws, regulations and rules, [and] practise the core values ​​of socialism”.

In July 2021 TSPM pastors were instructed to deliver sermons based on President Xi Jinping’s speech commemorating the 100-year anniversary of the CCP. These instructions form part of an overall process of Sinicisation – that is, making Chinese, at least according to the CCP’s idea of what it means to be Chinese. 

All religions – whether their origin was in China or elsewhere – are targeted. A church minister in China commented, “In practice, your religion no longer matters, if you are Buddhist, or Taoist, or Muslim or Christian: the only religion allowed is faith in the Chinese
Communist Party.”  

Persecution of the Church is not at the same level as it was under Mao, and certainly not as horrifying as in China’s communist neighbour North Korea. Yet the tide is moving gradually against Christians in China.

Misunderstandings and misconceptions

Christians in the West have many misunderstandings and misconceptions about Chinese Christianity and about China itself. Some believe that all Christianity is illegal in China, the Bible outlawed and churches barred from existing. This picture of China is not justified. 

Others have the idea that only the unofficial “house churches” represent true Christianity, while the TSPM has betrayed the faith and become apostate. While there are of course many faithful believers in unofficial churches, there are also many in the official church. 

The “three-self” principle – self-governance, self-support and self-propagation – is neither a CCP imposition nor a result of Sinicisation, but rather a Bible-based response to Western dominance of the Chinese Church. Instead of relying on Western leadership, finance and missionary work, these principles prompt the Chinese Church to develop its own leadership, fund its own work and activities, and train Chinese evangelists rather than relying on overseas missionaries.

Furthermore, unofficial churches are not without their problems – chief among them the temptation to engage in anti-government political activity, sometimes in conjunction with Western forces. Some stories we in the West hear of anti-Christian persecution are in fact a crackdown on political opposition, while churches that quietly teach and preach the Gospel are often unofficially permitted to continue meeting for worship.       

Chinese suspicion that Western powers may be behind this anti-government activity may well be justified. Xi Jinping and the Chinese authorities know well how Christianity was misused as a tool of Western oppression in the nineteenth century, and how Western powers still use the principle of religious freedom as a means to achieve their own foreign policy aims. 

Western attitudes towards China may also be overly harsh. An example is the response to China’s new regulations on online religious content, which came into force on 1 March 2022. Organisations and individuals wishing to provide religious information online must gain permission from their local Department of Religious Affairs office, while foreign organisations and individuals will not be permitted to operate online religious information services within Chinese territory.

While there are genuine concerns that Christians who simply wish to practise their faith freely and peacefully may be adversely affected, it could be argued that the reason for these regulations is understandable. Western nations know all too well the scourge of extremist online material, much of it religious, whether in the form of Islamist or of far-right content.

In situations like this we should follow the wonderful example of our Chinese brothers and sisters, who long before the regulations even came into force were making plans to adapt and to change their ministries so as to continue their brave stand for the Truth that never changes, the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Let us continue to pray for them and for the spread of that Gospel, in spite of obstacles, opposition and persecution.