Zachary Keck

Why Is China Nationalizing Christianity?

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Zachary Keck

Why Is China Nationalizing Christianity?

Last week China announced it was nationalizing Christianity. What are the motives behind this?

China will redouble its efforts to nationalize Christianity, a senior Chinese official announced on last Thursday.

“The construction of Chinese Christian theology should adapt to China’s national condition and integrate with Chinese culture,” Wang Zuoan, director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, said at a Shanghai forum on the “Sinicization of Christianity,” according to Chinese state media.

Gu Mengfei, deputy secretary-general of the the Three-Self Patriotic Movement — a state-sanctioned umbrella organization for Protestant churches — elaborated on the initiative. “This will encourage more believers to make contributions to the country’s harmonious social progress, cultural prosperity and economic development,” Gu said.

It’s not clear from the report exactly what changes the government plans to make to its policy on Christianity. A crackdown of some sort on Christianity is almost certain, however. The Chinese government already places a number of restrictions on religion. All churches, for example, are required to register with the government. They operate under close government scrutiny, with all legal Protestant churches belonging to the state-sanctioned umbrella organizations, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement and the China Christian Council, and the Catholic churches belonging to the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.

Through these organizations, both Protestant and Catholic churches in China are already required to practice Christianity with Chinese characteristics, to some degree. For example, Catholics are not allowed to recognize the authority of the Vatican. Meanwhile, as the name implies, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement — which long predates the establishment of the People’s Republic of China — has Chinese nationalism at its core. The Three-Selfs are the three principles of self-support (financial independence from foreigners), self-leadership/governance and self-propagation (indigenous missionary work).

Nonetheless, the officials’ comments last week indicate that the Chinese Communist Party intends to further tighten its grip over Christianity. There are a number of possible targets and motivations for the crackdown.

First, Christianity in general, and Protestantism in particular, has exploded in China in recent years. As The Diplomat has previously noted, China is already estimated to have 58 million Protestants and some believe it will be home to the largest Christian population by 2030. Roughly one half of China’s current Protestants are estimated to belong to underground, illegal churches.

The officials who spoke at the Shanghai forum indicated that this rapid growth was the rationale behind the crackdown. For example, Gao Feng, the president of the China Christian Council, told the audience: “Over the past years, China’s Protestantism has become one of the fastest growing universal churches.” Wang himself noted: “Over the past decades, the Protestant churches in China have developed very quickly with the implementation of the country’s religious policy. In the future, we will continue to boost the development of Christianity in China.”

The growth of religion in China is to be expected given the government’s relaxation of restrictions on it (compared to the Mao era) and the profound socio-economic changes China has undergone since the reform and opening up period began. However, its growth also gives it the potential to act as a unifying force for political opposition to the CCP’s authority. Crucially, Christianity could potentially cut across regional divides in China.

The rapid growth in religion is particularly troubling for the CCP given that its own abandonment of Marxism has created an ideological vacuum. In its place, the CCP has increasingly turned to Chinese nationalism as the ideational complement to economic growth and prosperity. The “Sinicization of Christianity” would be consistent with its drive to push Chinese nationalism.

On the other hand, the campaign could be merely an attempt to crack down on the large network of underground churches in China. As noted above, roughly one half of China’s Protestants are believed to attend these churches. These operate outside CCP control and are therefore of particular concern for the Party. Sinicization could simply mean trying to force underground Christians into the state-sanctioned organizations that already put a Chinese bent on Christianity.

In a related campaign, much attention in China has recently been given to “evil cults,” which are essentially fringe religious groups. The impetus for this was a video that went viral in May in which a woman was beaten to death outside a McDonald’s by a group of individuals who belonged to “Almighty God,” one of the “evil cults.” According to China’s state media, members of the Almighty God cult have been rounded up by the thousands all across China. The Chinese government also published a list of 14 “evil cults” and pledged a crackdown on fringe religious groups in the country.

The Chinese government’s concern about the cults is not entirely unwarranted. Besides their potential for low-level terrorist attacks, fringe religious cults have at times mounted serious challenges to Chinese authorities. The the initial leader of the Taiping Rebellion, for example, was a cult leader claiming to be Jesus Christ’s brother.

It’s worth noting, though, that in discussing the evil cults, China’s state media has at times conflated them with the country’s broader network of underground churches. For instance, the Global Times has warned that “underground churches and evil cults are spreading like mushrooms… the problem is very urgent.”

Finally, it’s quite possible that the drive to nationalize Christianity is aimed at cracking down on foreign religious influences in the country. There is a long, long history of Christian missionaries operating in China. Often times, these organizations did much good in China by building schools and providing social services. However, they have also been the source of immense anger at times from the Chinese public and/or the government. Most notably, the Boxer Rebellion was an anti-Christian and anti-Western mass uprising, which the Qing dynasty sought to exploit to gin up public support. On the other hand, the CCP took the initiative in viciously rooting out all foreign missionaries in China during the decade after the Chinese Civil War ended. It has continued to occasionally accuse underground churches of working on behalf of foreign agents like the United States.

The fact that the Chinese leaders this week discussed the importance of nationalizing the Christian faith suggests that anti-foreign sentiment is part of the motivation behind the campaign. Moreover, as Shannon noted on China Power, recent weeks have seen a number of arrests of foreign Christians running non-governmental organizations near the North Korean border. Reuters even spoke of a “wider sweep of Christian-run NGOs and businesses along the Chinese side of the border with North Korea.”

A potential crackdown on foreign Christians in China would not be occurring in a vacuum. The CCP appears to have launched one of its periodic anti-foreigner campaigns, with a number of multinationals and foreign businesses being targeted and investigated in recent weeks. In this sense, the calls to nationalize Christianity in China may just be one part of a broader campaign aimed at reducing foreign influence in China.

It’s worth noting  that these explanations for the nationalize Christianity campaign are not mutually exclusive, and more than one of them is very possibly at work.