The People’s Republic of China is the world’s most populous country and is now the world’s second-largest economy. Despite the enormous economic transformation of recent decades there remains a huge disparity between urban and rural areas and the economic boom has led to serious environmental degradation and heavily polluted cities. China’s military power and international influence have also grown hugely in recent years.
The head of state is President Xi Jinping, who is also General Secretary of the Communist Party of China. Since the Communist revolution in 1949, the Communist Party has maintained strict control over the people, cracking down on any signs of opposition and sending outspoken dissidents to labour camps. Human rights groups criticise China for executing hundreds of people every year and for failing to stop torture.
Government control over religion is evident in the decades-long struggle in Tibet over the leadership of the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader who is campaigning for autonomy within China; in the long-running dispute with the Vatican over the appointment of Roman Catholic bishops; in the brutal crackdown on the Falun Gong spiritual movement; and the severe restrictions imposed on the practice of Islam, especially in the northwest province of Xinjiang where the Uighur people live.
Christians in China
There are five officially recognised religious faith groups in China, regulated and strictly controlled by the State Administration for Religious Affairs (which, by the end of 2018, will be taken over by the United Front Work Department, an organ of the Communist Party’s Central Committee): Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism (the Three-Self Patriotic Movement or TSPM) and Catholicism (the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association or CCPA). The CCPA was set up to be independent of the Vatican, because the Communist Party does not want Chinese people to follow a foreign leader, the Pope.
During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) even the official groups were banned and all religious activity was forced underground. The house church movement grew enormously, and thousands of pastors were persecuted. At the end of 1970s China began to reform, restrictions eased and the TSPM and CCPA re-emerged.
There are probably at least 100 million Christians in China, but it is impossible to estimate accurately. The TSPM has about 20 million members and the CCPA nearly 6 million. Protestant house churches may have at least 70 million members, and it is estimated that there are about 12 million “underground” Roman Catholics. In recent years the Communist Party has been increasing its efforts to “sinicize” religion and since June 2017 TSPM churches have been required to display the national flag and sing the national anthem at their services.
Christians who attend registered churches are “free” to worship within limits, but these churches are strictly controlled and their leaders are appointed by the Communist Party. Approval is needed if churches wish to hold additional meetings, invite visiting speakers, change the leadership or engage in any activities outside the church building. Evangelism is forbidden, as is baptising under-18s, and most registered churches may not run Sunday schools. The degree of control varies across China, and some TSPM churches have been targeted in government crackdowns, prompted by concerns about size or prominence of church buildings.
The majority of Chinese Christians choose to operate independently as they want the freedom to decide on their leadership, arrange their own meetings, hold Sunday school and preach the gospel. These independent, unregistered churches have become widely known as house churches, even though many do not meet in houses. Most started as small, secret groups in homes, but many are now so big that they rent space in offices and restaurants. These big urban groups are sometimes known as the “third church”, distinct from registered churches and rural house churches.
The extent of persecution of house churches varies greatly across the provinces and sometimes even within provinces but many leaders suffer harassment, heavy fines, arrest and torture. The government is currently engaged in a campaign to eradicate house churches by increasing the pressure on them to incorporate into the TSPM and closing down those that fail to comply.
New Regulations for Religious Affairs 2018
The campaign to eradicate house churches has been facilitated by the introduced on 1 February 2018 of controversial new Regulations for Religious Affairs that have the stated aim of protecting citizens’ freedom of religious belief but in practice increase the authorities’ control. Strict criteria must be met for religious organisations to register or to establish a place for their activities, and the regulations include controls such as requiring religious teachers and staff members to report to the authorities, online religious activities to be reported, large donations to be submitted for examination and approval to the religious affairs departments, and guidelines on where religious organisations can exist and the activities they can organise.
The introduction of the Regulations follows a provincial government campaign in Zhejiang called “Three Rectifications and One Demolition”, which was launched in 2014 on the pretext of correcting or demolishing “illegal structures” that violated local regulations. The campaign led to the forced removal of over 1,800 crosses and the demolition of about forty church buildings. Many Christians were injured and hundreds detained, including pastors and human rights lawyers, while trying to protect church buildings. Sanjiang Church (pictured) in Wenzhou, which cost 30 million yuan (almost €4.5 million) to build, was completely demolished in April 2014 despite thousands of Christians occupying the building in an attempt to save it.
The Chinese government permits Bibles to be printed by the Amity Press in Nanjing, and there has been a huge increase in the number available in recent years. Amity Press has printed tens of millions of Bibles, for use by TSPM and CCPA churches and for export. However, there are still not nearly enough Bibles to supply all the Christians in house churches, especially in rural areas, where house churches are growing fast. In April 2018, the government banned the online sale of Bibles in China.
(Asia Harvest, BBC, China Aid Association, Christianity Today, CNN, Compass Direct News, Operation World, Wall Street Journal, Wikipedia)
Church in Chains in Action
For many years, Church in Chains has called for greater religious freedom in China, has sought to support house church Christians facing harassment and restrictions and has campaigned on behalf of individual prisoners and churches.
In 2016, Church in Chains organised a postcard campaign calling for the release of Bao Guohua and Xing Wenxiang, two pastors given long prison sentences for opposing the removal of church crosses.
In 2011, Church in Chains organised a postcard campaign (pictured) from Irish Christians to the Mayor of Beijing calling for an end to the harassment of Shouwang Church.
In 2008, Church in Chains presented a petition from Irish Christians to the Chinese Embassy in Ireland expressing shock at police disruption of peaceful religious activity and calling on the Chinese government to respect and implement its obligations to provide genuine freedom of religion for all.
Church in Chains has sponsored the sending of thousands of Bibles and Christian books to Christians in China via partner organisations.
Chinese authorities have shut down Zion Church, one of Beijing’s largest unregistered churches – the church has announced that from now it will hold services outdoors.
116 Chinese pastors have released a joint statement protesting against the sharp increase in religious freedom violations by authorities in the past six months.
Christian persecution and church closures in China have risen significantly since the implementation of newly revised Religious Affairs Regulations on 1 February 2018.
Pastor Yang Hua was released from prison on 19 June after completing his two and a half year sentence.
Police in Chengdu, Sichuan arrested 17 members of Early Rain Blessing Church who were attempting to hold a prayer service on 4 June to commemorate the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre.