Christianity in China is growing exponentially—but that doesn’t mean that China is ready to open up religiously, or that it will be a Christian society any time soon. Indeed, it appears as as Christianity flows past the 10% line, believers and the government are entering a very tenuous period in which they eye one another warily and struggle over issues of influence, power, control and freedom.
And not just China and Christians. China is entering a period of significant fear over anyone with the power to act in a way that destabilizes the control of the government.
Here are 8 current indicators of this tenuous period, and some thoughts on what we can do.
1. Rather than trying to stifle religion, China seeks to control it and use it to stifle unrest. They are encouraging religious expressions under their control: helping Nepal develop Buddha’s birthplace, ordaining Catholic bishops without the Vatican’s approval, and allowing state-regulated Three Self churches to freely exist. (This month, three Catholic bishops loyal to the Pope have been allegedly detained to force them to participate in a state-sponsored ordination.) However, unregistered churches or public churches with significant connections and the ability to form a swarmish network will be cracked down on.
2. Although China claims to be ruled by law, in fact they have declared “open season on lawyers”—especially those who take up human rights and controversial public interest cases. This is further evidence of the increasing closure and regulation in the nation. This is an indicator of the fact that China is “ruled by men, not laws,” and will go to great lengths to keep control.
3. China is tightening up on foreigners, preferring to keep the benefits of the Chinese society for the Chinese (and especially for the rich, powerful, influential, and those in control). Foreign ministry will be tightly curtailed, watched and monitored, but it is still possible for people who want to contribute to China’s society to enter and remain long term. Thus China-based NGOs are preferred over foreign based NGOs, for example. China is turning inward.
4. Surveillance is increasingly easy, and China has no qualms with implementing it: whether with technology or manual labor. Apparently, many Western organizations have no qualms with helping them. Ministry-related conversations with people inside China will be increasingly difficult.
5. Power and influence is very important in China now. With the superempowerment of the individual, and the increasing power derived from connectivity, China is very concerned with small movements that can scale. China seems less concerned with rural church networks—except where they have a chance of getting out of hand—but urban churches, where education and influence and money can get connected—are a significant issue for them. See the Third Church in China.
6. China knows the future is not the Communist Party—at least, not as it presently stands. It’s not just an ideological thing. Raw demographics show the facts: the Party has 78 million members and is adding 2 million p.a. However, China as a whole is adding 17 million per year. More are going into the church than into the Party. For an examination of how many Christians there are in China, see Paul Hattaway’s excellent research.
7. It’s not that China cares about the Party. Chinese leaders care about control—through whatever mechanism is available. The Party is just the current platform.
8. In the long term, the trend threatening China’s stability most of all is its one-child policy. This is putting China up against a demographic wall: there will not be enough youth to power the economy and care for the aged. China has been quietly relaxing the one-child policy for over a year.
9. The economy is what concerns the next generation—not the Party or the Church. (See especially the first linked NYT article.)
We need to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. I think foreign Christians ought to stay out of China’s internal politics as much as possible, with the plausible exception of cases of persecution—and then only if asked by people inside China, and done very carefully. Remember, China cracks down on connections: if a church in China is perceived as having too many foreign connections, it’s a red flag.
We need to seek to bless China, not just build our ministry empires or see large numbers of “decisions for Christ.” We are blessed to be a blessing, and the ultimate form—but by no means the only form—of that blessing is the Gospel. Check the Big 3 China Events of 2008 and how the church was a blessing in those.