China Takes a Pragmatic Approach to Christianity

5 MINS READAug 8, 2014 | 03:26 GMT

The Chinese government is promoting Christianity with Chinese characteristics as a way to harness the rapid expansion of Protestantism in China. At a seminar in Shanghai on Chinese-influenced Christianity, State Administration for Religious Affairs Director Wang Zuoan said, "Chinese Christian theology should adapt to China's national condition and integrate with Chinese culture," according to the official English-language China Daily. Wang's comments came in the middle of a five-year program sponsored by the so-called two organizations — the China Christian Council and the Three-Self Patriotic Movement — to promote Christian theology in China. The two organizations serve as umbrellas for Protestant churches in China. The latter emerged in the 1950s as a way to indigenize Chinese Christianity and remove overt Western influence. 

Despite common misconceptions abroad, Christianity is neither illegal nor forbidden in China. The Bible is printed and distributed in Chinese, licensed Christian churches can operate, and both Catholicism and Protestantism claim many members. The Chinese government does keep a close eye on the spread of Christianity, proscribes certain proselytizing activities and does not allow the formal Roman Catholic Church to operate. The official Chinese Catholic Church does not recognize the authority of the pope, primarily because the Communist Party of China is concerned that an external authority for a broad spectrum of its own citizens could challenge the Party's authority. Nonetheless, by many accounts there are as many underground Catholics in China who recognize the pope as there are members of the official Chinese Catholic Church.

Beijing also keeps a close eye on the emergence of indigenous sects of Christianity. In part, this reflects concerns that indigenous sects could grow into movements that challenge the authority of the Party — that the sects are, in a way, a protest vote against Communist leadership at the local or national level. The concern also stems from the emergence in some parts of China of semi-Christian cults, which have been known to sow social disorder with expanded outreach in underdeveloped rural regions.

Beijing's concerns have historical roots in strong suspicions of foreign missionaries and invading powers and in deep-seated anxieties that those religious movements created during times of political or economic weakness could trigger large-scale social upheaval or represent an alternative authority. The White Lotus and the Taiping rebellions both stemmed from political-religious movements, and the Boxer Rebellion, which triggered significant clashes with foreign powers, was an anti-Christian and anti-Western movement initially exploited by the Chinese government. More recently, the Falun Gong, which emerged in the late 1990s, was seen as a direct challenge to central Party authority, particularly for its ability to rally support from across geographic and social and economic spheres. And Beijing has long sought to weaken the political and religious power of Tibetan Buddhism and the Dalai Lama.

For Beijing, religion is not seen solely as a personal moral or spiritual decision. Organized religion is seen as something that can rally support, build connections and potentially create a center of power opposed to, or at least not aligned with, the Communist Party. Yet Beijing also recognizes the very real value of religious or spiritual ideals in society. Christian missionaries initiated many of China's early institutions of higher learning and medical hospitals, and religious organizations serve strong social security functions, providing services for orphans, the poor and other elements on the fringe of society. Religion also provides a moral framework that can reduce the likelihood of widespread unrest. It promotes satisfaction with the current life, a focus on social service, and a moral code that shuns corruption, greed and disorder. In short, religion can serve to mollify the masses and to soften the potential for unrest in the face of weakening economic performance.

But China is cautious of simply embracing religion for fear of allowing religious organizations, particularly those led from overseas, to garner too much influence or control. The Communist Party of China is a jealous leader and brooks no competition. Therefore, it is aiming to ensure that Christianity and other religions can operate in line with the Party's continued leadership, do not rise up against government policies and, most important, do not consider Western ideas, morals and norms as superior to China's. As the Communist Party of China's moral authority has declined in China, little has emerged to fill the gap. Religion can provide some guidance, but the Party is also seeking to harness a greater force: Chinese nationalism and history as alternative sources of legitimacy. By emphasizing the extent of Chinese history, invention and philosophy, the Party is seeking to reduce the sense of need to seek such guidance and ideals elsewhere.

China has already created its own version of the Catholic Church, as well as a Party-approved version of Tibetan Buddhism. Beijing has tacitly promoted Taoism, one of the few truly Chinese-developed spiritual movements. But Beijing has seen that the rapid expansion of Protestantism is something that the Party is unlikely to stop. Instead, the leadership is seeking to harness it and ensure that it does not provide a framework for anti-Party forces to gain strength and cohesion.

In the end, China's leaders recognize the value of Christianity as a moral driver of society but also are concerned about foreign interference or exploitation. By creating their own Protestant orthodoxy, as they created their own Catholicism, they can gain the benefits of a passive society without the risk of foreign exploitation — at least theoretically.

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