Today, China’s big cities look much like urban areas anywhere in the world. There are lots of cars. What I did not expect to see was fish stickers on cars — a symbol for Christianity.
Religion is “on the rise,” one US diplomat told me. It is also under attack from the Chinese government. When it comes to religious liberty in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), there is the surprisingly frequent good, the not-so-constant bad and the still-too-often ugly.
China turned hostile to Christianity after the 1949 revolution. The PRC has routinely been ranked among the worst persecutors of religion.
For instance, Beijing is listed in the hall of shame by religious rights organization International Christian Concern. China makes nonprofit Open Doors’ world watch list. The US Department of State labels the PRC a country of particular concern.
In its latest report on religious liberty the department said: “The government exercised state control over religion and restricted the activities and personal freedom of religious adherents when these were perceived, even potentially, to threaten state or Chinese Communist Party [CCP] interests, including social stability. The government harassed, assaulted, detained, arrested or sentenced to prison a number of religious adherents.”
Nevertheless, the experience varied geographically.
“In some parts of the country, however, local authorities tacitly approved of or did not interfere with the activities of unregistered groups,” the department’s report said.
The group China Aid, headed by Bob Fu (傅希秋), a former house-church pastor in China, compiled a list of incidents. The authorities in Zhejiang Province have been particularly repressive. In April the province destroyed a 4,000 seat facility in the city of Sanjiang.
Provincial officials pointed to zoning laws to justify the move and similar actions elsewhere, but Renee Zia of Chinese Human Rights Defenders said that it was just “an excuse for the current wave of clamping down on Christian churches.”
The government’s real concern is Christianity’s growth. Zhejiang Province CCP Secretary Xia Baolong (夏寶龍) reportedly complained that Christian symbols were too “conspicuous.”
Christianity and Islam, centered outside of China, are seen as particularly suspect. However, Shannon Tiezzi of the online magazine The Diplomat said that increasing government pressure should be seen in the context of the larger crackdown on liberty.
Still, the situation in the PRC is far better than it was even a decade or two ago. Last year China Aid concluded that 7,424 people were victimized in 143 cases. That is too many, but with tens of millions of believers, it actually is a relatively small number.
The majority of persecution cases involved Christians who “were either engaged in activity which the government perceived as a threat, or they ran afoul of the economic or political interests of corrupt local leaders,” blogger Renee Riley wrote.
Open Doors most recently ranked Beijing at No. 37 of 50 on its world watch list, but China was in the top 10 only a decade ago. The organization reported that the government has “chosen not to strictly control Christian activities in most regions in China,” and that the majority of churches “are not registered, but tolerated.”
The number of Christians was estimated by Pew Research at 67 million in 2011 and is likely much higher today. There might already be more Christians than CCP members. Purdue University sociologist Yang Fenggang (楊鳳崗) said there could be 247 million Christians by 2030.
The PRC hopes to constrain Christianity by forcing it into a “patriotic” channel.
For instance, Chinese State Administration for Religious Affairs Director Wang Zuoan (王作安) said that “the construction of Chinese Christian theology should adapt to China’s national condition and integrate with Chinese culture.”
Nevertheless, the PRC might not find it easy to create a Sinicized Christianity. I attended the 800-member Beijing Chaoyang Church. There were 70 baptisms on the day I attended. The church is state-sanctioned, but the sermon seemed orthodox theologically (simultaneous translation was provided).
My friend Phil Sheldon, who regularly attends the church with his Chinese wife, spoke positively of his experience.
He earlier wrote: “I have seen and heard Christianity expressed in public. I have been in restaurants with Christian music playing. I was moved to tears the first time I heard a real Christmas carol proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord in English, coming through the background music loud and clear. I have seen people sitting out in public, witnessing over a dog-eared, well-marked Bible.”
Then there are the cars sporting fish.
Even some CCP members recognize the challenge.
“If we rush to try to push for results and want to immediately ‘liberate’ people from the influence of religion, then it will have the opposite effect,” Wang said.
In the PRC today, people are ever less willing to worship the false god of communism.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.
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