“Everything you have heard about China is true.”
I love this quote… despite sounding rather ironic, it rings true- what might be happening in one region isn’t happening in another. China is a very large country with over 1.3 billion people, 23 provinces and multiple different languages. The main cities greatly differ from the rural provinces. And over the years, persecution has drastically changed… multiple times.
China is the only country to actually see improvement this year on the World Watch List. Most countries that drop in rank do so because other countries have gotten that much worse. China dropped in ranking because things are actually getting better for the most part. What a praise report!
“Right now we have the perfect amount of persecution,” said two house church pastors at a recent conference organized by Open Doors. “We have it so that it makes us choose Christ and pay a price, but it is not so intense that outreach and growth is impossible.”
No longer are Christians exterminated, but are rather co-opted.
In reality, it is a mixed blessing when an authoritarian state wants Christian leaders to serve– this can create a conflict of interest, causing persecution to still be a factor. There are four issues that can get the church into trouble in China today:
When they are perceived as too powerful
When large, rural based networks unite together, the government becomes alarmed. They are fearful of the power that a Messiah-like leader could have in uniting the masses into a revolution, just like Mao did. However in recent years, a discreet dialogue has been taking place between the government and the leaders of these larger networks, with the hope that a legal registration process for house churches can be the end result.
When they are perceived as too political
Churches have to walk a tightrope- they must find the right balance of bettering society, while not stepping on the toes of the government. One never knows what the official attitude will be in any given moment, since there are no set laws on the matter. For example, in an interior city, a house church was forcibly closed for running an orphanage because officials said, “that’s the state’s job – you are trying to take it over from us.” Yet in another city, a house church does the same thing because officials do not regard it as insubordinate. A Beijing house church decided to openly renovate their premises and meet as a church outside the official state sanctioned church, the Three Self Patriotic Movement. The day they opened the building, the leaders were arrested.
When they are perceived as too foreign
If it is thought that a church is being run from abroad, with foreign literature and leadership, this strikes a nerve in the government (which is very anti-foreign domination). It is important that Chinese Christianity becomes more culturally Chinese.
When they are perceived as a cult
If a house church has unorthodox or even extreme teaching, it will be targeted by the government, who will place it in the same category as the cult, Falun Gong. However, to the credit of many mission agencies, the incidence of heresies in the house churches has gone down considerably.
For the foreseeable future, the new Chinese leadership will not “get” religion, but they are determined to use it, rather than exterminate it. The house churches are treading warily in this unpredictable space of danger and opportunity.
These four issues are bound to bring persecution, but persecution very much varies by region. The main cities like Beijing and Shanghai see very little persecution, when compared to areas like the Uyghur region.
The Uyghur area of China is located in the northwestern part of China, and borders countries such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The population in this area is primarily Muslim, so Christians in this region can also face a societal persecution, on top of persecution from the government. Usually, Uyghur Christians are kicked out of their community, and often only have each other to turn to.
Alimjan is a Uyghur Christian who was convicted by China on the allegation of “instigating separatism and revealing state secrets” in 2009. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Those close to the case have maintained that the reason for his imprisonment is his Christian faith and witness among the Uyghur people. According to them, there was never any proof of wrongdoing, and that he would not have had access to state secrets as an agricultural worker.
The Rural Part of China
The rural part of China has its own set of hurdles to overcome:
The Chinese church used to rely heavily on overseas aid to obtain Bibles, related literature and biblical training. The recent economic growth has given many churches access to materials, but decades of reliance has fostered the ‘hand-out’ mentality, which is now still deep-rooted in Chinese believers. It is so ingrained that many do not realize they already have the capacity themselves to start producing indigenous Christian materials. This will not only advocate economic independence; it also meets the need in a more complex China today for both translated and indigenous materials to address the emerging culture-specific issues, such as traditional views on Confucianism and education.
The Chinese church already has the resources on hand, but what they lack is a finishing touch – a strategy to survive in a less publication-friendly environment. They must still solve the problems of privacy and choice of topics, as well as governmental intervention. With the help of more experienced Christian authors from overseas, it is probable that indigenous literature can find its niche.
“Everything you have heard about China is true… and then some.”
As things continue to change in China, it is vital that we continue to pray for our brothers and sisters there. When things change, even for the better, Christians have new challenges to face. For example, one pastor shared about his concern that the temptation of materialism would distract believers from their faith… a new challenge instead of persecution.
Would you join with us in praying for Christians in this diverse, emerging and ever-changing nation?