Whereas prosperity in the West has led to a decrease in membership in Christian churches, in China increasing prosperity is actually bringing more people to the church. From an extremely low base in 1980 (when all religion was still completely outlawed), estimates are that China now has 65-100 million Christians. While that’s still a small minority out of China’s 1.35 billion people, it isn’t small as compared to the 88 million members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). More Christians than communists? That goes a long way to explaining why China is currently clamping down on Christian churches.
Making it hard on Christians
Thousands of churches have been ordered to remove the crosses from their buildings. Many churches have been forced to close and/or torn down. Pastors have been threatened to either join the government’s official church or risk detention and lawyers representing churches have been arrested and detained. It hasn’t been easy for Christians in China over the last three years, to say the least.
Is there any relief in sight for China’s Christians? Unfortunately, the answer may be no. It could be years, but it will likely be decades, until freedom of religion is give its due in China.
China has a long history of authoritarianism
We have to start by recognizing that, prior to communism, China had virtually no historical tradition of democracy or respect for individual rights. Maoist Communism then brought to China one of the most totalitarian forms of government ever seen. The CCP was in charge of everything. Absolutely no organization—company, university, civic organization, church, or stamp-collecting society—was allowed to exist outside the umbrella of the CCP. So controlling was the CCP that, until the 1980’s, everyone was virtually required to wear the same clothing—the infamous Mao suit. So intrusive was the CCP that family planning and birth control was actively directed by the government under the threat of coercion. That practice actually continues to this day.
Freedom has actually been growing in China (mostly economically)
The Chinese government has actually made enormous progress in terms of giving its citizens freedom and control over their own lives. This is often overlooked because that freedom comes largely in the economic sphere, partially in the social sphere, and almost not-at-all in the political sphere. The freedom that individuals have to make their own decisions relative to travel, education, career/job, private enterprise, private property, home-buying, consumer spending, etc. is truly revolutionary as compared to how China was governed forty years ago.
Political freedom was growing
The CCP has deliberately put economic change before political change, and there is reason to think that is a good approach (it worked in Taiwan and South Korea, among other countries). That’s not to say that there has been no political change whatsoever. By the mid to late 2000’s, there was actually a fair amount of room for Chinese citizens to criticize government policies via the internet and other means, as long as they didn’t call for a change in the government. But that light-handed approach began to change in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis, when criticism of the government hit an all-time high.
The government is clamping down on any and all challenges
Then, in 2013, there came a new leader, Xi Jinping. Xi has rather aggressively turned back the dial on political rights even further. Dissent is hardly tolerated at all. Activists are arrested more often. Universities have been ordered to refrain from extolling “Western” values. A new law has been passed to permit tighter government control over non-governmental organizations, including foreign ones. On virtually all fronts Xi has strengthened the hand of government at the expense of individual freedom.
It’s impossible to say why Xi has taken this approach. Some say he was alarmed by how the Arab Spring toppled so many regimes. Relative to Christianity, many have speculated that Pope John Paul II’s impact in Poland has for many years made the CCP concerned as to the ability of religion to support dissent. Whatever the case may be, it is undeniable that Christian churches have been caught up in the muscle-flexing of the CCP. Simply put, the CCP will not tolerate any competition to its control of society and Christianity is seen as a potential theat.
No game plan for social or political change
For the most part, China has maintained a steady course of gradual economic liberalization over the last three decades, although some periods have seen more change than others. Furthermore, the government openly discusses the next steps it is considering relative to economic change. Relative to social and political change, not only has the pace been slower, but the game plan is murky and the government offers little in the way of guidance. Many would say that is because, while the CCP will tolerate some economic freedom, it doesn’t intend to ever lessen its grip on China’s society or political system.
The government can’t fight history
That might be the position of the CCP. But history teaches us that, if China continues to develop, its government won’t have a choice. Free markets, private property, and prosperity will bring education, the rule of law, and people who are both more tolerant of others and more likely to demand respect for their freedom and rights as individuals, not only economically but socially and politically as well. This in turn leads to government that is more egalitarian, accountable, and tolerant. Of course, this kind of change takes time. Remember that it took America roughly 75 years to fight the war that ended slavery and another 100 years to end segregation. China’s change will also take many decades, not just years.
Prosperity and development will pave the way for freedom of religion
We can hope that the current Chinese administration will let China’s Christians live in peace. We can hope the next administration (due to take power in 2023) will do the same. But the best bet for China’s Christians is that China continues to give its citizens more and more economic freedom. If that happens, China will prosper and it will change in ways that will make it easier to be a Christian, a Buddhist, or whatever else you want to be in China.