A proverb from the Song Dynasty of a millennium ago states, “Thick mountains could not stop the river from flowing into the sea.” Thirty years after the slaughter of pro-democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square, China’s persecuted Christians certainly hope the saying proves true in their case.
Turning its back on a reform policy that by and large recognized Christians as good citizens, the bellicose Communist government, led by President Xi Jinping, lately has been doing everything it can to block the mighty river of Chinese Christianity.
According to China-watchers Nina Shea and Bob Fu, the country’s Christian presence has grown to possibly more than 100 million people (36 million in official, state-recognized churches), compared with a Communist Party membership of just 90 million. The church growth among China’s 1.4 billion people has come on the heels of disillusionment both with the Party and the spiritual vacuum created by the country’s economic and social disruptions.
Fenggang Yang of Purdue says that China might be home to as many as 247 million Christians by 2030. These kinds of numbers have shocked Communist Party officials. Fu’s organization, ChinaAid, recently downloaded some accidentally posted internal Chinese documents that revealed the government’s desire to “contain the overheated growth of Christianity.”
Old regulations concerning churches are now being enforced, including those that ban minors from going to church and Sunday schools and Bible camps from operating. In some churches, Christian symbols are being replaced with pictures of Xi. Hundreds of churches have had their crosses removed and been forced to fly the Chinese flag and sing patriotic songs. Online Bible purchases are now illegal. The Communist Party, which is officially atheistic, has assumed direct control of all churches.
“Some urban underground megachurches were shut down,” Shea and Fu report. “Thousands of congregants were arrested and several prominent Protestant pastors received lengthy prison sentences. Earlier [in May], the regime launched a nationwide campaign to eradicate unregistered churches.”
As is always the case in China, some areas are more problematic than others. “Last year in Henan province,” Shea and Fu say, “10,000 Protestant churches were ordered shut, even though most were registered with the state. During 2018, more than one million Christians were threatened or persecuted and 5,000 arrested.”
Last December, police rounded up Pastor Wang Yi and his wife, Jiang Rong, along with 100 members of his Early Rain congregation in Chengdu. Wang and his wife are charged with “inciting subversion,” which carries a penalty of up to 15 years in prison. The church is gone from the three floors it rented, replaced by a business association and a construction company. The Guardian reports that the 1,500-member Zion church in Beijing was shut down after its pastor refused to install closed-circuit television to monitor members.
Although the Vatican and Chinese officials reached an agreement allowing Xi to appoint some Catholic bishops, two Marian pilgrimage shrines were destroyed, several underground Catholic priests and a bishop were forced into Communist “re-education” sessions, and two dozen Catholic churches in Hebei are being torn down.
These measures and more prompted Open Doors to move China up from No. 43 to No. 27 on its annual World Watch List of countries where it’s most difficult to be a Christian. It’s a massive jump. “The Chinese government,” notes Christopher Summers, “… works hard to make sure nothing in the country is a threat to the absolute authority of the Party—and its chairman, Xi Jinping.”
“The Chinese Communist Party wants to be the God of China and the Chinese people,” says Huang Xiaoning, pastor of the Guangzhou Bible Reformed Church, which has been closed twice in the past year. “But according to the Bible only God is God. The government is scared of the churches.”
According to reporter Lily Kuo in Chengdu, authorities are concerned not only by the growth of Christianity, but by the boldness of some of its leaders to speak out on social issues and civil rights. Every year Early Rain’s Wang, a noted public intellectual, commemorates the Tiananmen Square massacre and serves as an advocate for parents and families harmed by everything from faulty vaccines to substandard construction.
“Early Rain church is one of the few who dare to face what is wrong in society,” one member told Kuo. “Most churches don’t dare talk about this, but we obey strictly obey [sic] the Bible, and we don’t avoid anything.”
Observers say that authorities don’t want to wipe out Christianity, as their predecessors attempted to do during the Cultural Revolution. According to Ying Fuk Tsang, director of the Christian Study Centre on Chinese Religion and Culture at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, “President Xi Jinping is trying to establish a new order on religion, suppressing its blistering development. [The government] aims to regulate the ‘religious market’ as a whole.”
Indeed. More than a million Uighur Muslims have been forced into concentration camps, along with some Christian converts as well. The New York Times reports that the Chinese government is employing artificial intelligence facial recognition technology to monitor and target the Uighurs. Tibetan Buddhists, meanwhile, are prohibited from displaying photos of the Dalai Lama. Falun Gong adherents by the hundreds have been arrested.
If misery truly loves company, then Christians ought to be thrilled, because they have plenty. Yet while there are many mountains of opposition blocking their way, Chinese believers in Jesus have good reason to believe that God will continue to allow the gospel to flow.