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China Change: The Ongoing War Against Religion in China

Sunday, August 9, 2015

China Change
By Zhao Chu, published: August 4, 2015

This article has been making the rounds on social media in China. It was published a year ago following the demolition of churches or crosses in the prosperous coastal Zhejiang province (watch a Telegraph video here). China Change’s recent interview with a local pastor sheds more light on the still ongoing campaign and the rising Christian resistance. – The Editors

Churches put up banners to protest cross removal.
Recently, many Christian places of worship have been forcibly demolished by local governments throughout China. The odd thing about this is that the great majority of these churches and other places of worship hadn’t just suddenly appeared on their own; rather, they had been constructed over the course of the past 30 years. In fact, during this gradual process of construction, local governments have turned a blind eye and pretended not to notice. Otherwise, given China’s system of tight control, these facilities could never have been built in the first place.

This means, in other words, that the present large-scale campaign to destroy every cross in sight nationwide represents the will of the new leadership group. Consequently, those who observe Chinese society and politics ought to pay attention to the conflict between those carrying out this campaign and those faithful who are determined to protect their churches.

Over the course of history, there has been no shortage of fierce social conflicts over religious belief. Everyone knows how in the Middle Ages the Christian countries of Europe launched the Crusades against the rising power of Islam. The tragic conflicts between Christians holding different religious views were part of the transformation of Europe into modern nation-states, with those conflicts coming to an end only after the Thirty Years’ War. Like those conflicts inside Europe, deadly confrontations over sectarian religious differences continue to this day to fuel many of the trouble-spots in the Middle East.

Setting aside the discussion about the truth of religion and faith, and unburdening ourselves of the disputes and divisions that always come with the discussions, we look at China’s evolving policies toward religion over the years in terms of societal change and governance.

There’s been an obvious resurgence of religious fervor in China over the past 30 years. Stigmatized and subjected to severe punishment after 1949, China’s religious communities first started to see their positive image restored after introduction of the policies of “reform and opening” [in the late 1970s]. This is because of the central role religious communities play in the “United Front” policy—one of the “Three Great Strategic Magic Weapons” supporting the historical rule of the Communist Party. In the Chinese context, religion is implicated in the policies governing ethnic regions like Xinjiang, Ningxia, Tibet, and Qinghai. Therefore, softening policies toward religious repression can be said to have been a prerequisite for promoting control in those regions.

As for the rest of China, the rapid spread of religion—particularly Christianity—reflects society’s spiritual longing in the wake of the utter failure to promote Bolshevism as a substitute for religious faith. Especially in economically developed areas and among the middle class, people are searching for some sort of spiritual center from which to reconstruct an ethical life that enables individuals to settle into and get on with their lives in a world full of drastic and kaleidoscopic change.

Put simply, though expanding ties with the outside world have provided an entry to foreign religious missionaries, the spread of Christianity in China is first and foremost a product of conditions within Chinese society. This is demonstrated by the fact that, over the past several years, continued repression of house churches and religious groups outside of official control has done absolutely nothing to diminish people’s fervor for religion.

Believers and swat clashed when the cross of
this church in Wenzhou was removed on July
21, 2014.
Political and social changes over the past 30 years have brought earth-shaking changes to the old structures of politics and power in China. Even though these structures remain quite rigid, they have actually undergone major changes in step with the times. Few people realize that use of the phrase “socialism with Chinese characteristics” itself demonstrates that the authorities have already acknowledged the failure of the Bolshevik theocracy they established at the cost of so much blood. Even though the regime still strives to preserve dictatorship, its strategy of “putting economic construction at the core of everything” for nearly 30 years is equivalent to announcing that the state has retreated to the realm of economic life. In doing so, it gave up trying to dominate the realm of spiritual life and returned control to society and individuals. This is another reason why local governments focused solely on other sorts of development turned a blind eye to the religious wave sweeping over China.
Careful observers will discover that for most of the past 30 years, generally speaking, even though the government has in theory opposed the development of any religious activity outside of official control, it in fact never employed particularly advanced policies of strong confrontation. Religion continued to develop in pace with the economy. Up until recently, those with power rushed to make money and everyone tried to live in peace with one another.

Therefore, if you want to understand today’s policy of strong repression against religion, you must consider the serious and comprehensive social crises now facing contemporary Chinese society. When local governments depart from their habitual way of doing things and start doing battle with religion at any cost, this is really a reflection of how China’s top leaders assess the overall situation and their basic political agenda.

These crises exist first of all on the economic level. There’s the potential collapse of the overall state-led economy and financial sectors and the resulting collapse of local finances and governance capacity. Then there’s the crisis of large-scale public opposition sparked by various issues related to economic development. Given the overall depletion of economic resources and efficiency, the authorities are most fearful about the basic security of the political regime. Particularly after big problems arose in places like Tibet and Xinjiang, where religious and ethnic groupings essentially coincide, religion is itself now seen as a major potential threat to the security of the political regime. Recent terrorist attacks have only brought this problem even more out in the open.

Ordinary religious believers, especially Christians and their clergy, have typically been cautious in their attitudes toward political and social problems in China. Even so, Christianity has become the primary target of the current attack. Clearly, then, the new round of religious repression has no direct connection to the specific social activities of religious believers but comes from some other set of considerations.

There are two main considerations. First, as the prospect of social crisis becomes clearer, the sense of group identity and influence provided by faith-based groups can turn into a powerful framework for social opposition. There is strong evidence for this in the role played by churches in the transformation of Eastern Europe and South Africa. You can already see signs of this in the way that Christians are joining to protect their churches through silent confrontation.

Second, Christian churches exemplify the Chinese religious community’s refusal to accept official control. This has made a regime determined to exert direct control over everything sense their potential will to engage in social confrontation. This is exactly the kind of thing that the Chinese authorities have historically been unwilling to tolerate, and this has basically been the source of all previous conflict and friction.

Just like the ancient story of the innocent man punished on account of his most cherished piece of jade, it’s the potential social and political capacity of Christians that is the fundamental reason for the uncompromising repression they face. There is still deeper social significance to this point.

One should also consider the practical factors behind the choice to attack Christians: while the other main religions are connected to the complex situations in China’s ethnic regions, Christians live primarily in the heartland of China. And as I’ve said before, they have been comparatively low-key, politically. It’s for these reasons that they were chosen to be the first targets of repression – in other words, because the authorities calculated that repressing Christians would be less likely to arouse troublesome political opposition. This doesn’t mean that the authorities haven’t employed similar kinds of repressive measures against other religions. In fact, over these several years, the authorities in China’s western regions have already adopted many repressive measures targeting Buddhist temples and Islamic customs.

The Chinese Communist Party’s mindset is already fixed regarding how to deal the current social crisis: politically they have determined to maintain the legacy of the Maoist past, and rejected constitutionalism and a new system of tolerance toward religion and society. Instead, they think their only logical choice is to revert to the past ways and rebuild a centralized and integrated new Stalinist system. In the process, all religious activity that refuses to submit to direct official control and supervision and the current ambiguous state of peace will all naturally have to come to an end.

Therefore, we can see from the ongoing undeclared war against religion that the confrontation between the religious faithful and the authorities is more about making a fundamental choice between two ways of life than it is a conflict between the religious and secular worlds. On the one hand, there’s a world in which one is free to practice one’s religion, where there is tolerance toward those of different religions, and where control over spiritual life is returned to the people themselves. On the other hand, we’re faced with saying farewell to religious freedom and turning our lives over once again to the religious affairs bureau and the endless string of party secretaries and mayors, just as we did during the 30 years after 1949.

In this respect, China’s current 21st-century war against religion is destined to be like those other religious conflicts over the course of history. Unless the side of religious freedom is victorious and society is given the basic political conditions to be able to provide institutional support to religious diversity and tolerance, there will never be any other possibility of compromise.

On this basis we can make a preliminary prediction of how this conflict will progress in the future. The authorities will become increasingly harsh and brutal, inevitably leading Christians who have always been politically low-key to develop broader and more heightened political consciousness. This is exactly how things developed in Eastern Europe and South Africa—there is nothing specifically Chinese or religious about it.


ZHAO CHU (赵楚)

Zhao Chu (赵楚) is a Shanghai-based independent commentator and a long time researcher on international strategy, global military and social issues in China.


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