On May 30, 2014, The New York Times published a story by Ian Johnson about what seems to be a concerted government effort to clamp down on Christian churches in Wenzhou, the city with the highest percentage of Christians in China. It has long been known that there are regional differences in official attitudes toward religion, not always reflecting the views of the central government. It is conceivable that the events in Wenzhou could be a relatively local matter. But at any rate one aspect of the story makes one wonder: The provincial head of the Communist party who initiated the anti-Christian measures, Xiao Baolong, is a close ally of Xi Jinping, the president of China since March 2013. The president is not known for a liberal outlook. Do the events in Wenzhou reflect or foreshadow a policy change on the national level? It is too early to tell, but it is worth reflecting on the implications if there is a policy change emanating from Beijing.
Wenzhou is a city in southeast China. It has 9 million inhabitants in its metropolitan area (I suppose this makes it a medium-size city in Chinese terms). The climate is good all year long, because it is located in a hilly area with fresh breezes. It has long been known for having a successful class of entrepreneurs, many of whom have moved to other parts of the country and to the overseas Chinese diaspora. The economic market reforms began with a government-sponsored experiment in Wenzhou. The city now contains 130,000 private enterprises, four of them listed among China’s 500 top firms. Intense Protestant missionary activity, most of it from America and Britain, began there in the late nineteenth century. Wenzhou now has the largest percentage of Christians in the country—estimated at 15%. No wonder it has been called a “Christian Jerusalem”! What is particularly interesting is that the Christian community, most of it Protestant, has a large number of successful business people, known locally as “boss Christians”. Some of them expressed the opinion in a study that Protestantism would become the majority religion in China, and that this would not only be good for the economy but would help China become a great power (a prospect they welcomed). Until now, there have been relaxed relations between the Christian churches and the local power structure (state and party).
Christianity in China has exploded in numbers in recent decades. The phrase “Christianity fever” was used to describe this. I generally rely on two demographers of religion, Todd Johnson and Brian Grim. In their book The World’s Religions in Figures (2013), they estimate the total number of Christians in China at 67 million (about 5% of the country’s population). There are other estimates, the highest, by the World Christian Data Base (an Evangelical outfit), at 108 million (about 8%). This may be wishful thinking. Official Chinese government figures are much lower (possibly wishful thinking too, as is typical of all statistics released by authoritarian governments). Johnson and Grim estimate that the total of Protestants is 58 million (4.3 of the country’s population), with Catholics far behind at 9 million (0.7%). I would think that the Protestants are mainly Evangelical, many of them Pentecostal/charismatic. All these estimates include both churches that have been officially registered by the government, and those that have not. The distinction is important: The latter category of Christians (often referred to as belonging to “underground” or “house” churches—rather a misnomer, as some of them are very much “above ground” and worshipping in large buildings). However, even if tolerated by local authorities, the members of unregistered churches are very hard to count. I would therefore guess that totals of Christians including both categories are under-estimated.
Just what happened in Wenzhou? And what does it mean beyond that charming little town of nine million people?
Protestant Christians, with all the funds raised by themselves (between three and five million dollars), had built a cathedral-sized church (with the spire 180 feet high, topped by an enormous cross). The Sanjiang (“Three Rivers”) Church) was erected on a hillside. It could be seen from far away. Finished in 2013, it had quickly become a landmark of the city and a powerful symbol of the Christian presence. That prominent presence was resented by some adherents of other religions, at least partly because they wanted to build sanctuaries of their own and competed with the Christians for suitable building spaces in the hilly environment. The construction had been approved by the provincial religious affairs bureau (these government agencies exist all over China). Thus Sanjiang was an officially registered church, not a so-called “underground church” (the usual targets of government repression).
This made what followed surprising and all the more shocking. In October 2013, not long after the edifice was erected, Xia Baolong, the provincial party leader, visited the area and took note of the big cross. He was not amused. He ordered the cross to be taken down. The order was followed by a threat that the entire church would be demolished unless the cross was removed. According to the Times story, other churches “dotted the landscape”. Some of them also had crosses on the roof (even if not of Sanjiang’s dimension). All of them received the same order and threat. This unexpected massive government action was officially explained as due to violations of zoning regulations and/or threats to building safety. This pretense was unmasked by an intrepid bit of investigative journalism by the Times (“all the news that’s fit to print”, even in a far-away corner of China), which managed to get hold of a confidential memo of the provincial party, informing cadres of a new policy. The memo stated that the government intends to regulate “excessive religious sites” (crosses were explicitly mentioned, not Buddhist or other non-Christian symbols) and “overly popular religious activities”. In other words, Christianity will only be tolerated if it is delivered in unmarked brown envelopes.
The Sanjiang congregation refused to obey the order, saying that their faith demanded that the cross be kept in place. Worse in the party’s perspective, Christians from Sanjiang and other churches demonstrated against the order in public. This stand was supported by national Christian and human rights organizations. Attempts to negotiate with local authorities failed to resolve the issue. On April 28, 2014, bulldozers demolished the entire church. I don’t know whether there were any further developments around the issue. There was indeed another news item concerning Wenzhou: A forty-year old woman from the city won first prize in a US body-building competition. I doubt whether stunned Christians contemplating the pile of rubble that used to be their church were comforted by this news.
One can put the question about the future of church/state relations in China in a larger political frame. Xi Jinping became president in March 2013. There has been much speculation about the course he is likely to take in both domestic and foreign policy. One year is not enough time for a confident prognosis, but a few things we do know so far. Xi has made clear that he will not reverse the economic market reforms (he has gone after Maoists in the party who favor a return to socialism). But he also made clear that he is not interested in political reforms. In other words, he will not make the Soviet “mistake” of combining perestroika with glasnost; in this he reflects what is likely to be the predominant view in the Chinese Communist party. Xi has also presided over a much more aggressive international stance, building up the armed forces, asserting great-power ambitions by provocative actions in China’s neighborhood (notably against Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines), and most importantly countering US interests in the United Nations and elsewhere (usually in in concert with Russia).
The constitution of the People’s Republic of China guarantees freedom of religion—“within the framework of normal religious activity”. “Normal” here probably means nothing that spills over from worship into the broader society; it definitely means nothing that in any way challenges the power of the party and the state. I think that the official attitude toward religion has little if anything to do with Marxism, but a lot with Confucianism: Most of religion is a lot of superstition and it can be subversive of social order. If one cannot eradicate it, one must contain it—basically, a policy of disease control. Presiding over this containment strategy is the State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA).
A few years ago a colleague and I had a meeting with the director of SARA; we were planning a research project involving religion in China, and had been advised to get an official green light. We were very cordially received, and we did get the green light. (The director mistakenly greeted me as the father of secularization theory; I did not correct him. But he also said that I was almost as great a sociologist of religion as Max Weber, and I felt that I couldn’t let that pass. I said that I was not as great as Weber, but that I had one great advantage over him—I was still alive. I was pleased to get a hesitant chuckle from the assembled Communist apparatchiks.) While I listened to the long speech of the director, before it was translated into English, I tried to put myself into his mind, which probably was in accord with the mind of the party: Chinese folk religion, and the Daoism that is close to it, is okay (that is a big change since the Cultural Revolution, when it was attacked as dangerous superstition). Confucianism, divorced from its supernatural moorings, is seen as an important Chinese code of morality. Buddhism is okay, except in Tibet. Islam is very dangerous, especially in the Muslim area in the northwest. Christianity is mostly okay, though Catholics are suspect because of their headquarters abroad. Protestantism is particularly welcome, because it is linked to economic development (I doubt if the director had actually read Weber, but he did quote him because of that linkage). However, all religious movements are potentially dangerous (think of the Taiping rebellion in the nineteenth century, which came close to destroying the Chinese state). All have to be closely watched, including Protestantism, which has the deplorable tendency to favor multiparty-democracy (with terrible results as in South Korea and Taiwan).
Where is this leading? I don’t know. The future is rarely “surprise-free”. But I will stick my neck out, and venture a tentative prognosis. Much will depend on China’s economic future. The unprecedented economic growth since the early 1980s has lifted millions of people from degrading poverty to a decent level of material wellbeing, and a substantial increase of personal freedoms. This, I think, constitutes the basic legitimation basic of the regime, including the authoritarian rule of the party. That degree of economic growth is unlikely to continue, and this will in turn increase social tensions and encourage political dissidence. The regime, unwilling to give up its power monopoly, will have to look for other sources of legitimation. All of this is already happening. The emerging legitimation is nationalism. Ideologically, this entails suspicion of all ideas deemed to be un-Chinese, including the idea of universal human values, and of religions seen as insufficiently indigenized. A domestically more repressive and internationally more aggressive China would be bad news for Christianity. It would also be bad news for America, at present the only conceivable challenger to China’s hegemonic ambitions. It does not help that the Chinese elite perceives the United States as a declining power, its political system as dysfunctional, and its culture as decadent.