China is becoming a new heartland for Christianity, with estimates suggesting that there are between 70 and 100 million Christians spread throughout the continent. But the communist party, perceiving a threat to their power, have recently published strict new regulations on religious freedom. 20Twenty’s Neil Johnson caught up with religious liberty analyst Elizabeth Kendal, to talk about the state of the church in China, the escalating persecution, and what these developments mean for the rest of the world.
By 2030, experts say China will have the largest Christian population in the world. Because many Chinese Christians keep their faith hidden, it’s difficult to get an accurate estimate of their numbers, but some guesses suggest that Christians now outnumber members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
At first, the Chinese Christian movement was largely found in rural areas, amongst the lower classes. This was a similar situation to what we see in India today, where the vast majority of the church is in the lower strata of society, and 60 per cent of Indian Christians are Dalits, or untouchables.
Elizabeth Kendal runs the Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin, and has written two books about the increasing persecution of Christians.
“It’s one thing to have the gospel lift you up,” she said. “It’s another to have the Gospel cut you down to size. So in a country like India, the church is overwhelmingly poor and disenfranchised. In China, you have something quite different, and quite remarkable, and actually quite unique in the world.”
“What happened at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre, was the urban elite, particularly in Beijing, got this vision of how morally bankrupt atheism, and communism, and the communist party is.” The result, she says, was an awakening of the elite, which caused Christianity to spread through all levels of society.
The CCP has now made it illegal for its members to be Christian. “They must be atheists,” Kendal said. “They must sign up to Maoist and Marxist philosophy. So probably many have left, or might be keeping their faith a secret, so they can stay inside the party and monitor what’s going on.”
Kendal believes God is preparing China to play an important role in global Christianity.
But she also says that Chinese Christians are about to face a concerted national attack on their religious freedoms. The CCP has just published new regulations which tighten the government’s stranglehold on religion.
These regulations suggest that unregistered and unapproved religious activity will no longer be tolerated. Registered churches will be obliged to follow strict guidelines, and all building will be tightly regulated, doubtless to reduce Christianity’s visibility. Kendal believes a recent crackdown on the church in Zhejiang Province is just a rehearsal for a planned national attack on Christianity, guided by these new regulations, and masterminded by China’s president, Xi Jinping.
The church in China is made up of two factions. An estimated 30 million Chinese Christians are members of the state sanctioned church, with the vast majority attending underground or house churches. “Now the state church is known as the Three-Self patriotic movement,” Kendal explained. “And that term, Three-Self, means that the church has to be self-funding, self-sustaining and self-governing.”
But in reality, Kendal says the Three-Self Church is strictly controlled by the government. “The communist party trains their leaders, and tells them what to do, and sets the rules. And while these churches can keep their doors open, and can sell bibles, and can preach to some degree the Gospel, they are still so profoundly restricted and controlled, that the majority of Christians opt for house churches.”
The Three-Self movement is fueled by a futile attempt to create a uniquely Chinese form of Christianity, which is compatible with the Marxist philosophies at the heart of Chinese society. “Marx said abolish religion. Abolish family. Abolish marriage. How do you make that compatible with the biblical message? The atheistic world view is diametrically opposed to the Christian worldview.”
As a result of this philosophy, members of the Three-Self church are not allowed to evangelise outside of church meetings, or teach religion to anyone under eighteen years of age. This restriction makes it illegal for Christian families to talk about God to their children.
“So in order to have freedom, they basically go underground. To meet without government permission is itself illegal. So you end up in this cycle of illegality, where it becomes almost impossible for Christians to function legally.”
The Three-Self Church is also restricted to major cities, giving Chinese Christians in rural areas little option but to attend house churches. But a house church mightn’t be what you imagine. A house church is often the central hub for a network of thousands of Christians. Small church services occur throughout the day, so as not to draw attention. House churches are often well-organised, and even well-funded by wealthy Christians in positions of power.
And in some places, the underground church has been tolerated, an open secret. The city of Wenzhou, in the Zhejiang province, has long been known as China’s Jerusalem. Its skyline is dotted with crosses, atop enormous cathedral-like churches. These ostentatious Christian icons would never be allowed in other parts of China, but they’ve been permitted here because they’re built by some of the country’s most successful business people.
These entrepreneurs have been using their influence to spread the gospels, by running their factories on Christian principles. “So their workplace comes to work and they start with morning devotions. There’s Christian music playing. Over lunchtime, there’ll be a bible study, read from the loudspeakers, and by the time people have been working there for a few years, most of them are Christians, and are going to church. So it’s been a phenomenal thing, the Christianisation of Wenzhou, and the Christianisation of Zhejiang.”
But in January 2014, the communist party began to fight back, removing the iconic crosses, on the pretext that they were against building regulations, and spoiling the skyline. In the last two years, nearly 2,000 crosses have been removed.
The churches of Wenzhou are very proud of their crosses, and many bravely protested their removal. Kendal says the party’s response was to demolish the churches entirely. “The bulldozers would come in, and the police would come in with their truncheons, and people were ending up in hospital, and Pastors have been arrested.”
To get a sense of the scale of these churches, Kendal described one, which includes a huge auditorium, three stories high. Above, there are classrooms, facilitating bible colleges, and higher still, a retirement village, where older people whose children have moved away can be supported by the church. That building is one of those which has now been destroyed.
“These are not just little grass huts down the road somewhere,” Kendal said. “These are major facilities. They have had building permission, because the government has wanted to stay on the right side of the Christian entrepreneurs. But now they’ve switched their feelings on this, and they’re attacking them very harshly.”
“And I’m absolutely convinced that what has been happening in Zhejiang over the last few years is about to be rolled out nationwide with these new regulations.”
Kendal isn’t alone in believing the crackdown in Zhejiang is just an experiment. “And you might say why? Why would you do an experiment in China’s Jerusalem? Why not go out to some little backwater and try it? The thinking has been, in my opinion, if we can get away with it in Wenzhou, we can get away with it anywhere.”
The other reason why Wenzhou may have been chosen as a testing ground is that China’s new president, Xi Jinping, was the governor of Zhejiang province from 2002 to 2007. “He lived there. He governed there. He spent his days there for five years. SO he’s no stranger to the massive Christianisation of Zhejiang and Wenzhou.”
Xi Jinping, who has been president since 2013, has been working hard to consolidate his power. The party recently confirmed him as “core leader”, an honorary status first held by Mao Zedong. This means that his opinion is the most important in the party, and disagreeing with him is highly dangerous. Commentators suggest that his next step will be to change the constitution, so that he can remain China’s leader indefinitely.
“He is what’s known as a princeling,” Kendal said. “That is, he is the son of one of the core communist party heroes of the past. He’s a dedicated Maoist himself. He believes that communism is attainable in China. So he’s ideologically very much a Chinese communist. And the crackdown is pretty much all about power, keeping the communist party in power, and keeping himself in power.”
Xi Jinping has perhaps been most well-known for a high profile anti-corruption campaign, which last year targeted more than 300,000 officials. “In fact a lot of the Christian leaders who are in prison at the moment in China are there on corruption charges,” Kendal said. “They were the Pastors of some of China’s biggest official churches.”
Bao Guohua, one of the few government approved Pastors who refused to remove the cross from his church, was given a fourteen-year sentence for corruption and embezzlement. In January this year, Gu Yuese, Pastor of the biggest Chinese church in the world, was arrested on similar charges.
But it’s not only priests that are being targeted. Last July, 250 Chinese lawyers were taken into custody. Many of them were given light sentences after confessing to their crimes, but several have been jailed on fraud or corruption charges, including Xia Lin, who received a twelve year sentence in September after refusing to confess.
All these arrests send a clear message, that the party is no longer willing to tolerate the little independence the Three-Self church still has, and the underground church is in even more danger. “It was like a humiliation, and a subjugation of the church,” Kendal said.
The new religious freedom regulations are accompanied by new restrictions on lawyers. “Lawyers are no longer going to be allowed to speak out against human rights abuses,” Kendal said. “So the church is not only losing its freedom. It will be losing its lawyers as well.”
So why does the CCP see Christianity as such a threat. Kendal says that Christians don’t want to cause any trouble. “I think it’s absolutely true and correct when people say that Chinese Christians have no desire to threaten their government. They just want to be good citizens.” But the Chinese Communist Party recognises that Christianity is incompatible with its values. The party wants its people to place its leader’s word above all else, but Christians will always take their lead from the word of God.
“Sometimes I get absolutely amazed at the fact that communists, and Islamists, and all sorts of people have more faith in the prayers of Christians, and in the Godliness of the church, than Christians do themselves. Christians often don’t understand the power of their prayers, the power of Godliness, the power of righteousness, and the power of the Gospel. But actually I believe the communist party knows exactly what a threat Christianity is to communist control.”
Kendal explains that after World War II, when the US established itself as the dominant world power, the church turned its eyes from prayer to politics. “A lot of churches relaxed, and thought ok, America’s got it covered. We can go back to playing Tennis, and America can fix up the religious persecution issue in the world.”
The Global Financial Crisis removed much of the leverage the US had used to get its way. But more importantly, the Western World is no longer committed to defending Judeo-Christian values, as it once was. “I think the church has to wake up to this, and say America is not going to fix the problem of Christian persecution.”
“The Western governments are not going to save persecuted Christians. Western governments are not going to, and they cannot actually fix the problem in china. Our governments are more powerless in this regard than they have ever been, and that we would probably care to admit that they are.”
Kendal wants the church to get back on its knees as it has done in the past, and pray for God’s intervention. “The church is where the power lies,” she said.
“The church is connected to the sovereign God, the sovereign God who rules over China, the sovereign God who is greater than the communist party of China. And the church is far far far more powerful than it often believes.”
For a long time, we have been blessed with societies which value human rights, liberty and religious freedom. But in the coming years, she says persecution is going to become a global phenomenon. “When the church grows, Satan is not going to just sit back and take it. He fights, and persecution escalates.”
But the Chinese church has flourished, and grown exponentially, even under the restrictions it has already suffered. Kendal says the government won’t get away with this new persecution. She pointed out that in the 1st century, when governments saw Christians threatening their power, they burnt them at the stake, and stoned them to death. But in the following 2,000 years, the church has turned the world upside-down. She believes this will happen again.
“I believe we are going to see great change in the Muslim world, and I believe that we’re going to see the Gospel rise up in countries like China, Iran, and Russia, and Africa. And they’ll all be sending missionaries to the west in the decades to come.”
There’s a lot we can learn, even now, from the strength and commitment of Christians in China, as they prepare to face these new challenges. In Australia, Christians are increasingly being mocked or belittled for expressing biblical views. When you see the suffering of persecuted Christians elsewhere in the world, you realise how privileged we are to be allowed to speak up for what we believe.
“But you also realise that you can rise above this,” Kendal said, “that there is a strength that you can find in Jesus Christ, and the persecuted, who we pray for, become a role model for us. So being involved in prayer for the persecuted, being involved in understanding persecution, how it happens and why it happens, how it takes place, all prepares us to stand firm when persecution comes to us.”
To read more about religious persecution around the world, visit Elizabeth Kendal’s website. For another perspective on the Chinese church, check out our interview with an Australian missionary currently living and working in China.