Remember, be extremely careful when interpreting religion in China
While the international narrative states that Christians in China face daily persecution, the story on the ground may tell something entirely different and more nuanced. (Photo by AFP)
Month after month, year after year, the Western media is inundated with articles making the same claim: Chinese Christians seem to endure recurrent crackdowns and difficulties from their Communist government.
However, after 13 years of experience among various Chinese Christians, I have come to an alternative view. Here, I share some of this perspective and ask: Are Chinese Christians really persecuted?
During the Maoist era (1949-1977), Chinese Christian churches were openly persecuted by the Communist state and all suffered.
Since 1979, they have been able to operate openly but are supposed to be legally registered and must, officially, accept supervision from government agencies.
Yet, in the post-1979 era, a large number of Christian communities prefer not to be formally registered even though they usually secure unofficial personal ties to some of these agencies and to the local police.
The political situation of Chinese Christians is not black and white. It is too simple to think that Chinese Christians are persecuted. In most cases, observers and participants are too quick to blame the government and these poorly nuanced analyses influence negatively the whole of Chinese Christianity.
The Chinese state does not show blanket opposition to its Christian citizens and Chinese Christian churches are peacefully prospering most of the time. Then why is the discourse of persecution so continuous and unequivocal?
Among officials, hearing that Christian churches are strictly kept under control is a reassuring sign that the Chinese Communist Party remains faithful to Mao. This discourse of persecution in fact does more to pacify party hard-liners than to describe the reality.
Christianity in China is divided
Everyone working with Chinese Christians knows that Christianity in China is extremely divided. There are continuous fierce conflicts within churches, pushing them to divide again and again.
There are the official Catholic and Protestant churches and myriad of unofficial, underground or house churches of various denominations or of none at all.
Therefore, accusing the government of creating all the problems is an easy way to deny responsibility. It is also a convenient means to build up a common "enemy," to push believers to unify against. In the eyes of some Christians, it is easier to blame the government than to move toward an arduous dialogue for reconciliation.
Beyond this internal situation of churches, the narrative of persecution is also interesting to Chinese Christians in relation to foreign churches. During the 1980s and '90s, the theme of the endurance of persecution during the Cultural Revolution became a powerful symbol that allowed Chinese Christians to gather huge financial support and fame.
Since 2000, the flow of foreign money has slowed but the discourse remains. Both Chinese Christians and missionaries working in China are concretely experiencing the benefits of it and many of them are not in any hurry to change this storyline.
In an age where China increasingly appears as a superpower, competition and tensions with superpowers and neighboring countries are rising.
Therefore, antagonist states are inclined to generously spread the discourse of Christian persecution in China, in order to deny the modern Chinese state its due respect and disprove any rhetoric emphasizing harmony.
In this international competition for power, it must nonetheless be kept in mind that this argument about "Christian persecution" was also the one that Western powers used during the 19th century to declare war on imperial China and implement a colonial agenda.
Therefore, those who care about the church in China should remember that Chinese Christians are again at risk of being used as a pawn within international political rivalries.
Understanding cultural patterns
The conjunction of such diverse actors who share an interest in the narrative of Christian persecution might explain why alternative approaches and analyses rarely appear within broader media. There are too many influential people who find it convenient or even useful to hear and repeat this outdated, simplistic story.
However, a closer look is needed at the Chinese socio-cultural context to see how and why those who nourish this narrative of persecution find factual events and clues to support their theory. I limit my analyses here to cultural patterns that are rarely mentioned. More could be found.
The first cultural pattern that misleads the debate relies on governance. Everyone knows that the French, Japanese and American states, for instance, do not work in the same way. Each socio-politico system relies on a specific and unique mode of governance.
In China, the state implements its regulation of people primarily through the administration of land and residential, or hukou, rights. But surprisingly, the flow of money within the country has little regulation. Chinese citizens enjoy far lower taxation levels than Europeans and benefit from a relatively high level of freedom to share or give their money to whomever they want.
The Chinese state has very limited tools to know and control the real amount of money managed by each citizen. While land in the West is perceived as a matter of inalienable individual rights, and flow of money as a matter for public regulation, the situation in China is almost the opposite.
The modern Chinese state builds up on cultural heritage to govern and regulate the flow of wealth within Chinese society through property rights while leaving Chinese citizens quite free to manage their own money. Clearly, governance in China works differently than in the West.
This broader politico-cultural framework must be taken into consideration when we want to analyze the recent destruction of crosses in Zhejiang province that many observers used as a proof of creeping persecution.
Churches there, especially in Wenzhou, are mostly associated with large, profitable businesses to develop an entrepreneurial Christianity. Wenzhou's churches are often under the leadership of "boss Christians" without any pastor. Some of these local bosses became so rich and so internationally connected, that they are able to get around most local government regulations.
Therefore, when local officials decide to destroy crosses and sometimes entire buildings, we must carefully interpret the signal behind it. Is it faith or unregulated business that they are targeting? Also, the destruction of buildings in China (where nearly everything has been rebuilt over the last 30 years) brings a different symbolic value than in the West, where we worship old stones.
In short, the Chinese state primarily regulates its population and economy through space management and land rights.
China's unique state-religion relationship
The second cultural pattern that I would suggest can enlighten our interpretation of "religious freedom" in China is based on the state-religion relationship.
In the West, a European identity was created based on the cultural myth that everyone belonged to the same faith, with the same Christian God, but under many different governments and ruling regimes.
By contrast, the Chinese identity is built on the myth of an imperial unity, with only one state evolving from dynasty to dynasty but remaining one and eternal in its deep nature.
In Chinese civilization, diversity has always been embodied within the religious sphere, characterized by a fragmentation of cults, practices, and religious actors.
In China, unity has been mostly incarnated through the political sphere while diversity has been mostly secured through the religious sphere.
Divisions among Christians might not be only because of the government's "Machiavellian" agenda, but also because of deep cultural roots that make Chinese Christians less sensitive about church unity.
Also, the specific Chinese cultural balance between religion and politics could help explain why the Chinese church-state relationship seems so odd to Western observers.
In summary, we need to remember to be extremely careful when it comes to interpreting religion in China. Many interests are at stake and cultural biases shape our understanding of the situation.
Michel Chambon is a French-Catholic theologian pursuing a doctorate in anthropology at Boston University in the United States. He is currently in China for one year of fieldwork among local Protestants.
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