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When sociology professor Fenggang Yang, who directs Purdue University’s Center on Religion and Chinese Society, said China will be the most Christian nation in the world by 2030, major Western newspapers headlined that hope. China’s Global Times scoffed, though, and new regulations are making life harder for Chinese Christians. I asked Yang about his expectations now. Here are edited excerpts of his remarks.
The Chinese government has announced it will implement new regulations in February 2018 targeting religious groups, schools, and media, restricting religious activities and meeting places. How will this affect the house churches? If enforced and implemented seriously, it will have a very significant negative effect on churches and other religious groups. Is it enforceable? I’m not sure whether the government will put resources into implementing it. The regulations said township-level governments are responsible for managing religious affairs, but most of these local governments don’t have a designated person for religious affairs. The government would need to increase the number of officials in tens of thousands of towns.
Also, the restrictions make the penalty for renting spaces to house churches very heavy. Can the government enforce that? It’s cost the government so much to kick Shouwang Church in Beijing out of its building. That’s just one house church in Beijing. If there were five or 10, would police be used to control all those house churches? I doubt it.
If it’s hard to enforce the rules on all the house churches, will the government make examples of a few bigger churches? Yes, that is the Communist strategy: a few examples to pressure others to comply without resistance. But now it has become more difficult to decide which large house churches to target. Some of them are too well-known in the world. Any action against Pastor Wang Yi or the Chengdu churches will be covered in newspapers around the world. In Beijing, will the government target Zion Church, which is much bigger than Shouwang? It’s hard to say.
‘The [Chinese] authorities’ intention is clear: Tighten up control, restrict the de facto freedom house churches have enjoyed. I’m not sure they can still do that: too many Christians, too many churches.’
Could you give us a brief history of the regulations? The initial two religious restrictions on foreigners evangelizing in China and specifying religious venues were enacted in 1994. Eleven years later the religious affairs regulation took effect. It’s now been another 12 years, and I think leaders wanted to have a new regulation earlier, but it took a long time for them to sort it out and debate. I’m sure there was disagreement.
What was the trend before the new, harder line? Around the year 2000, something changed regarding the government’s view of house churches. Before 2000, house churches were considered illegal and the government took actions against them. Since 2000, the government cracked down less on house churches as they became semi-legal, semi-illegal. Many house churches have come above ground and become public. Very few have been suppressed.
Weren’t many church members hopeful a decade ago? Around 2008 and 2009 there was a moment of hope for a change in policy toward house churches as the government allowed some public discussion. In 2009 an official Chinese Academy of Social Sciences report printed the word “house church,” meaning it was recognized by scholars. After 2009 it’s increasingly difficult to talk about the house churches publicly. Since 2010, a more militant atheism pervaded. The new regulations are a result of that.
The government is trying to eliminate the gray area: You’re either in the legal market or the black market. Before 2000, house churches were in the black market. Recently they have been very much in the gray market. Now, a push back into the black market.
One regulation mentioned Christians could not go overseas for conferences. I’ve seen thousands of Christians going to attend conferences in Hong Kong and elsewhere. How will government leaders try to stop that? They can’t, unless they close borders as they did during the Cultural Revolution. With leisure travel to Hong Kong and neighboring countries allowed, it’s very hard to stop conference travel. Sometimes they will try to stop speakers from going. Sometimes they ask them to report to the police before and after the conference.
Will the space for religious liberties in China continue to shrink? The authorities’ intention is clear: Tighten up control, restrict the de facto freedom house churches have enjoyed. I’m not sure they can still do that: too many Christians, too many churches. Authorities can’t control the economic and social spheres, so how can they effectively reduce that free space for house churches?
How do you think Christians will respond to the regulations? Some house church leaders I spoke with said they are prepared to break down into small groups—they already have Bible studies and fellowship groups, so they would simply stop gathering as a congregation. As long as local officials claim to follow the rule of law, then Christians will take them to court and try to challenge the rule. This is different from when China was going through the Cultural Revolution because during that time, officials had officially abandoned the rule of law.
The process of making the regulations was illegal and against the Chinese Constitution. Last year, a group of lawyers sent in comments after the government released a draft of the regulations. The lawyers collectively signed a letter addressed to the National People’s Congress, saying they should stop this process to see if the regulations are in violation of the constitution and the law. Nobody responded to that. Many Christian leaders sent in their opinion. There is a Chinese freedom of information act: Someone should ask the government how many people commented on the draft regulations and what they said.
Would the government really release that information? I believe someone in the legislative council or some other relevant office must be a hidden Christian, or there may even be multiple Christians. They can’t stop the process, but they can do things within their power. You have to prompt them to do it.
What is the current situation for Christian journalists in China? It’s very challenging. It’s becoming more difficult with the overall campaign toward the left, as the government controls what people say and do. Certainly all mass media have felt tightened control. But I do see Christians popping up in the media. I liked the writing of the managing editor of one popular news site, which is now shut down. Then he became seriously ill and died. Afterward people who knew him shared his life story, and it turns out he was a Christian. I thought, “Of course!” Now I could understand why he wrote what he did.
The number of Christians in China is increasing in all professions, including journalism. But even non-Christians have a difficult time staying in the journalism field. They say the job is so restrictive that if you’ve been in journalism for more than 10 years, something is wrong with you. Some Christians have left journalism, but quite a few remain. I am amazed at how brave the people in China are—they could lose their jobs, their children could get kicked out of school—nonetheless, they are public about their faith.
This Q&A has been updated to clarify Yang’s views on Christians in Chinese government and his description of the 1994 religious regulations.