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Ying Fuk-Tsang directs the Divinity School of Chung Chi College, part of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. I asked him in April how churches were faring 2½ months after Beijing implemented new regulations that restrict religious activities. Here are parts of our interview edited and translated from Mandarin.
From a 30,000-foot level, how will the new religious regulations affect churches in China? The regulations, a revision of China’s 2005 Regulations on Religious Affairs, reflect President Xi Jinping’s views of religion. Xi since 2013 has wanted to use legal means to manage and control religious groups. The biggest change for Chinese churches: The government can point to specific articles and charge Christians for breaking the law.
A phrase the government likes to use is, “There is no religion outside of the law, there is no man outside the law.” The government will claim to protect lawful religion and attack only unlawful religion. It will use the law to regulate and control house churches.
On the ground, what changes have churches in China been experiencing? First, unregistered house churches: The government doesn’t acknowledge them, but views them as private gatherings of Christians. They are not legal. The government wants to investigate these house churches, especially looking into whether their meeting places have any fire safety violations or if the group received any noise complaints. They will use these minor infractions to close the house churches.
‘There is hope in knowing political power can’t extinguish religion.’
Second, President Xi has abolished the Religious Affairs bureau and placed the responsibility of managing religion on low-level officials. Village, neighborhood, and street-level government officials are now responsible for understanding and investigating the religious situation in their area. They have to investigate if there are any problems. They’ll be judged based on their performance. In Henan many churches have received notices stating children under 18 are not allowed to attend church. They can’t hold Sunday school classes or youth services.
Third, the government has also focused on the separation of church and education, especially Sunday school classes and college fellowships. Many house churches start college Bible study groups and evangelize on campus. Some Christian professors share their faith with students and invite them to church. The government is very nervous about this and is enforcing the ban on religious activities and evangelism on campus.
Fourth, the government is concerned about party members coming to Christ. Officials have found this to be a serious problem and are trying to figure out why Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members are professing faith. We’ve seen the government deal with this issue before, but since February it has been more strictly enforced.
In the past, were minors allowed at church? In 1982, the CCP released Document 19, which said that religious groups could not forcibly convert minors. But this has been interpreted differently: Is it enough to not coerce them? What if they choose to convert themselves? This was not a law, but a CCP policy. At the time, many cities did not allow churches to run children’s Sunday schools. But as the number of churches grew, many parents faced the dilemma that they wanted to attend church on Sundays but didn’t know what to do with their kids. They couldn’t leave them at home unaccompanied, and the children would disturb others if they sat in the service.
So churches used this excuse to start providing child care. They told the government officials that it was not a Sunday school, but a child care service to watch the children. Yet the Christians in charge of child care would teach them worship songs and tell Bible stories. This is how churches found a gray area to start children’s Sunday schools. As time went on, children’s Sunday schools became so common that officials in some areas stopped trying to regulate them. But now Xi is very concerned about Christianity growing so fast. One reason: Parents bring their children to church from the time they are little. Government-sanctioned churches won’t publicly baptize minors, although they may do it quietly.
With such a large number of Christians in the country, how can the government enforce this law in all of China? There’s no way to control all of the churches. This is why ever since China opened up 30 years ago, Beijing hasn’t been able to solve the house church problem. You can’t completely extinguish house churches: The political, administrative, and economic costs are all too big. So the government isn’t trying to eradicate churches immediately, but to shrink the space they have and to stop outside resources from flowing into them. They will persecute selected regions to make others afraid and more willing to work with the government.
How is Beijing trying to shut down house churches? The regulations note that if a landlord rents his building to an unlawful religious group, he could get in trouble. In the past the government would put informal pressure on landlords, but now they will be fined. This means less room for house churches because they can’t even find a space to meet. In the future, when house churches try to rent a space, the landlord will ask if it’s for unlawful religious activities.
The Chinese government often mentions its desire to “sinicize” Christianity. Could you explain this term? It’s about political identity: Christianity must love the CCP leaders and support socialism. Christians are required to interpret the Bible in accordance with the core values of socialism and get rid of anything that doesn’t contribute to China’s progress. … Churches need to improve to face challenges: Is a church theologically knowledgeable enough to counter those ideas? Does it have enough legal knowledge to protect itself?
Does international concern about certain churches and pastors help them or harm them? International concern has some use, but it may be decreasing as China becomes stronger. Before China entered the World Trade Organization, China was more concerned about its international image and the United States could press China regarding human rights and religious freedom issues. But now that China is the second-largest economy, it can say it is going to walk its own path. If the international community sees China persecuting a certain group and no one criticizes it, then the Chinese government might go even further.
When the Zhejiang government took down church crosses, many foreign media outlets criticized the move, and that influenced the government’s actions. If international groups are concerned with a certain church, the Chinese government could claim the church has connections with Western groups and it could get in trouble. But if more reporters write about the bad things the government is doing, it will bring some protections.
What hope do you have for the future of the Chinese church? There is hope in knowing political power can’t extinguish religion. The Chinese government wanted to do that during the Cultural Revolution, so it shut down all religious gatherings and it looked like religion had died—but religion grew very fast after that. Not only did believers individually keep their faith alive during the Cultural Revolution, but they evangelized to others.
Right now regulations around churches are very strict, but the number of Christians is so large that the church is an important social presence. We don’t need to fear a large-scale eradication: The power of faith comes from God. That is where your hope lies.