Recent Chinese Christian persecution headlines are misleading [UPDATED]

China Aid’s annual report says persecution of Chinese Christians is significantly on the rise from last year:

132 persecution cases involving 4,919 people, the number of people sentenced jumped 125% over the previous year and the incidences of persecution rose 41.9% from 2011.

This has spawned fantastic headlines like “How China Plans to Wipe Out House Churches.” However, the way these numbers are being presented and interpreted is misleading, giving people inaccurate impressions regarding both the motives and extent of the persecution.

Persecution is not the norm for the vast, vast majority of Chinese Christians. 5000 persecuted people is a lot, and those are just the ones they know about. That suffering and injustice is real. But remember that’s 5000 out of 50 to 70 million Chinese Christians. 99.99% of Chinese Christians don’t experience the kinds of persecution these reports talk about.

Also, as sinologist Brent Fulton at ChinaSource.org points out: just because Christians (or churches) are persecuted doesn’t mean they are persecuted for being Christians:

chinasource logo Recent Chinese Christian persecution headlines are misleading [UPDATED]there are certain triggers that prompt authorities in China to take action against Christian activities. These include directly opposing the Communist Party…; engaging in political activity, openly championing human rights, or being identified with a group that does so; and having foreign involvement. With China’s rapid urbanization, property disputes are often another factor, with Christians being forced out of their churches (whether registered or unregistered) at the hands of greedy developers collaborating with corrupt local officials.

In any given instance, the motives for persecuting Christians can fall into one of these three categories:

  1. Wrong place and wrong time — The Christian’s Christianity is largely unrelated to the reason they’re being persecuted. Example: Corrupt local officials make a land grab and the land happens to be under a church building. Or there’s bad blood between local officials and local churches for whatever reason. Or they break the One Child Policy and fall afoul of zealous Family Planning officials.
  2. Living out necessary implications of Christian belief in ways authorities will not tolerate — The Christian does what they’re supposed to do and fights for justice for the poor and oppressed (obviously not a popular move in the eyes of the Chinese authorities). They aren’t persecuted for being Christians per se; they’re persecuted for causing politically sensitive trouble. Example: human rights lawyers taking on forced abortion, environmental, AIDS, etc. cases.
  3. Direct opposition to Christianity itself — Traditional ‘just-because-you’re-Christian’ persecution; what people typically think of when they think of Christians suffering persecution.

At least two-thirds of China Aid’s cited instances of persecution are from the first two categories: they were [#1] victims of greedy officials or [#2] applying their Christian beliefs to society in a way that the authorities won’t tolerate (fighting for justice for the poor/oppressed). So it’s important to understand that the rise in Christian persecution is not necessarily due to a rise in [#3] direct opposition to Christianity per se.

I think it’s totally fair to point out that being persecuted for [#2] still counts as being persecuted “for being a Christian” because it’s the actions your Christianity compels you to do that are getting you in trouble; if you weren’t a Christian you wouldn’t be doing those things that are getting you in trouble. But that is not the impression people get when they read fantastic headlines about the Chinese authorities going after Christians. The motives behind most of the persecution and the extent of the persecution are not what the headlines imply.

Here are some competing recent opinions:

UPDATED: Religious freedom in China pundits are having a back-and-forth over how to interpret ChinaAid’s stats. Worth reading if you want any approaching an informed opinion about the state of religious freedom for Christians in China:

There’s lots more on the blog about Christianity in China.

Chairman Mao the Daoist immortal, and his Bodhisattva friends

(P.S. — If you just want fun China pictures without all the blah blah blah, you can go here: ChinaHopeLive.net’s Instagram Fun.)

One of the easiest places to see real live Mainland Chinese folk beliefs is in the front seat of a Chinese taxi.

maodao Chairman Mao the Daoist immortal, and his Bodhisattva friends

And one fun thing about Chinese culture is they tend not to have our Western hang-ups about openly discussing differing beliefs, whether Buddhist or Atheist or Christian or whatever; it’s just generally not as awkward for them. I find it refreshing, and I’m still not totally used to it.

maofo Chairman Mao the Daoist immortal, and his Bodhisattva friends

Of course, that might be because they are less bothered by the inherent incompatibilities and logical contradictions involved in doing things like making Mao, who was violently anti-religion and anti-traditional Chinese culture, into a traditional Chinese god. And never mind the differences between Daoism and Buddhism. Because “truth” and personal beliefs are prioritized differently here, as I hope this will illustrate.

(I’m bummed I can’t find the pictures I took in a taxi that had the 5 Daoist Immortals (天上的神仙) glued to the dash. That would provide a nice visual for the folk belief context of the Chairman Mao bust pictured above. Here’s a similar example of Mao in a religious context, from a charm seller at a local market:)

20130118 1112maobuddhahor Chairman Mao the Daoist immortal, and his Bodhisattva friends

Mao the god — literally and figuratively

A twenty-something student once passionately told me, “Chairman Mao is like a god to us!” He was explaining why he went off on an elderly student who criticized Mao during a discussion class. He meant it metaphorically, but to many that’s more than just a figure of speech.

The driver of the taxi in the photos above told me yesterday that Mao is a god () now. I asked him if people just put these things out for fun, or if they really believe it has an actual influence on their life. I was trying to give him every opportunity to ‘explain it away’, but he immediately emphasized that these things actually have an influence. He was emphatic that these were not mere decorations.

20130118 1121maoguanyinvert1 Chairman Mao the Daoist immortal, and his Bodhisattva friends

I ran out of time, but next time I’m going start asking how this works, given that during the Mao Era these types of things were violently suppressed. This one (below) was in the bus our school rented recently for a field trip:

danglemao Chairman Mao the Daoist immortal, and his Bodhisattva friends
Auspicious Good Thoughts; Peaceful Travels
吉祥好意 出入平安

What’s *really* going on?
My knee-jerk reaction to encountering these things (and the reasons people give for them) is to not take them only at face value. What you see on the surface isn’t always at the heart of it. Sometimes people aren’t even aware of why they think and do the things they do. I don’t mean to magically get into people’s heads as if I understand their opinions and their reasons for holding them better than they do (that’s actually a major pet-peeve). But many people just haven’t bothered to vigorously sift their own opinions, reasons and motives. Or they just think that hammering out solid personal opinions regarding what’s ultimately true is unimportant. Or, more simply, what they’re actually doing isn’t what it looks like they’re doing.

For example, if you go to a cemetery in North America and happen to overhear someone talking at their loved one’s grave, would you assume that the person actually believes that they are communicating with their dead relative? Or are they simply giving expression to their grief? Chances are good it’s the latter, for reasons relating to North American culture. Understanding the basic cultural context is necessary for interpreting the person’s actions no matter what country you’re in.

So in China, for example, why are they burning spirit money in the intersections? Do they really believe that their grandfather exists in an underworld that’s a shadowy mirror of this one, that the spirit money and paper goods actually become real in that world and that their relative would be hungry, cold, and malevolent toward them without those burnt offerings? Or are they simply fulfilling their moral obligations to show respect for their parents? Is it connected to “face”? Do they feel a need to demonstrate to everyone that they are decent, filial people (and the details of the ritual with their theological implications are irrelevant)? Or do they not hold any strong particular opinions about death, but they can’t shake a superstitious “just in case” kind of fear? What’s at the heart of it: metaphysical convictions, duty, face, or superstitious fear? In China it could be yes to some or all of those. What would they say if you asked them? Chances are good that the people involved care less about hammering all that out than the person who bothers to ask those kinds of questions. But I want to remember to ask more often.

20130118 1122maobuddhavert2 Chairman Mao the Daoist immortal, and his Bodhisattva friends

When truth matters
A coworker recently lost her grandmother, and the family had some conflict over these kinds of funeral rituals. She refused to perform some of them because they contained a spiritual element that was incompatible with her Christian beliefs. Staying true to yourself in this kind of way can come off as very selfish in China; as if your personal opinions about ultimate reality and ‘staying true to yourself’ are more important than these immediate family concerns! “Truth” as an abstract value is not so highly prioritized, and individualism is nowhere near as absolute. Some of her family members (who hadn’t shouldered the bulk of the care responsibilities when grandma was still alive) accused her of not caring about her grandma; they thought it selfish that she would not compromise her beliefs. But she called their bluff, saying that if they really cared then they would have shown it while grandma was still alive, and that they weren’t performing these rituals (burning incense, spirit money and clothes for grandma in the afterlife) out of care for their grandmother anyway; they were doing it to impress the people around them — for “face,” basically.

In the end her dad stood up for her and “protected” her from her disgruntled relatives, even though he doesn’t share her beliefs. But I think it’s important to notice that the conflict wasn’t over differing opinions regarding the afterlife — it wasn’t folk Daoism/Buddhism or atheism vs. Christianity. The conflict was over how the values involved (truth, personal conviction, face, family harmony) should be prioritized. My coworker’s relatives don’t care what she believes or whether or not it’s true. But they cared that she would prioritize her convictions over other values.

About Mao the god:

About burning spirit money in the road:

Against the Chinese Protestant “Two Organizations” (TSPM & CCC)

Here’s one piece in a complex puzzle that makes up Christianity in China: a damning analysis of the actual nature of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (三自爱国教会) and the China Christian Council (中国基督教协会) — the “Two Organizations” (两会) that oversee and exclusively represent all legal Chinese Protestant activity. See:
The Nature of the Chinese Protestant “Two Organizations”

Compare to this other rejection of the TSPM, which approaches the issue from a different angle:
Why We Won’t Join the Three-Self Patriotic Association

One thing I wonder about: Why is it always translated “Three Self Patriotic Movement” (or “…Association“)? The Chinese seems to literally say “Three Self Patriotic Church” (教会).

Related stuff:

Interview with Prof. Liu Peng on Religious Issues in China

Here’s a lengthy ten-part interview with Liu Peng from the Pu Shi Institute for Social Sciences, “an independent, nonprofit, non-governmental think tank” that exists to “promote freedom of belief within the framework of rule of law” and acts as “a ‘bridge’ between the government, the academic circles and religious groups.” Good for anyone with more than a passing interest in religious issues in China.

Render unto Caesar the Things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the Things that are God’s: Interview with Professor Liu Peng about Religious Issues in China

President Hu Jintao emphasized that we should enlist the participation of religious personnel and religious believers in the promotion of economic and social development. He explicitly affirmed the value of religion in Chinese society. . . It’s too simplistic to explain it away by saying that “cheaters bump into fools”. . . If you view religion as negative, then religion should be eradicated. If religion is not something negative, then it is another issue. Once we have established a correct understanding of religion, the next question centers on the measures that the state uses to manage religion.

More from Liu Peng and the Pu Shi Institute for Social Sciences can be found here:

More about how the Chinese government “enlists the participation of religious personnel and religious believers in the promotion of economic and social development” here:

The Chinese Communist Party among other, rival faiths

Each major world religion with a significant presence in China troubles the CCP in similar and different ways: Buddhism and Islam are seen as the tools of separatists, while Christianity is more a potential Trojan horse and ideological competition for the “communists.” All three are considered the tool of “hostile foreign forces”.

Here are three interesting and very different takes on the CCP’s recent and on-going struggle to decide what to do with competing worldviews within its domain.

China’s ‘Come to Jesus’ Moment: How Beijing got religion. (Foreign Policy)

Amid growing social tension and an ominous economic outlook, some quarters of the officially atheist Chinese Communist Party seem to be warming to Christianity. [...] The traditional antipathy toward religion in the Communist Party stems from Karl Marx’s idea that it is the “opiate of the masses” that “dulls the pain of oppression” [...]

But recent moves toward religion suggest this ideological aversion is transforming along with China’s socioeconomic situation … Corruption, yawning wealth inequality, environmental degradation, and the threat of a major banking crisis weigh on the Communist Party’s ability to maintain control. The religious opiate could be just what the doctor ordered for a nervous Communist Party.
[...]
some liberal Marxists within the party see religion as one way to pacify a public increasingly agitated over inequality. “In general, using and controlling religions is not something new in Chinese history. Almost every emperor knew the power of religion,” says Peng Guoxiang, Peking University professor of Chinese philosophy, intellectual history, and religions. “For classical Marxist ideology, religion is nothing but spiritual opium. But recently, it is very possible that the authorities have started to rethink the function of religion and how to manipulate it skillfully, instead of simply trying to curb or even uproot its development.”
[...]
“There’s still quite an ambivalent feeling toward Christianity,” says Wielander. “Both Buddhism and Daoism are fairly otherworldly. They’re more about how to escape from all this chaos and hide from this terrible world, whereas Christianity is very proactive. That can be a good thing for the government provided it manages to channel this energy into projects on the government’s agenda.”
[...]
One Christian factory manager in Wenzhou in 2010 told the BBC that he prefers to hire Christian workers. “When they do things wrong, they feel guilty — that’s the difference,” he said.

The Achilles’ Heel of China’s Rise: Belief (Pu Shi Institute for Social Sciences)

the key factor that determines China’s future development lies not in the realm of the material, but in the realm of the spiritual. [...]

The reason why Chinese society has seen an abundance of outrageous and ridiculous phenomena, with little corresponding uprightness is not because we are short of money. Rather, it is because we have lost our faith. … When the old faith was destroyed, but a new one not yet built up, the imbalance between the spiritual and the material which is caused by a spiritual emptiness and moral void becomes increasingly salient. [...]

In other words, for China to rise to the status of a great power, she has to answer the following question: What is the spiritual pillar, the core value and belief system for the Chinese people? [...]

If China avoids dealing with the question of faith, she will never become a real power. The question of faith and the future of China are connected. [...]

When the term “loss of faith” is used in China today, it refers to the loss of a system of belief in the state, nation, and society. It does not mean that there is no official belief system; rather the belief system established and advocated by the state has lost its status as the collection and manifestation of individual faiths. In other words, the common ground between individual faith and official faith has disappeared. Both the individual and the state need a “god”to resort to, but as it currently stands the one set up by the authorities and the one worshipped by the common people are not the same. [...]

The harsh reality is that Chinese people (including those in Hong Kong and Macau) accept the leadership of the Communist Party, but the majority does not sincerely believe in it and will not voluntarily make it their spiritual pillar. If someone doesn’t admit this, he is not being honest. The lack of faith in society today is not due to a lack of officially advocated belief, but due to the unwillingness of the people to believe it.
[...]
what counts is not the object of faith, but if it performs the function of a belief.

Without a belief system that is unanimously acknowledged as the standard, the national common good cannot be realized, and the Achilles’ heel of China’s rise will not be solved. Practically speaking, upholding the slogan of “harmonious as one”will gain overseas support, since whoever opposes it will be opposing the will of the general public. If we truly adopt the slogan of “harmonious as one,”and strive for harmony between each other, between man and nature, man and the environment, then both the micro- and macro- situations in China will greatly improve.

Render unto Caesar: The party’s conservative wing finds religion—and dislikes it (The Economist)

Although people join the party more for career reasons these days than for ideological ones, it still officially forbids religious belief among its members. In practice, this has for some years been a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. But signs are now growing that the party is about to become tougher on believers within its ranks. And behind it might be Mr Chang’s notion of Christianity as a Trojan horse.

A brief introduction to Watchman Nee & the Little Flock Movement

You’ve maybe heard the name “Watchman Nee” before. That’s because he founded one of the largest Christian groups in Chinese history before dying in a Chinese labour camp. Here’s a summary of a longer article on him and his work, with a link to the PDF of the original article: Watchman Nee and the Little Flock Movement in Maoist China

A basic understanding of the place of Watchman Nee and the Little Flock Movement in Chinese history adds some helpful nuance to understanding the relationships between the Party, Chinese Christianity, the TSPM, and Chinese patriotism and anti-foreignism.

Merry Christmas 2011! (“Is there anything worth believing in?”)

lennox1 Merry Christmas 2011! (Is there anything worth believing in?)From John Lennox, author and Professor in Mathematics and Fellow in Mathematics and Philosophy of Science at Oxford:

Is there anything worth believing in? Oh, ladies and gentlemen– I’m an old man. Let me speak to you directly.

In all my life studying different philosophies and ideas and mathematics for the sheer fun of it, I’ve never come across an idea that remotely touches this one:

“The Word became human, and dwelt among us.”

It’s not every world-class academic who could also make a good Santa. Merry Christmas!

The Posts of Christmas Past:

Christmas in general:

Christmas in China:

You can see all our Christmas stuff here.

(P.S. – That’s Merry Christmas 2011, not 2012. Ooohh… someone’s asleep at the switch!)