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 points out: just because Christians (or churches) are persecuted doesn’t mean they are persecuted for being Christians:

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.

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