The 2013 Grinch Award (is for your educational benefit) [Updated]

[UPDATE: For sober and informed analysis of Christianity in China, is the best single source I know of.]

Just because a Chinese Christian is in trouble doesn’t mean they’re in trouble just because they’re a Christian. Their Christianity may have something to do with it, or it may have almost nothing to do with. China being as it is, the “whys” are usually a little more complicated and a lot more pragmatic. This is not the Mao Era.

I haven’t gone searching for instances of Christmastime crackdowns this year. But this one did cross my news feed, and it’s a fine example for helping people see that “China cracks down on a church” stories are not necessarily a case of a communist atheocracy’s thought police persecuting ideological dissenters. I’m not saying that ideologically-driven persecution doesn’t ever happen in today’s China, just that for any given instance chances are far greater it’s:

  • [a] motivated by something more tangible than ideology (like money, land or face; they probably aren’t being harassed just because they’re Christians), and
  • [b] initiated by local, not the central, authorities.

In this one, it appears that greedy local authorities won’t give a local church the land that’s owed them (land grabs are hardly uncommon in China), so the church has lawyered up, and the local authorities are not taking that very well.

If we look at the details the picture that emerges isn’t so much one of snuffing out Christmas or Christianity; it’s about fighting/punishing a local organization who refuses to let the gov’t take its land without a fight.

Crackdown stymies China church’s Christmas meeting

The canceled meeting at the church in Henan province’s Nanle county came during a month-long crackdown on the church over a land dispute that pits its popular preacher against the county government […]

…their pastor, Zhang Shaojie, and more than a dozen of his aides have been detained by police for more than a month and denied access to their lawyers…

The case has drawn the scrutiny of rights lawyers and activists who say it exposes a county government’s ability to act with impunity against a local Christian church even if it is state-sanctioned. Supporters of the church say the county government reneged on an agreement to allocate it a piece of land for the construction of a new building, leaving them without a place of worship.

Now, it could be that this local government is on an illegal ideological witch hunt. It’s not like that hasn’t happened before in China. But, China being as it is, it’s much more likely that the local authorities see an opportunity to essentially steal land from a group whom they’ve calculated does not have the power to fight back and win. Land disputes in China are common as, well, dirt. Even we’ve known of legal, registered churches in land disputes with local authorities in both Chinese cities we’ve called home.

Anyway, point being that when you hear a Chinese church persecution story you must look at the details. These days Chinese Christians are relatively rarely persecuted for their beliefs themselves (generally speaking). More often it’s because of something related (or even unrelated): their church bucked the status quo, the government wants their land, they said something to foreign reporters that ticked off someone of consequence, they embarrassed the authorities by doing too much public charity, they caused trouble for the authorities by fighting injustice in the courts or media, there’s bad local history involving churches, the church leaders have bad/no guanxi, etc., etc. Some of those things are related to or a result of their Christianity, some aren’t. But either way, it’s much different from going after a group just because they call themselves Christians. In the above AP story, it’s apparently a legal, registered, “government-run” Three-Self Patriotic Church that’s in trouble.

Local officials don’t care what people believe; they care about money and about their careers — and if your group does something to mess with either of those two things (by not letting them rob you, or potentially making them look bad to their superiors), you risk retaliation.

Previous Grinch Awards:

***–> More on not thinking simplistically about Christianity in China: <--***

4 thoughts on “The 2013 Grinch Award (is for your educational benefit) [Updated]”

  1. I think this piece misses something critical. International media gives bad reviews of police harassing people for religious reasons. So, being intelligent, the Chinese authorities avoid doing so. Instead, they look for anything else that might be awry, or invent something, and harass the group for that reason. Example: It’s easy enough to allow a group of Christians to openly worship in an apartment, and then explain that use of the apartment is illegal and confiscate it. In such cases Christians don’t go to often stay in jail, they go under house arrest, or constant watch. They lose their jobs. They lose Bibles, books, and buildings. The result is the same for the Christians (fear, separation, loss, hardship, — aka persecution), but one is so much more explainable to western media and authors such as Joel.

    1. Not totally sure I understand your main point.

      But I’m not trying to say that Christians don’t get in trouble in China, that they aren’t systematically marginalized and stymied, or that they aren’t generally treated unfairly. And I appreciate the work of those who tirelessly expose the authorities’ bad behaviour toward Christians. Stated gov’t theory and policy is for “religion” to slowly die a natural death. In fact one of the annoying things I’ve found having Christian friends in China is that many of them seem completely unaware of the ways the authorities are systematically marginalizing them — the “glass cage” effect; they don’t see the restrictions placed on them.

      I’m just saying that we (in the West) need to understand what’s happening at a level deeper than “bad Communist government persecutes the faithful.” Interested Westerners don’t need to know every little nuance, but they do need a basic understanding. In most cases, Chinese Christian self-identity is either superfluous or a contributing factor, but not the main reason for why they’re being harassed.

      For every one church that gets harassed as you described, and it does happen (I’ve described that as “sideways” in another post), there are hundreds? thousands? of churches that don’t. Why does that one-in-1000 get singled out? There are always reasons, and it’s usually something in addition to merely being Christians. Not saying it’s fair or that they deserve it or that it isn’t incredibly difficult for them — just saying we need to have a better basic understanding of the dynamics of these situations.

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