Christianity and its Troubled Relationship with the Chinese State

Christianity and its Troubled Relationship with the Chinese State
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Religion and China

China is a communist state. This is a fact known worldwide, but within the state this single fact impinges on every aspect of the lives of its citizens. For China’s Christian population this communist ideology has put them at odds with China’s government.

Under communist ideology there is no space for religion. Religion promotes a life code and set of beliefs that differentiates from the traditions established by the government. Religion unifies the population, but critically sets them against the state focused agenda that communism inspires. The state, the leader and total trust and obedience in the guidance of these lauded individuals is the bedrock on which the communist state continues to develop. However, with the presence of an external belief system and a spiritual leader, to whom the Chinese government cannot discredit or remove, the very structure of Communism comes under threat.

For the Christian population, their position is made far more precarious by the fact that their religion and belief system is distinctly un-Chinese. Originating in the heartland of the Middle East and the Western world, Christianity was a Western import to China that has never truly been accepted by the ruling elite.

In the 19th century the number of Christian missionaries to China greatly increased as the British and French, in particular, increased the influence of their global empires. In the impoverished and brutal regimes of the Chinese Emperors Christianity took hold. Many ordinary Chinese saw its message of universal freedoms as a motivation to overthrow the established hierarchy and create a state in which the rights of individuals were respected; a state more in line with the modern European powers.

With Christianity being seen in China as a subversive ideology that undermined the structure of the Chinese state it was forced underground. The Chinese feared that the Western ideas inherited from Britain and France would endanger the continued success of the Emperor’s regime and sought to contain, control and end its spread across the nation.

Through the turmoil of the Chinese Civil War and the growth of Communism under Chairman Mao, Christianity remained a little spoken about, underground movement. However, since economic liberalisation was established in the 1970’s there has been a growth in the power and physical presence of the Church in China.

In modern China there are estimated to be around 33 million Christians within China; making it one of the largest Christian communities in the world. This gives the Chinese Church global authority, but despite its size the community is heavily controlled by the state. There are only three legitimate organisations that are sanctioned to practice Christianity;  the “China Christian Council”, “Three-Self Church” and the “Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association”. Anything outside of this is heavily suppressed by the government and even within state sanctioned Christianity the government acts frequently to curb the influence of this religion.

In recent years Churches have been torn down, clergymen imprisoned and ordinary Christians have feared to express their religious beliefs in public. Being a Christian in China has proved to be a very difficult and turbulent existence.

But why are Christians among the most controlled religious groups in China?

To understand this we have to go back to the origins of Christianity in China. In China, religion has been used by the government to develop the concept of a Chinese heritage; a central tenant to the government’s nationalist agenda. Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism together act as the religious heartbeat of the Chinese state. The government allows their growth because it reinforces within China, the concept of what it means to be Chinese.

In complete contrast Christianity is seen as foreign and un-Chinese and therefore cannot be trusted to support the communist ideology. Christianity has often suffered in the same way as the Muslim Uighur population of Western China who are viewed as subversive members of the Chinese state; people whose aim is to undermine the authority of the communist party and their senior party leaders.

With China moving towards greater modernisation and reform there would appear to be a future for the Christian community. This community could harness China’s increasing connection to the global community and grow to being a powerful force. However, it is likely that any growth in power would only endanger the community. China fears the power and influence of Christianity and any suggestion that it poses a further threat to the communist party would ultimately lead to greater suppression as the communist cling to power.

By Peter Banham

Peter Banham
Peter earned his MA in Geopolitics, Territory & Security at Kings College London in 2015, following a BA in History and International Relations from Lancaster University. He has been the editor and a major contributor to A Little View of the World since 2012 where he has written on global affairs, international relations, development and world conflicts.

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Peter Banham
Peter earned his MA in Geopolitics, Territory & Security at Kings College London in 2015, following a BA in History and International Relations from Lancaster University. He has been the editor and a major contributor to A Little View of the World since 2012 where he has written on global affairs, international relations, development and world conflicts.

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