Communist China has earned praise in the past few years for a perceived thaw in its strict opposition to religious observance—particularly Christianity. A visitor to China will see Christian churches out in the open; a printing facility in Nanjing is the largest Bible publisher in the world. There is the appearance, at least, of a faith that is free and tolerated.
This helps explain some of the shock over a series of brutal crackdowns that have come as startling departures. Over Easter, Chinese authorities escalated their campaign against a Protestant “house church,” Shouwang, detaining dozens of believers and placing hundreds more under house arrest for the “crime” of worshipping in a public square. And late last month, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released its annual report, which flagged several incidents of horrific abuses of Christians in China—including “disappearances,” beatings, the destruction of churches, and forced “re-education through labor.”
But these two trends are not in fact contradictory. The “thaw” in China’s treatment of Christians was nothing more than a savvy and sophisticated new twist on its longstanding assault on religious freedom. While scaling back on bloody crackdowns that stir international condemnation, China has found subtle ways of undercutting independent churches and quietly preempting the spread of free religion. Indeed, the commission’s report notes that “Chinese officials are increasingly adept at employing the language of human rights and the rule of law to defend repression of religious communities.”
This insidious approach to religious oppression is no less dangerous to Christians. In fact, it may be more so: As Joseph Cardinal Zen Ze-kiun, the former bishop of Hong Kong, said during a visit to Washington in April, “Torture, abuse—that is easier to shout about.”
The state’s policies weaken Chinese Christian institutions by dividing them. “Official” churches, managed by the government, operate in the open. Meanwhile, “underground” or “house” churches—those that refuse to, say, hand over the names and contacts of their worshippers or disavow all loyalty to foreign parties (e.g., the Vatican)—frequently operate in secret. When they are caught by the regime, brutal punishment is often the result. Religion is thus permitted only insofar as it advances the aims of the state. As the head of the State Administration of Religious Affairs, Wang Zuo’an, explained: “[T]he starting point and stopping point of work on religion is to unite and mobilize, to the greatest degree, the religious masses’ zeal, to build socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
Often, the main instrument in this campaign is money. The USCIRF report notes that Beijing is permitting certain religious communities to hold property and accept donations from overseas. The catch, however, is that these rules apply only to registered religious groups—those willing to affiliate with state-controlled churches. The Chinese government also subsidizes educational expenses and foreign travel for clergy—but again only for those who belong to “approved” churches. Even rebuilding after disasters is fair game: A Catholic who frequently works in China tells of how, in the aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, several Catholics in Hong Kong moved quickly to raise $900,000, with the aim of rebuilding Catholic churches. But “before the money could be deployed,” this would-be benefactor explained, “the government had come in and more than fixed the churches, in fact making improvements. The results, while good, were undertaken in order to undercut the [Catholic] church and allow the PRC to push aside outside help.”
The sum effect of these activities is to increase Christians’ dependence on the state, and thus to increase the government’s leverage. As a human-rights lawyer and director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, Nina Shea, notes, “It’s a way of bribing and driving Christians to play the game according to Communist party rules.”