Illustration of small church at the end of a street of buildings with pagodas


Christianity’s New Guises in China

Christianity takes on new guises in China.

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj

By Sunny Lee

To many westerners who have not been to China, it may come as a surprise to know Christian communities inside Communist-ruled China are flourishing. In the very heart of the Forbidden City, for example, the Beijing International Christian Fellowship (BICF) has everything that any megachurch in the United States has: an electric music-backed worship team, PowerPoint-projected scripture readings, testimonials, Sunday School, its own website, and its own team of people who provide counseling. BCIF, which holds a worship service every Sunday for nearly 3,000 Christians and represents nearly 70 countries around the world, appears to lack only one thing: space.

While some estimates suggest 70 million Protestants and 12 million Catholics reside in China today—the government counters that there are only 15 to 20 million “approved” believers nationwide—the Marxist ideology of China is profoundly atheistic, hence the inevitable tension be-tween the ideology of the government and the ideology of Christians. In fact, Chinese authorities do not allow its citizens to worship at the BICF—the Fellowship is only open to foreign passport holders—and there is an identification check at the entrance of the church. All foreign churches in China are “foreigners only” churches and Chinese nationals are not allowed to attend, in order to shield them from the elements of “foreign influence.”

When BICF was established in 1980 by a group of Western diplomats in Beijing, its few congregants first met at the American and the British Embassies alternately. When the congregation grew, it registered as a “foreigners’ song and dance club” and started to hold open worship service—now it uses the current venue: an annex of the Twenty-first Century Hotel, just across from the Japanese Embassy in the eastern section of downtown Beijing.

The Rev. Jack Snell of the BICF says that for the most part the church has maintained a very positive relationship with the Religious Affairs Bureau. “They’ve grown to know us; we’ve grown to know them. Now, we work together well,” Snell says. He is referring to the government organ that oversees all the religious activities in China, including the registration of Christian churches. One needs to register with the government to become “legally” Christian and the only legal churches in China are those approved by the state, called the Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) for Protestants and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA) for Catholics.

Yet, there is now a growing trend of “underground churches”—where typically secretive worship sessions are held in private apartments—deciding to register with the government. The total number of under-ground and “approved” Christians is notoriously imprecise, but some estimates, such as that of the World Christian Database, put the number as high as 111 million, of whom 90 percent are Protestant, mostly Pentecostals. That figure, if accurate, would already place China as the third-largest Christian country on earth, trailing behind only the United States and Brazil.

From China’s perspective, seeing Christianity as a threat may be only too reasonable, as it suspects that foreign Christians have a political agenda—that is, that the foreigners wish to spread democracy as part of the Gospel, and eventually overthrow the Communist government. This sentiment is expressed in a typical internal official document that is distributed to local- and provincial-level governments, and which reads: “Fight against infiltration activities by hostile overseas forces under the guise of Christianity and safeguard the stability in our society and in the religious arena.” Christianity, it says, is the “running dog of Western imperialism.”

However, Liu Yiqing, a scholar of Christianity at Peking University, says communism and Christianity are, in a sense, “ideological brothers”; both emphasize loyalty to one absolute leader or one absolute God—they also emphasize sacrifice of oneself for the betterment of the community. This was, after all, how Christianity was adopted in Korea. Korea’s initial contact with Western Christianity occurred through Korean Confucian scholars who had found some “compatibility” between Confucianism and Christianity.

Yiqing says Christianity and communism could peacefully coexist in China, “as long as Christianity doesn’t organize people to fight against the government,” but is quick to note that most Chinese who are newly converted to Christianity don’t look at it as a political ideology anyway. They don’t join Christianity to overthrow the government, and they don’t join to spread democracy either. Young Chinese, in their 20s and 30s, who are contributing to the recent burst of Christianity in major Chinese cities, see Christianity as a new avenue for social networking. After all, they are the only children in their family (a legacy of China’s one-child policy), and they are seeking greater connectedness with other people.

At the end of the First Opium War in 1842, China was pressured into opening five ports to British merchants for free trade. What is less well known about the history of the treaty imposed by Britain and the similar treaties with the United States and France is that these treaties also demanded that China allow the building of churches and the proselytization of Christianity in the five port cities, thus planting a deep-rooted suspicion of Christianity in the minds of many Chinese. Many Chinese still see Christianity as a tool of Western imperialism. And, today, many American Christians make the casual assumption that it is to China’s own benefit to become a Christian nation. Perhaps we need to question whether this is the tendency of some Western observers to project their own dreams onto the Chinese reality.

After receiving an MTS degree from HDS in 2002, Sunny Lee went to China and earned a second master’s degree from Beijing Foreign Studies University. He worked with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and later with Dow Jones Newswires as a staff reporter. Lee currently lives in Beijing.

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