Christianity in China
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Christianity in China is not as ancient as Taoism, Mahayana Buddhism or Confucianism; however, Christianity, has been present in China since at least the 7th century and it has gained a significant amount of influence during the last 200 years. The Syro-Persian Church of the East (frequently mischaracterized as Nestorianism) appeared in the 7th century, during the Tang dynasty. Catholicism was among the religions patronized by the Mongol emperors in the Yuan dynasty, but did not take root until it was reintroduced in the 16th century by Jesuit missionaries. Starting in the early nineteenth century, Protestant missionaries attracted small but influential followings, and independent Chinese churches followed.
Today, it is estimated that Christianity is the fastest growing religion in China,  There were some four million before 1949 (three million Catholics and one million Protestants). Accurate data on Chinese Christians is hard to access. In the early 2000s, there were approximately 38 million Protestants and 10-12 million Catholics, with a smaller number of Evangelical and Orthodox Christians. The number of Chinese Christians had increased significantly since the easing of restrictions on religious activities during the economic reforms of the late 1970s. In 2018, the Chinese government declared that there are over 44 million Christians in China. On the other hand, some international Christian organizations estimate that there are tens of millions more, who choose not to publicly identify as such. But these estimations are controversial because the organizations which make them are often accused of deliberately inflating them.
The practice of religion was tightly controlled in dynastic times and it continues to be tightly controlled today. Chinese who are over the age of 18 are only permitted to join officially sanctioned Christian groups which are registered with the government-approved Chinese Patriotic Catholic Church, the China Christian Council and the Protestant Three-Self Church. On the other hand, many Christians practice in informal networks and unregistered congregations, often described as house churches or underground churches, the proliferation of which began in the 1950s when many Chinese Protestants and Catholics began to reject the state-controlled structures which were purported to represent them. Members of such groups are said to represent the “silent majority” of Chinese Christians and they also represent many diverse theological traditions.
Terms for Christianity in Chinese include: “Protestantism” (Chinese: 基督教新教; pinyin: Jīdū jiào xīn jiào; lit. ‘Christ religion’s new religion’); “Catholicism” (Chinese: 天主教; pinyin: Tiānzhǔ jiào; lit. ‘Heavenly Lord religion’); and Eastern Orthodox Christians (Chinese: 東正教/东正教; pinyin: Dōng zhèng jiào; lit. ‘Eastern Orthodox religion’). The whole of Orthodox Christianity is named Zhèng jiào (正教). Christians in China are referred to as “Christ followers/believers” (Chinese: 基督徒; pinyin: Jīdū tú) or “Christ religion followers/believers” (Chinese: 基督教徒; pinyin: Jīdū jiào tú).
Since 1949: Communist government on the mainland
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) was established on the mainland country in October 1949 by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) led by CCP Chairman Mao Zedong, while the Republic of China led by the Kuomintang maintained its government on the insular land of Taiwan. Under Communist ideology, religion was discouraged by the state and Christian missionaries left the country in what was described by Phyllis Thompson of the China Inland Mission as a “reluctant exodus”, leaving the indigenous churches to do their own administration, support, and propagation of the faith.
The Chinese Protestant church entered the communist era having made significant progress toward self-support and self-government. While the Chinese Communist Party was hostile to religion in general, it did not seek to systematically destroy religion as long as the religious organizations were willing to submit to the direction of the Chinese state. Many Protestants were willing to accept such accommodation and were permitted to continue religious life in China under the name “Three-Self Patriotic Movement“. Catholics, on the other hand, with their allegiance to the Holy See, could not submit to the Chinese state as their Protestant counterparts did, notwithstanding the willingness of the Vatican to compromise in order to remain on Chinese mainland—the papal nuncio in China did not withdraw to Taiwan like other western diplomats. Consequently, the Chinese state organized the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Church that operates without connection to the Vatican, and the Catholics who continued to acknowledge the authority of the Pope were subject to persecution.
From 1966 to 1976 during the Cultural Revolution, the expression of religious life in China was effectively banned, including even the Three-Self Church. During the ten-year period the government began to crackdown and persecute all religions. This forced the Christians to be secretive and go underground to avoid getting executed by the communist government. Religions in China began to recover after the economic reforms of the 1970s. In 1979 the government officially restored the Three-Self Church after thirteen years of non-existence, and in 1980 the China Christian Council (CCC) was formed.
Since then, persecution of Christians in China has been sporadic. During the Cultural Revolution believers were arrested and imprisoned and sometimes tortured for their faith. Bibles were destroyed, churches and homes were looted, and Christians were subjected to humiliation. Several thousand Christians were known to have been imprisoned between 1983 and 1993. In 1992 the government began a campaign to shut down all of the unregistered meetings. However, government implementation of restrictions since then has varied widely between regions of China and in many areas there is greater religious liberty.
The members of the underground Roman Catholic Church in China, those who do not belong to the official Chinese Patriotic Catholic Church and are faithful to the Vatican and the Pope, remain theoretically subject to persecution today. In practice, however, the Vatican and the Chinese State have been, at least unofficially, accommodating each other for some time. While some bishops who joined the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Church in its early years have been condemned and even excommunicated, the entire organization has never been declared schismatic by the Vatican and, at present, its bishops are even invited to church synods like other Catholic leaders. Also, many underground clergy and laymen are active in the official Patriotic Church as well. Still, there are periods of discomfort between Vatican and the Patriotic Church: Pope Benedict XVI condemned the Patriotic Catholic leaders as “persons who are not ordained, and sometimes not even baptised”, who “control and make decisions concerning important ecclesial questions, including the appointment of bishops”. The Chinese state indeed continues to appoint bishops and intervene in the church’s policy (most notably on abortion and artificial contraception) without consulting the Vatican and punishing outspoken dissenters. In one notable case that drew international attention, Thaddeus Ma Daqin, the auxiliary bishop of Shanghai whom both the Vatican and Chinese state agreed as the successor to the elderly Aloysius Jin Luxian, the Patriotic Catholic bishop of Shanghai (whom the Vatican also recognized as the coadjutor bishop), was arrested and imprisoned after publicly resigning from his positions in the Patriotic Church in 2012, an act which was considered a challenge to the state control over the Catholic Church in China.
A Christian spiritual revival has grown in recent decades. The Communist Party remains officially atheist, and has remained intolerant of churches outside party control. Christianity has grown rapidly, reaching 67 million people. In recent years, however, the Communist Party has looked with distrust on organizations with international ties; it tends to associate Christianity with it deems to be subversive Western values, and has closed churches and schools. In 2015, outspoken pastors in Hong Kong and their associates on the mainland came under close scrutiny from government officials.
Contemporary People’s Republic of China
Subdivision of the Christian community
Official organizations—the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Church and the Chinese Protestant Church
The Chinese Patriotic Catholic Church, and the Protestant Three-Self Church and China Christian Council, are the three centralised and government-approved Christian institutions which regulate all local Christian gatherings, all of which are required to be registered under their auspices.
Many Christians hold meetings outside of the jurisdiction of the government-approved organizations and avoid registration with the government and are often illegal. While there has been continuous persecution of Chinese Christians throughout the twentieth century, particularly during the Cultural Revolution, there has been increasing tolerance of unregistered churches since the late 1970s.
Catholic groups are usually known as underground churches and Protestant groups are usually known as house churches. The Catholic underground churches are those congregations who remain fully faithful to the Pope in Rome and refuse to register as part of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Church. Much of the Protestant house church movement dates back to the coerced unification of all Protestant denominations in the Three-Self Church in 1958. There is often significant overlap between the membership of registered and unregistered Christian bodies, as a large number of people attend both registered and unregistered churches.
Local authorities continued to harass and detain bishops, including Guo Xijin and Cui Tai, who refused to join the state-affiliated Catholic association. Chinese authorities raided or closed down hundreds of Protestant house churches in 2019, including Rock Church in Henan Province and Shouwang Church in Beijing. The government released some of the Early Rain Covenant Church congregants who had been arrested in December 2018, but in December 2019 a court charged Pastor Wang Yi with “subversion of state power” and sentenced him to nine years imprisonment. Several local governments, including Guangzho city, offered cash bounties for individuals who informed on underground churches. In addition, authorities across the country have removed crosses from churches, banned youth under the age of 18 from participating in religious services, and replaced images of Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary with pictures of Chinese Communist Party general secretary Xi Jinping.
Chinese Independent Churches
Main article: Chinese Independent Churches
The Chinese Independent Churches are a group of Christian institutions that are independent from Western denominations. They were established in China in the late 19th and early 20th century, including both the Little Flock or Church Assembly Hall and True Jesus Church. In the 1940s they gathered 200,000 adherents, that was 20% to 25% of the total Christian population of that time.
Miller (2006) explains that a significant amount of the house churches or unregistered congregations and meeting points of the Protestant spectrum, that refuse to join the Three-Self Church—China Christian Council, belong to the Chinese Independent Churches. Congregations of the Little Flock or the True Jesus Church tend to be uncooperative towards the Three-Self Church as to their principle it represents not only a tool of the government but also a different Christian tradition.
Chinese Orthodox Church
Main article: Chinese Orthodox Church
In China there are also a variety of Christian sects based on biblical teachings that are considered by the government as “heterodox teachings” (邪教; xiéjiào) or cults, including the Eastern Lightning and the Shouters. They primarily operate in a form similar to the “house churches”, small worship groups, outside of the state-sanctioned Three-Self Church, that meet in members’ homes. One feature that some Christian sects with this label have in common is particular emphasis on the authority of a single leader, sometimes including claims to be Jesus. In the mid-1990s, Chinese government started to monitor these new religious movements, and prohibited them officially, so their activities soon turned underground.
Restrictions and international interest
See also: Anti-Christian sentiment in China
In large cities with international links such as Beijing, foreign visitors have established Christian communities which meet in public establishments such as hotels and, sometimes, local churches. These fellowships, however, are typically restricted only to holders of non-Chinese passports.
American evangelist Billy Graham visited China in 1988 with his wife Ruth; it was a homecoming for her since she had been born in China to missionary parents L. Nelson Bell and his wife Virginia.
Since the 1980s, U.S. officials visiting China have on multiple occasions visited Chinese churches, including President George W. Bush, who attended one of Beijing‘s five officially recognized Protestant churches during a November 2005 Asia tour, and the Kuanjie Protestant Church in 2008. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice attended Palm Sunday services in Beijing in 2005.
Government authorities limit proselytism, particularly by foreigners and unregistered religious groups, but permit proselytism in state-approved religious venues and private settings. During the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, three American Christian protesters were deported from China after a demonstration at Tiananmen Square.
Pope Benedict XVI urged China to be open to Christianity, and said that he hoped the Olympic Games would offer an example of coexistence among people from different countries. Unregistered Roman Catholic clergy has faced political repression, in large part due to its avowed loyalty to the Vatican, which the Chinese government claims interferes in the country’s internal affairs.
The Associated Press reported in 2018 that “Xi is waging the most severe systematic suppression of Christianity in the country since religious freedom was written into the Chinese constitution in 1982.” This has involved “destroying crosses, burning bibles, shutting churches and ordering followers to sign papers renouncing their faith,” actions taken against “so-called underground or house churches that defy government restrictions.”
In April 2020, Chinese authorities visited Christian homes in Linfen and informed welfare recipients that their benefits would be stopped unless they removed all crosses and replaced any displays of Jesus with portraits of Chairman Mao Zedong and General Secretary Xi Jinping.