Chinese Christians face sinicization: what’s the future?

Nanjing Theological Seminary

“Sinicization” is an ugly-looking word, meaning a state of being sinicized – or made Chinese. The Chinese government has decided to sinicize the Churches. It’s worth pondering how much we think Sinicization should be resisted.

When the Western missionaries left China in 1949, as the Communist struggle to control the Chinese mainland succeeded, many of them must have worried that the chance for the Chinese people to know Jesus was coming to an end. In 2018, the official number of Christians in China was 44m. Other estimates are much larger, with Boston University researchers claiming that in the last four decades, the Christian community there has grown from 1 million to 100 million. This is based on online research that, amongst other things, maps every church.

Persecution is real. “Tearing down crosses from church spires may not sound the best way to win a promotion, the Economist reports. “But in Xi Jinping’s China, it might do the trick. In 2014 Xia Baolong, the Communist Party chief in Zhejiang, a coastal province, oversaw a campaign to remove more than 1,500 crosses from places of worship in theregion. Bibles were confiscated; pastors were locked up. It certainly did Mr Xia’s career no harm.”

Reports suggest that an increased emphasis on “Sinicization” has made things worse, with ministries connecting to China becoming more nervous. ChinaAid, a Christian agency, listed a large number of persecution activities in their report for 2022, ranging from closing or demolishing church buildings to harassment such as rock throwing at a beachside baptism.

The picture is complicated by the existence of regulated and “underground” churches that have been the target of many building closures.

The stated aim of sinicization is to reduce foreign influence on China’s churches. There is some historical reason for this. Some American missionaries in China recalled reporting to the CIA – one person’s patriotic duty is another person’s betrayal.

One of the best-known attempts at state control of Christianity is the King James Version of the Bible, also known as the Authorised Version. King James’ aim in setting up the translation committees that produced this new translation was to suppress unauthorised versions of the Bible, such as the Geneva Bible, which expressed decidedly any monarchy views in its margin notes. In time the King James Bible became a blessing for Christians.

A Lausanne Global Analysis by Thomas Harvey reports that the call by President Xi Jinping for religion to be sinicized was aimed at maintaining the Chinese Communist Party in power. As Harvey notes it

“Requires religious leaders and institutions demonstrably to embrace State Socialism and the leadership of the CCP.”

While Australian churches don’t have flags, that is relatively new. Churches in many countries such as the United States, display their patriotic symbols on the wall and may see their Christianity and their nation as entwined. “Manifest Destiny” is the doctrine – faded now in much of the country – that the United States was uniquely blessed by God.

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

(America the Beautiful)

Today I watched the WWII British movie “In Which We Serve,” which proclaimed their navy a protector of the empire in the providence of God.

It is not unusual for nations to seek to align their people’s Christianity with their national institutions. Another current example is Russia.

As Harvey reports, the latest move in sinicization is to place control of religious institutions directly in control of the party. “Behind Xi’s drive to ‘sinicize,’ religion lies the larger ‘contradiction’ for the CCP in the burgeoning of civil society. After Liberation, the CCP needed the assistance of the educated urban middle classes but did not trust their loyalty. Brutal ideological campaigns were effective, but they increasingly eroded the Chinese economy until in 1978, Deng Xiao Ping unleashed non-Party bourgeoisie, capitalists and intellectuals who had survived Mao’s ‘thought reform’ to revive the economy.

“This required the UFWD [the Party’s United Front Work Department now in control of religion] to accommodate an increasingly independent bourgeoisie. Ever since, legions of entrepreneurs, academics, religious groups, Chinese studying abroad, lawyers, and others have formed associations and adopted new belief systems that view CCP ideology as hopelessly hackneyed. As multi-national and Overseas Chinese corporations have poured into China, many Chinese now have foreign bosses and can ignore Party apparatchiks. They move freely both in and out of China on business apart from government oversight and control.

“The result has been the emergence of intellectual, religious, business, literary, and artistic communities that only grudgingly nod to Party ideology. This has proved both a blessing and a curse to CCP fortunes. The strong economy dampens dissent, but the rise of civil society diminishes and even questions the CCP’s ideological sway.”

Bitter Winter, a website focused on reporting religious persecution in China, has published the text of new measures that came into force on September 1. Article 3 states, “Places of religious activity shall uphold the leadership of the CCP and the socialist system, thoroughly implement Xi Jinping’s ideology of socialism with Chinese characteristics for the new era, abide by the Constitution, laws, rules and regulations and relevant provisions on the management of religious affairs, practice core socialist values, adhere to the direction of Sinicization of China’s religions, adhere to the principle of independence, autonomy and self-sufficiency, and safeguard the unity of the country, national unity, religious harmony and social stability.

“No organization or individual may use places of religious activity to conduct activities that endanger national security, disrupt social order, harm the health of citizens, impede the national education system, violate public order and morals, or otherwise harm the interests of the State, the public interests of society, or the lawful rights and interests of citizens.

“Places of religious activity may not engage in illegal activities or provide conditions for illegal activities.”

Perhaps a comparison could be made to the national churches of northern Europe which have been made to conform to the liberal progressive agenda of their governments. For example, in Denmark, the government decided the church should marry same-sex couples. And mixing of political party votes and church decisions also occurred in Sweden.

As in China, there are non-state churches in the Nordic countries. But the Chinese state has extraordinary means to ensure compliance meeting places. Facial recognition software can tell who visits, vehicles can be tracked by satellite, and 5G makes this volume of data easier to manage, according to Harvey.

In England, MPs have suggested that ministers who oppose women’s ordination be removed from the Church of England.

However the Lausanne report concludes, “Certainly, the current attempt to control religion in China will change the way of life for Chinese Christian churches, but it is unlikely to cut off their continued growth and influence.”

And then there is providence. During the Cultural Revolution, the Bible was banned. One copy was hidden in the rafters of what had been the Bible Society’s headquarters. But when the ban on the Bible was lifted, there was a hunt for a good copy. Why? Because the government did not want the Bible to come to China from overseas. That hidden Bible was used to make printing plates, and the Bible came back into wide circulation, with the first run printed on the People’s Liberation Army Press, one of only three web presses in China.

An Australian, David Thorne, in Hong Kong, found that the local Christians wanted to order the first 100,000 Bibles. While the government did not want any foreign donations, they were prepared to accept a donation in kind. With the help of the Japanese and Korean Bible societies, Thorne located Bible paper and got it to Nanjing in the centre of China in time.

Thorne went on to help set up the Amity Printing plant, which has now printed 100’s of millions of Bibles, perhaps half for China. When the bible society movement made its early overtures to China, it was much criticised by other Christian groups, who said no Bible would ever be printed in China. maybe there is a lesson in that.

Our history as Christians is complicated: Attempts ta state control have been turned into blessings, persecution has been accompanied by church growth, and as the Bible in China shows, providence intervenes in surprising ways.

Image: Union Theological Seminary, Nanjing