National Review

The Attempted Shutdown of China's Christians

Nina Shea
Nina Shea
Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Religious Freedom
Worshipers at an underground Catholic Mass in Henan Province, China, 2014
Worshipers at an underground Catholic Mass in Henan Province, China, 2014

In Three-Self Protestant churches in China last Christmas, robed choir members again raised their voices in song, but this time their music was not traditional carols and hymns of praise to God. It was “My Motherland and I” and other anthems of homage to the Chinese Communist Party. In the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (PCA) churches, the Virgin Mary’s pictures are being replaced with portraits of President Xi Jinping, while half of China’s 98 dioceses remain without a bishop nearly two years after the signing of the Sino–Vatican provisional agreement. Subjected to a myriad of new rules, pastors and priests in both denominations are being forced to base their homilies on Xi’s sayings, now part of the CCP constitution. The underground churches, which have existed in a gray zone for two decades, neither legal nor banned as “evil cults” — a classification of over a dozen illegal religions, such as Falun Gong and “Eastern Lightning,” a.k.a. the Church of Almighty God — are being shut by the thousands.

In a world distracted by pandemic, China’s Communist government is aggressively consolidating dominance over its tens of millions of Christians. This should trouble all China observers, whether Christian or not. These churches have constituted the largest nationwide movement with a culture and belief system distinct from that of the Chinese state. Courageous doctors, lawyers, scientists, and journalists dissent, but they can do so only individually or in small groups outside any national institutional support. Since the 1980s, the church — Protestants and Catholics, open and underground — had survived with more ideological independence than any other civil-society organization in China. Christians have long been persecuted and restricted, but the current comprehensive push to meld churches with the CCP, under penalty of eradication, threatens to be devastating to the faith. It signals the advance of totalitarianism, just as China is rising as a world power.

In a marathon speech at the CCP’s National Congress in 2017, Xi declared a “new era of socialism with Chinese characteristics.” In 2018, new regulations enforced this vision of “sinicization” on religious groups. That year the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights found that over 1 million Uighur Muslims were interned in concentration camps and forced to work in sweatshops, and new reports of discriminatory restrictions on Uighur family size are raising concerns of ongoing genocide. The Church of Almighty God sect reportedly had its many houses of worship bulldozed and saw many members detained. Some reportedly had their organs harvested for medical transplant, as happened in the 1980s to members of Falun Gong. Meanwhile, China continued the suppression of an already very weakened Chinese Tibetan Buddhism, whose leader, the Dalai Lama, is forced to live in exile, and whose other lamas of great influence are selected, and have their reincarnations recognized or denied, by the CCP’s United Front Work Department.

Now China is doubling down on the sinicization of Christianity. As the coronavirus spread, Beijing took new measures to sharply curb the knowledge and practice of Christianity within its borders and to enlist remaining church institutions in the tasks of party indoctrination and propaganda. In recent years, scholars have argued that, given the rate of growth of Christianity in China, the church there would become the world’s largest church by 2030. That projection needs recalibration.

Chinese authorities started by making examples of two internationally renowned underground Christian leaders. On December 30, as news about the coronavirus circulated on social media, Pastor Wang Yi of the Early Rain Covenant Church, a Protestant house church, was sentenced to an unusually long prison term, nine years, for “inciting subversion.” (More typical for Christian leaders in recent years have been detentions of four or six months.) On Easter Sunday, his church’s leadership were jailed for praying online.

Under the Vatican agreement, Bishop Vincent Guo Xijin of Mindong, Fujian Province, had been demoted to the position of auxiliary bishop, to make way for a bishop preferred by the government. Guo was pushed out of his home on January 15, the day that China initiated its highest-level emergency response to the virus. This time, the 61-year-old prelate was stripped of his human dignity and forced to sleep on the doorstep of the church administrative building for rejecting membership in the PCA. After international criticism, he regained access to his apartment, but with its utilities shut off.

In the ensuing months, 20 underground Catholic priests, followers of the bishop, disappeared into detention after rejecting the PCA pledge of “independence, autonomy, and self-administration of the Church in China” — meaning independence from Catholic teaching and any degree of Vatican governance. One was Father Huang Jintong, tortured with four days of sleep deprivation. He signed the registration to join the PCA but not before trying, in keeping with a Vatican suggestion in June 2019, to add his intent to “remain faithful to the Catholic doctrine.” On June 19, 70-year-old Catholic bishop Augustine Cui Tai, of the underground church in Xuanhua Diocese, Hebei Province, was reported detained. Meanwhile, the state has yet to disclose information on Bishop James Su Zhimin, about whom nothing is known since his 1996 detention in Hebei, for unauthorized praying. Hong Kong’s Cardinal Joseph Zen, bishop emeritus, had been right to warn that the Vatican’s silence on the rights of its faithful, unregistered churches in its 2018 agreement would allow China to “succeed in eliminating the underground church with the help of the Vatican.”

January saw the announcement of a new Bible-translation project, ominously under CCP supervision. (The Koran is also undergoing government retranslation to align it with sinicization, to Uighur consternation.) Ying Fuk Tsang, director of the divinity school at Hong Kong’s Chinese University, observed that sinicization implies that the Bible is subject to “political scrutiny.” He predicts that verses, such as those on end times, that are out of sync with CCP views will be “banned or constrained.”

On February 1, Beijing imposed 41 articles of new restrictions “implementing the values of socialism.” Religious organizations must now “spread the principles and policies of the CCP,” ensure that “religious personnel and religious citizens . . . support the CCP leadership,” and establish “a learning system” in CCP policies. To facilitate that effort, the CCP provides “Study the Great Nation,” an app, dedicated to Xi’s sayings, that has a back door to the user’s social media, contacts, and Internet history.

Even some official churches are being shut. In Henan Province on March 10, hundreds of officials used excavators to demolish a Three-Self church. For asking why, the church’s guard, a man in his 70s, was beaten until his ribs broke, according to a report in the online magazine Bitter Winter, the respected source on China’s religious repression. Donghu, a Three-Self church in Xining, the capital of Qinghai Province, was destroyed on Easter. In Anhui, Jiangsu, Shandong, and other provinces, the exteriors of hundreds of Three-Self churches were secularized, their crosses toppled — 250 churches in Anhui alone. The century-old cross was removed from a Catholic church in Henan Province on Easter, prompting Shanren Shenfu, a priest with the PCA, to wryly remark that “now, when a cross is removed, Christians must be calm and smile,” describing the Catholic self-censorship deemed to be in the spirit of the Sino–Vatican agreement of 2018, whose contents, including its concessions to the CCP, are kept secret to this day. In Anhui Province on April 18, the cross was torn from Our Lady of the Rosary Church, with the cooperation of a PCA priest who explained that he feared that, if he had resisted, the church would have been closed and the building put to secular use.

All churches are prohibited from admitting minors, instructing them in Christianity, and encouraging them to consider priestly or ministerial vocations, leaving in doubt whether the faith will be transmitted to the next generation. A Three-Self pastor lamented in a blog the lack of Christian knowledge among adult congregants, noting that they loudly shout slogans, such as “Live for the Lord,” without knowing the meaning. He wrote that scholarship at seminaries is at “training” or entry level, with state-approved Christian journals limited in availability and content. In July 2019, for example, a commentary in Heavenly Wind, the sole magazine of the Three-Self Church, conflated Proverbs 14:21 with Confucius’s sayings. At the hands of an agent of the officially atheistic CCP’s United Front Work Department, such biblical reinterpretations aren’t simple exercises in inculturation or translation. In light of the new religious rules in January, the Chinese Church fears that the words of Jesus and the Old Testament scribes and prophets are being replaced and distorted for political objectives.

In Fujian Province, church leaders were directed, among other restrictions, not to “distribute religious printed material without a serial number,” leading the Catholic pontifical outlet AsiaNews to conclude that there is at present “a slow and inexorable suffocation of the Chinese Church, both official and underground.” If Hong Kong’s new national-security law affects religious freedom there as well, as Cardinal Zen predicts it will, this will be another blow to Chinese Christianity, which depends on Hong Kong as an important center for independent scholarship, information, and meetings with coreligionists from around the world.

Winter saw a confidential, ministerial-level Beijing–Vatican dialogue, followed in June by the appointments of two new bishops, one of whom is the 83-year-old Peter Lin Jiashan, and by the announcement, from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, of a new Shanghai community center. Beijing likely saw the initiatives as low-cost, strategically aimed measures. Overall, China is working to downsize and hollow out its Christian community.

During the quarantine, the family church came to life in China. Many reports circulated of parents and their children enthusiastically reading the Bible aloud, lighting candles, and praying together in their homes. Local priests and pastors sent sermons on WeChat and made occasional, quiet home visits. During China’s shutdown, January to April, the government tolerated the livestreaming of services of some, but not all, churches. This is what could be called an “enhanced North Korean model,” where small, closely trusted groups of Christians pray together in secret, with, in China’s case, online church support for as long as they can circumvent China’s Great Firewall, or government Internet censorship. It may be the best hope that Christianity in China has for surviving the Xi era. This will be a shrinking Church with a diminished impact on Chinese culture.

Read in National Review