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Beijing’s Collision With Christians
Christian worshippers sing hymns to voice their opposition to an extradition law in Hong Kong, June 14, 2019.
Jerome Favre/Shutterstock

Beijing’s Collision With Christians

Walter Russell Mead

With the European Parliament threatening to block an investment deal with China over persecution of Muslims in Xinjiang, the shock waves released by Beijing’s Hong Kong crackdown still reverberating, and the debate over the next U.S. administration’s China policy heating up, this would seem like a bad time for Beijing to kick off another major international dustup over human rights.

But that logic holds little appeal for Chinese policy makers today; crushing domestic dissent takes priority over burnishing the country’s image. This is bad news for China’s Christians, who face growing hostility from a ruling party that until a few years ago was willing to turn a blind eye to the proliferation of unofficial “house churches” across the country.

That era of toleration coincided with one of the greatest expansions of Christianity in the past 2,000 years. From an estimated three million believers at the end of the Cultural Revolution, the number of Protestants in China is now believed to exceed 100 million, with another 10 million to 12 million Catholics. (The government offers an implausible figure of 38 million Protestants.) The Council on Foreign Relations cites a 2018 estimate from Purdue’s Center on Religion and Chinese Society of between 93 million and 115 million Protestants in China. Much of the growth has come since 2010, and some projections suggest that by 2030 China could surpass America to have the largest population of Christians in the world.

<—This is one of the few competitions with the U.S. that Beijing does not want to win. Churches are increasingly targets of the Chinese Communist Party’s repression of free speech. Some have been demolished; others have been “secularized” as local officials tear down religious symbols such as crosses. Authorities are now demanding the installation of cameras to monitor worshipers’ behavior and pastors’ sermons. There are reports of Catholic churches being forced to replace pictures of the Virgin Mary with portraits of Xi Jinping.

In October, National Review’s Cameron Hilditch pointed to a Xinhua News Agency report that the Communist Party has decided to produce a state-approved Bible. Mr. Hilditch reports that one change is to the New Testament story in which Jesus spares a woman taken in adultery from stoning by telling her accusers not to cast the first stone unless they are sinless. In the new, improved version, when the accusers have left, Jesus stones the woman himself, saying, “I too am a sinner. But if the law could only be executed by men without blemish, the law would be dead.”

Long before the Communists took power, Chinese rulers feared religious cults could cause political unrest. Given the history of Western countries demanding special privileges for missionaries, Christianity was seen as an alien and threatening faith, and the Communist Party was quick to expel missionaries and persecute local Christians after 1949. Protestantism and Catholicism are, with Islam, Buddhism and Taoism, among the officially recognized religions in China, but membership in any but state-licensed and state-controlled congregations is illegal—and no longer overlooked.

The explosive growth of Chinese Christianity is on a collision course with a government determined to centralize power in the Communist Party in ways not seen since the death of Mao. China’s Christians are to a great extent urban, well-educated and connected to global information networks. For these reasons, serious pressure on Christians will have an even more damaging impact on China’s international standing than what happened in Tibet, Xinjiang or Hong Kong. As news spreads that the Communist Party is persecuting Christians for their faith, the effects on American public opinion will be both explosive and long-lasting, potentially ending any hope for better or even stable relations between Washington and Beijing.

China’s rulers saw how the strong example of Pope John Paul II contributed to the collapse of communism in Poland, and they were horrified at the part South Korean Christians played in that country’s transition to democracy. Local Christians’ prominent role in the Hong Kong democracy movement provided yet another argument for those counseling a stern crackdown. Something very ugly may be in the works.

Throttling diversity at home at the cost of deepening isolation abroad. No earthly power has the ability to stop Beijing from choosing this path if that is what party leaders wish. But it is unlikely that China will like what it finds at the end of that road.

Let us hope in this season of peace and goodwill that moderation and tolerance will prevail in Beijing. —>

Read the full article in the Wall Street Journal

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