by Peter Morrison
An authoritative statement concerning China’s policy on religious freedom was published on March first in the Chinese Communist Party’s highest organ, Red Flag. This statement is of vital importance on Christians in China, and also has great significance for all Christians outside China.
An authoritative statement concerning China’s policy on religious freedom was published on March first in the Chinese Communist Party’s highest organ, Red Flag. This statement is of vital importance on Christians in China, and also has great significance for all Christians outside China who are burdened for the cause of Christ in this nation of one billion people.
The article entitled "Why Must China Practice Freedom of Religious Belief?" is a carefully worded document, setting out clearly prescribed limits to this freedom. In the opening paragraph it states firmly that "China is a socialist country with Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong thought as its guide. Communists are atheists." This is a sobering reminder to many Christians in the West who have been tempted, to think in he euphoria that followed establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the United States, that China is now officially wide open to the gospel.
The article states in classical Marxist terms that religion will eventually disappear with the development of science, and improved economic conditions. However, it concedes, significantly, that "this will take a very long time." The policy of exterminating religion ” by administrative order" (which took place during the whole period of the Cultural Revolution 1966-76) is condemned in no uncertain terms. Persecution, far from putting down religion, actually "aroused religious fanaticism and promoted religion. " Therefore, it is necessary that the State should respect religious belief. This is a major concession, and Christians everywhere can only heartily approve the new policy.
However, this freedom clearly defined and limited. The key passage states: "As stipulated in the Constitution, freedom to believe in religion is the basic policy by which our Party and our country handle religious problems. As set forth in this policy, every Chinese citizen enjoys freedom to believe in religion and freedom not to believe in religion; he enjoys freedom to believe in the religion of his choosing; he enjoys freedom to believe in one sect or another of the same religion; he enjoys freedom to believe in religion today and not to believe in it tomorrow, and also freedom not to believe in religion today but to believe in it tomorrow; a clergyman enjoys freedom to preach theism in a house of worship, and an atheist enjoys freedom to propagate atheism."
This policy as stated is a great improvement on the situation of total persecution that operated during the Cultural Revolution, when all churches were closed, Bibles burned and pastors and many believers sent to labor camps. Under this policy, which has been in operation since the end of 1979, churches have been officially reopened, pastors released, and believers allowed to attend worship services openly again. However, it is important to realize that this freedom is given by the Chinese Communist Party, in its own interests, and could be revoked. This freedom is also clearly limited. It is stated throughout that it is "freedom of religious belief." Active Christian outreach is still not tolerated. Clergymen (the word refers to pastors, Buddhist priests and Muslim imams) have freedom to 11 preach theism in a house of worship." Officially, no such freedom exists outside the 90 or so officially reopened Christian churches for Christian pastors or believers to evangelize. However, the atheist’s freedom to "propagate atheism" has no such limitation. In practice, this means that the Party and State, who control the mass media and the education system, can seek to indoctrinate the whole population with atheistic Marxism without competition. Religious activities are to be confined to those places of worship officially allowed to reopen by the State.
How does this affect Chinese Christians? The go or so Protestant churches (and they have rather fewer Roman Catholic churches) have been reopened largely in the cities, where they have attracted thousands of worshippers. However, 80 percent of China’s population live in the countryside, where few if any churches have so far been reopened. Christians there continue to meet informally in ”house churches" which have multiplied since the Cultural Revolution. Some are small family gatherings; others are large, well-run fellowships with over 100 Christians meeting together. Many in towns and cities also continue to meet in such groups, either because there are no "official" churches, or because they prefer to gather without government supervision. Ninety churches are clearly inadequate (40 years ago there were over 200 in Shanghai alone). There is a danger that they will be used as a screen, giving a plausible picture of religious liberty to ill-informed foreigners, while, in fact, the government cracks down again on the "house churches" in which the majority of Chinese Christians gather.
Christians abroad should pray that the official religious policy will not return to the repression of the Cultural Revolution, or even the fifties, when noted evangelical leaders such as Wang Mingdao and Watchman Nee were imprisoned, but that the present policy will be liberally interpreted to allow Christians to attend both "official" and "house churches" as they please. Already, on paper, it appears that young people are not allowed to attend the reopened churches, or Christians to hold meetings outside the few officially approved church buildings. These instructions appear to have been widely ignored, but if the political climate again hardens, they could be rigorously implemented. The revamped Protestant "Three Self Movement" (a political body that supervises the "official" Protestant church, and liaises between it and the government) and the recently formed Chinese National Christian Council give the impression of nervously looking over their shoulder all the time to see that they do not step out of line with Party policy. Within the guidelines laid down, there are faithful pastors seeking to feed the flock and do all they can to build the body of Christ. However, the atmosphere is hardly conducive to the growth of a healthy, witnessing church on New Testament lines.
For this one has to look rather to the growing, unofficial "house churches." So far there has been considerable interchange, in those cities where church buildings have been reopened, between the "official" and "house churches." Some Christians who have come to faith in Christ in past years, and been nurtured in the "house churches" (the only functioning church in China during the Cultural Revolution) also attended services at the big city churches. Others, particularly perhaps believers who have suffered or witnessed persecution, are more reticent to return, and suspicious of the Three-Self Movements which in the fifties had a lamentable record as a repressive instrument of government policy. Will the present situation of relative freedom be allowed to continue, or will the official Protestant, Three-Self Movement again prove to be a vehicle for government control, even suppression, of the churches? Much depends on how the written policies are actually implemented, and events in the next few years, even possibly months, will reveal the answer.
The Red Flag article clearly states three reasons why the Party should allow limited religious freedom. First, the government wishes everyone to "work with one heart and mind" to implement China’s modernization program. Since the mid-fifties large sectors of the population, such as intellectuals and religious believers, had been regarded with suspicion by the Party, as bourgeois or even counter-revolutionary. Their talents had largely been wasted. Now, however, all, whatever their views or class background, are encouraged to work to improve the economic state of the country. This is no unreasonable demand, and Chinese Christians can surely witness to the reality of their faith by the high quality of their work, when others slack, or are only interested in material gain.
Their second reason given is that China has large numbers of minority peoples, most of whom have their own religions. For example, ten minorities are Muslim. Four, including the Tibetans and Mongols, are Buddhist. Three, interestingly enough, are listed as having been influenced considerably by Christianity: the Miao, Yao and Yi peoples who inhabit Southwest China. The government has every reason not to alienate the minority peoples, who mainly inhabit China’s sparsely inhabited border regions with the Soviet Union and Vietnam.
Third, the article recognizes that religion is also a "formidable social force in the international political field. " The writer believes that "about 61 percent of the world’s population are believers. "In addition, practicing the policy of allowing freedom to believe in religion in our country will promote friendly communications and cultural exchanges between the Chinese people and the people of other countries, and strengthen unity and cooperation between China and Third World countries." China’s image was greatly damaged not only in the West but in Buddhist and Islamic countries, when reports and photographs of smashed and desecrated churches and temples began to filter out during the Cultural Revolution. Now China is again seeking normal relations with other countries, and the granting of some degree of religious freedom is seen as politically necessary.
What can Christians in the West learn from this important policy statement? One lesson is that, in the Chinese context, "religious freedom" depends on a political decision of the Chinese Communist Party. There is no basic change of heart by the country’s rulers towards religion. They remain Marxists, albeit pragmatic, rather than ultradogmatic ones. So far as links with Christians abroad are concerned, the article states bluntly that "religious organizations are not allowed to receive subsidies or gifts from foreign bodies." The four main officially approved religious bodies in China (Buddhist, Islamic, Roman Catholic and Protestant) remain under firm Party supervision. Foreign missions and Christian organizations will not be allowed to pour in funds and reestablish their own organizations in China. Quite clearly, it is the Christians in China who should control their own destiny, and be in the forefront of witnessing to their fellow -countrymen. Western-based groups must be humble enough to realize that the reimposition of Westerndominated and Westernfunded church structures will be positively harmful to the development of the Chinese church and the spread of the gospel in China, which for too long has been regarded as merely a "Western religion," and (sadly, with more reason) a "tool of imperialism." The future of the gospel in China lies with the hundreds, if not thousands, of groups of believers meeting in New Testament-type gatherings across the country. For the first time in many years they are enjoying a precarious freedom. Christians in the West should pray that freedom will be maintained, even extended. In the present atmosphere of general disillusionment with Maoism, the Chinese church is growing and stands poised to reap a great harvest. May we Christians in the West who seek to provide help, whether through radio broadcasts or much-needed literature, also pray for wisdom, that we do nothing to endanger our Chinese brethren, or make their task more difficult.
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