Michael Ryan is a Ph.D. student in sociology at Baylor University, with an M.A. in sociology from The New School for Social Research. His research centers on the role of religion within society, with a particular focus on how religious institutions can be used to sustain or undermine illiberal and authoritarian regimes.
God must have a sense of humor. In China, one of the few countries on earth that practices official atheism as governmental policy, there has been a significant spike in religious observance. Some scholars have even estimated that this country will have the largest Christian community in the world by the close of this decade. All under a repressive regime which at its best has tolerated faith and at its worst has significantly repressed faith. Perhaps they should learn from Marxist revolutionary Anatoly Lunacharsky, “Religion is like a nail. The more you hit it, the deeper it goes".
The story of modern China has been one of opening to the world in terms of material goods but a lingering distrust and suspicion of foreign ideas, none more so than religion. Religious freedom is theoretically protected by the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, but in practice this protection is only realized if you practice within “patriotic” religious associations, which are controlled by the party. This has led to repression of house churches, unregistered religious organizations, and parallel religious communities which reject party control. In the Catholic context, this includes an underground church, which has a parallel existence to the “patriotic” churches, being served by many of the same priests as well as frequently using the same buildings. However, because of concern about government control over their faith, or an unwillingness of the local officials to register these religious communities, these groups have lived their faith outside of governmental regulation. For this, their leaders have been arrested, crosses have been removed from their buildings, and in some cases, entire buildings have been demolished or simply taken by the state.
Stability and social control are the preeminent concern for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and persecutions of religious groups are attempts at maintaining stability and control over the citizenry of China. The negotiations with the papacy over underground churches, as well as the broader attempts to bring religious organizations and minority ethnic groups under state guidance, also contribute to these ends. This Sinicization of religious and ethnic communities is aimed toward the elimination of difference from mainstream Chinese society and the destruction of any revolutionary potential within these distinct groups.
Since President Xi came to power in 2012, and particularly after he made himself a de facto president for life in 2018, governmental controls within China have been tightening, with the state becoming ever more dominant and civil society being starved on the vine. As these controls have been tightening, repression and persecution have certainly also been ramping up. An example of this persecution is within the western portion of China, where ethnic minorities have been targeted, in part to make these ethic groups “more Chinese” and to curb threats of separatism. Recently, as Xinjiang has become an essential part of the broader One Belt One Road Initiative, we have seen persecutions of Muslim ethnic minority groups, particularly the Uighurs, grow to unconscionable proportions. Scholars have reported internment camps with as many as 1.5 million, or approximately 20% of the Uighur community, being detained for “re-education.”
The Chinese government has seen its potential future with the civil unrest in Hong Kong, a region which developed a strong civil society and taste for freedoms while under British rule. Members of the flourishing religious communities there have often been seen on the front lines of protests, organizing prayer meetings, hymn sessions, and playing roles in both documenting and attempting to ease tensions between protesters and police. China is certainly aware of the role religion has played in revolutions across the authoritarian world and is doing everything possible to limit the role religion could play in civil unrest within its own borders.
In Poland, for example, the Catholic Church played a strong role as an ideological competitor to communism, providing an alternative worldview as well as an international community and institutional hierarchy which was able to support those being persecuted. The religious community also provided support to Solidarity, the trade union and social movement which eventually helped end communism in Poland. This support was both intellectual and material, as the Church not only provided an alternative worldview, but their buildings often provided a physical space for dissidents to meet and build community, regardless of their faith beliefs.
What can the international community do to support faith communities in China? First and foremost, individuals and communities need to support civil society and religious organizations across China, and particularly in Hong Kong. Hong Kong suggests that China could be a place where freedom flourishes. In my discussions with locals while living in China, you would be shocked at how many people told me that Chinese people could not handle freedom, that they would not be able to have a flourishing society without the government having strong control over society. Hong Kong is the perfect counterpoint, a small island which has flourished economically, intellectually, and culturally. All done outside of the controls and repression which is stifling and ubiquitous within China.
Given how religious persecution cuts across different faith traditions, it could be possible to form a coalition of religious communities to call attention to the internment of Uighurs in Xinjiang, Buddhists in Tibet, and the smaller forms of repression that are taking place all over China. These crackdowns are justified to stop crimes so ghastly as preaching that President Xi Jinping is a sinner, making popular videos of their church, having recordings of the Quran, and posting about religion on social media. Given the variety of faith traditions being persecuted, every religious community should be educating their members about the persecution of religious people within China.
Strong international religious institutions need to do as much as they can to support believers within China. Churches with strong institutional frameworks need to muster the political power they have in the international community, to both bring light to the issue as well as show their believers within China that they are standing with them. As Paul Froese notes in The Plot to Kill God, “size, autonomy, and institutional structure of religious groups” dictated if religious groups could survive persecution. International groups must do whatever they can to help their church maintain institutional strength, as well as help them maintain their autonomy from the state. This can be done through material support, but perhaps most importantly through educational support, teaching the leaders of tomorrow safely from the prying eyes of government intimidation. Education in the faith, both at home and abroad, is essential for growing the church and maintaining people who not only identify as religious but can live it out in a concrete way. Religion is nothing if not persistent, and those of us in the international community need to do what is possible to maintain our solidarity with those suffering persecutions across the globe.
Perhaps most importantly, we need to help amplify Chinese voices of dissent within China as well as within the broader Chinese diaspora. The unskillful handling of the Coronavirus outbreak seems to be stirring dissent within China, as both the mishandling by the central government and its control over the levers of society are both shown in full view. Leaders like Cardinal Zen and Professor Xu Zhangrun should have their voices amplified, and in doing so perhaps they can inspire others to put themselves on the line for the freedoms which the people of China richly deserve.