On August 24 the BBC reported that the Chinese government is encouraging the development of Christianity within the country. In addition to supporting the establishment of national seminaries for Catholic and Protestant clergy, the government has provided land, and 20% of the building costs, for a new church in Nanjing, which when completed will be the largest in the country. An official told the BBC that there are at least 20 million Protestants legally worshipping in churches in China. Though this may come as a surprise (on the grounds that a Communist state might be expected to oppose religion), freedom of belief is provided for by article 36 of the Chinese constitution.
It justifies this by arguing that ‘People in China, whether they are religious believers or not, in general love their motherland and stand for socialism. They all work for the country’s socialist modernisation programme. So, it is easy to see that the policy ensuring freedom of religious belief for all citizens is in no way against socialism.’
But although religion is tolerated, there are many restrictions on how people can worship. Believers must worship in registered venues, and all religious publications and appointments must be approved by the authorities. It is this level of surveillance that leads people to worship in house churches throughout the country, which not being registered, are considered illegal. For many years, human rights organisations have criticised the treatment of people arrested for attending these churches, many of whom, according to Amnesty International, ‘continue to experience harassment, arbitrary detention, imprisonment and other serious restrictions’.
Though the government claims that its goal in encouraging Christianity is to ‘better guarantee religious belief in China’, the official the BBC spoke to also made it clear that ‘the Chinese Communist Party believe there is no God in the world’. However, there are other reasons why the government may wish to encourage Christianity. One is that the government could be trying to bring more worshippers into open, where it can keep a watchful eye on them. Another, more pragmatic explanation, is to do with the social role a strong Church might fulfill. In the past, the Communist Party has sought to prevent the formation of national organisations outside the state’s control (such as its campaign against the Falun Gong), fearing these might serve as a focal point for dissent. But as the gap between the rich and poor increases in China, non-state organisations may be needed to deal with the social problems (drug use, homelessness, poverty) likely to result. Given that, in a recent survey of charitable behaviour, China came 147th out of 153 countries surveyed on measures like volunteering and giving to charity, the government may be hoping that state-run churches will encourage a growth in social consciousness. Whatever the reason for the government’s shift in policy, it has been welcomed by many Chinese Christians. One student interviewed by the BBC said, ‘I think this nation will change, and I think God is doing great things in China.’