Suppose, for a moment, that a group of Chinese Protestant Christians – business people, students and others – are living in Wittenberg, Germany. That is the site of Martin Luther’s famous attack (the 95 Theses) against the Catholic Church. Yet they know little or nothing of Luther and they have nothing to do with the local Lutheran synod. They are mainly an off-shoot of an unregistered church in Henan, and they use hymn sheets printed in Nanjing. They engage in missionary activity.
This speculative thought is merely an extension of what is happening today. Chinese Christian businessmen have already established their own churches or fellowships in most major European cities. Other religions, or quasi-religions like the Falun Gong, are also widely represented.
According to Hong Kong academic and churchman Dr Kim-Kwong Chan, the expansion of the Chinese economy into the world market will also have an impact on Chinese religious believers beyond the borders of China. Chinese emigration, legal or illegal, is considerable. In Dr Chan’s view, the significance of this as the basis of missionary activity should not be underestimated. Dr Chan, who is the author of nine books, mostly on religion in China, is the executive secretary of the Hong Kong Christian Council, and an ordained minister of a Christian evangelical church.
The numbers of Chinese Christians are not small. The Chinese government provides a figure of 16 million Protestants, although local and overseas experts claim there are at least 25 million. Some estimates are as high as 100 million.
The Catholic Church is divided between the Patriotic Church, which obeys government direction, and the underground Church, but there is a considerable cross-over between the two. The Patriotic Church has a membership of at least 12 million. As Dr Chan notes, this is much more than the number of Catholics in Ireland, and once ties with Rome are formally re-established, Chinese bishops and cardinals will play an important international part in the Catholic Church.
In the meantime in China, he says: “The influence of Christianity goes beyond the church compound and is also beginning to make an impact amongst intellectuals. More than 20 universities now offer courses in Christianity and most campuses in major cities have Christian fellowships.”
Writing in Religion, State & Society, Dr Chan claims that Protestant Christianity has mushroomed into an influential social force that can be felt, not only in almost all sectors of Chinese society, but also beyond China’s borders.
One factor Dr Chan notes is that in the past, religion was a taboo subject. Now the public’s thirst for religion is driving the availability of a whole range of religious related products.
“The market-driven publishing industry in China seems to have spotted the overwhelming demand from the public, mostly not religious believers, for books on religion. Currently books on religion, whether doctrinal or devotional, are seen everywhere in bookshops, which was not the case a decade ago; they are usually best sellers. Newspaper articles on religion, discussions on religion in Internet chat-rooms, religious names on commercial products, and religious music are commonly available to the public as people increasingly search for a transcendent meaning to life.”
Dr Chan has analysed the current policy of the Chinese Communist Party towards religions. The CCP recognises that religion attracts massive numbers of followers, and may compete with the party in loyalty. The party attempts to contain religious activities within a defined area. “Religion is tolerated so long as it poses no threat to the ruling regime and no challenge to social institutions such as education and marriage.”
The government recognises only five religions in China: Daoism, Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism. These are supervised by a large bureaucracy, the Religious Affairs Bureau. Dr Chan believes the government will feel secure “so long as it feels religion is not getting out of hand and remains under government supervision and monitoring.”
Other religions are regarded as evil cults or folk religions, and are dealt with separately. There are officially 16 groups defined as evil cults, the best known of which is the Falun Gong. A special taskforce has been established within the Public Security Bureau to target evil cults.
Much has changed over the last quarter century. Dr Chan says that in the 1980s, virtually all religions in China were in survival mode, trying to re-emerge from the ruins in a hostile environment. After the haunting experiences of the Cultural Revolution, it was hard to imagine that they could conduct religious activities again. The 1990s were a period of consolidation as they built up their clerical ranks, reclaimed confiscated properties, and so on. Today things look more positive.
“Currently Chinese religious organisations are all heading for expansion, extending their influence into the secular sector by propagating their faith directly through various private means, and demonstrating their faith by reaching out into the community beyond the four walls of religious venues through social or charitable programmes. This form of silent witness is a subtle political defiance of the government’s policy of restricting religious activities within designated religious venues while yet remaining within legal boundaries, and may become a powerful means of extending religion into secular society.”
With widespread socio-economic upheaval and many people moving from the countryside into the industrialised cities, “people tend to look for forms of permanency such as religion”. Although the official ideology comes from the CCP, this is not widely accepted. “Religions have become an attractive realm where people facing changes can seek new meanings in life.”
How all this will develop in future is difficult to predict. The CCP does not appear to have the flexibility to deal with religious issues which have major social and international consequences. However, Dr Chan closes on an optimistic note, invoking the words of the Hungarian Jesuit, Father Laszlo Ladany, whose China News Analysis had a well-deserved reputation from the 1950s to the 1980s. In the last issue, Fr Ladany said that as far as China is concerned, we should “expect the unexpected”. Dr Chan hopes for some pleasant surprises.
Gerald Mercer is a freelance journalist in Melbourne, Australia.