God and Caesar in China Policy Implications of Church-State Tensions
By Jason Kindopp
Brookings Institution Press Copyright © 2003 Jason Kindopp
All right reserved. ISBN: 0815749376
Policy Dilemmas in China's Church-State Relations: An Introduction
Containing religion's social and political influence has become a leading policy concern for China's leaders in recent years, and their methods of doing so have strained China's relations with the United States. The salience of religious policy within China is in part a result of unanticipated rapid growth in religious activity. When China's reform era began in 1978, religion appeared moribund. All religious venues had been closed or destroyed, and few visible signs of its survival remained. Yet by the turn of the century, China's government reported that more than 200 million religious believers worshiped in eighty-five thousand authorized venues, and estimates by outside observers are higher yet.
As in previous eras, Buddhists are most numerous, with more than 100 million adherents, 320,000 nuns and monks, and sixteen thousand temples and monasteries nationwide. Tibetan Buddhism remains a vital force in Tibet and western Sichuan Province, as does Islam in the northwest region of Xinjiang, where the majority of China's 18 million Muslims and thirty-five thousand mosques are concentrated. Christianity's inclusion within China's religious revival is particularly surprising. Until recently, most outside observers viewed the Christian missionary enterprise in China as a failure, drowned in the sea of history. Yet by the end of the millennium, China's Catholic population had swelled from 3 million in 1949 to more than 12 million, surpassing the number of Catholics in Ireland. China now has about five thousand officially authorized Catholic churches and meeting points and the same number of clergy, almost half of which are located in Hebei Province. Protestantism in China has grown at a faster pace during the same period, multiplying from 1 million to at least 30 million adherents-with estimated figures as high as 45 million to 60 million -serviced by twenty thousand officially authorized clergy and more than thirty-five thousand registered churches and meeting points. Protestantism's growth has occurred simultaneously in diverse regions, from the southeastern coastal areas to the densely populated central provinces of Henan and Anhui to the minority regions of China's Far Southwest and Northeast. China now has the world's second-largest evangelical Christian population-behind only the United States-and if current growth rates continue, China will become a global center of evangelical Christianity in coming decades.
A host of religious and quasi-spiritual groups and sects that the government does not recognize have also sprouted up in virtually every corner of Chinese society. Dozens of colorfully named religious sects-such as Eastern Lightning, Established King, and the Heavenly Soldiers Fraternal Army-have emerged in remote corners of China's vast rural hinterland, often cohering around charismatic leaders who preach doomsday messages and claim to be the "Supreme Savior" or the "returned Jesus," attracting up to hundreds of thousands of adherents. Other movements have cohered around masters of qigong (a quasi-mystical traditional Chinese breathing exercise) and other traditional Chinese spiritual disciplines, also attracting large followings. The banned Falungong qigong sect, for example, claimed tens of millions of practitioners before the government launched its nationwide campaign to exterminate the group in 1999.
Unsurprisingly, relations between China's resurgent religious groups and the officially atheistic Communist Party state have been fraught with tension. As in other communist states, China's leaders sought first to eradicate religion (during the 1950s and 1960s) and then to co-opt and control it. The policy framework established after 1978 provides limited space for religious believers to practice their faith but also calls for comprehensive control measures to prevent religion from emerging as an independent social force. At the broadest level, the government has sought to constrain religious activity by conferring recognition on only five world religions (Buddhism, Catholicism, Taoism, Islam, and Protestantism). For each, the government erected a hierarchically ordered, monolithic "patriotic" organization-patterned after other Leninist mass organizations-and gave them sole representative authority over their respective religious adherents. Political authorities appoint loyalists or even Communist Party cadres to leadership positions within the religious organizations and give them authority over all religious venues, training seminaries, and clergy appointments.
Official regulations also stipulate tight government control over every aspect of religious existence, dictating acceptable forms and contents of religious services, the publication and distribution of materials for worship and training, and interaction with foreigners. Official control extends even to the realm of beliefs. Political authorities impose boundaries for acceptable religious doctrines, denouncing beliefs that emphasize evangelism, supernaturalism, or salvational doctrines that challenge the government's religious policies or contradict its projected symbolic order, which depicts all of Chinese society as unified under Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule. In addition to enforcing the myriad regulations governing religion-undertaken primarily by the government's Religious Affairs Bureau and the police's Ministry of Public Security-the government takes proactive measures to ensure loyalty and compliance from religious figures, organizing frequent "patriotic education" campaigns for clergy and requiring religious leaders to participate in intensive propaganda courses that cover such topics as official religious policy, CCP history, and Marxist-Leninist ideology.
Within these constraints, authorities allow limited yet meaningful religious participation. Buddhist and Taoist temples, for example, teem with worshippers, and most officially authorized Catholic and Protestant churches are filled to capacity on any given Sunday, as congregants endure the constraints imposed on their parishes in exchange for the opportunity to worship in public. Churches conduct a widening range of services, catering to the spiritual needs of youth, the elderly, married couples, and other religious demographic groups and many offer an array of social and welfare services.
The government's external constraints and internal manipulations conflict with religious groups' own norms of operation, beliefs, and values, however, and underlying scenes of packed churches, temples, and mosques are profound tensions between the state's demands for control and religious identities. Political authorities structure religious organizations according to their own interests-such as reorganizing Catholic dioceses without consulting church leaders and forcing associational Protestant groups into the highly bureaucratized Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM)-and, in doing so, alienate the faithful. The party-state's practice of limiting the number of religious sites is another point of contention, as many churches are packed beyond capacity, making for an uncomfortable worship experience, or are too distant for convenient access, or both. The appointment of unpopular figures to leadership positions within the "patriotic" religious organizations and to government-mandated Democratic Management Committees within individual churches, temples, and mosques is an enduring source of friction, creating divisions within religious groups and often leading to corruption, as co-opted leaders and their political backers siphon off the revenues and resources of the organizations they were appointed to represent.
The Communist Party's explicit policy of training and installing "patriotic" religious personnel to clerical positions is an even-greater source of conflict with religious believers. The method of ordination for Catholic bishops, for example, is a long-standing litmus test for clergy legitimacy among parishioners, who reject bishops who lack Vatican approval. Although the dividing line may not be as clear for Protestant pastors or Islamic imams, congregants are keenly aware that some of their leaders' loyalties to the regime trump their commitment to serving the faithful. Tensions are exacerbated when co-opted religious figures attempt to revise religious doctrines or reinterpret sacred tenets to conform to policy imperatives. For example, political authorities have long required official Catholic clergy to endorse its policies on abortion and birth control against church tradition. Similarly, senior figures in the official Protestant church have long denounced the core Protestant doctrine of "righteousness by faith" on grounds that it creates divisions between believers and unbelievers, in opposition to the conservative theological views of the vast majority of China's Protestants.
Finally, official constraints on a wide range of religious activities conflict with religious norms and values. The government's stipulations that all religious activity must occur within approved venues and be led by authorized clergy run counter to the associational traditions of many religious forms; it also suppresses their evangelical identity, which favors itinerant evangelism. Concerned with religion's mobilizational power, authorities stipulate that all activities be conducted in an "orderly" manner, implicitly prohibiting all charismatic forms of worship and other popular practices. The government's long-standing prohibition of minors' receiving religious instruction is a source of tension with all believers who seek to raise their children within their own faith traditions.
At the heart of the tensions between religion and China's political authorities lies conflicting demands for loyalty. Religious faith commands an allegiance that transcends political authority, whereas the Communist Party's enduring imperative is to eliminate social and ideological competition. Religious beliefs and doctrines equip the faithful with conceptual resources to critically assess government policies and, indeed, Communist Party rule itself. Faith also endows believers with resources for resisting state demands: the promise of salvation for the faithful, clear behavioral guidelines, and feelings of solidarity with fellow believers offer powerful motivations to remain true to one's convictions in the face of official repression. For religious believers in China, these core incentives are reinforced by shared memories that contrast sharply with the party line. All religions suffered untold abuse and calamity under China's Communist Party rule, particularly during the rule of Mao Zedong (1949-76). Moreover, official abuses occurred with the active support of the "patriotic" religious organizations that now claim sole representative authority over their respective religious populations, even though many of the organizations' current leaders were in positions of authority during the repressive Mao era.
Resistance and Repression
Irreconcilable differences between the state's demands and religion's interests have compelled large numbers of religious believers in China to reject the government's system of religious control and operate outside official boundaries. Resistance is widespread among Tibetan Buddhists who remain loyal to the Dalai Lama and among Muslims in Xinjiang who refuse to subject themselves to the government's "patriotic education" campaigns. The open defiance of thousands of Falungong adherents after China's leaders promulgated a nationwide ban on the group stunned political authorities and outside observers alike.
Perhaps most surprising, however, is the systematic and widespread resistance of the majority of China's Catholics and Protestants to their representative "patriotic" religious organizations. The Vatican and independent specialists estimate that the number of Catholics worshipping in "underground" churches in China is more than double the 4 million members in the official Catholic Patriotic Association. The ratio is similar for China's Protestants: an estimated 30 million to 45 million believers worship in illicit "house churches," compared with the 15 million members of churches under TSPM control. Nor are their members isolated. The Catholic Church's integrated clerical structure endows the underground church with considerable mobilizational capabilities. Although many Protestant house churches are relatively small and autonomous, large networks have also emerged across the country, in some cases claiming millions of adherents and having operations in virtually every province.
China's authorities have responded with a mixture of accommodation and repression. In many areas, unofficial religious groups have become a relatively institutionalized-though vulnerable-part of the social fabric. In areas of the country with long-standing traditions of lax governance-such as China's Far Southwest, Northeast, and southern coastal area-local authorities grant considerable leeway to autonomous religious groups. Many local party cadres and village leaders in the minority regions of southwestern Guizhou and Yunnan Provinces, for example, are religious believers themselves, and house churches operate openly in the southern coastal city of Wenzhou and among the minority Korean populations in China's northeastern province of Heilongjiang. Local authorities often turn a blind eye to house churches within their jurisdiction, provided that they remain small and autonomous and avoid contact with foreigners. In some locales, underground Catholic priests and those in the Catholic Patriotic Association hold services in the same church.
At the same time, China's rulers regularly use force against religious groups that defy its policies and threaten its monopoly over social organization. Religious repression tends to be most harsh in areas where the state lacks sophisticated control mechanisms and autonomous religious activity is growing most rapidly or is linked with separatist movements. The widespread abuses of human rights in the religious and ethnic minority regions of Tibet and Xinjiang are well documented. Among the majority Han population, the poor, largely rural, central province of Henan has logged the most accounts of religious persecution, followed by neighboring Anhui and Shandong Provinces. Sporadic arrests of unauthorized religious leaders are also common in large, politically sensitive cities, such as Beijing and provincial capitals, although the state's comprehensive methods of coercion in such areas usually obviate the need for extreme measures.
Regional disparities aside, nationwide trends in recent years suggest an overall rise in government repression of unauthorized religious groups. The crackdowns come amid government concerns of broader social unrest.
Excerpted from God and Caesar in China by Jason Kindopp Copyright © 2003 by Jason Kindopp. Excerpted by permission.
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