Most of the international press coverage on religious freedom in China focuses on government crackdowns on the “underground churches” but it overlooks how most of the “above the ground” churches operate. Recently I visited a state-sanctioned church in my mother’s hometown Weifang in Shandong province and gained some first-hand insights.
Although a third tier city, Weifang has a population of nine million (2.7 million live in the metro area) and is home to 100,000 Christians. The city is famous for its International Kite Festival, plus a Second World War prison camp where Eric Liddell (the “Flying Scotsman” featured in the film Chariots of Fire) was held by the Japanese. Liddell died just months before the end of the war, and the camp has been turned into an impressive museum with a special memorial to the Scot – a Christian missionary himself – who was the first Olympic gold medallist born in China.
As a heartland of Christian missions at the turn of the 19th century, the church’s influence in Shandong is relatively strong (TIME’s co-founder Henry Luce was also born into a missionary family in the province). My maternal grandmother was a life-long Christian but she couldn’t practice her religion under Mao Zedong’s rule. In 1979, Deng Xiaoping lifted the ban at Jimmy Carter’s request. My mother switched from being a Communist Party member to a Christian in the 1990s, after she moved back to her hometown upon retirement. On a recent Sunday morning I accompanied her to a newly built church in her neighbourhood and sat through a three-hour service, which included baptism ceremonies. I was impressed with the well-designed, elegantly-furnished worshipping hall and the enthusiastic and orderly crowd. I counted around 400 people, with an average age of 65. About three-quarters were women.
The preaching was largely influenced by the theology of the American Presbyterian Church and British Baptist Church and it focused on people’s daily lives, without touching on political and social issues. The worshippers were enthusiastic and even emotional during the prayer sessions dedicated to the well-being of family and friends. My mother told me several of her elderly church friends had lost a son or daughter to traffic accidents and they had turned to Christianity for solace. Others have experienced a “miraculous recovery” from terminal cancer and they are grateful to God.
After the service, I spoke to Pastor Liu, a thoughtful man in his forties, who told me that most of Weifang’s Christians practice in the city’s 289 state-sanctioned churches. Nationally there are over 34 million Christians in China, according to a government report. A Pew Research Centre estimate in 2010 put the number at 58 million and a recent estimate cited by The Economist at 100 million.
The churches are under the leadership of the National Committee of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches in China (TSPM) and the China Christian Council (CCC), which are in turn governed by the State Bureau of Religious Affairs and Civil Affairs Ministry. As the guiding principle on religious belief set by the Communist Party, the “Three-Self” policy refers to self-governance (without overseas influence or interference), self-reliance (without government or overseas financial support) and self-preaching (without foreign preachers). The authorities vet church leaders to ensure they are “politically reliable” (i.e. don’t hold anti-government or anti-Communist Party views), “professionally capable” (with proper theology education and training) and “morally clean” (without black marks of any kind).
When I asked Pastor Liu whether he is foremost a Christian or a Chinese under Communist rule, he replied: “This is a question with two aspects, one above the sunlight, the other below the sunlight. The former is definitely a bigger force. The concept of Incarnation also tells us that the Divine Person is more important than the person in flesh.” So, if you ask me whether there is religious freedom for Christians, my quick answer would be “yes and no”. It’s complicated – like many things in China.
A native Chinese who grew up in northeastern China, Mei attended an elite university in Beijing in the late 1980s and graduate school in the US in the early 1990s. Over two decades she has worked in the US, Hong Kong and mainland China, both in the media and with investment banks, where she has honed her bicultural perspective. If you’d like to ask her a question, send her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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