Editor’s note: Yang Mingdao is the collective pseudonym for Chinese voices within China Partnership. This series is from a talk given by a Chinese theological teacher and trainer at a recent gathering of those interested in China. It has been edited from transcriptions of the original talk. You can click these links to read part 1 and part 2 of this series.
These restrictions do have some impact on Christian groups. In China, there is a social network called WeChat, which is how most people connect. There are many groups with many churches through WeChat. But it is highly monitored, and we cannot say really sensitive things. Many people also used WhatsApp [an encrypted messaging service] a lot. Recently the Chinese government has shut down access to WhatsApp. After they shut it down, it has been very hard; communication between pastors in the country has been slow. There has been a communication breakdown and the church is trying to recover.
In some ways, recent political events, in particular the election of the top leadership group of the Chinese Communist Party, have been surprising. We believed things were getting worse because the government had made a new regulation to control religion. We expected this new regulation would take effect early in 2017. But that didn’t happen. The government instead took a whole year to solicit input and revise the regulation, and announced in August that the new regulations would take effect on Februrary 1, 2018.
Everybody, especially those in the church context, thought religious control would be tightened. All of society expected that as well: the media is controlled, the Internet is controlled, and the new regulations for churches are about to take effect. Many people in the church expected 2018 to be worse, with more persecution, because many signs pointed that way. I expected that, and as I read the first several days of reports on the convention, that feeling remained very strong.
However, when the seven leaders were named at the end of the convention, it was surprising. If a leader was in very strong control, he would be expected to bring in people who are his puppets, or who are in his camp. But two of the leaders are very open to liberalism, and one is quite neutral. Three of the seven are not in Xi’s small circle. The prime minister, Li KeQiang, has also never been in his circle; Li and Xi are from different parties. Out of seven, you have three or four who are either quite liberal or who are prone to liberalism. Even though Xi, the so-called emperor, has power and has been acknowledged as the leader within the party for another five years, it’s not a one-person-controlled top leadership. There are different sects with different interests within the big party, which results in a more balanced and compromise-driven negotiation of results.
Before the leadership group was named, many people thought Xi might have three terms as president and break the two-term norm. After the group was named, people began to think: “Maybe it will only be two terms. Who knows?” This result shows there is still some internal discord. It is not just one man’s voice, it is not a one-man show. There are still other, powerful parties within the Party.
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Another interesting reason why recent outcomes are better than expected is because, in the past two or three years, crosses in all of Zhejiang province have been torn down, especially in Wenzhou. The government also installed surveillance cameras into the churches there, and the top political leader in Zhejiang oppressed the church. Before the convention, people thought the leader who did this in Zhejiang would gain power, be promoted, and would move on to the central government to persecute the church nationwide. But the outcome was that he was demoted and became irrelevant. The church says: “This is the result when you persecute the church!” This was another case where we thought, “Wow! Maybe it’s not that bad.”
The government is China is trying to control things more, but the church is also growing.
What are the implications for churches and Christian groups? Not much has changed from last year. The great transition from the current China to something we do not yet know is still ongoing. It will not be like the United States. It will not be like the old days of China. We don’t know what’s going to happen. It is in process.
We know at this point that we have to press hard. Press forward. We do what we planned; we do it boldly and we do it carefully. The gospel is still the key people need, and people’s hearts are crying out for the gospel. The church is the key. There is no real community life in China, but the churches have that. So we will continue to press forward. We will be humble to serve and to work in the culture. We have a great opportunity now. We just need to press forward.