The Chinese Church Under Pressure – A Special Series from Our President


A Historical Review, Part 5: – Moral Crises and Stability Maintenance

Editor’s note: Yang Mingdao is the pseudonym used by Chinese staff within China Partnership. This important eleven-part series is from a recent lecture given by China Partnership’s President. It has been edited from the original transcriptions.

The first five posts of the series focus on Chinese history in order to grant a greater understanding of contemporary issues facing the church. As the gospel penetrates Chinese culture, deeply rooted historical and cultural idiosyncrasies impact Christianity’s contextualization. The pressures the church now weathers are greatly influenced by these historical realities. To understand the current challenges, one must be familiar with traditional Chinese governance and the trajectory taken since China first encountered Christianity.

Read the whole series below:

Synopsis: The current round of religious persecution in China is fundamentally an issue of ultimate allegiances. “The government used to be laissez-faire, but now they need to hear everyone say: ‘I love you.’”

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Synopsis: Modern day China is the result of a clash between cultures. Before its engagement with the West, China viewed the world according to two categories – its kingdom and the barbarians outside. 

Synopsis: A discussion of the authority structures that exist in China due to the long legacy of Confucianism. Authority belongs to the emperor as given by heaven and total loyalty to superiors is necessary for the Chinese system to function. 

Synopsis: A two-millennia old system of governance does not easily change overnight. “Yuan realized the universal and interconnected Chinese system could not be transformed into a republican or parliamentary system simply by changing it on paper. In a public discussion in America, he said: “If we do not even have citizens, how can we have a republican system?”

Synopsis: In the past, while China was busy getting rich, the government had confidence in its full legitimacy to rule and there were fewer questions of loyalty. But now, in this time of reconstruction, they ask: “Do you love me? If you do, you must raise the national flag. If you love me, you will register [your churches].

In this second half of the series, we now turn to the ecclesiology (theology of church) developed and deepened by Chinese believers as they face trying times of transition in mainland China. The Chinese church’s understanding and experience of union with Christ, their theology of suffering, and their articulation of the mission of the church are an encouragement and fierce challenge to their Western brothers and sisters.

Synopsis: When a culture desperately needs the message of the cross (not the prosperity gospel, but the central message of Christ Jesus’ death and resurrection) and it is given, the gospel not only crosses and transcends cultural boundaries, it produces long-lasting fruit. 

Synopsis: Chinese pastors are asking the question, “What is the church?” The answer is crucial for determining their response to the government. As they try to define their theology of the church, these pastors are going beyond considering its attributes, to trying to understand the very nature of the church.

Synopsis: In the light of Genesis 3, the most important question to ask is not, “How can we be saved,” but rather, “How can the creative will and plan of God to make a perfect humanity be fulfilled?” The answer is the one-and-many humanity God is calling to himself to make up the church.

Synopsis: Today’s church is the construction site for the new creation God is building and which will be revealed in the final day.

Synopsis: The persecution and challenges the Chinese house church currently faces are no different from those faced by the early church in Acts. The authorities of this world always challenge the church with the same question: “Who do you love?” The extent to which the church’s response to this question is informed by its union with Christ will determine its faithfulness to the Lord in the face of persecution.

Synopsis: Moving forward, we must ask: are we protecting ourselves, or are we doing it for the gospel? A lived-out ecclesiology will inevitably encounter suffering.

Today, Chinese society faces a great crisis. In the light of this, we see the new religious regulations and recent events. There are several crises and challenges. 

First, there is the challenge of legitimacy of governance or ruling. China no longer has monarchical rule from heaven. She cannot return to that stage, but she is still trying to establish a societal foundation.

Second, national salvation was promised and delivered through the reforms of Deng Xiaoping. The government was legitimate as long as everybody got rich together, but this legitimacy is slowly waning. Because of an autonomous economy, the burgeoning middle class demands greater freedom, rights of speech, and human rights. How can the institutional structures of China deal with this? Talk of structural reform is couched in terms like “economic-structural reforms,” but this actually means reforms of government and societal structure. 

The governing party lacks internal motivation (which would stem from a concept or ideal) to deal with this. There are also no clear options. China’s moral standards are in decline, and the self-governing grassroots have collapsed.

A decade or two earlier, we talked of the moral deprivation of the higher authorities. But today, corruption has infiltrated every level. Every person, whether on a moral level or for social capital, wants to get the most out of others. There has been a loss of the most basic autonomous civil units. Today, civil servants come from the province to villages and individuals; in the past, civil servants were from the county level. There is greater uniformity, but no grassroots self-government. This leads to a lack of options. To maintain stability, tremendous pressure is exerted from the top-down. There are very few middle options.

This is not merely a challenge of legitimacy, but of efficiency. Under the traditional governance structure of China, there has always been a power struggle between the central and local governments. The central government has different parties and groups. Previously, this was solved through power sharing, which looked something like the Senate of the Roman Empire, which was ruled by senators and nobles. But now the pendulum has swung to the other side, so everything includes an office of military and political affairs. This includes the permanent committee in the Politburo, where everything is under the authority of one person. Rule from the top reduces efficiency, and there has been a loss of autonomous civil units, but there has also been a rise of regulation by technology. These include facial recognition, internet policing, and more. Thus, to make up for the loss of autonomous civil units, ruling has become incredibly [technologically] efficient.

Even though there is a stable society today, it harbors the possibility of another, greater crisis. Not only is there a governing crisis, there is also a racial crisis, including places like Xinjiang and Tibet. Change in the system affects all of this, impacting the body as a whole. 

In response to this crisis, there is a movement to strengthen authoritative structures. To protect itself, this is called “stability maintenance.” The ruling party must find an ideology other than national salvation for the basis of their rule. There are several. One is the Chinese Dream, which is nationalism. It promises a progression from rich to great: “In the past we were rich, now we are great.” In other words, “Make China great again.” Let China become heroic again. If China is to be great, it will inevitably clash with America; this is one response to the current situation. 

Another response is to emphasize the legitimacy of ideology, i.e. the Confidence Doctrine: confidence in our chosen path (of socialism); confidence in our guiding theories; confidence in our institutions; confidence in our culture.

How do you develop this confidence? The first way is to deal with official corruption. Then, emphasize an active ideology and the right to speak. There must also be an emphasis on Chinese characteristics, and a suppression of universal values. This includes the New Religious Regulations. At the core of these regulations is a question of loyalty, equivalent to asking, “Who’s the boss?” Christianity must be softened and Sinicized, all of which contributes to the development of confidence in this new ideology. Add to this the encouragement for people to reject Western holidays such as Christmas, and this is how we ended up where we are today. It is all part of a logical chain; there are deep roots for where we are now.

I predict this is not short-term, but will continue for 10 to 20 years, or longer. For now, we do not see viable short-term options. Either China will be thrown into sudden chaos, or it will slowly develop an unknown ideology toward stability. What style this might be, we do not know. When we look at the New Religious Regulations and its clash with the church in recent years, we see the process of the gospel penetrating a culture. At the core of this first stage is the question: “Who and what is the church?”

Who is the head of the church? Where does the church’s allegiance lie? As the gospel transcends culture, this is a fundamental conflict in the first stage of establishing an institutional church. Although questions of faith are involved, the questions today are those of ecclesiology. The focus is not on who believes or who does not, but on where the church’s allegiance lies. Is the church merely a component under the Chinese system – or does the church have its own self-sufficient system and legitimacy? 

Then, there is conflict over governance authority. Who has power? In the past, while China was busy getting rich, the government had confidence in its full legitimacy to rule and there were fewer questions of loyalty. But now, in this time of reconstruction, they ask: “Do you love me? If you do, you must raise the national flag. If you love me, you will register [your churches].” In the traditional Chinese way, the government feels the need to establish its legitimacy, all the way down to the most basic autonomous civic units, through demanding absolute political loyalty. As you understand the inertia of Chinese culture, you see how an organization like the church creates many problems.

The road ahead is unclear, and it may be decades long. The most important question is: “What is the church?” It is essential for us to know how the church should view itself. 

Translation provided by Moses, Jane, Ryan, and the China Partnership translation team.

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