After decades of increasing religious freedom, has China swung toward militant atheism? That’s the takeaway of Religious Freedom Institute president Thomas Farr, who recently told Congress that “the assault on religion in China under President Xi Jinping … has justly been called a Second Cultural Revolution,” a nod to the final chaotic decade of Mao Zedong’s rule, when all religion was banned.
The “Administrative Measures for Religious Groups,” which took effect in February this year, put teeth into existing prohibitions against unregistered church gatherings, stipulating stiff fines for participants and those who host such activities. The regulations also double down on Xi’s insistence that religion be “Sinicized,” or made more Chinese. In the case of Christianity, this means severing the church’s Western connections and reinterpreting biblical teachings in order to conform to “socialist values.”
China’s Christians would generally agree that restrictions on the exercise of their faith are increasing under Xi’s repressive policies. But most would also view their country’s church in a much broader context that defies characterizing it purely in political terms.
In a similar way, as they acknowledge the reality of China’s repressive religious policies, Christians outside China need to stop seeing Chinese Christians merely as “persecuted.” By putting too much emphasis on politics, the familiar persecuted church narrative keeps Christians outside China from understanding the other dynamics at play in what has become arguably one of the fastest-growing Christian movements in history, accounting for one of the largest concentrations of believers in the world.
Rooted in Western assumptions about the relationship between church and state, this narrative sees the church’s problem as primarily political. It paints believers as innocent victims or—in the case of those who dare to speak out against the regime—as tragic heroes. While based in reality, this narrative does not begin to tell the whole story.
The Christian China narrative emphasizes the church’s numeric growth on the premise that a critical mass of believers will bring about cultural and political change. Proponents of this narrative—often found in evangelical educational institutions or student ministries—talk of filling the void left by communism and of reaching China’s future leaders. Ironically, it is exactly this sort of bottom-up transformation that Xi’s repressive policies, which seek to blunt foreign influence in China, are intended to prevent. While it is true that today’s Chinese Christians—like generations of believers before them—have been able to enter the cultural sphere in significant ways, their voices are increasingly being silenced. The resurgence of authoritarian rule under Xi has again shown the limits of Christian engagement in bringing fundamental change to China, at least in the near term.
We need the Chinese church to be defined not by its limitations or what it does, but by how it is being made into the image of Christ. The personal transformation taking place in the lives of Chinese believers is the key to this new narrative.
In this light, the familiar themes of our common narratives don’t go away; they take on new meaning. China’s government is repressive, and its church has many struggles. But within these harsh realities there are new stories to be told and, if we are listening, lessons to be learned that address concerns of Christians globally. In this new narrative, China’s church does not change, but our perception of it does.
In the era of Xi, as China’s Christians begin writing a new chapter in their own story, it is time for foreign Christians to reconsider their China stories in light of a much larger narrative, one that sees Christ working sovereignly both inside and outside of China to prepare a bride for himself.