Surviving the State, Remaking the Church: A Sociological Portrait of Christians in Mainland China
Focusing on its contentious relationship to the Chinese party-state, the story of China’s church, particularly as told in the Western media, is often a tale of Christians somehow evading the government’s grasp and persevering in their faith despite severe restrictions and, at times, direct persecution. In past decades the story involved peasant believers meeting in farmhouses and escaping out of open windows as police pushed their way through the front door. More recently the story has emerged of standalone unregistered churches in the cities, technically illegal but able not only to flourish but to engage directly with their society in the marketplace and through publishing and online media. This enduring story of survival is useful in understanding one significant dimension of the church. What is often missed, however, is how the church has adapted through four decades of nonstop change to become a very different entity from what it was in the early days of China’s reform and opening policy under Deng Xiaoping. From a marginalized peasant movement in the 1980s, the church has ridden the waves of urbanization and economic development to become a much more sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and influential force in Chinese society. Li Ma and Jin Li manage to tell both stories well, and here lies the strength of their thoughtful, well-researched contribution to the literature on China’s church. The husband and wife team base their book on five years of extensive field work as participant observers in two cities in their native China, worshiping alongside those whose stories help to put a human face on the paradoxical reality of urban Christianity.
It is not illegal to be a Christian in China. The Communist Party, which actively promotes atheism and discourages any sort of religious faith, has instead constructed a box within which religion is expected to function. Over time the box has become looser and more porous, with much Christian activity —including most of what Ma and Li describe in their book—happening outside the box. Because media is tightly controlled in China, there is virtually no public discourse about the role of Christianity despite its meteoric growth and increased significance in recent decades. This, according to the authors, is the paradoxical reality:
Despite the growth of Protestant groups and increased mention of Christian faith on the internet, there is little publicity in most state-controlled media except a few articles commanding communist cadres not to convert to religions, especially Christianity. A cognitive gap exists with regard to Christianity’s actual growth and the average citizen’s perception of it (xiii).
In addressing this paradox, Ma and Li shed valuable light on a number of critical but often overlooked or misunderstood aspects of Christianity in contemporary China, touching on how the faith has spread, the church’s relationship to the global body of Christ, and the practical issues facing Christians in China today.
While the persecution narrative described at the outset of this review addresses an important aspect of China’s church, this narrative misses much of the interplay between church and state, in particular how the state’s actions affect the faith of believers. Ma and Li provide a thorough look at the negative effects of official religious policy upon the church, but they also go considerably further in examining the difficult relationship between church and government, showing specifically how persecution has actually contributed to church growth. For those who have endured the wrath of the state, the Christian faith offers what the authors call a “re-orienting worldview” that accounts for the gap between the promise of Communism and the present reality. In a word, Christianity makes sense of suffering rather than offering an escape from it, affirming God’s sovereignty in the face of injustice and giving hope for the future.
A case in point is the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. Many of the interviewees quoted in the book referenced the June 4th incident as a turning point in their spiritual lives. Detached emotionally from the party-state they had hoped would bring reform to China, and disillusioned by the government’s violent actions, they embarked on a faith search born out of their hopelessness. Of the many who found Christ, the highest concentration was among exiles, who, once they were outside China, were able to piece together the events of Tiananmen using information that would not have been available in country. They also encountered Chinese Christians, including fellow dissidents, who met them on their spiritual journey.
Ma and Li return to this interplay between believers inside and outside China as they address the role of foreign Christians in the development of China’s urban church. As they point out, a considerable number of believers in urban congregations trace their conversions back to the influence of foreign Christian teachers and other professionals, thousands of which have served in China since the 1980s. The spiritual legacy of these foreign workers is, in the minds of the authors, somewhat mixed. Due to their desire to remain low profile, these de facto missionaries most often engaged in one-on-one evangelism, resulting in significant numbers of conversions but leaving individual believers as “orphans.” Those who did grow in their faith would eventually need to be “re-churched” through a trial-and-error process of meeting other Chinese believers and gradually appreciating the difference between normal church life and the often superficial worship and teaching they had experienced in college fellowships. Because follow up and systematic training were inadequate, the churches that eventually emerged lacked denominational structure, accountability, and the ability to resolve conflicts. A culture of secrecy made collaboration among individual congregations difficult. Beneath the surface of burgeoning urban congregations that seemed to signal a new era in Chinese Christianity lay an absence of unity and an undeveloped theological infrastructure.
Going deeper into the resulting organizational culture, Ma and Li survey the social, political, and economic factors that contributed to the unique development of the urban congregations. They trace the growth of the churches’ social activism, beginning with the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, and its forays into areas such as Christian education and ministry to women and families. They also examine the rise of state-led nationalism as it affects the church, and the thorny issue of Christians’ relationship to the Communist Party, particularly the church’s response when Party members become believers. A chapter on Calvinism explains the widespread acceptance of Reformed theology, arguably the most prominent theological stream in the urban church, which provides a system of belief that is intellectually satisfying, relevant to believers’ personal lives and to society, and able to address the practical issues of church life.
A recurring theme in Ma and Li’s critique of the contemporary urban church, not only here but in other writing as well, is the inability of Christian leaders to escape China’s pervasive political culture. While some may see themselves as taking a prophetic stand against the rigid hierarchy and paternalistic exercise of power that have characterized Chinese rule consistently from dynastic times until today, these leaders often end up exhibiting the same characteristics. Allowing that some aspects of Calvinism have actually encouraged a dogmatic, authoritarian mindset, Ma and Li nonetheless note with some optimism that a less legalistic strain of Reformed teaching, emphasizing grace, is now gaining traction in the urban church and could help to counter the traditional leadership excesses.
With its specific focus on the emerging urban unregistered church, the book does not delve too deeply into Christian life in the government-sanctioned churches under the Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM). The authors do, however, cover the history of the TSPM and also dedicate a chapter to examining, in the context of the infamous Wenzhou cross removals in 2014, its relationship to the government. While the authors conducted the bulk of their research in Chengdu and Shanghai, they balance their observations with references to other cities. They also offer a helpful sociological analysis of the very different church cultures in their two cities of focus, reinforcing the point that no one church or city can speak for all of China.
In the brief time since Ma and Li concluded their research, the space for religious activity has shrunk considerably. China’s leaders have redoubled their efforts to put stray expressions of Christianity back into the box. Many of the churches referred to in the book have been forced to stop meeting or have broken up into small groups in order to avoid confrontation with authorities. The clampdown on religious publishing that was becoming evident in 2017 has intensified. A growing urban church that has been navigating uncharted waters for nearly two decades now faces new challenges. Surviving the State, Remaking the Church provides an indispensable guide for understanding what has brought China’s urban Christians to this point and recognizing the critical issues they grapple with as they look ahead to an uncertain future.