China in the News and the Good News in China

Copyright (1982) Board of Publications, Christian Reformed Church in North America, reprinted from the October 4, 1982 issue of the Banner, with permission. Written by Dr. Paul G. Schrotenboer, general secretary of the Reformed Ecumenical Synod, and Bernice Schrotenboer, a retired foreign language teacher.

In September, the 12th Congress of the Communist Party in China went through a massive shakeup as the pro-Maoists were purged or forced into early retirement. This will mean more openness to the West, more trade, and more Chinese students in Europe and North America. 

With one-fourth of the world’s population, China can’t help being in the public’s attention. Furthermore, with the raising of the bamboo curtain, even more attention is being given of late to what happens in China. Moreover, Christians who have prayed for decades that God would again open China to the gospel have a special reason to be China watchers. They wonder how the church is faring. 

How to report on China: an ecumenical voice. Raymond Fung, secretary for evangelism of the World Council of Churches, told a group of religious magazine editors at Wheaton College in May 1982 that when one writes on China, he or she should not only get the facts straight but also put them into China’s context. Only then can they be rightly understood in a Western context. 

China’s anti-religious activity, he observes, is not specifically anti-Christian, for Buddhism and Islam are much stronger than Christianity, and they too fall under the state’s regulation. Further, China is a tightly controlled society in which no activities are unrelated to the government, no public discussion occurs without reference to party policies, and no one can hold public meetings except the Communist Party and its affiliates. 

In reporting on China, ecumenicals tend to praise the government-recognized Three-Self People’s Movement (TSPM) in China and accept the latter’s downgrading of the house churches. Evangelicals tend to take the opposite approach and suspect the TSPM of compromising with the Party and of claiming that authentic Christianity is to be found in the tens of thousands of “congregations” meeting in homes. 

What religious liberty? An evangelical view. In the China Prayer Letter of the Chinese Church Research Center of Hong Kong, John C. Wang warns against thinking that full religious freedom has returned to China. He reports that the Communist Party is applying the following measures to keep the churches under state control: 

(1) No private contact with foreigners. Contacts between a Chinese church and a foreign religious group outside the TSPM’s supervision is discouraged. On the surface, the TSPM is doing this to protect Chinese sovereignty, but actually it is meant to prevent outside stimulation for evangelistic expansion. 

(2) No evangelistic activity outside the church. Any religious activity that takes place outside the appointed places of worship (which means the Three- Self churches) is frowned upon by the TSPM, and violators could be arrested. 

(3) No religion for people under 18. Adults who are already “hopeless” in religion are permitted to continue in their faith, but preaching to children under 18 is forbidden. 

(4) No religion for party members. Although the constitution grants all citizens the freedom of religious belief, party members are forbidden to join the church. 

(5) No contribution or assistance from abroad. Since all Three-Self pastors are paid by the TSPM, home meetings are forbidden to collect offerings or accept any assistance from abroad. 

(6) No imported Bibles. Despite the deplorable scarcity of Bibles in China, the Chinese customs are very strict in searching and detaining Bibles carried in by travelers to China. 

Although the constitution grants the people freedom of religious belief, this does not include freedom of religious propagation. 

One can go a step farther than Raymond Fung and say that in ascertaining the facts one must know the reporter, for one’s viewpoint (here, ecumenical or evangelical) largely controls how one reports the facts in their China context. 

The official position. China’s draft constitution Article 35 says about religious freedom, “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief. No organs of state, public organizations, or individuals shall compel citizens to believe in religion or not believe in religion. Nor shall they discriminate against citizens who believe, or do not believe, in religion. The state protects legitimate religious activities. No. one may use religion to carry out counter-revolutionary activities, or activities that disrupt public order, harm the health of citizens, or obstruct the education system of the state. No religious affairs may be dominated by any foreign country.” 

It will be a step forward for all of us who are concerned about God’s people in China to note China’s official position on religion. This will help us to understand the progress and the pitfalls of the good news in China. However, we will also need the China watchers to tell us what it means for the church in China.