Written by Gerda Wielander.

Will Chinese Christians bring social and political transformation? This was the question at the start of my in-depth study of contemporary Christianity which led to the publication of Christian Values in Communist China. The book was published in 2013, but five years on, my answer remains the same: it’s complicated, but probably not.

The link between Chinese rights activism and Christianity has been much discussed, and it is true that a disproportionate number of human rights lawyers (now mostly disappeared) are Christians. Some of the best-known unregistered churches have become known precisely because of the way they explore and extend the limits of civil society and religious freedom under officially atheist one-party rule. In recent years, Chinese Christians, like other religious groups in China (though none as severely as Muslims), have felt the restricting of available space and the pressure to “Sinify”, that is, to visibly adopt the ideology of the day and pledge allegiance to the party and the state. Now more than ever, China needs a democratising force. Yet I remain unconvinced that this role will fall to Christians any more than to other Chinese women and men with a strong sense of justice and conviction. In my view, the main role Chinese Christians play in China’s social and political transformation is merely that of an additional significant voice in what has already become a much more diverse and pluralistic society.

When contemplating the impact that Christians may have on China’s social and political transformation it is also important to consider a number of points rarely discussed. For example, it is worth nothing that those voices which are most articulate, and which have the best connections and the highest public profile, are very conservative voices indeed. Their actions are guided by a worldview that promotes complementary gender roles and considers homosexuality a sin. They display little tolerance for those they consider to hold an ‘incorrect’ Christian belief, and only modest interest or tolerance for believers of different faiths.

As a woman, it strikes me that patriarchy and traditional gender roles and expectations are replicated and reinforced in the contemporary churches to a considerable degree. This is most obvious where church leadership, theological direction and the mission are concerned. One rarely finds female leadership figures in the contemporary Chinese churches, and one is more likely to find them within the officially sanctioned churches. The most prominent voices in the debates on Christianity are predominantly male. It appears that traditional gender roles and notions of male intellectual prowess conspire to result in a reality where the current agenda and future direction of the churches is determined by highly educated, middle-aged men whose leadership many educated women unquestioningly accept.

Generally speaking, Christians keep a low political profile. People tend to come to the Christian faith because they are looking for something; this may be an answer to a big philosophical question (what is the meaning of life?) or problem (how can China’s problems be solved?).  But in the majority of cases, it is the small, daily, physical and psychological aches and pains to which faith may be able to provide an answer. The predominance of women in China’s churches is a sign that often it is women who look for something to help them deal with the daily pressures and troubles of marriage and home life. Even though both partners may be equally well educated, it is the men who have better careers, are often party members, and who practise a lifestyle that creates tension and friction at home. In their professional and business dealings they will often encounter other men who have second or third ‘wives’ in different cities, an environment their wives find difficult to accept, yet if the women are too assertive in their condemnation of these practices, their marriages will suffer. It is such psychological dilemmas and conflicts that bring people (but mostly women) into churches, where they find solace in the preaching that you should love those who are not lovable.

The fact that many Christians meet in small gatherings is another important factor in this context which cannot only be explained by the need to hide, as Christians are not the only ones whose meetings follow such a pattern. Groups who meet for the purposes of intellectual, spiritual or psychological elevation are many and varied.  They commonly use texts as the basis for their discussions, and it may be that the text or the moral system around which groups meet is almost secondary to the inherent value of the experience of regularly meeting as a small group itself.

It seems that great psychological comfort is derived from such gatherings, which provide a fixture in the week when one will spend a couple of hours in the company of trusted and like-minded individuals engaged in ‘self-cultivation’. They constitute small moral islands of meaning in an otherwise challenging social environment in which mutual trust is at a record low. More work will need to be undertaken to understand the cultural roots of such gatherings and the psychological needs they meet.  Such studies require acceptance that these small gatherings are not exclusive to religious believers and are not necessarily dictated by government suppression, but are a chosen and preferred form for a ‘meeting of minds’.

Western media tend to focus on stories of repression when covering Chinese Christianity. But the relationship between Chinese churches and the state is not a straightforward case of domination and oppression. According to Stein Ringen, about half of the adult population in China is somehow incorporated into the party system or co-opted through membership of various organisations. We must therefore conclude that half of China’s Christian population are just as equally incorporated into the party system or co-opted into it in some shape or form. Individuals also hold multiple identities. For example, cadres can be both arms of state policy and discontented members of a destitute working class, or depressed individuals looking for spiritual solace who seek out a church.

It is therefore not surprising that we find much party discourse readily repeated and reinforced in Chinese churches. This is partly because Chinese Christians, like all Chinese citizens, are subject to relentless propaganda and the party’s control mechanisms – which, they must reasonably assume, also enters into the churches to some degree. But it is also because many of them see their overall interests safeguarded by the party-state, and hence accept the party-state’s hegemony. Unlike Tibetan Buddhists or Muslim Uyghurs, Chinese Christians have by and large benefited from the economic reforms and modernisation in China. In addition, they are also mostly Han. It is therefore not surprising that we can observe a partly unconscious and partly strategic adoption of party discourse among Chinese Christians. Finally, all those who look to Chinese Christian churches as a potential force for democratisation should not overlook the often dogmatic, patriarchal and non-democratic leadership style in Chinese churches, including in the most well-known and most politicised unregistered churches.

Therefore, to return to the question at the outset, Chinese Christians are part of, rather than drivers of China’s social and potential political transformation. Chinese Christianity – possibly more aptly referred to as Christianities – consists of a heterogeneous multitude of people and denominations who, collectively, have the potential – like the rest of the Chinese population – to bring about change and liberalisation to Chinese society.

Gerda Wielander is Professor in Chinese Studies and Associate Head of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Westminster, London. Her main research interest lies in the link of the personal and spiritual to wider social and political developments in modern and contemporary China. She is the author of Christian Values in Communist China (2013), as well as several book chapters and articles in leading peer-reviewed journals. Her most recent work includes a volume on Chinese Discourses on Happiness (2018). She is currently working on spiritual language in Chinese political discourse, and a monograph on the ‘happy society’ in China.

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