The sinicization of religion is not merely a Communist goal; the desire to free religious practice from foreign influence has been a theme in Chinese society since its earliest encounters with the West. Throughout its history, every Christian or religious advance into China was supported, tolerated, or prohibited depending on how it aligned with imperial objectives. Religions that did not fit were proscribed and persecuted.
From the beginning, Chinese intellectuals worried about preserving indigenous religions (Taoism and Confucianism). The 1920s brought an anti-Christian movement that coincided with the peak of Protestant missions. There were also officially tolerated initiatives directed at foreign religions, such as the Boxer Rebellion in 1900.
Following the Communist victory and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, foreign Christians were expelled and Chinese churches were brought under party control through the Three-Self Patriotic Movement Committee. The name of this committee itself reflects a sinicization attempt: Churches in the new China were to rid themselves of foreign influence and be self-funding, self-propagating, and self-governing. Registered churches are still today referred to as “Three-Self” churches.
Since then, grassroots efforts have emerged to develop and promote Chinese theology—an indigenization effort that most in the West would see as necessary. But, according to Mary Ma, a mainland Chinese scholar and author of the book Surviving the State, Remaking the Church: A Sociological Portrait of Christians in Mainland China, “in the political realm, whenever the regime decides to tight up authoritarian control, it resorts to the need for sinicization, and in the political realm, anti-foreign sentiments fluctuate with popular suspicion against the invasion of western ideologies.”
In other words, conforming religion to party values (socialism) has never not been a goal. Enforcement and implementation wax and wane depending on the needs of the party-state. The needs are higher now, so it has been trotted back out.
We might even attach the labels of indigenization or contextualization, which are highly valued in Western missiology. But we also see the need for the issue to be debated and formed within the church, and there is evidence of that happening. What makes this different, and so off-putting, at least to Westerners who start with the assumption of the separation of church and state, is that it is being led by an atheistic party-state that starts with the assumption that it has the right to control every aspect of society and culture, including religion.
A variety of responses have emerged among registered and unregistered churches in China. In many ways, the sinicization of religion campaign has little impact on the unregistered house churches, since they are not under government supervision (from the government’s perspective, that’s the crux of the problem). In the wake of the harassment and persecution faced by high-profile house churches and leaders, some have chosen to speak out. A September 2018 letter to the government has now been signed by over 400 pastors from over 20 provinces across China. Other Christians disagree with this pushback and instead find creative ways to continue to worship and practice their faith despite increasing government pressure.
Pastors in registered churches are more directly affected, as they are required to spend inordinate amounts of time attending meetings and interfacing with local government and party officials. But there’s a disconnect between how the government views sinicization and how the pastors view it. The government aim is control and alignment with socialism, while pastors see it as a positive opportunity for the church.
“To them, it means putting a Chinese face on Christianity. It means much the same as contextualization, something missionaries have advocated for a long time,” said Wayne Ten Harmsel, a former Calvin College professor who spent 12 years in China and interviewed pastors for a book about registered churches. “It has to do with such basics as singing indigenous songs, using Chinese examples and stories as sermon illustrations, tailoring the church’s teaching and preaching to address the problems and culture of contemporary society.”
Because of the government’s efforts at controlling religion, the church in China has faced decades of opposition and restrictions; yet it has grown and flourished in creative ways. Things have begun to change, though, and opposition and restrictions are increasingly ideological and focused on the realm of beliefs and values. At the same time, due to technological advances (big data, artificial intelligence, facial recognition), the power and opportunity of the party-state to control religious activities down to the individual level have vastly increased.
The coming years will be an important time to see how these stated policies will be implemented and to stand in prayer with our brothers and sisters in China as they write a new chapter of Chinese church history. We see the need for believers to pray:
For those of us in the West who are alarmed about recent developments in China, a reminder from a Christian brother is in order: “Some people view this time to be a winter for Chinese Christians. In fact, it has been winter since Pentecost, but we are always looking forward to spring.”