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China has introduced the new seven-man team that will run the world's most populous country for the next 10 years.
The once-a-decade transition in the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Chinese Communist Partyis important to China's 80 million Christians. They have enjoyed greater openness and toleration during the past 20 years, yet still must navigate a complicated relationship with a government which has no tolerance for competition.
To discuss what the new Standing Committee leadership means for China's Christians, Open Doors News (ODN) turned to Brent Fulton, Ph.D and president ofChina Source, a Hong Kong-based nonprofit formed in 1997.
ODN: What element of the transition do we need to be most aware of?
Fulton: The fact that they're having this Party Congress and moving toward a more orderly, more rational way of governing the country is significant. I think it bodes well for Christians and everybody in China—if they're able to really follow through on what China's trying to do.
ODN: What significance for Christians is to be found in the survival of the position of propaganda czar in the Standing Central Committee?
Fulton:It's not surprising. … As social media in China has proliferated, people are being more vocal about their complaints, and the government is feeling more and more pressure to respond to that. At the same time, freedom of expression in China, within certain limits, has continued to grow—as long as people don't directly attack the party, get involved with politics, or do something to embarrass a leader. … And for the Christians, that has translated into not only more publishing, but also on the internet, there's just an amazing amount of Christian-generated material that is largely uncensored.
ODN:Have Christians figured out how to avoid that bright line? Or is this something likely to be tested?
Fulton:Most Christians are not political in the sense of wanting to organize, to oppose the party, or to start some other political movement outside of the party. … Back in the '80s or '90s, simply gathering in a legal gathering might have been considered political. But now there are many gatherings in China that are pretty much left untouched. … I think for the most part, believers are pretty savvy when it comes to doing this dance, to make sure they're not perceived as having political motives.
ODN: Chairman Xi said the goals for the next 10 years include improvements to education, higher incomes, and environmental protection. Religious freedom tends to correlate with education levels. Is there cause for Christian optimism in Xi's remarks?
Fulton: There's a lot of discontent among young families about the whole education system in China, which is very tech oriented and is not very holistic in its approach. Many families [seek] alternatives to that, including Christians. You've got Christians now setting up schools: primary schools, kindergarten, home-schooling networks. There's a movement of Christian families even sending high school students abroad for study in a Christian high school. And so, I think as education re-forms ... the Christians are going to be there. They're going to be involved.
ODN: Do you think religious freedom in China is at least partly a function of political reform? If the new leadership does little during the next 5 or 10 years about political reform, what will that mean for religious freedom and the rights of Christians?
Fulton:[Party leaders] know their current religious policy didn't work. But as soon as you get into the details, it becomes very messy. Even if they recognize that Christians are basically very helpful people, and if Christians were just given more freedom they would do good things, what do you do about the other religious groups? … How to open up things, but yet maintain stability, has always been a really thorny issue for them. How motivated party leaders are to really do something about it kind of depends on what else in on their plate. There's a lot going on. But ... if political reform is able to move ahead, it should bode well for the church. It should result in greater freedom and legal recognition.