After decades of suspicion, suppression, and outright control of Christians, China's Communist Party may be softening its hostility toward religion. For China's underground Protestants, greater religious freedom would be a historic answer to prayer and an unprecedented opportunity.

Specifically, Chinese leaders may soon drop the requirement that, as part of the normal registration process, Protestant congregations must join the Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), which Communist Party members oversee. The TSPM's goals are for churches to be self-sufficient, free of foreign control, and capable of managing their own growth. But close supervision of the TSPM has kept the registered church in a communist cage. Because of sharp limits on evangelism, publishing, and church construction, many Protestant pastors refuse to join the TSPM. Consequently, they have suffered, and some have been martyred.

According to recent estimates, Christianity in China is growing at a rate of 7 percent per year. At that rate, millions of Chinese are making new professions of faith each year, and the great majority of them are connected to unregistered churches.

Some scholars believe that in this century China will become a potent global force for Christianity. But there are great spiritual needs inside China itself. "Twenty-first-century China will have the biggest Christian population in the world. At the same time, the Chinese [people] still constitute the world's largest concentration of unevangelized people," says John K. Chang of the missions agency GO International.

Christians in registered and unregistered churches should strive to redefine their relationship with China's political leadership. It is not out of the question for China to grant equal legal protections to both state-associated churches and independent churches. Communist worries about foreign control of Chinese Christians are groundless. The trend in modern missions has been to strengthen indigenous church leadership.

The greatest hurdle is political. Communists want an apolitical church. But such a church cannot fulfill its full mandate, which includes advocating for public morality and social justice.

China should make several changes to prove its commitment to religious freedom:

  • Release the dozens of Chinese Christians imprisoned as a result of religious activity.
  • Draft a new national religion law based on international norms for religious freedom.
  • Compensate congregations for property damaged in past crackdowns.
  • Start serious talks with the U.S. government on ways to protect religious expression.
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  • Investigate and prosecute local abuses of religious rights. In Henan, for instance, official mistreatment of churches has been widespread.

Christian distrust of China's leadership runs deep. A Shanghai house-church leader recently expressed his hunch that dropping the registration requirement may be a prelude to a crackdown. He told Compass Direct news service, "I suspect all that is ahead is a possible change in anti-religious strategy, rather than a change in religious policy." We trust, however, that a significant policy change is occurring that will allow religion to flourish in China.

Related Elsewhere

Since this editorial was written, five founders of an underground Christian church were sentenced to death in China.

The London Guardian and Far Eastern Economic Review also have articles on China's apparent moves to be friendlier to religon.

Also recently appearing on our site:

Communists May Recognize Independent ChristiansCommunist leaders in China are preparing to give formal recognition to unregistered religious groups, but house-church leaders are wary. (November 19, 2001)
Changes in China's Religious Policy Imminent?Several respected house-church leaders consulted about official registration. (November 16, 2001)

See Christianity Today'sBearing the Cross article on persecution in China.

The State Department's 2001 International Religious Freedom Report on China said the "government seeks to restrict religious practice to government-sanctioned organizations and registered places of worship and to control the growth and scope of the activity of religious groups."

Freedom House gives an overview of rights in China.

Human rights groups have voiced strong protest against Beijing's selection to host the 2008 Olympic Games. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom statement depicts its deep disappointment with the Olympic decision.

Human Rights Watch answers questions concerning Beijing's selection and issued a press release challenging sponsors to make the games a force of change. The group's 2001 World Report on China said it "showed no signs of easing stringent curbs on basic freedoms."

China must uphold principles of the Olympic charter, says Amnesty International.

For more articles on religion in China, see Christianity Today'sWorld Report.

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