December was the most challenging yet most hopeful month for Christians in China.
Before Christmas, the 11th National Chinese Christian Congress (NCCC) was held in Beijing. The quinquennial congress elected new leaders of the officially sanctioned National Committee of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement and the nominal China Christian Council. Top political advisor and politburo member Wang Huning charged these groups with strict oversight of churches and with maintaining an unwavering allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Under the party’s instruction, the NCCC passed a new five-year plan to “continue to promote the Chinanization of Christianity and run Chinese churches well in accordance with the socialist society.” Meanwhile, the new and sweeping Patriotic Education Law, which took effect on January 1, requires religious leaders to conduct patriotic education and guide their religion by the socialist principles of the CCP.
Persecution continues to be real
Throughout December, the authorities once again tried hard to contain and curb Christmas celebrations inside and outside churches, prohibited students and others from participating in Christmas activities, and detained some house church leaders to prevent them from organizing congregational gatherings.
Yet most churches, both the officially sanctioned churches and unregistered house churches, held Christmas Eve and Christmas Day worship services. The online evangelistic galas by Beijing Zion Church and other house churches on Zoom and other platforms are of high artistic quality. Christians shared discreetly on social media that church leaders baptized a number of new believers despite the current “bitter winter” for churches in China.
This “winter” started just over five years ago. In December 2018, party-state officials and police shut down Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, detained several church leaders, and, a year later, sentenced its pastor, Wang Yi , to nine years in prison for the crimes of “inciting subversion of state power” and “illegal business activity.” This crackdown was part of the campaign to eradicate jiating (家庭, “house”) church congregations under a new policy on religion.
This policy, launched in 2017 and officially named Zhongguo hua (中国化), is characteristic of Xi Jinping’s reign and is distinct from his predecessors’ “mutual adaptation” and “harmonious society” philosophies. Western media and academia commonly translate this term as “Sinicization,” but this is interpretive, inaccurate, and misleading. Sinicization means assimilation into Chinese culture, especially the language, customs, norms, and national identity of the Han majority in China proper. However, the primary goal of Zhongguo hua is not cultural assimilation but political domestication—to ensure submission to the Chinese Communist party-state.
“When the terminology is incorrect,” as Confucius says, “communication will be hindered.” For this reason, I suggest a more literal translation—Chinafication—for the current Zhongguo hua policy of religion. Some writers have used Chinafication to describe China’s influence in finance and markets or as a development mindset that entails heavy governmental intervention. In short, Chinafication is the religious policy under Xi Jinping that ensures the submission of religions to the party-state.
Church and state in today’s China
Many people in the West may not know that in the Chinese Communist political system, the party’s policy is superior to state laws and trumps the constitution. The Chinafication policy has led to the promulgation of a series of administrative regulations and measures, including the vastly expanded Regulations of Religious Affairs that took effect in 2018.
These regulations require all churches to dissolve unless they register with the religious affairs bureau and submit to the supervision of the Christian Three-Self Patriotic Movement Committee, the extended arm of the party-state control over Protestant Christianity.
Since 2018, Chinese authorities have shut down large congregations of jiating churches that refused to submit, including the well-known Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, Zion Church in Beijing, Rongguili Church in Guangzhou, and Xunsiding Church in Xiamen. The leaders of openly defiant jiating churches have been punished with physical harassment, travel restrictions, heavy fines, eviction of their residences, criminal detentions, and prison terms. Some other jiating church pastors have received prison terms of up to fourteen years.
Instead of either submission or confrontation, most of the jiating churches have resorted to breaking into smaller groups for gathering discreetly. Since the 2000s, some jiating churches have attempted to go public by registering with the government without joining the Three-Self Patriotic Movement Committee so that they can have an open religious life. Now, they have no choice but to return to the underground again.
The Chinafication policy applies to all five major religions that the party-state has allowed to operate legally in the reform era since 1979, including Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestant Christianity. When Daoism, the only religion that originated in China and remains very much Chinese, must go through Zhongguo hua as well, it becomes even more evident that the policy is not so much about Sinicization but primarily about making the religious organizations submissive to the party-state.
Religious venues are required to raise the national flag and display “patriotic” posters such as “Love the party, love the state, and love the religion.” The Chinafication measures for Christianity and Islam are more extreme, demolishing many churches and mosques and converting some to traditional Chinese architectural styles.
Besides eradicating jiating churches, the Chinafication policy is mainly carried out through religious associations that are under the direct control of the CCP’s United Front Work Department and the State Administration for Religious Affairs (the latter has been folded into the former since 2018). In 2018, each of the five religious associations (Buddhist, Daoist, Islam, Catholic, and Protestant) made a five-year plan to implement the Chinafication policy.
The Protestant committee’s five-year plan includes educating Christian leaders and seminary students about the so-called core socialist values, reinterpreting the Bible in Chinese cultural terms, and preparing to retranslate the Bible. The committee has organized a series of symposiums, preaching contests, and article awards to promote the Chinafication of Christianity.
The word Zhongguo hua has been in the Chinese lexicon since the 1980s, but its meaning has evolved. It was first applied to justify the departure of Chinese Marxism (i.e., Maoism) from the original formulation by Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin, and for Deng Xiaoping’s turning to capitalism under the name of “a socialist market economy with Chinese characteristics.”
However, the only characteristic that has persisted in the reform era is the undisputable position of the CCP as the ruling party. During the thought liberation period in the 1980s and 1990s, some scholars of religion also applied this word to describe the long process of Buddhism becoming absorbed into Chinese culture. Those scholars debated whether Buddhism lost its religious mandate when it became entirely submissive to the imperial authorities in the Song Dynasty (A.D. 960–1279) and after.
However, the rapid rise of Christianity in China alarmed some Communist officials and Marxist theoreticians. They feared that Christianity was becoming the single dominant religion and that it could be the biggest threat to Communist rule, just like the Taiping Rebellion to the imperial rule of the 1850s and 1860s. Militant atheists made fierce attacks on the religious affairs governance department for its lapse of control. Academic research on Christianity in China, which is also under the leadership of CCP, seemingly offered a tacit endorsement of tighter government control.
Around the time when Xi Jinping ascended to the top position of the party as general secretary in 2012, some Chinese scholars of religion, such as Zhang Zhigang, a professor of religious studies at Beijing University, and Zhuo Xinping, the director of the Institute of World Religions at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, made public calls for Christianity to change toward Zhongguo hua.
They argued that indigenization, localization, or contextualization of Christianity was inadequate and misguided in addressing the severe challenges in China. Instead, they said Christianity must Zhongguo hua—that is, must be domesticated—just like Buddhism in the past. They suggested sending Buddhist scholars and monks to Christian churches to teach about their successful history of Chinafication.
The religious affairs officials responded to their calls enthusiastically, and the Christian Three-Self Patriotic Movement Committee leaders consented. After a few years of experiments and concerted efforts by Marxist theoreticians, religious affairs officials, and Three-Self church leaders, Xi Jinping adopted this slogan for the first time in 2015. At the National Conference on Religious Work in 2016, Xi asserted that all religions must move toward Zhongguo hua. Ultimately, Xi sealed it as the characteristic of his religious policy at the 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in 2017.
After that, all factions of the party-state and academics, including militant atheists, fell in line. However, their interpretations of Zhongguo hua vary widely. While the interpretation of hardliners for domestication has prevailed in policy implementation in the last five years, others have been emphasizing cultural understanding. Some scholars have even turned the crisis into opportunities, such as expanding classical studies or comparative research on the holy scriptures of multiple religions.
Richard Madsen, a sociologist of religion at the University of California San Diego, distinguishes two kinds of Sinicization, arguing that the Sinicization from below, as initiated by believers, has been happening all along. In contrast, the Sinicization from above, as campaigned by the state, has always had the particular political agenda of the ruling party. I believe it will reduce confusion if the latter kind is translated as Chinafication.
Chinese Christians, either in the officially approved Three-Self churches or underground jiating churches, do not oppose the real Sinicization of Christianity, including the cultural assimilation, social indigenization, and theological contextualization of Christianity in contemporary China.
They have made substantial achievements, including the effective use of the modern-day Chinese language, the selective adoption and transformation of traditional customs, and the reinterpretation of Chinese traditional spiritual terms and notions in light of Christianity.
My recent CT piece recommending five books on the Sinicization of Christianity in China are only a tiny sample of writings documenting the development. As a matter of fact, Christianity has been so well Sinicized that it has become appealing to ever more Chinese people. Within decades, China will likely have more Christians than any other country.
The future of Chinese house churches
More than a year has passed since Xi started his third term in October 2022. The initial five-year plans of the national religious associations expired. Not until mid- or late December 2023 did the religious associations release the second set of five-year Chinafication plans. The new Christian plan begins with a preamble about limited progress in implementing the previous five-year plan, including insufficient attention, superficial responses, and a lack of capable people equipped with enough knowledge of Chinese traditional culture to do scriptural expositions. The new plan includes a long list of measures for implementing Chinafication. What measures will be enforced in the coming years remains to be seen.
Five years ago, I asked this question in Christianity Today: “Will Chinese house churches survive the latest government crackdown?” My answer now, based on my observations, is a resounding yes.
Indeed, it has become extremely difficult for jiating churches to hold in-person congregational worship services with attendance in the hundreds, but not impossible for attendance in the dozens. The desire to congregate is so strong that some jiating churches have resorted to a guerrilla strategy of changing the worship venue frequently. Their gatherings, if found out by the police and religious affairs officials, may be disrupted and dismissed. Their leaders may be detained or fined. However, they have held on to the teaching of “not giving up meeting together” (Heb. 10:25).
Meanwhile, many jiating churches have maintained and expanded online worship services and prayer meetings before, during, and after the COVID-19 lockdowns. I have seen many Christian meetings on Zoom with hundreds of participants, sometimes in the thousands. More importantly, they have continued to baptize new believers and plant new churches.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Chinese Christians in rural areas held daily prayer meetings at 5 a.m. Those prayer meetings are believed to have fueled the revivals that swept the vast land. Now, Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, in addition to its Sunday worship services and evangelistic meetings, has organized an online daily prayer meeting at 5 p.m. Pastor Wang Yi and other prisoners usually get their yard time then, and are thus able to pray simultaneously with those outside the prisons.
More and more people in other parts of China and beyond have joined the 5 p.m. prayer meeting. They believe the concerted fervent prayers will change hearts, minds, churches, communities, nations, and the world.
Fenggang Yang is a professor of sociology and the founding director of the Center on Religion and the Global East at Purdue University. He is the author ofReligion in China: Survival and Revival under Communist Rule.