Christianity in China

Having recently celebrated an important religious holiday for all Christians I thought it an opportune time to expand on some of my past posts on the topic of Christianity in China.

The Communist Party of China is officially irreligious, but the Chinese government officially recognizes and accepts five religions: Protestantism, Catholicism, Islam, Taoism, and Buddhism. And all are openly practiced here.

Buddhism and Taoism, along with Chinese folk religion, are the most common. And while I admittedly know little about the core doctrine of any of them, my experiential sense is that all are practiced with ‘Chinese characteristics’, meaning only that there appears to be a wide spectrum of beliefs and practices among those who consider themselves to be practitioners of these religions.

Many common Chinese cultural beliefs and practices, including feng shui, traditional Chinese medicine, and the Chinese martial arts, in fact, are intertwined with the tenets of Taoism, so I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the Chinese are overwhelmingly ‘spiritual’ in their thinking even if they don’t adhere to prescribed behaviors of any broadly organized religion.

Statistics, however, are hard to come by and frequently disputed, as is almost anything having to do with the topic of religion anywhere in the world today. Nonetheless, a 2010 study by the Pew Research Center found that 40% of Chinese identify with Buddhism or Chinese folk religion; a categorization that I assume includes Taoism. And while 52% didn’t consciously affiliate with any defined religious belief system that is not to say they are all atheists or irreligious. While some undoubtedly are, a good many, I suspect, are both situational and varied in their beliefs and may not make the distinction between faith and religion. (Personally I don’t believe Chinese culture is conducive to any kind of Western polling, but that is another matter for another post.)

Christianity, of course, gets the most attention by the Western media. While noting again that any statistic on the topic appears to be disputed, another 2010 survey by Dr. Yang Fenggang of Purdue University’s Center on Religion and Chinese Society identified 30 million Protestants and 3 million Catholics living and worshipping in China. I have also read articles, however, that proclaim there are as many as 200 million Christians in China, far above the number of people (85+ million) who are official members of the Communist Party.

China’s critics will quickly suggest, however, that Chinese Christians live under the yoke of government regulation, and, by implication, various forms of government restriction, if not oppression. The so-called ‘house’ churches, which denounce any association with the government’s regulatory bodies, in fact, get all of the attention of the Western media, as they have in recent weeks. Inevitably these ‘illegal’ practitioners are characterized in positive terms similar to how one might characterize a French partisan in WWII or the colonial fighters of American independence.

Christianity has been in China since the 7th Century and Western Christian missionaries have been operating here since the 16th Century. Both Sun Yat-Sen and Chiang Kai-Shek, the first and second presidents of the Republic of China (post-dynasty China) were Christians. Even the Vatican recognizes the sacraments performed by Chinese Catholic clergy as licit.

Since their arrival centuries ago, however, the work of foreign missionaries and foreign governments has been intertwined. And since those Western powers at times seemed intent on enabling China’s opium addiction or carving up and colonizing the country for their own economic and political gain, it is not surprising that missionaries ultimately became the face of everything evil about foreign intervention in China, ultimately leading to the Boxer Revolution of 1899, in which foreigners in general and missionaries in particular were targeted for retribution.

Given that history it’s no surprise, therefore, that when Mao Zedong and the Communists came to power in 1949 they took a dim view of Western Christianity and viewed the missionaries who were its face to China as puppets of Western oppression and exploitation. And threw them all out. Or at least made them feel unwelcome.

Mao, however, did not ban Christianity and ultimately reached a harmonious state of mutual accommodation with Chinese Christians leaders. In 1951, Y.T. Wu (1893–1979), a prominent Chinese Christian leader, initiated the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, which promoted a strategy of ‘self-governance, self-support, and self-propagation’ in order to remove foreign influences from the Chinese churches and to assure the government that the churches would be patriotic to the newly established People’s Republic of China and not some foreign power.

Within these parameters Christianity continued to operate openly in China until the Cultural Revolution of 1966 – 1976, during which all religious expression was effectively banned. In 1979, however, the government lifted the ban on religious expression and officially restored the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, joined the following year by the China Christian Council (CCC). Together these two organizations, along with the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA) are collectively responsible for the regulation of Christianity in China.

But what does that mean, exactly?

I’m sure you would get a myriad of answers to that question depending on whom you ask. And I’m sure there are those who would vehemently assert that the very concepts of Christianity and government regulation are inherent contradictions.

But here’s what I’ve seen.

The churches must stay out of politics. Any attempt to stir up political debate would, I’m sure, be met with swift ‘regulation.’ And the churches, I am confident, cannot officially promote or endorse any religious allegiance that supersedes or compromises allegiance to the state.

Beyond that, however, government regulation appears to have had little or no impact on the liturgical beliefs and practices of any Christian church. Chinese Christians, from my experience, hold beliefs and follow practices very much in line with Christians the world over. But that’s not universal. Some house churches hold beliefs that are very much out of sync with Western Christianity.

It is very difficult to proclaim absolutes in the behavior of a bureaucracy the size of the Chinese government. As I have written on many topics, however, regulations are applied with great discretion. They are there if necessary, and in the case of environmental regulations they are now being applied without exception. In the case of religion, however, I don’t believe the government, overall, has any desire to stomp it out or persecute its practitioners.

As evidence I would point to the fact that Western missionaries are here in abundance. They currently operate NGO’s, like orphanages, disaster-relief organizations, and the like, and they are very visible and making a difference. The government, of course, knows they are largely devout Christians but generally allows them to operate without harassment. They don’t proselytize, having adopted an accommodating strategy of ‘see what I do for people and ask me why’, but within those parameters they appear to have, in most cases, earned the sincere gratitude and support of the government.

And to the critics of China’s approach to Christianity, I would point to Romans 13:1, in which Paul notes, “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities…” and goes on in 13:5 to say, “Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.”

Critics will be quick to point out that Paul was not referring to a Communist government. Perhaps. But political and social -isms are just symbolic labels. If you look at the actual behavior of the relative governments I think it would be difficult to condemn the Chinese government of today.



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An insightful, compelling introduction to the intricacies of Chinese business and life.” – Kirkus Review

To see the full review from this prestigious literary company, please click on this direct link:

“Understanding China is a “must-read” for anyone interested in culture, working with Asian businesses, visiting China or simply if you enjoy a well-written book! I worked in China in the 90’s and while I eventually understood the differences, I never understood “why” until now. Moreau does a great job explaining the “why”. Well done!!”

(Not a relative!)

“Having done business and gone on personal journeys through the Asia Pacific region, I wish I’d read a book like this first. The premise is that being happy and effective in China requires more than just learning how things operate and working within the established system. This will bring frustration and leave you ineffective because you, the Westerner, will still be looking at these cultural differences as irrational. Mr. Moreau contends that only by understanding why things are the way they are in China and in the West can a Westerner actually influence outcome in China.

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(Also not a relative!)


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