On 5 February, billions of people across China will celebrate the Chinese New Year. Lanterns, dumplings and celebrations will herald the year of the pig – a year of wealth and fortune. But for Christians in China, the new year will bring great scrutiny and persecution.
Last year, 20 million Christians in China experienced persecution. Open Doors estimates it is now 50 million – that’s half of all Christians in China. In fact, China has jumped dramatically on the Open Doors World Watch List – the ranking of the top 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian. It moved up 16 places from number 43 to 27, a clear indication that the tide has turned for Chinese believers.
The government has had Religious Affairs Regulations in place to curb Christianity since the 1980s. But the laws were only enforced sporadically with decreasing severity. The Chinese church is known for caring for marginalised groups in society such as orphans, the homeless and the underprivileged. In recognition of this, the government has allowed Christians relative freedom the last 15 years. In that time, churches have grown, some even have congregations in the thousands.
But the Communist Party’s membership has plateaued at around 89 million, while the church is 97-million strong and growing. The government is worried. It was announced in 2017 that the Religious Affairs Regulations would be looked into, and in February 2018 the Chinese government authorised their changes and immediately began enforcing them.
The larger, more outspoken and influential a church is, the greater the risk of interference from the authorities. Churches in Henan and Zhejiang provinces (the birthplace of major house church networks) are being targeted and shut down as an example to the rest of the country.
Many churches are defiant in the face of these new regulations. Others are taking precautions
Open Doors has heard reports from inside China that landlords are being pressured by local authorities to terminate rental contracts with churches. Some are being fined crippling amounts for offences such as inadequate fire safety equipment. There are strict guidelines for crosses displayed on churches.
Many local authorities have turned a blind eye to these regulations but are now demanding that crosses are made smaller, removed from rooves and painted the same colour as the building so as not to draw attention. Churches have even been raided, their Bibles and Christian material confiscated, and pulpits defaced.
In order to stop a new generation of passionate Christians, children’s church, youth groups and camps are forbidden. Churches have even been ordered to place signs at their entrance forbidding anyone under 18from entering.
The government is not (yet) trying to stamp out religion completely. Instead, it sees the church as a useful arm for increasing citizen loyalty to President Xi Jinping’s ideology. The aim is ‘sinicization’ of religion – making it fit smoothly with the Communist line. There are plans to ‘contextualise’ the Bible to fit with Chinese culture. Some churches have been told to fly the Chinese flag higher than the cross and to sing the national anthem before services.
Many churches are defiant in the face of these new regulations. Others are taking precautions: when a church was closed down in western China, the members took their meetings to the street; they now worship in local parks – singing for the public to hear and handing out tracts after the service. Others are still meeting but have split into multiple smaller gatherings. One group of Christians in a major city left to go back to their home villages, where they are now spreading the gospel and planting churches.
So far, the regulations have mostly targeted Christian practices which aren’t central to the gospel, for instance, how crosses are displayed. There’s a sense that vigilance is needed but the heart of the gospel has been untouched. Xi Jinping may be simply forcing smaller churches to spring up. As a result, more people could turn to faith.
But the laws may still be tightened, or enforcement may become more severe. Christian leaders have worked hard to ensure that Christians are law-abiding citizens who pray for their country and its leaders. If religion is curbed to the extent that it compromises the gospel, Christians will have to make a difficult choice, whether they follow God’s law or Xi Jinping’s. The church in China is facing uncertain times. The increased pressure could refine it and increase its reach. Or, as many fear, it could once again be driven underground.
As Chinese Christians welcome in the new year, unsure of how their faith will be tested and their freedom curbed, let’s stand with them in prayer. 2019 is the year of the pig. According to Chinese tradition, the pig is characterised by energy and enthusiasm. Let’s pray this year that Christians won’t grow weary in the face of persecution but will continue to serve God with zeal and passion, despite the changing tides around them.
This article first appeared on the Evangelical Alliance.