Imagine you search your favorite online marketplace to purchase a Bible and nothing shows up. No result. As if the scripture did not even exist. Such is the surreal scene that many Chinese citizens have found themselves in since their government barred online retailers from selling the Holy Book. After the ban was announced, searches came up empty on major retail platforms like Amazon, Taobao, and JD. This is just the latest in a string of repressive incidents that should instigate a call to action among Christian communities in the West that have been surprisingly muted as China’s religious abuses have ramped up.
The Chinese state has had a tumultuous relationship with organized religious belief since it became the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The Chinese Communist Party is officially atheist. During Premier Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, thousands of Christians were killed. The Party has slowly loosened its restrictions over time, but not without conditions: churches are expected to register with the state, which controls decisions on doctrinal interpretation and leadership appointments with the overarching intention of making sure that Christian theology is practiced as a support to communism, not a challenge.
Surprisingly, Christianity in China is at a high ebb, with perhaps upward of 100 million adherents, many of them Protestants. The church is roughly split between state-registered institutions and “underground” churches. Showing the power of the Christian message, underground churches that forego state recognition can be demolished, and their members risk arrest and harassment.
It is precisely Christianity’s size and influence that Chinese President Xi Jinping fears. Xi desires that individuals develop a spiritual-esque relationship with the Communist Party and its goals. This was recently shown by the regime’s new social credit system. This system will score every citizen based on actions they partake in that are deemed acceptable or unacceptable by the party. This has come lockstep with China’s “panopticon” model of surveillance, an Orwellian system that monitors individuals almost constantly.
To Xi, unregulated Christianity is an unwanted import of Western philosophy, a philosophical and practical challenge that threatens his revisionist project. The tremendous speed at which Christianity has grown in China has created an organizing force and sphere of influence outside state control. The genie is out of the bottle. Banning Bibles from online marketplaces is just one step in Xi’s crackdown on Christianity and other religions deemed threatening to the regime.
For example, Beijing kicked off 2018 by destroying the Golden Lampstand Church, which had been one of the country’s largest megachurches with 50,000 members. Authorities dynamited their house of worship for not being properly registered. The church cost nearly $3 million to build, and contributions came mostly from members hailing from one of China’s poorest regions.
There are also concerns that the Catholic Church may appease the Chinese government’s efforts to control the process of selecting church leaders. In January, the Holy See, in exchange for retaining a voice in the process of bishop selection, asked two underground Chinese bishops to stand aside to make way for bishops more acceptable to Beijing. In the aftermath of this offer, the Chinese government announced it had no interest in allowing any outside interference in the selection of bishops. Clearly, accommodating a ruler like Xi is unlikely to end well, and could open the door to more invasive requests.
Even more damning, China’s growing hegemony will work to spread Xi’s illiberalism and poses a threat to religious practice in many other countries. For example, China has kept the Kim regime afloat in North Korea, which—despite maintaining fake churches in Pyongyang as a sop to international calls for religious freedom—supports extensive suppression of Christians. This drives home the importance of the United States’ leadership around the world: if the US does not stand up to China’s authoritarian push to remake Asia, these methods of social control and hostility toward Christianity will be exported into other countries.
Such a record necessitates another question: why is the plight of Chinese Christians not getting more attention from their brethren in the US?
Some of it may be because Beijing has increasingly become associated with liberalization as it has opened up its markets to trade in the last two decades. And in a world where the Islamic State is beheading Christians for their faith, the Chinese cutting nearly 2,000 crosses from churches seems more benign and unfortunately receives less attention from the media.
It is incumbent upon the Christian community in the US to bring these issues to the attention of our elected leaders and the world. American Christians should encourage their congregations to make connections with sister parishes in China and should lobby their elected officials to condemn Beijing’s infringements on religious rights, which have also been stepped up on non-Christians. Further, expanding spheres of religious influence in China is consonant with US interests and values, and our foreign policy should be directed toward protecting those communities.
This can be accomplished in part by using the bully pulpit of the US presidency and the US seat on the UN Security Council to encourage China to respect the innate rights of its citizens. President Trump has shown a willingness to confront China over its abuses of international norms, and highlighting religious persecution is an important addition to this agenda. Thankfully, there is still time to prevent this backslide. Chinese Christians need our support, and now is the time to lend a much-needed helping hand.
Alex Entz is a Fellow with The Public Interest Fellowship in Washington, DC.
Alexander W. Titus is a Fellow with The Public Interest Fellowship in Washington, DC. He frequently writes on politics, policy, and the Middle East. You can follow Alexander on twitter at @Atitus7 and contact him at alexwtitus.com.
Photo Credit: Golden Lampstand Church being demolished in China. Screenshot via YouTube and China Aid.