Aug 18, 2014

China’s Other Religious Problem: Christianity

Shannon Tiezzi
June 03, 2014

Signs of a crackdown on Christianity in China may increase the strength of more extremist, quasi-Christian groups.

The recent upswing in terrorist attacks in China, with militant Islamist groups like the Turkestan Islamic Party claiming responsibility, much of the conversation about religion in China is focused on Islam. Scholars debate how restrictions on the practice of Islam in Xinjiang may be related to an increase in fundamentalism (and terrorism). Meanwhile, others compare Uyghurs to China’s other largely Islamic minority group, the Hui, who are mostly integrated into Chinese society.

However, at the same time that China has declared its own “war on terror” with a year-long anti-terror crackdown, Beijing also seems poised to declare war on another religion: Christianity. Earlier this year, local authorities demolished the  massive Sanjiang church building in Zhejiang province, citing violations of building regulations.  Church members, though, said the effort was part of a coordinated crackdown on Christianity.

A New York Times article on the demolished church saw the event as the end of an informal truce between church and state in Zhejiang. Largely tolerated by the local authorities in years past, churches in Zhejiang have recently been ordered to remove crosses and other signs of the Christian faith. Others, like Sanjiang, have been demolished. The Times article, citing a provincial policy statement, says that it’s “clear the demolitions are part of a strategy to reduce Christianity’s public profile.” The policy paper explicitly urges officials to target churches using a pretext of “illegal construction,” exactly what happened to Sanjiang. “This is crucial to investigate and prosecute from the perspective of laws and regulations to avoid inviting heavy criticism,” the document said, according to NYT.

In Islam, it’s assumed that religious fundamentalists can prey upon feelings of religious oppression to convert others to their cause. Now a fringe group based on Christianity may be gaining popularity due to restrictions on the Christian faith in China. The Almighty God or Eastern Lightning group, defined by Chinese authorities as a cult, is estimated to have around one million members, despite (or perhaps because of) its alleged use of violent tactics. A 2013 profile of the group in Vice magazine highlighted the group’s tendency to convert members by infiltrating illegal house churches — places where Chinese Christians gather to avoid state meddling in their faith. These gatherings have become fertile ground for the extremist Almighty God group to recruit new members.

Like extremist Islamic groups, the Almighty God adherents have taken the Chinese state as their mortal enemy. The group, which has been around since the 1990s, gained notoriety in 2012, when members loudly declared the end of the world was coming.  Their prophecy was accompanied by public protests and demonstrations, including against the Chinese Communist Party. Since then, the CCP has redoubled its effort to eradicate the group — including, according to Vice, crackdowns on house churches. As in Xinjiang, the CCP’s attempt to weed out a violent threat may be encouraging the very radicalization Beijing hopes to prevent.

The Almighty God group is in the news again this week, with Xinhua reporting that the cult was behind the fatal beating of a Chinese woman inside a McDonald’s in Shandong. According to Xinhua, “The victim was struck to the last bit of her life, simply because she refused to give her phone number to the six cult members who were trying to recruit her.” Xinhua’s report seems to presage a new crackdown on the Almighty God group, highlighting the “unusually cruel nature of the crime.” The article emphasized that China’s crackdown on “various evil cults” is intended “to prevent tragedies just like this one.”

Popular sentiment would certainly support such a crackdown. A video of the fatal beating and an interview with one of the remorseless perpetrators have both been widely circulated online, sparking furious reactions from netizens. But such a crackdown would likely target cult members and innocent Christians alike — similar to the problem in Xinjiang, where attempts to prevent religious fundamentalism have cuaght ordinary Uyghurs in their nets. Combined with the perception of a crackdown on Christianity itself in Zhejiang, Chinese authorities may compel more people to turn towards fundamentalist, and often violent, religious visions.

While the rising threat of terrorism has turned Beijing’s attention to Islam, it’s worth remembering that, historically, Christianity has been far more dangerous to Chinese leaders. The bloody Taiping Rebellion, which claimed over 20 million lives from 1850-1864, was based upon a quasi-Christian religious movement. That rebellion is credited with hastening the demise of the Qing Dynasty. More subtly, Christianity in China is linked to Western imperialism, where foreign missionaries and soldiers worked hand in hand to increase Western influence in the region. Even today, the CCP sees the Christian faith as an avenue of Western influence into the country, and thus a potential threat to the CCP-defined and sanctioned Chinese culture. And with estimates that there could be over 160 million Christians in China by 2025, the CCP may indeed be getting nervous enough to implement an anti-Christian crackdown. Beijing will have to careful, though, lest it inadvertently strengthen the ranks of fringe groups like Almighty God.