What is the Communists’ strategy for dealing with churches in Red China? A veteran journalist reports on the fate of Christians and evangelism.

All activities in mainland China today are influenced by the increasing necessity being forced on the leaders in Peking of keeping the Communist revolutionary spirit alive. The recent and continuing “socialist education” campaign and the “intensify the class struggle” movement, both initiated to overcome the growing disinterest among second-generation Communists, sternly remind all concerned with education and information media of their “special charge” in molding the Communist party’s image of “worthy revolutionary successors,” and of their disappointing record to date. As one newspaper, the Canton Southern Daily, explained the task on December 18, 1964: “We must educate and influence the younger generation with proletarian thinking and socialist trends and splash bright red colour on the pure souls of children.” It is against this background that any evaluation of the state of Christianity in Communist China must be made.

While there is no evidence that the Chinese Communist authorities have reason to fear a resurgence of revitalized Christianity after fifteen years of uneasy coexistence and adjustment, there is evidence of a concern in Peking over the part religion could play in the present widespread second-generation weariness—to put it cautiously—with austerity, slogans, incessant meetings, and unproductive sacrifice. The possible threat from religion in this present phase seemed to become apparent in 1963; since the winter of that year increasing numbers of articles have appeared in Communist periodicals indicating that the leaders are aware of an unhealthy and even dangerous interest in religion.

As a professional journalist based in Hong Kong, I have found that it is one thing to collect information on broad lines of policy from China, and quite another to get first-hand authoritative reports of the political or religious situation. In seeking the following information I interviewed as many Christian leaders, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, as possible in Hong Kong and Macao, questioned recent arrivals from the mainland, and read all the official, monitored reports put out by the leading government and news agencies. But what, in my opinion, has made all the foregoing really significant has been my opportunity to talk with a former leading Chinese Communist party official who had been in charge of the Communist religious policy at a high level since the Communists came to power, but who recently escaped to Hong Kong. He has been using the code name Hsiao Feng for reasons of security.

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Hsiao Feng, a senior cadre member of the Chinese Communist party working with civil affairs and a non-religious man, was given sole responsibility for managing religious affairs in Canton when the Communists took over in 1949. What was decided in discussions in other cities, especially Peking, came to him in the form of detailed minutes and official memoranda, so that he was fully informed of Communist party treatment of religious activities throughout the whole country. Since arriving in Hong Kong, moreover, he has been receiving at least two letters a week from friends and former colleagues. He was responsible for meeting religious delegations to mainland China, for escorting them, and, of course, for briefing the various Chinese church leaders as to what their replies should be before the delegations ever set foot in China.

His primary responsibility as a senior ranking cadre member in the bureau concerned with religious affairs, he states, was to ensure the extinction of religion from Chinese society. But this was not to be brought about by “rough or severe measures.”

“[Chinese] Communists adopt another course,” Hsiao said, “by which they can derive some benefit from religions, reform the nature of religions, and make the religions serve Marxism-Leninism. Even in its most confidential documents the Chinese Communist party does not use the word ‘destroy’ or ‘ruin,’ as is also the case in purely theoretical journals or the press when religious problems are referred to.”

In support of this he quoted what Hsi Chung-hsun, vice-director of the propaganda department of the C.C.P. Central Committee, said at the first National Conference on Religious Work held in Peking in 1953:

Outright prohibition is useless; it will only hurt our Party. Religion is a form of social consciousness. If we prohibit it by administrative order, fanaticism will result, possibly bringing with it religious riots. Therefore, if we are to destroy it, we must do it gradually by other methods.

These methods were being used by the Religious Affairs Bureau when Hsiao Feng left China for Hong Kong, and still are. Briefly, his interpretation of his duties and analysis of his department’s activities in the ten years he was in charge, from 1953, is as follows:

The provisional Constitution of State had said that “the people of the People’s Republic of China shall have freedom of religious belief.” But, Hsiao says, except for regulations for the protection of religious buildings and objects of religious and cultural value, there was no detailed regulation issued by the central government (or by provincial, municipal, or district governments) for implementing this constitutional provision. “We only had a secretly understood way of dealing with religious affairs and personal interpretation of this religious policy.” The actual management of religious affairs was the responsibility of the subsection on “social organizations” of the “social affairs” section, which in turn was a section of the Civil Affairs Bureau. The only work guide the Civil Affairs officials had was Foundations of Leninism, by Stalin.

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Hsiao’s own directives to religious leaders and church workers were for them to follow the directives of the Party’s Central Committee. The three main directives were: (1) People who believe in a religion have freedom; (2) people who do not believe in religion also have freedom, including the freedom to be against religion (but religious believers were not usually allowed to hear the last phrase); (3) people have freedom to change religious belief.

In practice this meant that all religious activities of any group could be held only in that group’s place of worship—e.g., Christian activities in churches, Buddhist activities in monasteries or nunneries. The reason given for this approach was that it “protected” religious activities from being disturbed by non-religious people, and at the same time protected non-religious people from being disturbed by the religious. Thus Christians could sing hymns only in their churches, Buddhists could not liberate living creatures out of doors, and Buddhist or Taoist priests could not be engaged to conduct a ritual for the dead in a private home. Even more strictly prohibited were pilgrimages to holy places, street distribution of tracts, and street meetings.

The application of these directives resulted in a redistribution of Christians among the various denominations. A Catholic or Protestant could change his faith if he chose. One could join several groups at one time. Anyone could introduce some different “religious” idea into his church or could openly oppose the accepted doctrines, rules, and practices. Since it was impossible to obtain permission to establish a new church, the only way for any new group to be established was for it to take over the authority or position of one already in existence. According to Hsiao, the indigenous Christian Assembly (Little Flock)—a group similar to the Plymouth Brethren in the West—has been the greatest beneficiary of this movement, not only in Peking but also in other leading cities in China. The Roman Catholic Church was the most resistant, but the authority of the priests was undermined gradually and it became difficult for them to enforce discipline. For instance, it was impossible for them to enforce the rule that a Catholic should not marry a non-Catholic.

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The Three-Self Movement

When interreligious and interdenominational conflicts arose all over the country because of these directives, the officials concerned with religious affairs were instructed not to get directly involved but to take advantage of such conflicts in order to bring participants into conformity with Communist party principles. The Three-Self Movement, with its concern for self-propagation, self-support, and self-government of the churches, was under government pressures to receive no foreign funds and in every way to dissociate itself from agencies outside China. The aim was for “an autonomous church in China.” The propaganda department of the Communist party sent out an order saying: “The Party neither prohibits nor supports the development of religion, but seeks actively to lead religious people to carry out the Three-Self Movement and gradually reduce religious influence.” This policy has produced two trends of major importance to the future of Christianity in China: increasing secularization of the churches associated with the government-sponsored Three-Self Movement, and the growth of “underground home congregations,” to use Hsiao’s own term.

According to Hsiao, the bureau that deals with religious affairs held a secret “National Religious Works Meeting” every year at which the conditions and activities of every religion in the country were reported, examined, and discussed. Various policies were planned to deal with the different situations, and the conclusions were presented in a confidential document for members. Hsiao claims that by the time he left China, the emphasis of the Three-Self Movement was no longer “self-propagation, self-support, and self-government”; it now seeks to indoctrinate all priests and pastors in political and current affairs, and to make every church activity conform to government policy. The Peking leaders hope that politics will replace religion and that the church will become simply a propaganda organization.

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The conclusion of the last “National Religious Works Meeting” report was that Catholics were more united, stricter, and more conservative religiously than Protestants. The Protestants, with their many sectarian contradictions, were easier to control. The “social gospel” Protestants were enlightened, comparatively speaking; the fundamentalists were conservative and obstinate, and were opposed to the Three-Self Movement. Fundamentalist pastors were reckoned more likely to become “objects of struggle” in any political movement. Catholicism was viewed as being reactionary and obstinate, openly opposed to the Three-Self Movement, while Protestantism was seen as crafty and cunning, participating in the movement while secretly trying to upset it.

The Central Committee directive instructed each religious affairs division throughout the country to “infuse Marxist thought into positive doctrines which can be used in each religion.” This was taken to mean that each religious affairs leader had to search out influential and reliable persons—Party members, if possible—in the various churches, who, after strict tests, might be absorbed into a “hidden strength” organization. Their task would be to collect secret information about other church leaders or members, train themselves to manage church affairs, and in time replace older pastors.

The Union Theological Seminary, Peking, is supposed to be free from government control; but it is run by influential Party members, and most of the students are government-selected and are expected to carry out the above policy. Although there is a smaller proportion of Party members in Nanking Theological Seminary, the policy is still the same, and the results can be seen in the diminishing number of applicants for the ministry. The Union Theological Seminary in Canton was closed down altogether in 1960 “because of a shortage of personnel.” In their teaching, the new Communist-line graduates oppose “supernatural sermons,” especially those dealing with the “final judgment” of Catholicism, the “second coming of Christ,” and “the last days of the world” of Protestantism. The Christian Assembly (Little Flock) was ordered to “abolish its women’s meetings, its weekly breaking of bread, its personal interviews with church members before the breaking of bread, and its rule against women speaking in church.” All men and women are equal in the New China, and all Christians must now preach world peace, patriotism, love of the people, and “support for the actual world.”

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Religion On Record

The officials in charge of religious affairs keep a confidential record of every preacher and administrative worker of every religious organization. This record contains his (or her) photograph, a sample of his writing, his biography, and a list of his activities regarded as political. Catholic priests and fundamentalist pastors who “emphasize the conflicts between religion and the world, or the thought of dying for one’s religion,” with texts taken from the Bible, cannot be prohibited openly since this is their legal right (“This,” Hsiao says, “is a very difficult problem”), but they are called to the religious affairs department office to be “persuaded and educated.” They are also warned that this is being recorded against them in their report; and officials wait until they find evidence of some other misdemeanor and use all the evidence in a “determining judgment.”

The second major trend to result from the government’s religious policy is connected with the first: because of the increasing secularization of churches, there has been a proliferation of “underground home congregations.” Until 1958 there was no law against having meetings in private houses; but because of the growing number of these groups (whose exact figure was never known), and the Communist conviction that the successful early spread of Christianity in China was due to this method, it was decided to stop the spread without actual banning or persecution. Party members would go to church leaders and “persuade” them to discourage church members or persons known to be gathering in houses, to “keep the meetings in the church, since house meetings are beyond the scope of religious activities recognized by the authorities.” Hsiao told how he had closed the Kwangchow Christian Assembly when he discovered that members were distributing a pamphlet entitled “Christians and Communist Party Members,” which stated that because Christianity and Communism professed different faiths, cooperation between them was impossible. The church was declared a “reactionary group” and closed by government order. But the congregation, although scattered, began to gather in small groups in houses, while continuing to petition the municipal and central governments to restore their church to them. It was decided officially that to give them back their church would be better than to run the risk of multiplying clandestine “underground home congregations.”

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Jack Chow, Hong Kong-based correspondent for the “Voice of America,” is from mainland China and an outstanding Christian. In 1962 he wrote an article, entitled “Invisible Church on Mainland,” based on interviews with new arrivals in Hong Kong. In it he describes the growth of “home fellowship groups”—which he says are still multiplying.

One of the arrivals, the wife of a former professor at Peking University … says that there are many such small groups formed by people whose churches have been either shut down or taken over by the Communists.
They meet irregularly but not infrequently at different homes for prayer meetings, Bible study and fellowship. They preach privately whenever and wherever possible. They have won many souls who have found God a great help in time of trouble.

This widespread and significant development was confirmed to me from other very divergent sources recently. A non-Christian Chinese merchant friend of mine now living in Hong Kong who visited Peking last year called on a longtime bank-manager friend who had become a Christian at a private house meeting. In the ensuing conversation and later correspondence, my Chinese friend’s wife has become a Christian. Another Chinese doctor has just heard from her doctor brother in Sinkiang, who writes glowingly of opportunities for witness and encouraging conversions. And one of the Catholic priests I have interviewed also says that news from his former parish in Anwei Province indicates that Roman Catholics, too, are leaving the large churches for the more personal meetings in private homes, ministered to at considerable risk by Chinese priests and lay believers.

T. Leo Brannon is pastor of the First Methodist Church of Samson, Alabama. He received the B.S. degree from Troy State College and the B.D. from Emory University.

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