At the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, when the Communist party defeated the Nationalists and founded the People’s Republic of China, Christians in China numbered half a million. Yet almost seventy years later, under the Chinese government’s harsh suppression, that population has reached more than sixty million, according to Fenggang Yang, a sociologist at Purdue University. The number grows by several million each year, a phenomenon some have described as a gushing well or geyser. At this rate, by 2030, Christians in China will exceed 200 million, surpassing the United States and making China the country with the largest Christian population in the world.
The beginnings of this immense growth can be traced back to two moments in contemporary Chinese history: the Cultural Revolution launched by Mao Zedong in 1966 and the Tiananmen Square massacre instigated by Deng Xiaoping in 1989. Countless innocent lives were lost as a result of these two cataclysms, and the people’s belief in Marxism-Leninism and Maoism was destroyed. These events opened up a great spiritual void, and the Chinese began searching for a new faith.
When the Cultural Revolution ended, it was as if my parents’ generation had just woken up from a dream: It turned out the man they had worshipped as the Red Sun itself was nothing but a cruel and petty dictator who led a wanton and dissolute life. My father was an engineer and Communist party member. He told me when the plane carrying Vice Premier Lin Biao, once heir apparent but then branded a traitor to Mao, mysteriously crashed into the Mongolian plains in 1971, his belief in Communism shattered along with it.
My own awakening came on June 4, 1989, in the midst of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Sixteen at the time, I listened with my family to reports of happenings that night secretly on BBC and VOA radio. When sounds of screams, cries, and gunshots poured through the speakers, all the political propaganda drilled into me at school, like “Without the Communist party, there would be no new China,” turned to dust. The night of June 4 opened a chasm between the Chinese regime and me. I swore I would never serve a government that opens fire on an unarmed and defenseless people.
Years later in Beijing, I met the Tiananmen Mothers, a group of Chinese democracy activists made up of the parents, relatives, and friends of victims of the massacre. Professor Ding Zilin, the mother of one of the victims, gave me a copy of a book she had compiled, Interviews with June 4 Victims. On the title page was handwritten: “If my son were alive, he would be like a brother to you.” Her son, Jiang Jielian, was only a year older than I was. Had I not been in the faraway province of Sichuan but in the heart of the democracy movement in Beijing, could he have been me?
After Tiananmen, Deng Xiaoping thought the key to keeping the regime in power was to make a select few wealthy. He made their economic dream of getting rich come true while sacrificing the political dream of many to live in a free society. Like a drug, however, money’s hold on people could only last so long. Man cannot live on bread alone. Beyond his material needs lie spiritual ones as well. Government leaders sensed a crisis, too. They started rummaging through the Confucianism and Buddhism they had tossed out, hoping to reclaim the former moral authority of these traditions for the party.
The tradition of teaching that began with Confucius has guided the Chinese over two millennia. Confucianism emphasizes the importance of cultivating one’s character as well as intellect, of curbing desire and keeping things in moderation, and of having goodwill toward all. “Respect any elder as you would your own elders; care for any child as you would your own children.” Such advice would be well regarded anywhere in the civilized world, echoing Jesus’s commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.” On the other hand, as a political tool, Confucianism has been used by monarchs to control and manipulate the people; they ensure absolute rule by appealing to “heaven’s mandate” and “Confucian orthodoxy.” Beginning with the Han dynasty in 141 bc, it was promulgated as the official state religion. Over time, it became more and more fixated on hierarchy and social rank as the source of all meaning and value. Only since the last century have the Chinese started to reflect critically on Confucian thought, beginning with the May Fourth Movement of 1919 when many leading intellectuals introduced Western ideas of modern science and democracy into the country, knocking Confucianism off its altar.
The Communists had strictly ideological reasons for discarding China’s Confucian heritage, but for Mao, the hatred was personal. In his youth he worked for a brief time at Beijing University Library. There he felt looked down upon by professors and students who took Confucius as their model. From this sprang his abiding hatred of intellectuals. He especially targeted them during the revolution, calling them “stinking nines,” the lowest rung of class enemies after landlords, wealthy peasants, reactionaries, bad elements, rightists, traitors, spies, and “capitalist roaders.” Many scholars and writers were subjected to physical and psychological torture by Mao; a number were driven to suicide. The supreme leader even had his Red Guards tear down Confucius’s temples and dig up his grave.
Today, by contrast, party officials clutch at Confucius like a drowning man clutches at straws. Without ever having apologized for what they did to destroy Confucianism, they now set up so-called Confucius Institutes around the world, no expense spared, to foster their agenda. The institutes offer financial assistance to scholars of China in the West, inviting them on luxury tours of the country in exchange for favorable reviews of the Chinese government. By the same token, they blacklist those critical of the administration and send their names to Chinese embassies around the world, which in turn deny them visas. The Confucius Institutes are political tools for maintaining power, not genuine sources for cultural renewal. Had the Communists not dug up his grave, Confucius would be spinning in it.
Inside China, Confucianism is undergoing a facelift of sorts as well. At the government’s behest, many universities have established Chinese studies centers dedicated to researching classical Confucian texts and history. Some students refuse to wear Western-style caps and gowns at graduation ceremonies in favor of hanfu, traditional dress originating in the Han dynasty. Young scholars write open letters condemning the popular celebration of Christmas as “forgetting one’s roots.” In Qufu, the hometown of Confucius, a number of residents wanting to observe only the Chinese New Year have opposed the construction of churches. To them, defending what they imagine to be Confucian culture is more important than religious freedom. In China, the clash of civilizations appears to be in full swing.
If Confucianism can only be considered an ethical and political philosophy but not a religion in the strict sense, then China today officially recognizes only five major religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Islam. The government has created the State Administration for Religious Affairs under its United Front Work Department to keep a close eye and a short leash on practitioners, effectively installing itself as the high priest presiding over the internal affairs of religious organizations.
This is exactly what Chinese President Xi Jinping is doing with respect to Christianity. At the National Conference on Religious Work in Beijing in April 2016, Xi declared that religion must adapt itself to China’s existing social order and accept the party’s leadership. As a leader, Xi seems rather insecure. He is suspicious of civil society and sees Christianity as a threat: It is the largest force in China outside the Communist party.
In China, home churches outnumber government-sponsored churches three to one. Against home churches that refuse to cooperate, the government has waged a large-scale cleansing campaign in the eastern coastal province of Zhejiang, particularly in the city of Wenzhou, known as “China’s Jerusalem,” where 15 percent of the population is Christian. In two years, more than two hundred churches in Zhejiang have been demolished, over two thousand crosses removed. The scene of the cross being removed from a church in Ya village, Huzhou city, on August 7, 2015, was typical. Migrant workers hired by government officials flipped over the parish car, then the police came. They arrested the pastor, intimidated parishioners, sequestered church grounds, and pepper-sprayed protesters. They charged into the church with dogs. Buddhist monks and Taoist priests hired by the officials came to chant and perform rites in front of the church. Dozens, including the church attorney, were detained and interrogated.
Zhang Kai, a human rights lawyer who had been providing legal support to churches in Zhejiang province, was taken into custody on August 25, 2015, the day before he was due to meet David Saperstein, United States ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. Six months later Zhang was forced to go on television, stating: “I have broken the law, disturbed the peace, endangered national security, and violated the ethics of my profession. I deeply regret my actions.” Emaciated, his body cruelly bent by torture, he was virtually unrecognizable. In Xi’s China, television has replaced courts of law. Televised confessions are the fashion of the day. Sadly, the Obama administration sits and watches, reluctant to put more pressure on the Chinese government and push for reform.
An internal government document obtained by the New York Times in May 2014 shows that the church demolitions are part of a larger campaign to curb Christianity’s influence on the public. According to the nine-page provincial policy statement, the Xi administration wants to put an end to “excessive” religious sites and “overly popular” religious activities, but it names one religion in particular, Christianity, and one symbol, the cross. The strategy is easy to discern: first Wenzhou, then the rest of China.
However, Chinese Christians have refused to give in. One of the phrases I have heard most often among them is: “The greater the persecution, the greater the revival.” For Christian dissidents, cross removals and church demolitions are only the prelude in a story that repeats the Passion and Resurrection of Christ. They talk about how during the Cultural Revolution, the Christian population in Wenzhou actually grew many times over.
At nearby Zengshan Church, one sees members putting into practice what they have learned in resisting the Communist administration: boulders piled outside the main gate to block vehicle access, black cloths pulled over the steel bars to prevent espionage, barbed wires set on top of the fence around the church to deter trespassers, cameras installed in every corner to detect intruders, loudspeakers in case of emergency, deadbolts on the main door leading to the cross, a special team to protect the cross with their own bodies if necessary, counterspies on various government agencies. Mao might have invented “people’s warfare,” but never did his party imagine that one day it would get a taste of its own medicine.
Since the dawn of the new millennium, Christianity in China has redirected its growth toward a hundred or so central cities throughout the country. Groups of young, well-educated, active professionals have gathered in urban churches, smashing the stereotype in many Chinese people’s minds of Christians as elderly, infirm, sick, or disabled. These churches are unable to register with the Ministry of Civil Affairs and acquire legal status, but they are a first step toward Christians assuming leadership in the development of a Chinese civil society independent of government control. They have websites, assembly locations, schedules, listservs, communiqués, and even publications, which cannot be sold but can be circulated among church members.
China’s urban churches will be a major force in its democratization, for a free society requires a civil society capable of standing up to tyranny and the abuse of power. First, though, they will have to remedy the erroneous notion, present even among some churchgoers, that religion should be a private matter. What is needed is a political theology underscoring the sovereignty of God’s law rather than separation of church and state.
Christianity has transformed how I see myself as a dissident. Over decades of involvement with the Chinese democracy movement, I have seen so-called dissidents think the same, talk the same, act the same as those from whom they are supposedly dissenting. Too often the Communists and dissidents are kindred spirits. I have also seen personal ambitions and power struggles drive friends apart and turn those who should be working with one another against one another. My fellow dissidents attach great hopes to democracy, but it is simply a better method of public management and division of powers—the least worst, as Churchill said. It is not the horizon of all human hope and longing. If one does not believe in something other than democracy, one is no better off than the Communists, making a god of a political system.
When I became a Christian, I learned to recognize myself as a sinner. In doing so, I developed a sensitivity to sin that helps me recognize evil and injustice when I see them. As I point out the tyranny of the Communist regime, I reflect on and judge myself. This interior work of repentance for my own sins has transformed my fight against totalitarianism. No longer am I merely pointing out faults in the world. I also recognize them in myself.
Reading Calvin, the theologian of total depravity and predestination, I have come to see him as a more important Founding Father of the United States than Washington himself. General election, habeas corpus, freedom of contract, equality before the law, jury trial, common law, open market, freedom of speech and press, freedom of religion—these are all reinforced by Calvin’s legacy and the legacy of the Bible. Thus I became a classical liberal or, in American parlance today, a conservative—a rarity among my Chinese peers. Calvin, Locke, Burke, Tocqueville, von Mises, and Hayek are all formative for me, though some are not Christian in the traditional sense.
No one’s influence, though, has been greater on me than Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s. His warning that, “A state that threatens the proclamation of the Christian message negates itself,” has become a motto for China’s Christians, on whom he exerts a great influence. His focus on gemeinsames Leben or “life together” (meaning that Christians form a tight-bonded community as if a single living organism) has resonated across China. Of course, God has a personal relationship with each of us, but it is the fact that we love one another, help one another, and pray for one another that makes it possible for us to complete our pilgrimage. Since becoming Christian, I have not left the church, in China or America. A Christian is to a church like a branch is to a tree. A branch will not wither as long as it is part of a tree.
Chinese Christians also see in Bonhoeffer a man who dared wage war as an ant on an elephant. He found wisdom and courage in Jesus, knowing that Jesus exists for others, and those who follow him should do the same. Bonhoeffer did not shy away from denouncing the cowardice and collaborationism of the Deutsche Christen, the churches that acquiesced to Nazi control. He exposed the reason behind their failure to resist: cheap grace. “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession,” he wrote in The Cost of Discipleship. Cheap grace makes faith weightless and impotent. Genuine grace empowers us to face our sin and fight against it. Or to recognize and combat society’s injustice. The Chinese Communist regime is heading toward fascism. How timely Bonhoeffer’s thought and practice are for the Chinese today! We, too, must beware cheap grace, which leaves us in bondage to Mammon, the instrument of seduction usually used to buy off our consciences.
Bonhoeffer also perceived that Nazism has its roots in man’s betrayal of God and his worship of himself. The same could be said of Communism. Solzhenitsyn has called atheism the central pivot of Communism, and a hatred of God the principal driving force behind Marxist thought. Overthrowing the Communist regime will not solve all of China’s problems. The Chinese must undertake a profound spiritual transformation in order to restore the freedom and dignity God has bestowed on them when creating them in his image. The way forward requires a turn away from ourselves and toward the divine.
Though Communist China is a totalitarian society, Christians can learn and practice a democratic way of life at church, and then act as a leaven in society. For instance, to this day the Chinese have no real voting rights, but congregants can elect their own board members and administrative leaders. For those inexperienced with running and voting for office, churches are a seedbed of civic activity. Many of these churches are Presbyterian and Calvinist, the same tradition that played such a central role in the rise of democracy in the West.
Churches are already involved in charity, education, culture, and other public sectors, further expanding China’s public space. For example, in the aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, hundreds of churches quickly formed the China Christian Action Love volunteer association to provide relief, which many disaster victims praised as besting government efforts in both speed and constancy. In addition, some churches have established schools for members’ children as an alternative to the statist curriculum of public schools. Through the churches, Chinese Christians are becoming active agents in society rather than passive subjects controlled by the government.
I myself have not only witnessed, but can also testify to, this revival. My wife, Liu Min, was baptized and became a Christian in Beijing in 2001. Soon she put together a small Bible study group at home with three couples.
Two years later, the Holy Spirit made fellowship with me and allowed me to confess my sins. The Lord gave me the chance to repent and he accepted me as his humble servant. I was baptized on Christmas Eve. Our Bible study group became an ark. As human rights lawyers, independent writers, journalists, and Tiananmen survivors joined us aboard our vessel, our community of faith also became a thorn in the regime’s side. My dear friend Liu Xiaobo, the courageous human rights activist, was a friend of the church and expressed his support for us in writing when we were harassed by the administration.
On the night of December 10, 2010, as the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony honoring Liu was taking place in Oslo, I was kidnapped by the secret police and taken to the outskirts of Beijing. They beat and tortured me for hours, breaking my fingers one by one. I blacked out and was taken to a hospital. A hospital in Changping, a suburb of Beijing, refused to take me, saying I was “hopeless.” Then I was taken to a hospital in Beijing. My life was saved. For days my wife was under house arrest and did not know my whereabouts, or even if I was alive. She was seized by a sinking feeling and could not eat or sleep. In a few days most of her hair fell out. Before I lost consciousness, I prayed: “Lord, if you take me, then make me a martyr. I am not worthy, but I am willing.” In that moment, I clearly heard his voice: “As surely as I live, not a hair of your head will fall to the ground.” And: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” God let me live, for he has greater plans for me. On January 11, 2012, as he did for the Israelites in Egypt, God led my family out of China, on to the capital of the United States of America.
The secret police had warned me: You are number one on the personal list of “two hundred intellectuals to bury alive” kept by Zhou Yongkang, then secretary of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission. Who would have imagined that today I would be writing freely, praying freely, breathing freely, standing on free soil, while Zhou, once nicknamed China’s “security tsar,” would be sentenced to life in prison for corruption by his political enemies? In God’s plan, tyrants count for little. As Mary said in her great hymn of praise, the Magnificat: “He has shown the strength of his arm. He has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.”
In 2013 my wife answered the Lord’s call and became a full-time preacher at the Harvest Chinese Christian Church just outside Washington, DC. As part of the ministry, I help teach Sunday school and lead Bible study. I even cook for my beloved brothers and sisters. God lets me wield a pen in one hand and a spatula in the other. Not everyone in my congregation has read my books, but everyone has tasted my food—with rave reviews!
God let me live to witness and testify for him through writing. And for the 1.4 billion souls in my homeland, I shall continue. I do so in great hope. A growing faith in Christ, strengthened by the bonds of fellowship in church life, is breathing new life into my country. Neither the dead hand of Communism, nor the cynical imitation of Confucianism, nor capitalism, nor democracy, nor any earthly thing will determine the fate of my land. Christianity is China’s future.
Yu Jie is a Chinese writer and dissident. This essay was translated from the Chinese by H. C. Hsu.