Do they know it’s Christmas in Beijing?

Do they know it’s Christmas in Beijing?

As Christmas approaches next week, it seems that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) doesn’t have the holiday spirit. That is at least the impression one gets when reading the recent CCP directive targeting the allegedly seditious teaching of Christianity in Chinese universities, by "foreigners" no less. Ominously, the document worries that

"With China’s rapid economic and social development and the steady growth of China’s comprehensive national strength, the U.S.-led Western countries are ceaselessly increasing the intensity of their containment of China. Foreign hostile forces have put even greater emphasis using religion to infiltrate China to carry out their political plot to westernize and divide China. Foreign forces regard institutes of higher education as key targets for using religion, Christianity in particular, for infiltration."

Instead it calls for, among other things, making "education in Marxist atheism the foundational work in resisting infiltration and preventing campus evangelism."

This document alone embodies almost all of the oppugnant points in the Middle Kingdom’s fraught relationship with the modern international system: paranoia about a Western plot to "contain" China, an obsession with "China’s comprehensive national strength," sinister warnings against "foreign hostile forces" deviously employing religion to "divide China," and calls for renewing revolutionary zeal through that hoary old chestnut of Marxist atheism. 

Issued last year, the document was procured by the redoubtable Bob Fu and his organization ChinaAid (see a profile of Bob here in the Bush Institute’s Freedom Collection). To be sure, China’s ongoing modernization remains one of the most consequential global events of the last several decades, with multiple transformations occurring in economics, urbanization, communications, and China’s engagement with international institutions. But when it comes to religion, the CCP still appears to be captivated by 1960s-era agitprop and unreconstructed Maoist dogma. 

This CCP paranoia is not only overwrought, it is also misplaced. As Walter Russell Mead points out in his comment on the directive, "the biggest sources of Christian proselytization on campus aren’t foreign teachers or students; they’re the Chinese themselves. With up to 100 million belonging to house churches, and with Christianity increasingly becoming an urban and even intellectual presence in China, this is hardly surprising." In other words, the real story on religion in China is not the alleged presence of a small number of Western missionaries doing evangelistic work on campuses; It is the size, strength, and vibrancy of indigenous Christianity among the Chinese themselves.

The news of this directive comes in the midst of government crackdown on some bizarre apocalyptic teachings, as FP‘s Alicia Wittmeyer notes here. On one level, the CCP’s fears about religion and instability are understandable, given traumatic religiously-tinged events in Chinese history such as the Taiping Rebellion, or the fringe teachings of apocalyptic cults building "survival pods." But it is the paranoid, undiscerning efforts to squelch and control religion itself, exemplified by the recent directive that, ironically, create conditions in which fringe groups are more likely to proliferate. One of the underappreciated results of religious freedom is how it enables religious groups to compete for adherents, hold each other accountable, and peacefully debate teachings that deviate from historic orthodoxies. 

Furthermore, the CCP’s fears about foreign missionaries may overlook some of the salutary effects of the mission enterprise — effects that ironically resonate with Beijing’s own concerns about modernization and development. In one of the most interesting and consequential political science articles published in the past year, my former University of Texas-Austin colleague Bob Woodberry (now at the National University of Singapore) produced a groundbreaking study in the American Political Science Review on the historic relationship between Protestant missionaries and advances in literacy, printing, education, civil society, and amelioration of colonial abuses in nations where missionaries were active. The missionary enterprise has perhaps been more consequential than the regnant stereotypes would suggest.

As for China’s Christians, they will survive this latest crackdown, as they have endured much worse repression over the past 60 years. After all, as they remember this Christmas season, they place their eternal hopes in the Jesus Christ whose birth, life, and death were defined by persecution. In contrast, the feverish ruminations of a decrepit state ideology are but a passing shadow.