China (MNN) — This month marks the 30 year anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Conversations surrounding freedom in China are reigniting, and for David Curry of Open Doors USA, religious freedom is at the forefront of those conversations.
The situation is changing in China. Restrictions have been tightening, old laws are being enforced more regularly, and it seems that religious freedom is in more limited supply. The latest report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom calls China a “country of particular concern.”
“There’s a continuum of freedom in the sense that sometimes there’s more and sometimes there’s less,” Curry says. “They’ve never had complete religious freedom to go where they want and decide what they want to read and choose their faith and follow it through without any sort of obstruction. That hasn’t happened in China in a good long time.”
The Aftermath of Tiananmen Square
Curry does think that the events of Tiananmen Square temporarily changed things for Christians.
“We saw the flourishing of Christianity under intense pressure,” he explains. “The underground church flourished and grew under that pressure because they stayed connected and they stayed focused centrally on the Scripture.”
This, in turn, triggered a temporary and cautious lax in regulation enforcement by Chinese officials.
“The Chinese government eventually began to look around and go, ‘Hey, this is helping our society. Their Christian faith is developing good citizens,’ Curry says. “The communist structure had no moral underpinning; that’s why you have so much corruption in China and so many of these type of issues of immorality and drugs and gangsterism and so forth, so they allowed Christianity to flourish for a season.”
Chinese Religious Freedom Today
So what changed? According to Curry, restrictions are tightening again “largely because of their capacity for surveillance within the country at this stage.”
But it’s more than just a newfound capability to monitor the population. Some officials are worried that Christians aren’t “Chinese” enough and will choose their religion over their nationality.
“They’ve looked around and said, ‘Wait a minute, there are more Christians than there are members of the Communist Party; we have a problem. We’re going to have to bring the Christian movement to heal under our government viewpoint, under the communist government viewpoint.’”
In other words, this push for nationalism seeks to make the Church “a Christian-second Chinese-first movement.”
Something Old or Something New?
Some sources say these regulations are old rules that are simply being enforced for the first time, while others argue that these are brand new restrictions. So which is it?
Curry says the confusion comes from the fact that, well, it’s both.
“Here’s one example; they have used zoning rules to tear down churches and saying, ‘They don’t have a permit to put this cross up. They don’t have a permit to build the church.’ Well, that’s not untrue, but what it fails to mention is that nobody in that city might have a permit for any building because that’s not the way that was done when the city was constructed.”
In other words, “They’re using the laws available to them to pick on Christian churches in a unique way.”
That being said, the aforementioned better surveillance is a new factor and one that allows stricter enforcement of regulations.
“China has this ability to track Christians and their behavior, and most of their citizens, through facial recognition, are now keeping a social score,” Curry says. They’re saying ‘Here’s what we consider a good citizen’ and… the fear is that they’re going to put those two lists together and say, ‘you know, we don’t think Christians are good citizens.’”
Because the Church puts God above every king or ruler, it’s possible that Christians could start be considered “less than ideal citizens and withhold food, withhold jobs, withhold all kinds of things from them.”
This isn’t all hypothetical; Christians are feeling the impact of these new regulations as we speak.
“We had a church closed down in September, the Zion Church in Beijing, because they refused to put CCTV cameras on the pulpit so that they could use facial recognition to see who’s in church today,” Curry says. “They’ve arrested pastors and put them in jail in solitary confinement to they call out this kind of behavior.”
The rules are old, but “the capacity to follow Christians and to exert pressure on then in a way that we hadn’t seen before” is brand new.
Impact on the Muslim Community
Christians aren’t the only ones suffering from a changing situation, though their larger population percentage makes them a bigger target. Muslims have run into new restrictions, too.
“Up in the northwest part of the country of China, you have the [Muslim] Uygher population,” Curry explains. “They’ve been historically Muslim, and in China, they’re ethnically different than the larger population.”
After 9/11, concerns about terrorism from extremists plagued the world, and China took precautionary steps. Their approaches, however, resulted in the marginalization of most of China’s Muslim population.
“What they’ve done is ratchet up pressure on the entire Muslim population there in the northwest in the hope of limiting the access of religious expression of Islamic followers,” Curry says. “[They’re] imprisoning them in large numbers and so forth the way they’re doing to Christians on a massive scale.”
Prayer for the Chinese Church
The best solution to the Chinese Church’s uncertainty is prayer.
“We don’t need to think of China as so immature that we must do everything for them; we have to pray for them,” Curry clarifies. “We need to speak out and call out as Christians here in America.”
Open Doors USA has resources and information to help you pray specifically for this situation as it unfolds, but in the meantime, you can pray for courage and wisdom.
“We need to pray for boldness for the Christian Church in China, for the leaders, for the pastors, and for the individuals to speak up and said, ‘We’re not going to. That’s not right. We’re not going to allow that to happen. We’re put Jesus first, we’re going to be good citizens, but we’re not going to answer to China for theology for what we preach.’”
Header photo courtesy of Open Doors USA