I remember around this time last year scurrying about the library in Trinity College Dublin attempting to finish an essay. Hours of reading, drafting, editing and perfecting left me worn out. What was all my energy put into? An essay on the adaptation of Marxist-Leninist thinking in the domestic policy of Mao Zedong during the Cultural Revolution (I know it sounds riveting!). Although history and geopolitics is not everyone’s cup of tea, it is part of the grand tapestry of history in which we are apart of. Further, it is overseen by the Creator of all things.
Thinking back on that essay has made me concerned for my brothers and sisters in the country of China. In researching the 1960s and 1970s for the essay, I discovered the horrors that Christians encountered. Further, it seems if history is repeating itself again in China. Whatever the circumstances and trials our brothers and sisters in China face, to the world they are a window through which others can witness the reality of Christ.
That Was Then
Mao Zedong during the Cultural Revolution from 1966-1976 made it his aim to roll Communism into all areas of Chinese life. Michael Lynch in his book Origins and development of authoritarian and single-party states notes how Mao saw religion as utter poison, even making the comparison of Christian missionaries in China to Nazis in Europe. In his leadership, Mao wanted to dominate the political sphere and weed out Christianity along with all other religions. Fenggang Yang, a prominent scholar on religion in China, noted that Mao set out in the Cultural Revolution to eradicate religion from China through a form of militant atheism. Religion was the stumbling block to Mao achieving total dictatorial power.
During these years, outward expressions of religion were banned, religious rituals were prohibited, churches were torn down and ransacked. Followers of Christ were tortured, persecuted and killed for their faith. Mao’s indoctrinated Red Guards aimed to permanently delete Christianity from Chinese daily life. Ironically, Mao ended up creating a religion around himself – Maoism. Mao, through propaganda, presented himself to the Chinese peasantry as a god. His little Red Book replaced the Bibles that were burned. His pictures were to take the place of the symbol of the cross. All aspects of life were infiltrated by Maoism. In all his endeavours, Mao sought to transform every aspect of the individual’s life in China. Frank Dikotter, a Dutch historian, notes that Mao only really managed to exact outward compliance. Faith moved into the shadows at this time, but within those shadows it grew exponentially. The Protestant denomination from estimates grew from 0.8 million in 1956 to 3 million in 1982. Climbing to 16 million in 2009.
Although Mao sought the riddance of Christianity in China by bringing worship to himself, he was unsuccessful as the Christian witness within China persevered and experienced huge growth. This can only be seen as the gracious and merciful act of God, bringing people to a knowledge of him as the gospel went across China during those years of persecution. Consequently, we might be prone to think everything is fine and dandy in China today. Even with the Reform and Open Door Policy of premier Deng Xiaoping in the 70s and 80s persecution of Christians in China continues. Moreover, things are intensifying under the presidency of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Xi Jinping.
This is Now
China is the world’s second largest economy and in years to come is predicted to overtake the US. With globalisation, China’s single-party police state is attempting to find means of dealing with the outside world politically and geographically. Historically, China has not dealt well with its surrounding nations, maintaining a tendency to look inward and grapple at self-sufficiency. Maybe greater openness has helped transform China though?
Modern day China appears to have greater accountability structures than those that existed under Mao – society is a project aiming for harmonious and prosperous living under party rule. Although we have seen greater openness from China since the tyrant Mao died, officials in China continue to crackdown on whomever they will. The CCP is permitted to go beyond the law without any accountability. This has created an environment of fear, uncertainty and frustration from the political to the economic to the societal spheres. While this abuse of power is punctuated by human rights violations.
Diana Chandler addresses how 2018 has been a difficult year for Christians in China – has there been a return to Mao era persecution? Most definitely. For example, most of us have heard of the hunting down and arresting of members of the Early Rain Covenant Church in Sichuan Province. The pastors and elders of this church wrote ‘we will not bend, even it means jail, even it means death. We will continue to preserve our faith’. Police raids have escalated, crosses have been removed, people have been blocked from entering churches, worship has been shut down and Christians have been harassed. Those arrested from Early Rain reported being beaten, tortured and denied food. These Christians were dragged, stepped on, bound with chains for their faith.
President Xi Jinping will deny all these corrupt human rights violations. Unlike Mao, Xi does not want to ‘eradicate religion’ rather he desires to Sinicise it. He wants to bring the Christian religion in line with the CCP’s ideology. This is not feasible though as Christianity is diametrically opposed to a worldview system that bases itself in atheistic philosophy.
Xi knows that Christianity is a threat to CCP power, as it opposes everything the tyrannical and dictatorial CCP stands for. We, as the international community, need to stand for the religious freedom that Chinese Christians should be guaranteed. Any abuse of people made in the image of God in any shape or form is unacceptable and loathsome. However, even in the midst of their persecution they are witnesses.
Those Who Witness
Secular author Ian Johnston noted how the Cultural Revolution showed how oppression encouraged real faith; the prayer for the church in China is that God would continue to grow his kingdom amidst persecution from the Chinese Communist Party and their cult like leader Xi Jinping. May the God of all comfort use the trials and difficulties of our brothers and sisters in China to bear witness to all around the world. Ultimately that they may believe in Jesus and his redemption of a sinful humanity.
The gospel of John begins by communicating how John the Baptist “came as a witness… that all might believe through him” (v.7). John the Baptist was the first among a great “cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1) to testify to the truth of Jesus’s life. This cloud has swelled to millions of Christians in recent decades in China. Each witness having seen Christ through the witness of one another. Many in this cloud have lost their lives in China, but through this we hope that thousands more will join the cloud of witnesses who testify to the Son. The glorious Son who came, full of grace and truth.