The People’s Republic of China is experiencing both a sharp growth in Christianity and a spike in the persecution of Christians. Since the Communist Revolution in 1949, the government of China has sought the demise of Christianity and, indeed, of all religions. In the 1950s, it required all Protestant churches to be governed by the official Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) and all Catholic churches by the official Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA), which was barred from having ties to the Vatican. Since that time, some Chinese Christians have belonged to the “official” churches approved by these bodies, while others have belonged to underground “house” churches, and still others have skirted the line or oscillated between these statuses. During the Cultural Revolution (1966 to 1979), the Communist regime undertook a plan to eradicate Christianity, but Christian churches held firm, with Catholics remaining at three million and Protestants growing from one million to three million during this period. Since 1979, the government has tolerated Christianity but has also restricted it and inflicted setbacks and spikes of persecution. Estimates of numbers of Christians in China vary considerably, but one 2010 estimate held that some 5.5 million Catholics and 23 million Protestants populated China’s official churches, while underground churches accounted for some 11 million Catholics and between 46 and 69 million Protestants.
The persecution of Christians in China takes place in three broad forms, mostly at the hands of the government. The first form is ideological eradication, which takes place through mandatory indoctrination in atheism in all schools, from the elementary level through university education, and in extracurricular youth organizations. The party also transmits atheist propaganda through the mass media and prohibits religions from utilizing public media.
A second form of persecution is political repression. Religious leaders are prohibited from joining the Communist Party and thus from holding government positions. Throughout Communist rule, the government has conducted campaigns to suppress missionaries and religious leaders, subjecting them to imprisonment, labor camps, torture, and sometimes execution. Since 1997, overt persecution has become less frequent, though the government adopts indirect strategies, like falsely charging religious leaders with economic crimes and sex crimes. In 2015, 260 religious leaders were estimated to be in jail. In Zhejiang province, the government has destroyed more than 1,500 crosses and nearly 400 churches since 2013.
The third form of repression is economic punishment. Christians who refuse to obey government strictures may be fined, dismissed from their jobs, stripped of their property, or demoted. As a result, these believers face social isolation, defamation, or stigmatization.
Responses to persecution take several forms, too. Some Christian leaders have become active cooperators with Communist rule, either clandestinely or openly; some of these renounce their faith while others retain their faith and look upon Communism as a progressive program of justice. Several leaders of the TSPM, for instance, have been active cooperators with Communism. This response is less common, however, among younger generations of Christians.
A second strategy, which remains common today, involves the reluctant accommodation of Communist authority, in some cases after imprisonment or torture, in order to keep alive Christian ministry and evangelization. Many Christian leaders have joined the TSPM and CPA as an expression of this strategy.
Other Christians, unwilling to compromise, follow a third strategy, one of resistance, conducting underground worship, ministry, and evangelization, fully anticipating severe consequences at the hands of the state.
A moderately confrontational response is that of Christian lawyers who take up civil and human rights cases in the courts. A small number of Christians have openly criticized the government for its repression of religion.