The Affects of Western influence on Christianity’s Growth in China
Since 1978, the world has witnessed the rapid growth of Christianity in China. During this time, Christianity has gone from mere extinction to reports of conversion reaching as high as 130 million. This growth has coincided with China’s reemergence as a world power. The rise and fall of Christianity in China can be traced back to nineteenth century colonialism.
This paper will examine Christianity’s growth and decline from the colonial era to the present and its connection to China’s interaction with western powers. The author proposes the rise and fall of Christianity in China is directly linked to the amount of western influence permitted by governmental decrees as exhibited by the periods of colonialism, decolonization, and globalization in Chinese history.
Colonialism in the Nineteenth Century
The geographic expansion of western powers into Asia can be attributed to several factors. In The Story of Christianity, Justo L. Gonzalez outlines these factors, which lead to colonial presence in the East during the nineteenth century.
The first factor to consider is the loss of European influence in the western hemisphere. Throughout the nineteenth century the number of colonies held by European powers continued to dwindle. The American Revolution meant that by the start of the century Britain had lost its primary colonial enterprise and its influence was limited to Canada, as well as smaller settlements in the Caribbean and South America. Likewise, Spain would eventually give up its American territories and France would lose its most profitable colony, Haiti. The significant loss in colonies would suggest an end to colonial expansion of western powers; however, history shows it helped to catalyze the desire to conquer colonies held by opposing countries and a thirst to seek out new lands.
The primary reason for geographic expansion into Asia was the industrial revolution. The advancements made technologically affected industrial production. As production increased, so did the need for greater resources and larger markets. Gonzalez writes, “For a time, those areas of Europe that had not been industrialized provided the necessary markets. But soon the industrial powers began to look for other outlets, and found them in Latin America and Asia.” 
Finally, a consequence of the industrial revolution was the strengthening of militaries in industrialized nations. The technology available provided western powers with weaponry to defeat countries in Asia. Gonzalez writes, “ China and Japan, for instance, although never fully conquered by the western powers, were literally forced to open trade with the West. For the first time in history, the world became a vast economic network.” Due to the military might of western countries, Asian powers were ultimately defenseless against colonial expansion.
Colonial Entry into China
A significant portion of colonial expansion into China was the result of opium trade. The primary organization involved in opium trade was the British East India Company (BEIC), which controlled most of India. The operations of the BEIC, David Aikman writes, “encouraged the growing of opium in India in order to raise money from trade with China.” The revenue generated from opium trade to the Chinese was an important source of income for the BEIC to maintain control of India. Even after the BEIC lost its monopoly on opium trade, other companies discovered how profitable the trade could be.
The rise in opium trade lead to increasing tensions between the Chinese and British authorities. Imperial decrees in China made the importation of opium illegal. Such decrees clashed with British demands that China open up its ports and rights to unencumbered international trade. The tension eventually escalated into the Opium War of 1839-1942. The British victory resulted in the Treaty of Nanking. The treaty granted Hong Kong to the British and opened up five ports to trade. The significance of the treaty extended far beyond its economic ramifications. Aikman writes, “The ‘treaty ports’ were, however, more than simple market places for international trade. Within the ports’ boundaries foreigners enjoyed ‘extraterritoriality’ and were thus not subject to Chinese law. The Chinese saw this as a series of ‘unequal treaties’ forced upon them by Western powers.” Many other countries would follow the British example, and the Chinese were forced to make more concessions.
The “extraterritoriality” granted in the Treaty of Nanking (and in other colonial treaties later on) extended to missionaries as well. Gonzalez writes, “Many of the treaties making such concessions also made provisions for the presence of missionaries in Chinese territory. Some also granted them special protection.” These provisions set the stage for missions in China during the age of colonialism.
Colonial Missions in China
The “freedom” granted to missionaries in China proved to be a double-edged sword. While the provisions for missionaries granted them unparalleled access to China’s ports, the atrocities of opium trade and the subsequent war heightened the anti-colonial sentiment. As a result, western missionaries were faced with the extra challenge of overcoming their association with the opium trade.
The height of the anti-colonial sentiment in China resulted in the Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1901. The uprising, writes Gonzalez, “was the violent expression of Chinese resentment of foreign interventions.” The rebellion laid siege to foreign diplomats in Beijing for fifty-five days before western powers were able to squash the insurgents. Many missionaries and their converts ended up being casualties of the conflict. Despite the disdain for foreigners in China, Christian missional efforts continued and would eventually prove to be successful.
One of the most significant missionaries that contributed to the success of missions in China was J. Hudson Taylor. In 1865 he established the China Inland Mission (CIM). Before CIM, missional efforts to China were restricted to the port cities that offered protection. However, Taylor became increasingly burdened with the provinces of inland China. He dreamed of bringing Christianity into the heart of the mainland. When the CIM was formed, he deliberately “sent his workers to the ‘unoccupied’ regions of inland China.” By focusing on inland China, CIM “refused to make use of the supposed advantages to be obtained by foreign protection, being aware that the use of such privileges created resentment among the Chinese, and would eventually prove costly.”
The assumptions turned out to be correct when the Boxer Rebellion happened. During the uprising, CIM would lose seventy-nine missionaries. One of the consequences of the rebellion was that the Chinese were forced to pay reparations. Taylor refused to accept any payments from the Chinese. He writes, “Should I have a thousand pounds, China can claim them all; should I have a thousand lives, I would not spare one not to give to China.” Taylor’s convictions and strategy allowed for the success of CIM. Staring with twenty-four missionaries, CIM grew into the largest mission organization in China and successfully reached the inland provinces; thus bringing Christianity to the country as a whole.
The efforts of Taylor and his contemporaries forever changed the scope of Christianity in China. Jonathan T’ien-En Chao reports:
When the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, there were twenty-eight Chinese church bodies, 110 Protestant missions, with an estimated 1,800,000 baptized members of whom 823,506 were communicants. These were ministered to by 6,204 missionaries, 2,155 Chinese ordained pastors, 8,508 “evangelists,” and 2,396 Bible-women, a total of 12,959 full-time Christian workers serving in 19,497 churches and chapels. In addition, there were 13 Christian universities, 211 high schools, 46 theological seminaries and Bible schools, 262 Christian hospitals, 51 YMCA city centers, and 13 Christian publishers, which issued at least 40 Christian periodicals.
The results of missional efforts that started during a period of colonialism are staggering. Despite the inherited evils of colonialism, the western powers opened up China’s ports and in turn gave missionaries access to the Chinese. Through the work of colonial missionaries, Christianity was introduced and thrived during a period of heavy western influence and presence.
The formation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) began a radical process of decolonization. Under the direction of Mao Zedong, China started to operate under a policy to eradicate imperial and colonial influence. Jieren Li writes, “Mao hoped that China would become a model for both permanent revolution for world communism and decolonization of the Third World countries.”
The efforts to rid China of imperialism and colonialism extended to the church. Part of this work involved the PRC limiting the influence of missionaries in China. Donald MacInnis writes, “When China entered the Korean War in 1950, the work of missionaries was restricted, and by 1952 all but a handful had left.” By eliminating the presence of missionaries in China, the government was moving forward in its process of eliminating western influence.
One should ask why the PRC did not seek to eliminate the church in its entirety and instead focused on missional movements? The answer involves the distinction between the Chinese church and missionaries. Li writes, “In the early period of China’s decolonization, the state/party saw missions as nothing but imperialism and all the people connected with the missionary as imperialists. However, the Chinese church and its believers might become remolded to serve the interests of the state/party.”
Thus rather than exterminating the church, the PRC was maneuvering to use it for the state’s interest. PRC and Protestant leaders, such as Y.T. Wu and Zhou Enlai recognized that such a process would be delicate. David Aikman writes, “Zhou and Wu both understood that a full scale assault on Christianity as a religion would backfire domestically and cause outrage abroad.” Their response was to redefine Christianity.
In July 1950, they published a document known as “The Christian Manifesto.” Aikman explains, “The manifesto required its signatories to acknowledge that during the 140 years of Protestant missionary presence in China, ‘Christianity consciously or unconsciously, directly or indirectly, became related with imperialism.’” In other words, the only form of Christianity acceptable in China was one that carried on the anti-imperialist agenda of the government.
In an effort to formalize the guidelines set out by “The Christian Manifesto,” the Three-Self Reform Movement (STRM) was formed in 1950 to operate the Protestant church. It was later renamed the Three-Self Patriotic movement in 1954. From the very beginning it was clear the goal of the Three-Self Church was “to expunge from Chinese Protestantism any influence or thought pattern that might be considered to have derived from “imperialist” missionary presence and cultural influence.” Thus, the Three-Self Church was, as Li explains, “catering to the Party’s demands of anti-imperialism and the self-revolution of Protestantism” The result was a socialist church.
The Demise of the Church and the Cultural Revolution
The waning western influence meant that Mao and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) could shift their focus from external enemies to internal enemies of the state. The permanent revolution for world communism meant there was always the existence of an adversary. The shift to internal affairs resulted in a focus on class-enemies, which included the church. Chao writes, “It seems, therefore, that 1963-1965 marked a transition from control of Christianity as an institutional religion to frontal attacks on Christianity as a religious ideology.”
The three years that followed 1965 became infamously known as the Cultural Revolution. Li writes:
The Cultural Revolution produced and propagated the official discourse of anti-imperialism, anti-colonialism, anti-feudalism, anti-capitalism, and anti- revisionism through official news, media, and the Party’s organs. All served to justify the widespread use of violence to suppress dissent in the country and to legitimize China as the self-appointed centre of world revolution with Mao as its godlike supreme leader.
The relationship between state and church during the Cultural Revolution was characterized by the state’s use of policy to challenge the church in hopes of eliminating it. Li explains, “To eliminate religions in general and the church in particular was according to Mao, to eliminate backward elements in socialist China.” In response to these attacks, the church went underground.
Describing the assault on the church during the Cultural Revolution, Jonathan Chao writes:
Christians were attacked as remnants of an old ideology, old customs, old habits, and old culture, along with other “reactionaries” (Buddhists, Taoists, Confucianists, liberal intellectuals, etc.). Bibles and hymnals were hunted out and burned, believers sometimes were beaten and humiliated, the few state-approved churches were permanently closed, and many home meetings had to cease temporarily. The institutional form of the Protestant church in terms of voluntary public worship was thoroughly eliminated from the surface of Chinese society.
The Cultural Revolution did more than eradicate the church from the public as it threw China into a period of social, economic, and political chaos. Moll writes, “During that period, up to 7 million people died from widespread violence and famine.” Though it ended in 1969, its effects were felt until Mao’s death in 1976. By 1978, party members who opposed the Cultural Revolution had gained prominence and abandoned the policies set forth by Mao’s permanent revolution.
Globalization and the Rise of Christianity
David Aikman writes, “Chairman Mao’s catastrophic Cultural Revolution had ‘cured’ almost all Chinese of any belief in the veracity of Communist theory.” In an effort to overcome the atrocities of the Cultural Revolution, the new regime, lead by Deng Xiaoping, introduced the “open door” policy. The policy opened up China in hopes of freeing the energy and talents of its people to the outside world.
Economically the policy seems to have worked to China’s benefit. Aikman reports, “Foreign capital, technological expertise, and management skills have flowed into the country. From 1979 until the late 1990’s China’s GDP grew at an annual rate of 9.5 percent… The official annual growth rate for 2005 was still 9.8 percent.”
China’s economic growth has been accompanied by a reintroduction to western influences and ideologies. Li writes, “China’s openness to western capitalism and global marketing economy facilitated the transmission of western ideologies and cultures into the Chinese society and activated desires to westernize among the Chinese people.” This openness has translated into the increase value placed in religious freedom. Donald MacInnis writes, “This value is seen for tactical reasons both domestically and in foreign relations, for better understanding of the science of religion, and for enriching dialogue and understanding on conceptual and ethical questions.”
The economic growth, which has facilitated new ideologies, has lead to an environment primed for rapid church growth. Aikman proposes, “These factors-economic growth, increasing access to information, added civic freedoms, and the need for a consciousness to combat the social ills of prosperity-combine to create an opportune atmosphere for the growth of Christianity in China both as movement and as an ideology.”
The numbers of Christianity’s growth would seem to support Aikman’s hypothesis. MacInnis reports, “In 1979, under a restored policy of religious freedom, the Christian churches, Buddhist temples, and Muslim mosques of China began to reopen. According to official statistics there are now more than 4,000 Protestant churches and 30,000 meeting points open in China, with at least 4 million members.” In contrast, Moll writes, “Three decades later, estimates of the number of Christians vary widely, anywhere from 54 million to 130 million.”
The growth in Christianity would seem to suggest the Chinese church has benefitted tremendously from Deng’s “open door” policy, and the economic and ideological reforms that have come along with it. The freedoms that have come along with these reforms have not been lost on China’s Christians either. Moll writes, “It has given Christians in China access to wealth, education, and influence, and they are using those advantages to make China a more welcoming place for Christian witness.”
Perhaps the best example of how China’s reforms have attributed to Christianity’s growth is through the emergence of the urban house church. Unlike the traditional-house church movement, the urban house church has never been underground. Instead, the urban churches have met publicly and openly, communicating with officials along the way. Moll writes, “The growing influence of Christians comes as a result of cooperating with the once, and sometimes still, brutally repressive government.”
The example of the urban house church would have been impossible under Mao’s regime. However, due to the “open door” policy, Christianity in China is thriving and appears to have a bright and hopeful future.
The examination of colonialism, decolonization and globalism in Chinese history demonstrates the link between western influences and Christianity’s growth in China. The period of colonialism during the 19th and early 20th centuries, despite its evils, exposed China to western influences and ideologies, including Christianity. As the western presence was sustained, missional efforts gained momentum throughout China, which lead to the rise of Christianity throughout the country.
Despite the positive influences of Christianity, colonialism produced an anti-colonial and anti-imperial sentiment throughout China. By the 1950’s, the formation of the PRC under the leadership of Mao Zedong began the radical process of decolonization in China. As western presence and influence disappeared throughout China, the CCP found it necessary to eliminate the church as well.
After the Cultural Revolution, China began a process of globalization under the direction of Deng Xiaopeng’s “open door” policy. The policy resulted in tremendous economic growth for China over the past three decades. This growth has lead to many political and social reforms, which have directly and indirectly benefitted the Chinese church. As a result, China’s growth has coincided with the rise of Christianity within its borders.
 “What Kept Me From Becoming a Christian,” Intervarsity ISM, http://www.intervarsity.org/ism/article/168 (accessed October 1, 2010).
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