The leader of a Christian outreach in China says the recent power transition in the Communist government could mean good things for long-persecuted Christians there.
That’s according to Brent Fulton, president of China Source, a ministry set up to prepare for the vast population of China opening up to the Gospel, much as residents behind the Iron Curtain did in the 1990s.
It’s a cooperative effort of the Evangelical Fellowship of Mission Agencies, Interdenominational Foreign Missions Association, World Evangelical Fellowship and the Billy Graham Center, whose officials saw the need for a coordination among ministries.
Fulton was interviewed by Open Doors News, formerly Compass Direct News, about his observations regarding this month’s power transition to a new controlling political committee, and what that means for the nation’s 80 million Christians.
Historically, Christians have been persecuted in China, with government limits on meetings, membership, Bible ownership, and message. Jail has not been uncommon for evangelicals who want to deliver the Gospel message.
Fulton was asked about the religious freedom that may or may not develop with the changed leadership.
“The whole question of how they’re handling religion was discussed at the Patry Congress,” he said. “So they [Communist leaders] have been, and they continue to think about, how to do this better.
“They know their current religious policy didn’t work. But as soon as you get into the details, it becomes very messy. Even if they recognize the Christians are basically very helpful people, and if they were just to be given more freedom they would do good things, what do you do about the other faiths, the other religious groups?” he said. “For example the … Muslims out in the West, who are seen as an active political threat. Or, what do you do about cults that are active in China that … haven’t been recognized to date? So, how to open up things, but yet maintain stability, has always been a really thorny issue for them.”
He suggested how much attention the religious community will get will depend on what other issues or conflicts Chinese leaders must address.
“There’s a lot going on. But … if political reform is able to move ahead, it should bode well for the church. It should result in greater freedom and legal recognition,” he told Open Doors News.
But he said he doesn’t really expect whatever changes may develop inside China to impact many other nations, because China “does not see itself has having a cultural mandate, if you will.”
“Now, of course, it may seek to have political influence as well, in terms of getting other nations to vote its way in the U.N., or participating in some political initiative on a global scale. But the Chinese don’t really seek to change in any way the cultures of the nations that they go into,” he said.
The nation this week introduced its new Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Chinese Community Party, and it includes seven men who will run the nation for the next 10 years.
The Open Doors report said the team is made up of those who were successful in cutting the backroom deals in the party, and among China’s powerful families.
“By most news accounts, the new Standing Committee members are a conservative lot known more for their party orthodoxy and loyalty than for reformist tendencies,” the report said.
It said Xi Jinping, in the top leadership position, “stressed the need to improve education and income, and to root out government corruption.”
Fulton said back in the ’80s and ’90s, the spiritual center of the Christian church in China was in the rural house-church movement, where dozens, or hundreds, of people gathered for worship in small groups in the countryside.
But he said that has changed, and now Christians are dealing with the emergence “of what we would call the urban professional church,” he said.
“At that time, 10 years ago, Christians in the cities – intellectuals – were thinking about what was their future going to look like? And what would their churches look like in the cities?
“We’ve seen them really develop and flourish during the last 10 years,” he said. And not just churches.
He continued, “Entities like publishing entities, counseling centers, schools started by Christians, organizations that are trying to help families. And then of course, kind of the catalytic event in all that was the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, which rallied Christians from across China to go to Sichuan to get involved in the relief efforts, and some of them are still there. That galvanized the energy within the urban church to reach out and touch their society. And so I would say a major component of the growth of the urban church has been the development of these sorts of parachurch entities.”
He also told Open Doors News Christian books and materials have boomed in China.
“I don’t think in 2002 people could have imagined how much material would have been published by now, and that continues,” he said.
He said even though Christian outreaches are surging, the nation basically remains “a police state.”
“The whole security apparatus, which would include both the public-security bureau inside China but also ministry of state security, which is sort of like the FBI, has grown immensely in its power. This year the budget of the whole security apparatus was larger than the budget of the military,” he said.
Social media also is contributing to the advances, he noted.
“As social media in China has proliferated, people are being more vocal about their complaints, and the government is feeling more and more of the pressure to respond to that … They have to figure out how to continue to tell the Communist Party story in a compelling way that is going to keep the majority of people in China on board with them, because there is, frankly, growing discontent in the society,” he said.
Freedom of expression rights also have surged. “As long as people don’t directly attack the party, as long as people don’t get involved with politics or do something embarrass a leader – it’s quite remarkable how much freedom there is to talk about a variety of issues in China,” he said. “And for the Christians, that has translated into not only what I mentioned before – publishing – but also on the Internet, there’s just an amazing amount of Christian-generated material that is largely uncensored.”
He said many gatherings of Christians simply are left alone these days, where a few years ago, police would have staged raids.
“I think for the most part, believers are pretty savvy when it comes to doing this dance, to make sure they’re not perceived as having political motives. I would say that one exception to that would be the lawyers. Several years ago there were a number of Christian lawyers basically put out of business, because they were trying to handle human-rights cases in China, and that was seen as crossing the line. That was seen as a direct threat to the party, unfortunately.”
Schools, for example, are being set up by Christians – “There’s a movement of Christian families even sending high school students abroad for study in a Christian high school,” he said.
“I think the overall direction of society, if the party leaders keep their word, does have some good things in it as well for Christians,” he said.