Monday, August 15, 2005

Is China Really About to Convert? (And Will It Make a Difference If She Does?)

John H at Confessing Evangelical recently posted some links about the flourishing Christian movement in China. Like many observers, including one Christian journalist who wrote a book (publisher's page here) on the topic, he holds out the possibility that Christianity could reach a scale in China that would actually change the nation and her policies.

Color me skeptical.

True, I have worshipped in packed and fervent Chinese churches. An agnostic college friend of mine was waylaid in a Chinese hutong (alley) by an insistent old lady pleading for her to believe NOW, for the sake of her soul. But that's not the whole story.

First of all, let's take a look at some numbers from the Pew Global Attitudes survey. Asking people of seventeen nations (US, Canada, six EU countries, Russia, six Muslim countries, India and China), the Chinese joined Pakistan, Turkey, and Morocco as the only four countries where Christians are viewed favorably by less than half of the population (26% in China, compared to, for example, 58% in Indonesia, 61% in India, 80-87% in all the EU-North American countries, and 92% in Russia). Likewise it's in the top four (the same again) with unfavorable attitudes (47%), and the only predominantly non-Muslim country surveyed with unfavorable ratings for Christians above 20%. Yes the church is expanding, but so far conversion is not changing the bulk attitudes of Chinese to the Christian religion.

The same survey also looked at world attitudes to Jews and Muslims. Put together, China's attitudes form a distinct profile found in no other country surveyed. Favorable ratings for all three monotheistic religions ranged from 28% (Jews) to 20% (Muslims), while unfavorable ratings ranged from 47% (Christians) to Muslims (50%). The similarity in the numbers is striking. My own guess at interpretation would be that for the vast majority of Chinese these three religions are all still vague names in the news not living presences in their lives, despite the presence of the ten million-strong Hui (Chinese Muslim community; see books here and here) and the growing (but still small, statistically) Catholic and Christian churches (that's how the Chinese public and government divide them).

Note also that the Chinese public's reaction to a religious community they don't know much about (in China I have often been asked "Who are these 'Jews'? The only thing I know about them is that Einstein was a Jew" - - that must account for the slightly higher favorable rating). It seems that when Chinese don't know about a religious community, they are likely to be half unfavorable, one quarter favorable and one quarter undecided. Compare that to Indians with Jews (28% favorable, 17% unfavorable), members of whom Indians are also unlikely to have ever met, and you can see a general dislike in China for people who define themselves by religion, for "sectarians."

Confucius has a saying: the gentleman is broad and not narrow; the small-minded man is narrow and not broad (junzi zhou er bu bi, xiaoren bi er bu zhou). He also stated that worshiping a self-chosen spirit other than the one(s) pertaining to oneself (one's ancestors for the head of the family, the county god for the county magistrate, Heaven for the emperor) is flattery. For the Chinese, this translates into a widespread and strong suspicion of any religion that advocates a solidarity narrower than the whole society (tianxia literally "all under heaven") and the country/dynasty (guo) that rules it. Such religious communities (whatever the inspiration, Buddhist, Daoist, or syncretic ones like Falungong are all common) are seen above all as selfish and anti-social, unconcerned with the common good. In the majority view, sectarians pray for their little god (Maitreya, Queen Mother of the West, Jesus, whatever) to give their little community their selfish little benefits, while really good people help the state help all the people in a selfless way. In fact the sociologist Rodney Stark in his For the Glory of God (p. 6, I think) cites poll data that suggests that Chinese Buddhist and Daoist sectaries really are more selfish and less moral personally than the average Chinese. One presumes this is not true of Chinese Christians, but this sets up a very high bar of suspicion to overcome.

Thus, while China has always been bubbling with sects, the majority attitude, and that held by the government, is that religion is at best a harmless but somewhat anti-social hobby, particularly of senile oldsters, and at worst a "perverse cult" (xiejiao, a word long used in imperial China and now the label given to Falungong and many house churches). I don't think that attitude has changed much on a broad scale.

For the "sects" themselves, the result is often a kind of "encystation" in which originally missionary religions like Islam and Catholicism are transformed into quasi-ethnic or indeed simply ethnic communities. (Hui or Chinese-speaking Muslims are a designated minority nationality in China.) In these communities, rural villages are basically mono-religious. Girls marry in from the pagan villages, but pretty much all convert due to the social pressure; if girls marry out, they are soon ridiculed out of keeping their Catholic or Muslim faith. Urban communities have more open boundaries, but again primarily recruit by marriage. Rural Protestant Hakkas (a subethnic group among the Han Chinese) have been similarly "encysted." (This author is a great ethnographer of the Christian Hakkas.)

Will Chinese Protestants as a whole go this route? I have my doubts. I think the danger there is different. Since the 19th century, a certain strain of liberal Protestantism has been very powerful among Chinese converts, which meets the "selfish sectarian!" charge by claiming that in fact it is Christianity (i.e. Protestantism) which is the key to modernizing and democratizing China. Chinese nationalism, the 1911 revolution, the 1927-28 Kuomintang revolution, indeed Chinese Communism, far from being simply the enemy of Chinese missions were in part breed among Chinese Christians in foreign-run mission schools (Ryan Dunch as argued this here - - another review here.) I found one such "reform Mongolia and China through the social gospel" Christian in my research on remote Inner Mongolia as well.

This may be great: if democracy is great and so is Christianity, why aren't they even greater together? The problem is, that there's a strong tendency for such "public spirited" Christians to gradually wind down their commitment to Christianity and simply argue for political change. The pervasive dominance of "man is good and only needs right education" ideas in Chinese political culture makes moralism a grave danger. The search for democratization and political reform in China through Christianity has done little for either democratization or for Christianity (I will just note here my own cranky, but very well-founded, opinion that the overthrow of the Manchus in 1911, heartily welcomed by Chinese Christians, was the biggest disaster in the country's twentieth century history).

And finally, even if Christians become a majority without watering down their religion, will they really change the public discourse? Again, I wonder. Here my skepticism is based on the example of similarly Confucian South Korea, where Protestants and Catholics are, together, about half of all religious people, with a formal affiliation of 21% of the population. That's far higher than anything we've seen in China yet. But when Asiaweek magazine surveyed the views of Far Eastern elites, they found pro-life attitudes (the best marker of a monotheistic world view in Asia, given the prevalence of abortion/infanticide) noticeably stronger than average only in Malaysia (traditionally Muslim) and the Philippines (traditionally Catholic). (Indonesia would seem to be a Muslim case of a defectively Islamized Asian country.) The reality is, most people in any country are not 'born again' into any fervent religious belief, and it is this "only nominally if anything" majority who set the overall moral tone. The strength of the confessional state idea was that it Christianized (or Islamized) the whole population, thereby rendering the legal/moral assumptions of the non-religious and non-reflective citizen Christian, or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof. That's certainly not a possibility in South Korea or China, and without that I am very skeptical that voluntary conversion will make any great change in China's political or social morals.

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