Richard Madsen: Chinese Christians persecuted by Party Nationalism (Part Two)

With the fall of Marxism-Leninism, the Party seeks to gain acceptance as the defender of the glorious Han culture. Christianity and Islam branded as "foreign religions." Bonds with the universal Church viewed with suspicion as "a covenant to the bring the Chinese government down". Persecution in Zhejiang.


San Diego (AsiaNews) - The persecution and control of Christians in China no longer takes place in a Marxist-Leninist atheist setting, but under a new mechanism for social consensus applied by the Party: nationalism. The same party vindicates Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism (though born in India), but remains suspicious of Christians and Muslims as agents of foreign powers.  This is what emerges from the considerations of Prof. Richard Madsen, a sociologist of religions at the University of San Diego (California), engaged in a collaboration with Fudan University in Shanghai and with the "China in the 21st Century" Center in San Diego. Last July, Prof. Madsen took part in a conference held in the United States in San Diego on the religious situation in China and the prospects of freedom and commitment of religions in the country. Later he had a conversation with the vice-director of the Center, Prof. Samuel Tsoi, which the university published as podcasts (

AsiaNews has already published the edited text of the first part of the conversation. This is the second part.

The [Chinese Communist Party] need for control is repeatedly cited, described with a metaphor presented at the conference and in other areas. It relates the legend of the who emperor had to control a flood: which means that the dams must be opened, but controlled; religions are recognized, they can grow, but they are subject to control.

Some statistics show that the number of Christians in China - Protestant and Catholic - has undoubtedly grown from 4 million (1949) to around 70 million (today). So at this rate the number of Christians in China will exceed that of Christians in the US, reaching 200 million by 2030. One of the conference presenters, also introduced a study of a church located in the hometown of Confucius, which became the occasion of a symbolic clash between Confucianism and Christianity. At the same time Christian organizations record state repression against Christian churches and tensions have seen a spike in the Xi Jinping government. An NGO for the rights of Christians has reported several cases of disappearances and arrests of pastors and hundreds of crosses removed, especially in Wenzhou (Zhejiang), which is known as the Jerusalem of China.

What do these frictions between church and state tell us about China’s search and battle for an  ideological, religious, spiritual and cultural identity?


Part of this stems from nationalism. As I said it is a way to celebrate the glory, the wisdom of Chinese culture. Chinese culture is the Han culture, which covers about 92% of the Chinese population in China. It is distinct from culture of the Uighurs in the west, from the Mongolian culture and so on. The founding of the Han culture is traditionally taught and carried forward by Confucius and his school, along with the teachings of the Taoists and then - in the first millennium of the common era - Buddhism which has become truly indigenous so that in Chinese there is talk of a " Han transmission of Buddhism ". This is considered entirely Chinese although we know that Buddhism has Indian origins. Then there is the Tibetan Buddhism, but it is a of a different type and a different style. In the Imperial era, especially during the last two dynasties, these different traditional parts of Chinese culture were mixed: the people learned all of them, and they applied Confucianism to relationships and family values; They practiced Taoism in case of illness or medical interventions or something; They practiced Buddhism when they prayed for the dead. So they combined and mixed all of these aspects in the practices of Chinese culture. From this point of view, Christianity, rightly or wrongly, was viewed as a foreign religion that appeared in the 17th century and was seen as "alien." The Christian faith was considered even "alien" when Christians tried in many ways to adapt to Chinese culture - especially certain groups like Catholics with the Jesuits in 1600-1700 and Protestants at other times – even trying to "indigenize" various aspects of faith. But another group followed a hard line of no compromise in a mixture of positions.

So many Christians have said: We are Chinese, we have adopted Chinese culture, and in fact we are patriotic. But in general terms this type of claim left the mark on Christianity as a foreign religion. In addition, there is also the problem that the government sees Christians as part of a global community with ties around the world that could potentially drive them to form an alliance to overthrow the Chinese government. This opens up another question, and it is still a general perception. It follows that in the name of this nationalism, Christianity needs to be strictly controlled. It must be said that no religion like  Christianity has a capacity to adapt to different local cultures, [visible] for example, between the so-called national minorities, these small groups of non-Han Chinese who are located mostly in the west of China. Many Christian missionaries have done wonderful things like transcribe their oral culture, learn their language, adapting to local customs, converting entire tribes and communities, encouraging them to preserve their local culture. But this is not something positive for the Chinese government because they – this is what they say - instead should absorb the Han culture. Thus, the Christian adaptation to culture in China is not the same thing as making Han culture the only culture in China, which is the current policy of the government. And that's a problem. I also believe that the encouragement of local popular religion in the country was done with an eye to stopping the development of Christianity, to compete with it. A certain kind of political elite sees the growth of Christianity as highly problematic. This was especially visible last year and with harsh consequences, as you said, churches have been demolished, the people were forced to cover the crosses, the pastors were arrested and so on ... All of this is focused on Christianity, on problem areas that Christianity has for the government. And I think that this trend will not end in the near future.