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Protest and Religion: Christianity in the People’s Republic of China  

Yu Tao

The relationship between religion and protest has been thoroughly discussed in various academic disciplines of social sciences, but there is far from consensus on the topic. Scholars differ significantly in their opinions on how religious values and doctrines shape the mechanisms which link protest and religion, and on how interaction between religious groups, the state, and other secular and religious groups may increase or reduce the likelihood of protests. Contemporary China provides an ideal setting in which to further advance scholarly understanding of roles that religion plays in protest, thanks to its richness, diversity, and complexity of religion, protest, and their relationship. In contemporary China, due to the inherent, profound, and possibly deliberate ambiguities within the state’s legal and regulatory arrangements on religious affairs, the boundaries between government-sanctioned churches and “underground” churches are often blurred. Many Christianity-related protests directly respond to government crackdowns, which are aimed not only at those congregations and groups that are normally considered as “underground,” “unofficial,” or “independent,” but also at churches that have long been tolerated or even officially recognized by the state. Further, while many Christianity-related protests are closely associated with the clash of ideologies in contemporary China, the specific causes of protests differ significantly among Catholic and Protestant churches, and Christian-inspired groups. The ideological incompatibility between the ruling Communist Party and the Catholic Church in China is epitomized by their struggle for authority and influence over the Chinese Catholic community. Until the provisional agreement signed between Beijing and the Vatican in September 2018, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Holy See had been competing fiercely for the authority to approve the ordination of new bishops, with such confrontations triggering numerous protests among Chinese Catholics. Unlike the Catholic Church, many of the Protestant churches that have emerged in the post-Mao era—including most “house” churches that do not affiliate with the state-sanctioned church—have no direct link with the transnational denominations which were active in China before the communist takeover in 1949 and are operated solely by Chinese citizens. However, while many Chinese Protestants display affection toward China and a sense of responsibility for improving their country, some influential Protestant church leaders have turned their progressive theology into social activism since the turn of the 21st century, leading to various forms of protests against the authoritarian policies and politics in contemporary China. Ideological and theological conflicts between different religions or religious schools may also trigger the Chinese state’s suppression of certain religious groups and activities, which often in turn cause protests. In particular, the Communist Party tends to impose extremely harsh repercussions on religious groups that are accused by mainstream Christianity of being “heterodoxies,” like the Shouters and the Disciples. These religious groups are often labelled as “evil cults” and their leaders and members often face legal action or even criminal charges. The protests organized by these religious groups have not only targeted the government but also the mainstream Christian churches that criticize them from a theological point of view. Given the profound ideological and political incompatibility of the CCP and various Christian groups, it is unlikely that Christianity can replicate the close collaborations that Buddhism and Daoism have developed with the CCP since the early 1980s.

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Religious Frames: Falun Gong in China  

Junpeng Li

The crackdown on Falun Gong by the Chinese Communist Party demonstrates the unintended consequences of the deep penetration of politics into religious affairs in an authoritarian regime. Falun Gong emerged in China in the early 1990s as a state-sanctioned health practice, or qigong. Initially it focused on treating physical diseases and promoting general health, and therefore received recognition from the state, which has granted legal status to only the five institutional religions while relentlessly suppressing secret religious societies. Qigong, however, has contained spiritual elements since its inception. In the mid-1990s, Falun Gong began to reveal and highlight its spiritual teachings. While this differentiation strategy brought it a huge following, it sent alarming signals to the ruling Communist Party. As the state sought to curb its influences, Falun Gong responded with open defiance. In particular, its tenets of truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance encouraged the practitioners to launch a “truth clarification” campaign, targeting local political authorities and media outlets. The campaign achieved moderate initial success, but Falun Gong’s persistent and coordinated efforts to demonstrate its “apolitical” nature convinced the state that it was indeed a politically subversive force. Falun Gong’s political defiance culminated in a large, 13-hour sit-in protest near the central government compound in Beijing. Three months later, the state officially banned Falun Gong and mobilized its entire security and propaganda apparatus to eliminate Falun Gong in China.