Source: www.freeimages.com

In February, we considered the prospects for the Arab Spring, but almost as soon as pro-democracy demonstrations broke out from Morocco to Syria, the Chinese government moved quickly to nip any green bamboo shoots in the bud.

Since the infamous Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, the government of China has come to a tacit agreement with its burgeoning middle class: the government will deliver ever-increasing prosperity in exchange for domestic order.  And, by and large, this agreement has lasted.  As bicycles give way to BMWs on the streets of Beijing and Shanghai, demands for change have been few and far between.  The more the average Chinese citizen owns, the more he risks by protesting.  As long as the massive Chinese economy keeps powering ahead, the Communist Party seems secure.  So it has skilfully deprived any potential protest movement of many of the educated middle-class people who might be expected to co-ordinate and propel it.

But are the cracks beginning to appear?  Last month’s National Geographic Magazine reports that there are estimates (accurate figures are not published by the Chinese government!) of at least 100,000 strikes and demonstrations taking place each year.  Most of these are protests against low wages, poor working conditions, or land takeovers, but once people feel free enough to protest over economic issues, they are equally free to protest against a political system that disempowers them and causes their economic condition.  And despite the rising prosperity of China, there are still many millions of poor people who are not enjoying the benefits that the factory owners are experiencing.  That creates a potentially revolutionary situation, which could easily flare up into mass protests, as we have witnessed in Egypt and other countries.

This is a situation which will make the Chinese government very nervous.  Aware of its vulnerability, it has been quick to pre-empt any challenges.  While it is perhaps not surprising that China has cracked down on high-profile protesters like artist Ai Weiwei and Nobel prize-winning writer Liu Xiaobo to prevent them becoming leaders of a protest movement, what does this mean for the church in China?  Although the government has relaxed its opposition to the church in recent years (see our report in July last year) it still recognises that the church owes no specific loyalty to the government, and it has therefore taken steps to demonstrate that it is not going to tolerate the church becoming the nucleus of a protest movement.  In the last few months there has been a significant crackdown on unregistered churches, and church officials across the country have been detained.

One such target church is the high profile Shouwang  ‘house church’ in Beijing, which has about 1,000 members.  In April it was told to leave the premises it met in, and has subsequently been meeting in a park.  Its pastor has been under house arrest for nine weeks and many members have been arrested for praying in public.  Prior to the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre on 4th June, many church members were threatened by police or put under temporary house arrest to make sure they couldn’t demonstrate.  However there is no evidence that this church was planning demonstrations, although its persistence in meeting together is technically civil disobedience.

Another interesting development is that following a number of extremely positive articles about the church in China in the official state website China Daily in the last couple of years, the last article specifically about the Chinese church was published on 11th April in response to Shouwang church’s open-air meetings, and was a clearly political appeal to Christians to abide by the law and to stay away from open-air meetings.

It is abundantly clear that despite its efforts to show the world that it is positive towards the church, the Chinese government distrusts the revolutionary potential that it believes the church represents.  There could be more difficult times ahead for Chinese believers.

Please pray for the church in China, that it would:

  • continue to meet together without fear
  • have the faith to resist intimidation and not capitulate to threats
  • see God at work powerfully despite the challenges