Saturday, February 23, 2013

Why are foreign missionaries tolerated in China?

A report appeared yesterday in the Guardian about the activities of foreign Christian missionaries in Tibet.

Although I am well aware of the extent of missionary activity in China, even I was a bit surprised at the idea that Christianity might be making inroads into Tibet. After all the Tibetans, unlike the Han, have an extremely vital religion of their own which is intrinsically bound up with their ethnic identity, and it seems unlikely that they would easily give it up. The article claims that estimates of the number of Tibetans who have converted to Christianity range "from zero to thousands", so it would seem like the missionaries are fortunately (from my viewpoint) not having much success.

The Guardian suggests that the Chinese authorities tolerate foreign missionaries partly because they are seen as a counterforce to Tibetan Buddhism, which is highly bound up with Tibetan irredentism and identity. Personally I find this explanation rather unlikely. The article suggests that the main center of missionary activity is the city of Xining. For those of you not familiar with the region, Xining is the capital of Qinghai province, a Chinese province which geographically lies mostly within the Tibetan plateau.

Although this province is historically part of Tibet, only 20% of its population is now actually Tibetan, and it is administratively distinct from the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), which is considered to be the proper Tibet. While foreigners need a special visa to visit the TAR, and can only do so in tour groups, in Qinghai there are no specific restrictions any more than there are in the rest of China. If foreign missionaries operated in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet proper, I would find that much more surprising, and necessitating a special explanation. However, that does not seem to be the case.

I would imagine that the reason why missionaries are tolerated in Qinghai province is the same reason that they basically seem to be tolerated throughout China.Western reporting on Christians in China often seems to focus on how the Chinese government represses or censors Christians. It is true that legally foreigners are not allowed to proselytize in China (whatever their religion). It is also true that officially all religious believers have to belong to one of the officially sanctioned religious organizations, which are under strict government control. It is true that the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association is obliged to accept the bishops which the Chinese government appoints, rather than the ones the Vatican appoints, leading to the Vatican not recognizing the only official body of Chinese Catholics. It is also true that there have been cases of leaders of unregistered "house churches" being arrested and their followers being harassed.

The truth is, however, that beyond the well publicized cases of persecution (which may depend on the whims of local authorities, especially if they take place in rural areas) and beyond the seemingly restrictive legislation, if you live in China you do not get the feeling that the central government is exactly hell bent on stopping foreign missionaries, or on preventing Chinese people from being Christian. American evangelical missionaries seem to operate pretty freely, like the ones who go to Renmin University's famous English corner on Friday night and use the occasion to preach to dozens of impressionable Chinese students. Apparently one of them was once detained recently after a member of the public made a complaint. The police just questioned him and then let him go, and he was back at the English corner preaching the following week.

Foreign English teachers who use their position as a cover to proselytize among their students are also quite common, and no one seems to care or do anything about them. Chinese young people who consider themselves Christians seem to receive no trouble for it, even when they do not subscribe to one of the officially sanctioned churches. There is a rule that Communist party members are not allowed to follow a religion, but I doubt even that is taken too seriously.

I don't know the reason why the Chinese government is so reluctant to confront foreign missionaries and unregistered churches, but I can advance a hypothesis: since there are many questioning young people in China who aren't satisfied with just focusing on making money (China's current national obsession), perhaps the government would rather they joined nonsensical religious groups, fearing that otherwise they will end up in movements with a more political bent. After all, having read Marx when they were young, some of China's leaders perhaps remember the phrase on religion being the "people's opium", and have decided that they could use some of this opium in China too.