IT IS NO SECRET that China's leaders have officially delayed the once-imminent arrival of socialist utopia and accepted that religion can continue in the meantime. But Christianity's place in Chinese society remains complex and multifaceted. At the same time that underground Roman Catholic seminaries were being closed in Inner Mongolia in 2012, Christians in other provinces were being elected to municipal positions. Christian churches flourish in many places, while official speeches hint at the limits of tolerance.
In a speech to the Communist Party Congress a year ago, for example, President Hu Jintao spoke of the threat of "international hostile forces" that are "plotting to intensify their imposition of Westernization and division in China." Such remarks implicitly target religions like Christianity that have strong foreign ties. Though Christianity has been present in Chinese culture since the seventh century, it is still widely seen as a foreign import and is vulnerable to worries about Western infiltration. There is some justification for this--almost all of the unregistered Protestant seminaries use American study materials, for example.
In between such political speeches, however, religion has been thriving. Why is Christianity becoming more acceptable to the Communist Party? A cynical view suggests that when religion is out in the open it is more easily controlled. Others point to the social cohesion that Christianity is perceived as bringing- and China is very interested in reducing levels of corruption and economic crime. The belief that the Protestant work ethic brought great benefit to European and American societies still lingers, and leaders have openly discussed how to emulate this source of strength and encourage citizens to become good Christian-style economic operatives. A more liberal stance toward religion is also, of course, a corollary of encouraging economic growth and individual enterprise. It's difficult to encourage entrepreneurship while cracking down on private lives.
One sector of Christianity currently flourishing in China is that of academic theology. University-based theology is a developing feature of Chinese Christianity, and its leaders are distinct both from the top church leaders approved by the state-such as the president of the China Christian Council and the members of the national council of the Three Self Patriotic Movement--and regional church leaders, whether linked to the national TSPM or to unregistered churches and seminaries. In this sector, there are more than 40 master of arts programs in different aspects of Christian studies available in Chinese universities as well as clusters of academics who specialize in such topics as Chinese Christian history or Christian philosophy.
An annual conference on Christianity hosted by the head of the religion department of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences features scores of papers covering a range of theological disciplines. Smaller conferences on these topics abound, as do summer schools on aspects of Christianity for graduate students and young academics. Government cadres join Chinese and foreign academics to tour the U.S. on fact-finding trips about religion. Hong Kong and Beijing academics have been advising the Chinese government on such matters as legalizing house churches.
The Chinese universities support various journals in Christian studies, and every week a new scholarly article appears on a Christian topic, from Augustinian philosophy to canon law to the history of Christianity in Yunnan province. ' Scholars with doctorates in biblical hermeneutics hold faculty positions in comparative literature and religious studies at state universities, where they generally have free rein to do research and teach. Popular Christianity in China is a major topic of research, and recent volumes like Lian Xi's Redeemed by Fire [see review on p. 32] have done much to promote an understanding of nonmainstream churches and sects. …