The Church Fenced In: Religious Resistance and Control in Authoritarian China
The control of religious institutions is of key importance in authoritarian countries. In China, this control manifests in a system of registration and monitoring which seeks to allow religious behavior within bounds. This book project seeks to explore these boundaries, how believers perceive them, how these boundaries are circumvented, and what effect they have on broader solidarity in the face of repression. Drawing on a year of ethnographic field work in Chinese Churches, I specifically study the day to day religious activities of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, China’s officially sanctioned Protestant religious organization.
The book investigates three related questions in its primary empirical chapters. First, it attempts to investigate how political considerations affect an individual’s choice to join a given church. Essentially, do believers perceive the stain of state involvement on state-sanctioned religious institutions? My findings with regards to Christianity show that, since new believers are largely in the dark with regards to internal church politics, political considerations are rare at the beginning of conversion processes, and only come in to play for a small subset of believers who have personal or family involvement with the Communist Party or government employment.
Second, this book investigates how individuals within the state-sanctioned church circumvent state dictates and carve out an independent space for themselves in order to remain attractive to religious adherents. Utilizing data collected during religious services on the number of sleeping congregants during sermons on different topics, I demonstrate that politically tinged, areligious sermons on the Communist Party’s preferred topics are significantly penalized by members who “vote with their eyelids.” In order to remain relevant and popular, religious elites often buck regulations in silent ways, sermonizing on forbidden topics like proselytizing or at times finding ways to engage in prohibited religious education in venues outside the church. Rather than conceptualize this as a separate “gray market” of religion, I see this as integral to the operation of the state religious sphere, as without these outlets state religious groups would wither, lose congregants and lose their usefulness to the state.
In the final empirical chapter, I examine the effect of this kind of state-sanctioned civil society group on the ability of groups to come together in solidarity when facing repression. While the early two chapters show how believers perceive the state-sanctioned Church as apolitical and seek to actively subvert political control, this chapter shows how the Three-Self Patriotic Movement still manages to achieve the state’s goal to control religious movements. Utilizing interviews with Christians who both did and did not directly experience repression, I show that the increased legibility entailed by registered with the Three-Self causes believers to rationalize repression, engage in victim blaming and fragment in the face of repression rather than come together in solidarity.
This project speaks beyond Christians in China to a wide variety of cases, to groups both religious and otherwise. It speaks to literature on why individuals join religious groups, religion under authoritarianism, social movements and repression.