China’s Two-Track Approach to Christianity: Vatican vs. Wenzhou

Publication: China Brief Volume: 15 Issue: 10

Pope Francis.

Beijing and the Holy See are ostensibly as close to establishing diplomatic relations as they have been in over 60 years; yet, little has changed for mainland Chinese Christians. As Beijing turns the screws of ideological authority, those advocating for religious freedom must learn to coax the government out of its defensive stance. If successful, it could change the very nature of what it means to be Christian in China.

Early Prophets

The first missions to China taught an acculturated Christianity. The oldest, Jesus Sutra, refers to God as fo (Buddha); Giovanni da Montecorvino preached in local Uyghur, and Matteo Ricci presented his faith as an extension of Confucian virtues (Nanputuo, November 26, 2009; Internet Medieval Source Book, April, 1996). These experiments in cultural conformity were so successful Pope John Paul II later praised Montecorvino’s “frutti talmente abbondanti (such abundant fruits), and Pope Benedict XVI called Ricci’s apostolate “prophetic” (La Santa Sede, September 8, 1994; La Santa Sede, May 6, 2009). Nevertheless, a 1715 papal bull declared Confucian ancestral rites a sin, and Western missionaries were summarily banned. The 1842 Treaty of Nanking secured re-entry, but it was a pyrrhic victory, as it also initiated the bainian guochi (century of humiliation). Meanwhile, the Taiping Rebellion (1850–1863), history’s bloodiest civil war, proved homegrown Christianity was no less troublesome to Chinese authorities. During the Boxer Rebellion (1899–1901), these events culminated in the nationwide massacre of over 32,000 Christians (The Spirit Soldiers, 1973, p. 339). Eager for change, Pope Pius XII decreed in 1939 that ancestral rites were not idolatrous, thus paving the way for relations with Republican China. In 1949, however, he excommunicated all communists, and two years later, after Communist Beijing began arresting Catholics, he issued his encyclical Evangelii preacones (Announcers of the Gospel), calling it “imperative” to free nations from the “inimical doctrines” of communism, which “reduce the dignity of the human person almost to zero” (La Santa Sede, June 2, 1951). Three months later, the papal nuncio was expelled on espionage charges.

China-Vatican Political Relations

Beijing has two conditions for diplomatic relations: the Vatican must not interfere in China’s internal affairs and it must severe ties with Taiwan. The first is based on Article 36 of the Chinese Constitution, which grants religious freedom but prohibits the “use of religion to […] disrupt social order” (Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, December 4, 1982). Echoing this, the 1997 White Paper states that no organization may threaten the union of the nation (White Paper, October, 1997). The paper quotes the 1981 United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief: “freedom to manifest one’s religion or belief may be subject only to such limitations […] necessary to protect public safety.” The paper then details how religion has historically threatened both national unity and public safety, citing the role of missionaries in the Opium War, their overtaxation of peasants during the Boxer Rebellion and the Vatican’s support of Japanese aggression during World War II. In order to “cast off imperialistic influence,” the paper concludes, Chinese religions must achieve sanzi (“three selfs,” i.e. self-administration, self-support and self-propagation).

To this end, episcopal ordination is now handled by the state-sanctioned Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA). Beijing increasingly allows Vatican approval of ordination, and the Vatican now recognizes most CPCA bishops, but the issue remains turbulent. In 2012, the Vatican excommunicated Rev. Joseph Yue Fusheng, after he was appointed Bishop of Harbin without Vatican approval, and in 2013, Rev. Thaddeus Ma Daqin disappeared after withdrawing from the CPCA to focus on his new duties as Bishop of Shanghai (South China Morning Post, March 17, 2014). Hanoi, which also contests episcopal ordination, recently agreed to Vatican approval of candidates before government confirmation (Christianity in Wenzhou, March 14). This could work for China; however, Beijing shows no interest in compromise.

As for Taiwan, the Vatican is currently the only European nation not to recognize China. Adding insult to injury, the day after Pope John Paul II’s death, Bishop of Hong Kong Joseph Zen announced the Vatican’s readiness to end ties with Taiwan, yet Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian attended the funeral days later. This allowed Chen to enter Europe for the first time as the president of China, an event Frank Ching describes as a “political coup” (see China Brief, April 12, 2005). The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) claimed Chen hoped to “engage in secessionist activities” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, April 8, 2005). When Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation in February 2013, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei repeated Beijing’s two provisos for relations with the Vatican and said he hoped the Pope’s successor would do better (People’s Daily Online, February 18, 2013). Still, when Pope Francis delivered his inaugural mass the following month, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou attended the event. Once again, China was unrepresented.

The Good News

In spite of these slights, Chinese media coverage of Pope Francis is generally neutral, even when he stirs controversy. His 2013 exhortation Evangelii gaudium (Joy of the Gospel), which calls capitalism a “tyranny” that “kills,” and his recent description of the Armenian massacre as “genocide,” both received balanced reporting—although, given Beijing’s professed anti-capitalism, and Turkish President Recep Erdoğan’s description of the Xinjiang conflict as “genocide,” these events needed no blue-penciling (La Santa Sede, November 24, 2013; The Observer, November 28, 2013; PLA Daily, April 13, 2015; The Observer, November 24, 2014). Furthermore, Beijing remains intractable. In August 2014, Pope Francis traversed Chinese airspace en route to Seoul, the closest any pontiff has yet come to visiting China (Phoenix News, August 14, 2014). Minutes later, when asked about a future visit, he replied, “ma sicuro: domani” (but sure: tomorrow)—that is, if the Church is free to pursue its mission (La Santa Sede, August 18, 2014). Four months later, he declined to meet the Dalai Lama, and Foreign Ministry spokesperson Qin Gang responded that China is “always sincere about improving […] relations,” and “willing to continue constructive dialogues […] based on relevant principles” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, December 15, 2014). After he sent a telegram to Chinese President Xi Jinping in January, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying responded that China is “always sincere in improving […] relations” and “based on the relevant principles, China will continue with the constructive dialogue” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, January 22). These wooden replies suggest insincerity, or at best, an unwillingness to compromise.

Domestic Repression and Support

At first blush, such pleasantries contradict Beijing’s domestic policy on religious freedom, which has recently been marked by an ongoing crackdown in Wenzhou. However, this contradiction fades when viewed through the prism of the sanzi doctrine. The primacy of this doctrine is evident in the name of the nation’s largest official Christian group, Sanzi Aiguo Jiaohui (Three Selfs Patriotic Movement). Despite its size, almost half of the country’s Christians still belong to unregistered “house churches,” which are largely run by ethnic Koreans with ties to South Korean affiliates (People’s Daily, August 5, 2014; Dui Hua, February 22, 2012; Christianity in Chinese Public Life, 2014, p. 37).

According to Article 36 in the Chinese constitution, religious groups cannot be “subject to any foreign domination,” so sanzi has justified a recurring government crackdown. This includes the October 2000 arrest of 37 members of South Korea’s World Elijah Evangelical Mission, state official Zhang Jian’s 2003 comparison of Korean Christians to Xinjiang and Tibetan separatists, warnings posted on the official website of the city of Yushu in 2011 calling Korean Christian groups a “national security threat” and the April 2011 ban on all outdoor Shouwang Church services, which is an ethnic Korean-led group and Beijing’s largest “house church” (Dui Hua, February 22, 2012).

In addition to questions of allegiance, immigration violations are also a concern. In 2002, a South Korean national was arrested for helping nine North Koreans flee to South Korea, and in 2009, an ethnic Korean was sentenced to ten years for helping 61 North Koreans escape to Mongolia. South Korean Christians, on the other hand, consider this God’s work, as reflected in a 2014 South Korean film about a missionary who helps North Koreans cross into China, which bore the revealing title Shinibonaen Saram (The Apostle).

By contrast, when the sanzi doctrine is unchallenged, Beijing has shown patience, and even support. For instance, the church in Cizhong, Yunnan, where roughly 80 percent of the locals are Tibetan, was named a national cultural site by the government in 2006 (South China Morning Post, April 6, 2015). “Authorities are generous in sponsoring the local church,” says Father Yao Fei, noting how the government built a new bridge over the Lancong River connecting Cizhong with the main road. Recent church renovations were also paid for with government aid, he added.

Epistle to the Chinese

The Vatican’s failure to grasp the importance of the sanzi doctrine is evident in Pope Benedict XVI’s 2007 letter to the consecrated and lay faithful of China. The letter, which makes conciliatory overtures, is now considered a watershed moment in Beijing–Holy See relations (La Santa Sede, May 27, 2007). Yet, it also claims that the Church bases its mission in China “on the power of God,” seemingly oblivious to the imperial connotations of such phrasing, particularly since Chinese emperors historically legitimized their rule using the Mandate of Heaven. The letter also closes with a tone deaf prayer to Mary, “Queen of China.” Though the Vatican has demonstrated greater cultural sensitivity toward China, the 2007 letter likely only confirms Beijing’s need for the sanzi doctrine.

Recent Revelations

The sanzi doctrine is a bulwark against the destabilizing kind of mission many South Korean Christians desire. And the Cizhong case, which Beijing may simply regard as an instrument of assimilation, is too small and isolated to form the basis of a model for the nation. But there is a way to “expand the pie,” as it were. The city of Wenzhou in Zhejiang province (population three million) is home to the highest rates of Christianity in the nation (11 percent, as compared to the national average, 2 percent), earning it the nickname “China’s Jerusalem.” On February 21, 2013, the Zhejiang provincial government announced a three-year infrastructure and land reform plan known as sangai yichai (Three Reforms, One Demolition). According to a leaked directive, the plan did not explicitly target churches for demolition but rather any and all “illegal buildings” (New York Times, May 30, 2014). Given that Zhejiang has some of the nation’s highest rates of corruption, it is understandable that officials would want to enforce building codes in order to prevent another incident like the 2008 Sichuan earthquake schools corruption scandal, which left 5,000 children dead (10yan, November 8, 2014). But if this were the purpose, one has to wonder why the directive also states that religions are “growing too fast, in too many places, with too much fervor,” or why it stresses “careful” implementation in order to avoid attention from foreign media. Driving the point home, it ends with a chengyu (four-character idiom) advising officials not to shouren yibing (surrender the sword hilt). In other words, stay in control and keep it quiet.

What makes Wenzhou interesting is that it is not only the nation’s most Christian city, but also one of its wealthiest (South China Morning Post, May 17, 2014). Zhao Xiao, a professor of International Business and Economics at the University of Science and Technology Beijing, and formerly the head of the State Council’s Economic Research Center, wrote a 2002 essay entitled “Market Economies with Churches, and Market Economies without Churches,” in which he argued that Christianity would help China’s economy (Danwei, July 16, 2006). Zhuo Xinping, director of the Institute of World Religions at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, which is affiliated with the State Council and one of China’s most prominent think tanks, wrote a 2005 paper that draws on Max Weber’s 1905 The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism to conclude that Christianity has played a vital role in Western economic success and could also work in China (Konrad Adenauer Foundation, June 20, 2005). This view is also popular among Wenzhou’s laoban jidutu (boss Christians), so named because they are literally Christian bosses of companies. A spate of corruption scandals recently hit the city, but if the “Wenzhou model” succeeds, it could be a model for the nation.


Religion, Karl Marx famously opined, is the “Opium des Volkes” (opium of the people), and if the Church can sooth the restless masses, it may be a more useful political tool than Party rhetoric. The Vatican may first need to tailor its message, as it has in the past. China will soon have more Christians than any other country, and its Christians will possibly make up enough of the whole to redefine the faith itself. Meanwhile, the MFA has been patient, hopeful and shows no signs of yielding. Ending the stalemate may require the Vatican to minimize ties with Taiwan and require the Chinese government to allow greater Vatican approval of CPCA bishops. If economic success and Christian faith become entwined in China, Pope Francis may need to refine his 2013 exhortation. In the West, prosperity theology is controversial. But the way to Beijing’s heart might just be the gospel of success.