Chinese authorities appear to be cracking down on Christianity, removing crosses from dozens of churches and demolishing at least a hundred more under the pretense of enforcing building codes. The growing popularity of Christianity, which is officially legal in China, is undeniable. According to analysts, the leadership of China’s ruling Communist party share a fear that Christianity is a political threat. They are probably right to worry.
Unbeknownst to many Westerners, a Christian uprising in China is not without precedent. From 1850 to 1864, in a mass revolt known as the Taiping Rebellion, a peasant named Hong Xiuquan who believed he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ took control of a region of China inhabited by 30 million people. Hong’s “Heavenly Kingdom” movement almost succeeded in dethroning the Qing emperor, but was pushed back by a combined Chinese and European force before it took Beijing.
Hong’s movement was unmistakably religious, as witnessed by his own writings and those of his followers, despite projections of political motives onto his crusade by later ideologues. This fact is not lost on Chinese leadership, who understand the power of religion to move millions.
Christianity’s sphere of influence is at an all-time high, its numbers having swelled over the last half-century. In 1949, there were 700,000 Protestants and 3.5 million Catholics in China. Now, the best estimates are that there are around 40 million Protestants and 12 million Catholics. Even these figures are probably low, because so many Christians worship in secret: it’s now rumored that there are more Christians in China than there are members of the Communist Party, to which 86 million Chinese belong.
The political threat of Christianity to an autocratic state comes in part from Christian theology: whereas traditional Chinese religions tend to view the world through a paradigm of balance or stability, the religion of Christ is fundamentally transformative. To a Chinese Christian, China is good but corrupted. If it becomes fully corrupt, it requires redemption.
Rebellion against the People’s Republic has never hit critical mass, and perhaps it never will. Neither the death of Mao Zedong, rapid industrialization nor the internet appear to have destabilized the robust political system. But this week’s crackdown signals a fear in Beijing that the church could be the catalyst for unrest yet unseen. As Christians across China view images of toppled crosses and bloodied worshipers on social media this week, there might begin to stir in their hearts the seeds of political change.