Christianity, Communist China, and Power Politics 2

Risk, reward, religion, and rulers.

The first article in this series explained the risks Christianity poses to the popwer of the Chinese Communist governing elites.  Christians have spoken truth to power for two millennia and have often been killed for doing so.  Besides the unfortunate fact that dead folks pay few taxes, killing honest, law-abiding citizens makes people doubt the legitimacy of the regime.

The Confucian religion taught that God expects citizens to obey government because the Emperor was at least semi-divine and his rule was divinely ordained.  He was born to rule, citizens were born to obey.

Rulers have claimed to be gods for a long time.  Egyptian Pharaohs claimed divinity; some Roman Caesars demanded that their citizens worship them.  Generations of Japanese emperors claimed direct descent from Jimmu Tenno, the Sun God; the Kings of France claimed to rule by divine right.

Persuading your subjects that you're god or a close relative helps keep them in line without your having to spend as much money on police.  The most subversive Christian tenet is that all men and women are equal before God.

Divine rule doesn't go down well when your subjects convert to Christianity and learn that all men are sinners, that everyone is equally unworthy before God, and that even the king is subject to God's laws.

The Chinese are well aware that Christianity is a direct threat to their rule, yet Dr. William Jeynes  argues that they may try to get the benefits of being a Christian society without losing power.  Why?  What benefit could Christianity offer that would offset the risk?

The Knife Edge

China came to an inflection point with the Tiananmen Square rebellion when unarmed students challenged tanks because they had nothing to lose.  The ruling elites were on the edge of losing it all; they had to find a way to stop the students from revolting by distracting them with something else.

Beginning with Deng Xiaoping's famous statement that "It doesn't matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice," the Chinese politburo decided to distract their stroppy juniors in the most effective way possible: let them get rich instead of involving themselves in politics.  Most of the younger generation abandoned communism post haste as soon as the powers that be stopped shooting businessmen.

Instead, the powers told everybody to start businesses; the Chinese Boom resulted.  Becoming middle class with the dream of much more made everyone behave better - people now had something to lose and thus an incentive not to riot.

China's economy blossomed until the recent world economic collapsed, and even now it's doing decently.  In the greatest mass increase of wealth in human history, the Chinese converted 300 million people from third world to second world status, with several million making it to first world and beyond.

But China is an enormous place; there are still a billion or so peasants whose lives haven't improved enough to keep them content.  Now what?

The Economic Benefits of Christianity

Christian ethical pronouncements are clear and absolute - thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not commit adultery.  These and principles praising hard, unselfish work have economic benefits to society at large.  The Chinese need every economic lever they can find; Christianity looks good in that respect.

The Chinese aren't the first to make this connection.  Max Weber, a German economist, wrote The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism in the early 1900's.  He argued that capitalism developed in Germany when Calvinism encouraged individuals to work hard and acumulate wealth for investment.  Although he suggested that there were many forces behind capitalism, Weber's term "Protestant work ethic" has become the best-known of his ideas.

Religions such as Hindiusm and Buddhism suggest that virtuous people withdraw from the world into monasteries, which may be spiritually beneficial but aren't economically useful.  What's more, these religions tend to be much more hierarchical: nobody can rise above the caste they're born into regardless of their bank balance, so there's no social reason to work hard.

In contrast, Protestantism suggests that people are equal before God, which implies upward mobility among men.  People can better themselves through vigorous involvement in money-making as illustrated by Benjamin Franklin:

Remember, that time is money. He that can earn ten shillings a day by his labor, and goes abroad, or sits idle, one half of that day, though he spends but sixpence during his diversion or idleness, ought not to reckon that the only expense; he has really spent, or rather thrown away, five shillings besides.[...] Remember, that money is the prolific, generating nature. Money can beget money, and its offspring can beget more, and so on. Five shillings turned is six, turned again is seven and threepence, and so on, till it becomes a hundred pounds.

Chinese have enough work ethic that having people choose welfare over work doesn't seem to be a problem, at least not yet.  In other areas, however, Christianity has a great deal to offer China.

Weber pointed out that Christianity promotes honesty and fair dealing, both of which are necessary for economic growth.  One reason Americans aren't creating new jobs just now is that the Obama administration has been changing the rules to take money from those who rightfully earned it just as corrupt Chinese judges and regulators do.

The Moral Benefits of Christianity

Christianity also promotes morality.  "Thou shalt not commit adultery" means no sex outside marriage, for example.

"The Chinese believe that if the level of immorality that exists today, sexual immorality especially, persists, then the economic strength of the country cannot continue," said Jeynes. "So they very quickly want to teach morality, especially to the young before their economy might indeed collapse."  [emphasis added]

In addition to the normal temptations to abandon morality as people move from farming vllages where everyone knows everybody to anonymous big cities, China suffers from a shortage of women brought about by the one-child policy.  Sons are traditionally valued over daughters.  Enough girls were aborted or killed that in parts of China there are only 70 women for every 100 men.  When a coed posted a note saying she wanted a boyfriend, hundreds of young men appeared.

It's not clear whether Christian morality could cope with such an acute shortage of women, but it couldn't hurt.  Chinese Christians are more fervent than Western Christians because of government persecution; opposition might strengthen the beneficial effects of Christian teaching.

No one knows for sure how fast Christianity is growing in China - some believe that as many as 6 million Chinese convert each year.  History shows that Christianity is a mortal threat to totalitarian governments, but Christian ethical practices might help the economy grow enough to prevent another peasant revolt.

The Chinese government bought 20 years of continued power by abandoning communism.  They probably would find this Bible passage appealing:

Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well.  I Peter 2:13-14

Will Christianity, with its command to obey the government, get them another two decades?  Beyond that, they don't care: today's leaders will be retired and the challenges of the next generation will be someone else's problem.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
Reader Comments

Interesting analysis, now about 5 years old. You're more insightful than the current president Xi Jiping, who seems to me to want to be the Mao. He seems intent on destroying Christianity, judging by the way the government is cracking down on the churches, including the government sanctioned ones. He may lose the many benefits outlines here, but he definitely won't succeed in destroying Christianity in China.

April 16, 2016 12:13 AM

+kc No, that he won't, that's promised.

Matthew 16:18 And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

April 16, 2016 4:23 PM
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