Not Exactly Jesus in China

I’ve long been an admirer of Evan Osnos and the fine reporting that he’s done for the Chicago Tribune and the New Yorker. He has a keen and subtle eye that finds narratives, and details, where other reporters might only find platitudes.

So it was with some anticipation that I awaited his latest work, “Jesus in China,” ambitiously billed as an examination of the transformative effects of China’s ongoing, and explosive, Christian awakening. Developed jointly by the Chicago Tribune and the PBS Frontline documentary series, the project includes two components: a series of articles published by the Chicago Tribune, and a 30-minute Frontline documentary.

Osnos has received quite a bit of praise for this work, with some going so far as to call it groundbreaking. I’m sorry to say that I disagree. In many ways, in fact, I find “Jesus in China” to be a step backwards from the more nuanced understanding of contemporary Chinese Christianity that has developed over the last few years, especially from reporters (like Jim Yardley of the NYT) willing to delve into the complicated dynamics that exist in today’s “open” church communities.

Alas, for reasons that are known only to Osnos and his editors, “Jesus in China” concerns itself almost exclusively with “underground” church communities. This approach would be justifiable if the reporting was billed as an examination of underground churches in open conflict with local authorities. But it’s not. Instead, it’s billed as “Jesus in China” – that is, it’s designed to be a comprehensive examination of how Chinese Christianity “could potentially transform China at an explosive moment in its development.”

Does Osnos accomplish this task?

For nearly three decades, most foreign reporters have looked at China’s Christians and automatically assumed that the spiritual life of those who belong to churches licensed by the Chinese authorities are somehow less authentic than those who don’t. Buoyed by misleading labels like “underground” and “official” (as applied to China’s divided Christians), this view of Chinese Christianity has real power – nevermind the fact that it obscures the far more subtle reality of Chinese Christian life, especially as it exists among open communities. And, for that matter, it marginalizes the spiritual life of the tens of millions of Chinese Christians who choose to worship in churches registered with – but not run by – local governments. It also overlooks the real accomplishments that have arisen from open communities – including reformed liturgies, the re-establishment of Chinese religious education, and some of China’s most vibrant social service programs – not to mention the establishment of government-recognized institutions with an implicit interest in expanded religious freedom.

Thus it’s a pity to see “Jesus in China” get lost in labels. Repeatedly, and interchangeably, Osnos refers to the “state church,” the “official church,” the “state-controlled church” and “the state controlled church known as the Three Self Patriotic Movement” without pausing to examine whether there is, in fact, a state church in China (much less a brief consideration of the centuries-long regulation of Christianity in China). To be sure there are government-established organizations that have oversight and registration powers over China’s churches (the Catholic Patriotic Association in the case of Catholics; the Three Self Patriotic Movement in the case of post-denominational Protestants), but they are independent and distinct from the churches themselves (I touched on this issue in “Keeping Faith” from the July/August 2007 issue of The Atlantic). That is to say: there is no state-church in China. This is a simple but important fact, recognized by Western religious leaders from the Pope, to the Archbishop of Canterbury (see the Pope’s 2007 Letter to China’s Catholics, and this press release from Canterbury), and it is the foundational justification for, say, the Pope’s current effort to reconcile China’s divided Catholic communities (as Rome has repeatedly stated: there is only one Church in China).

Another important point overlooked or unknown to Osnos: laity and clergy who belong to respective churches may belong to the associations – but they are not required to do so, and haven’t been required to do so, in years. I personally know of priests and nuns who live and work in open church communities without patriotic memberships. And, to a person, they prefer to be called “open” or “registered” Christians to reflect their choice to worship in churches registered with the government. There is nothing state-established or official about them.

Unfortunately, Osnos spends almost no time interviewing open church figures or leaders. And when he does touch on the subject, he or others implicitly or directly impute the motives and reality of open Christian life – nevermind the fact that it is reality for tens of millions of Chinese. Consider, for example, this passage from the synopsis to “Jesus in China.” The quote is provided by an underground pastor when asked about the open Church:

“The pastors and ministers are all hand-picked and trained by the government. They’re guided by the Communist Party’s philosophy,” says Zhang Mingzuan. “But they haven’t given their hearts to Jesus. They’ve given their hearts to the country, and the Emperor.”

The first half of this quote is provably false: Chinese seminarians are very much a self-selected bunch, and – if anything – restrictions on admission are designed to keep away those who lack the maturity to enter. Likewise, distinguished foreign teachers have been resident in China’s Catholic seminaries for two decades (including the current Cardinal Archbishop of Hong Kong, Joseph Zen, for extended periods in the 1980s and 1990s), and few of them could be painted as tools of any political party. On a recent trip to China, the Archbishop of Canterbury expressed an interest in expanding partnerships with Chinese seminaries, and instituting exhanges. Whatever the case, Osnos doesn’t bother to verify Rev. Zhang’s false claim, but instead allows it to flow into his overall, sensationalistic narrative of underground Christians on the run throughout China. Of course, there is little question that there are “underground” communities that are harassed and even persecuted. But the question is: are they representative of Chinese Christian life, or its future?

Consider, the label “underground church,” and its implicit suggestion of Chinese Christians praying in the proverbials catacombs. In point of fact, there were once Chinese underground churches – during parts of the Qing Dynasty and during the Cultural Revolution, when religion (or Christianity, in the case of the Qing) was totally outlawed. But that has not been the case since the late 1970s. Today, even most “underground” churches operate openly with little to no interference from local governments (thus, I prefer to refer to them as “unregistered”). Undoubtedly, there are local governments and officials who take umbrage at the idea of religious gatherings without government registration, and harass those communities. But most don’t. Put differently: the majority of China’s, say, 70 million Christians, are not on the constant run from the authorities. That is to say, they, too, live lives as complicated and nuanced as those in the open church.

[Osnos is an experienced China reporter, and he surely knows that local enforcement of laws – religious or otherwise – varies throughout China, and rarely reflects the desires of the national government that writes them.]

Just to be clear: I don’t deny the existence, or the suffering, of China’s unregistered Christians over the last sixty years. And neither am I an apologist for Chinese religious policies, nor the the excesses of local governments that still harass believers. But, unlike Osnos, I don’t overlook the existence, suffering, and accomplishments of China’s many millions of registered Christians over the same period. To tell the story of one, without accurately explaining the circumstances of the other, is to tell an incomplete story that distorts a more complicated reality. This is precisely the failure of “Jesus in China,” and I sincerely hope that Osnos, the Chicago Tribune, and Frontline will make an effort to re-balance it at some point in the future.


  1. I’m glad that somebody had the gumption to call Osnos out on this crap. But I hope somebody other than me reads this blog.

  2. Some very compelling writing! I’ll have to watch the Frontline doc; haven’t seen that yet. And I’ll revisit the Osnos Chicago Trib pieces with your critique in mind. Thanks much for this!

  3. Osnos was sold a bill of goods by right wing Christian groups in the US. Go take a look at the comment section on the Frontline site. The very first comment is from Bob Fu, this wacko anti-communist activist who’s made a career and a small industry out of exaggerating how bad China’s religious freedom situation is. He’s Joe Kung for Protestants. Fu claims that he provided Osnos with his sources, which shouldn’t surprise anybody considering the tone of the piece. The documentary reads like it was filmed in 1985. I guess I’m surprised that Osnos didn’t do better research into who Fu was. What kind of source then posts a claim that he provided information to a reporter on a sensitive topic? .

  4. This is really disappointing because I, too, was looking forward to this Frontline. It could have been an opportunity to present a story I would expect from Frontline. Something that challenges expectations and really illustrates the complexities. Something that makes it difficult for the viewer to come down heavily on one side.

  5. In this as in other matters running from scrap to religion you, Adam, are inconvenient to conventional opinion. Well written and thank you.

  6. LL – You’re right! Bob Fu is the first person to comment on the Frontline site. Hillarious!

  7. Somebody by the name of Rev. X left the Frontline “fairness” guidelines as a comment. Generally, I am loathe to delete comments, and I almost never do it. But, in this case, not only was the comment a bit too long, I must also suggest that it was also a bit too much. Thus, comment gone.

  8. Thank you very much for this blog. My husband and I lived in Suzhou for two years 2002 to 2004. While there we attended a registered church run by some of the best young pastors that I have seen anywhere in the world. I wish that somebody would tell their story. I did not know the underground church while I was there but I am sure they have trouble. But that is just one side. There are many good Christian people in China who choose to worship in regestered churches and they are not communists. I wish the frontline could understand this. Thank you for this post.

  9. as a catholic, i was truly disappointed that osnos totally ignored the catholic church in china. at least, from the segemnts of the report that i have read/seen. adam, you wrote such a great critique of osnos’ work, thank you very much. why don’t you write a book on the situation of christianity in china today

  10. Paul-

    I, too, was puzzled by the fact that he left out any mention of Catholicism. A familiarity with the current situation, and especially the current efforts at rapprochement between the two divided wings of Chinese Catholicism, might have changed his perspective on the overall Christian situation. In fact, I’m sure of it.

    As for a book on Chinese Christianity – yes, I plan on doing that in the next few years. Stay tuned!

  11. Adam,

    I think this is a good critique of the written articles, but I just finished watching the frontline piece and it seems to cover more ground. Especially interesting was the scene in the large Christian church near Beida, and the interview with their pastor (too short).

  12. TjH –

    I’m not sure that I agree. True, the documentary takes us into a registered church in Beijing. But the sequence is – as you note – very brief, especially as compared to the rest of the documentary. During that short sequence Osnos makes no effort to explore what it means to be a registered religious believer in China. He doesn’t ask – “Why are you registered?” in the same way that he asks why are you underground? The interview with the pastor was cursory, at best, and really provided him no opportunity to explain his role – as a leader of a registered congregation – before shifting back to the on-the-run underground communities. The mere fact that so little time was spent with a registered community implies (to viewers, I think) that the reality of Christian life is represented by the sorts of underground communities shown – almost to the total exclusion of other communities – in the documentary. But that’s just not the case.

    Anyway, thanks for the comment. I think we’re both waiting for the “Director’s Cut”!

  13. My son is currently in China on his fourth mission there, and his organization is not acknowledged or officially allowed to minister to the young Chinese. They must shroud their activities in other guises, rarely even saying “Jesus,” except in private, and even their emails and Skype calls are monitored. They are followed by the police and very closely monitored.

    Exactly what is that China fears of Christianty? Isn’t it the only way they will, in generations to come, do away with the bribery and corruption that exists in Chinese business dealings? Isn’t it one of the ony possible avenues to the true capitalist nation China seeks to become? That isn’t a rhetorical question; if someone has the answer to offer, please post it.

  14. Bill – Thanks much for your comment and insights.

    In my experience, China (meaning the Party and the bureaucracy)isn’t afraid of Christianity (or Islam, Buddhism, etc)per se. What it fears is any organization that might offer – in the eyes of the authorities – an alternative to the Party. There’s quite a bit of history behind this, dating back to the imperial times. In a more recent context, the Chinese authorities still often cite the anti-communist opposition of Shanghai’s Catholic hierarchy during the 1940s and 1950s as proof that religious organizations require oversight and regulation (likewise, they take a very dim view of the Catholic Church’s role in Easter Europe’s “Color Revolution” in the late 80s).

    Thus, right or wrong, foreign missionaries are still often viewed as no better, and no different, than foreign organizers of counter-revolutionary activities. And no, I’m really not exaggerating here.

    Some of this is changing. Foreign religious figures are – under strict circumstances – welcomes to preach and teach in China. But it must be done under the strict auspices of the registered religious authorities. For better or worse, these are the contexts in which your son’s missions are probably being viewed.

  15. hello adam. Very enlightening article. I have just returned from a 6 month mission to central China. Being a Chinese-American, and fluent in Mandarin, I have the advantage of blending into the culture and seeing things that other foreigners may not be privy to. I have been to registered churches in big cities like Shanghai and Beijing who have much more freedom than in other parts of the country. As you surely know, however, in China, everything is not always as it seems. I will tell you that the government operates very differently in different parts of the country. I personally witnessed the arrest and detainment of house church leaders who have been trying to register their church for 20 years. Over the 6 months I was in western china, house church leaders faced a degree of government persecution to a degree that I did not think occurred in the world today. Of course, their activities were very much open to the public and by no means “underground”. However, their registrations were ignored by different facets of the massive bureaucratic machine, and in this Olympic year, and esp after Tibet, it seems the government is paranoid of any groups that may answer ultimately to an authority other than themselves. I think that there is merit to what you say, and to Mr. Osnos’ piece. China is a vast country with much diversity, even in government view of religion. I will say this much–“unregistered” churches are by NO means free of discrimination. I acknowledge that you only wanted to report the “other side”, so to speak, and you do a wonderful job and offer a valid critique of Mr. Osnos. However, his piece brings attention to something very important: the very real suffering of many believers in China by a government that extols is own “religious freedom” to the world, but can be draconian in its dealings with those who try to exercise that freedom. And for that, I applaud him. As with any government, the Chinese government’s top priority is not so much the people, but the continued establishment of their own power. However, in all my travels, I do not believe I have been to any other country where “big brother’s” arms were longer.

  16. Christopher –

    Thanks for the excellent comment.

    If I left the impression that underground churches are free of discrimination, I didn’t mean to. I’m very aware that harassment and persecution persists, and that it tends to happen away from the big cities. Like so much else in China (religious laws to environmental laws), the quality and character of specific local governments makes all the difference. Generally, out in the countryside, the quality of those officials is quite bad, and harassment happens. No doubt about it.

    And, of course, this year, an Olympic year, and the year of the Tibetan uprisings, the security forces are more vigorous than ever. And, unlike more “normal” times, they have the tacit support of national authorities.

    Still, I feel that it’s important to balance out the dark side of China’s religious situation with the more complicated and less coercive reality faced by many if not most believers. You can’t have a complete understanding of China’s religious situation without both.

    In either case, thank you for this excellent post and witness. I’m grateful that you stopped by to share it.

  17. You write really well, and you ‘know your stuff’. Is your critique really that cutting, that strong? (And I’ve not see the documentary) Help me understand this…why, if registering is so inoffensive, wouldn’t all of the Chinese on the program do so? They’re lying that they’ve needed to run from the cops? There’s never? any backlash against religiosity in China? You may be American, I don’t know. Churches here need not register with the government. China must need to make job slots since it has so many people, I suppose. As for the priests you know, and you’re linking to the Pope’s letter, well, of course, there is but One Church. That is to say, anyone receiving orders from a fake ‘bishop’ cannot be understood to be a priest, actually. So, let me know when you expect His Holliness to be visiting Beijing…to consecrate a cathedral into which he can install an Archibishop. Then, I’ll know there is Catholicism in China.

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