The Future and the Church, Part IV: China

Like US exporters eyeing a potential 1.4 billion person market, the Church entering China is one of those white whales for hopeful, growth-minded Latter-day Saints (except with the everlasting gospel of the living God instead of widgets, but you get what I mean). 

Every so often (sometimes rather sophisticated) rumors will spread about how China is in the process of opening up and the MTC is revving up to train missionaries in Mandarin full speed. There have been enough of these rumors that hopefully people have learned to take them with a grain of salt. However, on a deeper level the fundamentals just aren’t there, and probably won’t be for a while. First a caveat: I’m certainly no sinologist. While the track records of area specialists are notoriously bad for predicting major, disruptive political events, I have no reason to think I’m any better, so here we go…

First, the on-the-ground political reality is that, even if they play by all the legal rules (like the Church is scrupulous about doing), the PRC simply does not allow religions the kind of freedom necessary for a religious opening up. If even the Vatican still doesn’t enjoy full freedom in appointing its own bishops, I’m not super optimistic about mission calls to Beijing any time soon, no matter how skilled the Church’s government affairs people are. 

Ultimately, in a very centralized, authoritarian government like the PRC, there’s only one person that matters. The PRC isn’t even like the late-20th century USSR, with a version of “balance of powers,” with different sources of power that could be played off each other and make decisions unpredictable (like opening up a temple in Easter Germany). Consequently, for China to open up the short run, Xi Jinping has to have an unexpected, significant change of heart. However, Xi keeps doubling down on the idea that you can run a successful world class economy without small l liberal values, so I’m putting the odds of that at very low. 

In terms of a successor, I’m assuming he’s also going to stay in power until death. While an unspoken rule against lifetime, single-power rule settled over the ruling class in China in the aftermath (or rubble) of Mao, Xi has dispensed with that, so now we have one person who matters followed by hundreds of high level sycophants and yes-men who essentially try to channel the leader, so there’s little success of cracks opening up between shifting power structures to allow more religious freedom to slip through. 

So, assuming that he’s not going to change and not going to retire, that means we have to wait for a changing of the guard. How long will that take? Xi Jinping is 68. According to the World Health Organization’s life tables, a Chinese man at that age is expected to live for about 15 more years. Of course, given that he has access to the best medicine money can buy, it’s likely that he’ll live for longer. 

What happens after his successor takes over is more speculative. Within 15 years my conjecture is that it will become clear to the Chinese people that their attempted alternative to liberal capitalist democracy will not be able to get them out of the “Middle Income Trap.” Getting the kind of economic development China has enjoyed so far is relatively easy, launching into highly-developed country status is not. Once this becomes apparent and growth stagnates, the CCP might still be in power, but like the Soviet command economy in the 1980s there won’t be a lot of true believers, just careerist apparatchiks, and that might open up the possibility for small-l liberal reforms.  

Of course, maybe not. While there is a possibility that Xi’s successor will be a Juan Carlos and take advantage of sclerotic growth and ideology to make liberalizing reforms, for every USSR or Francoist Spain there is an illiberal Castro or Mugabe figure who stayed in power much longer than people were expecting. It is very possible that an illiberal CCP will govern over a declining China for decades, and those rumored proselytizing mission calls won’t be issued for a while. 

Of course miracles do happen (one of my favorite images in the D&C: “As well might man stretch forth his puny arm to stop the Missouri river in its decreed course, or to turn it up stream, as to hinder the Almighty from pouring down knowledge from heaven upon the heads of the Latter-day Saints”), but they don’t necessarily happen. For whatever reason, there have been many countries shut off from the gospel long periods of time for political reasons, so skepticism about the gospel in China in the short or medium term future is not a matter of lacking faith. There are many other deus ex machina, political change possibilities around the world that haven’t materialized, and it’s not our place to impose timetables on God. When it happens it happens, and there are many other places our missionaries can serve and be productive in the meantime. 


5 comments for “The Future and the Church, Part IV: China

  1. You managed to talk about China without getting serious about religious freedom. I notice you didn’t mention the Uyghurs in western China. You didn’t mention the Chinese indoctrination camps trying to destroy the Uyghur religion and culture. You didn’t mention the Tibetans in southern China. The Chinese wanton destruction of their unique heritage and religion.

    You didn’t mention Pres Nelson’s announcement of a future temple in China. And the Church presidency’s shunning of the Dalai Lama the last time he was in SLC. Maybe Church leaders should consider what is happening to the Uyghur Islamic religion and to Tibetan religious shrines.

    Church leaders are willing to ignore major violations of religious freedom for the sake of a “pie-in-the-sky” temple and questionable access to 1.4 million dollar inhabitants.

  2. I have read this post with great interest, but feel that it was written without too much awareness of what is happening in the PRC to Christianity (and Islam and Buddhism) in general, and to our Church in particular.

    The current government has been cracking down with increasing severity on Catholicism and Protestantism. Both branches of Christianity have official state-approved churches, and so-called underground churches. In some areas of China, underground Churches were able, until recently, to operate with considerable freedom, building impressive chapels and meeting openly. The city of Wenzhou in Zhejiang Province has been nicknamed “The Jerusalem of China” because it has a population that is 10 percent Christian. The Catholic Church is particularly strong in Henan Province. Christian freedom to operate has diminished with the increasing authoritarianism of Xi Jinping, and China is conducting an increasing crackdown against Christians. Of course, when the repression eventually moderates, Christianity will again become more open. The government confidently declared during the Cultural Revolution that Christianity had been eliminated from China, but THAT crackdown only sowed the seeds of further growth. China is a much more Christian nation now, than when the Communists took power in1949. It is still not a significant national actor, though.

    There are several excellent, scholarly books written on Christianity in Communist China. Also on Islam and Buddhism, both the Tibetan and Chinese version; the Chinese version of Buddhism is much more syncretic.

    Religion is not going to disappear in China, despite the current repressive climate. When the going gets tough, people of genuine religious belief just quietly move to the less-noticeable margins, and bide their time.

    As to our church, it has quietly and more or less organically begun to grow in China. Still quite small. PRC members meet separately from expatriate members. The Church tries very hard to operate IAW government restrictions, but often cannot get the PRC government to answer the Church’s requests and questions, leaving the Church to operate in a murky sort of gray. Silence might imply consent, but it also gives the government the option to pull the plug at any time it chooses. I give our Church a good amount of credit for trying to learn to operate with a vague, changeable set of rules, in which what is explicitly stated by the government is often less important than what is NOT stated.

  3. @Roger: The question if when the Church should call out a specific country is a complex one. I’ve got a piece coming out in SquareTwo that more carefully addresses that particular issue, so I’ll punt on that for now.

    @ Taiwan. Thank you for the excellent insights and detail. Who knows, maybe it’s better that the Church grows slowly and organically on the mainland for a while.

  4. I appreciate the article. I have learned that the Chinese think of religion VERY differently than westerners do — indeed, Classical Chinese doesn’t even have a word for religion and a Japanese word was adopted. The entire thought process is different.

    I think a key marker will be whether the Hong Kong Temple ever re-opens (it has been closed since 2019). I tend to think it will not, but It will be a good sign if it does.

  5. Ji:

    Thank you (I guess) for that trenchant observation about the Hong Kong temple. The renovations have been completed, and we are “waiting for announcement on public open house and rededication,” according to a website that tracks progress of temple building. The wording is very vague and tight-lipped. The political situation in Hong Kong has become much more authoritarian, so political considerations are possibly going to weigh in on any church decision about open house and rededication dates. My wife and I were blessed to be present at the original dedication in 1996, and I frequently attended the Hong Kong temple in 2009 when I was there on a long business trip. It would be wrenching if the temple does not reopen.

Comments are closed.