For those who truly want to know the situation in China for Christians, there is a lot that prevents us to full understanding: circumstances on the ground at the incident site which we may not know, what the environment for religious activity is in the city of the incident and unfortunately some Western organizations and most Western news outlets tend put a negative spin on any story about Christianity in China.
Fortunately, there are some general concepts we can keep in mind when we see a story like the one about Sanjiang Church. The story of this church itself also gives us some additional concepts that are helpful to keep in mind. First the general concepts:
1. Persecution of Christians is not the main story
Persecution of Christians in China today is sporadic and not normative, as some would proclaim. Some simple math shows us the full story. China Aid, an organization in Midland TX, directed and founded by China native Bob Fu, has become the "go to" source for information on persecution in China. Using data from China Aid's 2013 Annual Report on Chinese Government Persecution of Christians and Churches in Mainland China, only .03 percent of all Christians suffered persecution, which means in real terms over 99.97% of all China's Christians practiced their faith without interference. Through this statistical analysis, we see that persecution is not the main story and is important to remember as we understand Christianity in China.
2. China's law and enforcement is still under development and leads to "grey areas"
Without clear laws on religious activity in China and China's continued development in the area of rule of law, China's Christians often operate in a 'grey area' where on one hand they are operating without much interference, but they also are operating in this grey area. In Beijing, for example, while officials seem more than willing to allow unregistered churches to hold Sunday services and conduct church activities during the week uninterrupted, there exist several unspoken rules. Pastors now have regular meetings with their local police office, informing them of activities and making sure activities are not hidden. The majority of Beijing officials give the strong impression that they are happy to operate within a gray area by their willingness to 'look the other way' when it comes to unregistered church groups and for their part, Chinese pastors are thrilled with the new opportunities this presents.
The Sanjiang Church situation also brings up a couple of concepts that help us understand Christianity in China.
3. There is often more to these stories than we know
In many of these stories coming from China, there are issues that when seen in context, it helps our understanding. For example, in reading the accounts of what happened at Sanjiang Church, local authorities were upset because additional buildings were built on church properties that were not on the originally approved building permit. In the West, our authorities also require building permits and would also be upset since they have a responsibility to make sure all buildings are built according to building codes. Building permits cannot be altered or ignored in either country due to safety concerns. If Sanjiang Church built buildings not approved, this becomes a safety issue for local authorities, and not just a "persecute the Christians" story. In many cases, there is "the rest of the story" that we many times don't hear or read and it may take some "digging" to find out the whole story.
4. Chinese citizens knowledge about their rights grows
The local response to the threat to tear down the Sanjiang Church has been overwhelming, with thousands of Christians, many of whom don't even attend Sanjiang Church, forming a 'human wall' around the church to prevent the local bulldozers from coming to tear down the church. This response has also included 24 hour prayer vigils, a march of local pastors highlighting the situation and local Christians openly talking to press and media about the situation. Chinese citizens today are better connected to the outside world and to each other due to social media and the internet, and they know their rights under the Chinese constitution. This information has helped them in their boldness and courage to stand up for rights they know are theirs. This is happening all over China and is an encouraging trend.
Also posted at China Resource Center.
For more information and analysis, read this month's Lantern: The Sanjiang Church Incident: More Than Meets the Eye