Scholar: Truth Behind Rumors of 'Illegal Religious Activities in Rural Areas' under Shijiazhuang’s Outbreak

Rural Christians in China
Rural Christians in China (photo: Kong Deji)
By Kong DejiJanuary 20th, 2021

Recently, the media hyped the religious activities taking place in rural areas due to the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in Shijiazhuang. The self-created media articles were extremely biased, but they were not groundless because those writers did regard religious issues from a professional perspective. Yet, as a researcher who has been focusing on rural religious issues for many years, I feel it is necessary to share my views in order to clarify many issues.

Many media placed the responsibility of the Hebei outbreak on Catholicism. Online rumors claim that a religious gathering took place in the Catholic Xiaoguozhuang Village in Gaocheng some time ago. Many European priests attended the gathering without any precautionary measures. It was believed that these missionaries brought the European virus here…

As of January 10, China saw 95 new local COVID-19 infections and 18 new imported positive cases, 82 reported in Hebei, according to the National Health Commission.

On the day when rumors were spread (January 7th), Shijiazhuang Catholic Patriotic Association and Shijiazhuang Catholic Diocese denounced the rumors, clarifying that Xiaoguozhuang Village and three others mentioned were not Catholic villages. Up to the day of dispelling the rumors, only one of the confirmed cases in Shijiazhuang was a Catholic believer. After checking with two priests, they said that there had been no foreign visitors since this past winter.

However, public opinion of "underground illegal missionary activities" did not stop the rumors. So, on China's Twitter WeChat and Zhihu, a Chinese question-and-answer website there was an increase in stories of people's impressions of Christianity resulting in articles such as "Never Imagined Before: Religious Activities in Xiaoguozhuang Village in Shijiazhuang Led to the Fall of the Whole Village to the Pandemic", which shifted the responsibility of the pandemic to the local religion and believers.

What religion do Shijiazhuang farmers believe in?

As I had expected in advance, the rumors that the Shijiazhuang Catholic Patriotic Association acted against were not true. The media and netizens were not professional enough to distinguish Protestantism from Catholicism. Bishops in parishes around the world are usually appointed by the Holy See of the Vatican, but the situation of Catholicism in China is a bit special. At the beginning of the founding of the People's Republic of China, many bishops in parishes in China were foreigners. In 1951, these foreign bishops were deported, so many parishes lost their bishops for a while. Catholicism in Chinese also cut off contact with foreign countries at that time and tried self-propagating, self-supporting and self-managing. At that time, Christianity established the "Three-Self Patriotic Movement Committee" and Catholicism established the "Catholic Patriotic Association". Because Catholicism has "subtle" Vatican factors, Chinese Catholicism has been thought to be "underground".

Below I’ll talk about how I concluded in advance that Xiaoguozhuang Village was a Protestant village but not Catholic as rumored.

First of all, since China’s reform and opening up, Christianity has made great progress in China while Catholicism has basically not grown. According to the statistics, in the early days of the People's Republic of China, there were less than 3 million Catholics and 700,000 Protestants in China. In recent years, according to the official data released by China, there are 6 million Catholics and 38 million Protestants. I think one of the reasons for the relatively rapid growth of Protestantism is that Christians are more active in evangelizing than Catholics.

In the past 70 years, the newly-added Catholics have mainly been family members. Usually, if you are born in a Catholic family, you are naturally a Catholic, which is similar to Islam. The change in the population of believers is directly proportional to the change of the population of families with relevant religious backgrounds.

Based on the above knowledge and by evaluating the two gatherings in the village of Xiaoguo on weekdays, I believe that the infected villagers in Xiaoguo Village are Protestants.

Is the Christian gathering in Xiaoguo Village legal?

I don't think "illegal religious activities in rural areas" is an important reason for the spread of the pandemic.

Let's talk about religious gatherings held in believers' homes. A home is not a religious place, but elderly believers aren’t mobile, so they are allowed to have a gathering in their own home in China. One of the modes of Christian management in China is "the church oversees gathering points", that is, meeting points belong to a nearby legal church, and these churches have legal places for religious activities - the Christian churches. So these meeting points nominally belong to a church and they can organize small-scale religious activities without obtaining permission from the places for religious activities.

In addition, let's talk about the "anti-pandemic" training of the elderly Christians in Xiaoguo Village. According to the information of confirmed cases that have been exposed so far, there were five people attending the gathering in Xiaoguozhuang. The actual number of people attending the gathering is unknown. According to the usual scale of this kind of gathering, if there are about 10 people, it is just the number of people for a family dinner. We should know that the keynote of mainstream media coverage in the past half year was: the situation here is uniquely better and the society is running in an orderly way. Hebei, as a non-important pandemic area, had a gathering of 10 people, which is an acceptable number. Even if there were more people at the gathering, the number of people participating in the activities was far less than that of the local people participating in recent weddings and funerals. Therefore, it was even more impossible to label the elderly as "unreliable". With the low educational level of the elderly, it is wrong to assume that they are of low quality and cause trouble in society.

Public discourse on persons living in rural areas and on Christianity, in general, is naturally biased.

In fact, rural people have long faced the prejudice of urban people, and because they have no right to speak, there is no way to refute them. In addition to the rural churches, the Christian beliefs of many people at the bottom of society are often trampled by the words created by social elites. For example, in these words with obvious hegemony, they also actively participate in religious activities. When describing rural believer groups, they refer to them as fanatics, but when describing cities and intellectual groups, they are called pious. The same prayer is understood as "utilitarian" when describing peasant believers, and "spiritual" when describing urban believers. It is also concerned about the surrounding social problems, and the peasant believers are either ignored or labeled as impacting the grassroots governance order. The same behavior, which occurs between urban believers and intellectuals, is often interpreted as having a sense of social responsibility and representing the development direction of civil society. The bottom layer represented by peasants is often one end of dualistic values and represents one end of ignorance.

In addition to Buddhism, Taoism, and traditional beliefs of various ethnic groups, Christianity and Islam are often targeted by anonymous netizens. Moreover, some low-level academics frequently put forward policy propositions that obviously violate the principle of religious freedom that is a part of the Constitution, causing confusion in the thinking of the administrative staff of local departments. Finally, it incited the contradiction between religious people and non-religious people, which led some local authorities to interfere with the normal religious practices by improper administrative means.

Thankfully, since the recent outbreak of the pandemic in Hebei Province, the specific statements of the relevant departments of Hebei Province and the notification of pandemic prevention and control in Beijing have been fair and rigorous, showing a high professional level.

As a religious scholar, I hope that through the popularization of knowledge and the sharing of personal views in this paper, we can alleviate some misunderstandings in society and promote the development of society in a harmonious and rational direction.

(The first draft was written on January 9, 2021, revised on the 10th and the 13th. The original text was published in the "Pickup of the Field" in an official WeChat account.)

- Translated by Charlie Li

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