Urban Three-Self-Affiliated Congregations and the Rule of Law in the PRC

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper


Despite being a minority religion in the People’s Republic of China, Christianity in its various forms arguably ‘punches above its weight’ in its contributions to the increase of freedom at a range of levels within Chinese society (e.g., weiquan lawyers, faith-based organisations). Much of the academic literature on Christianity in the Chinese context to date has focused on church-state interactions. Some scholarship has considered Christianity’s contributions to or potential contributions to freedom in Chinese society and these studies have largely been concerned with civil society and political change (‘democracy’), focusing predominantly on unregistered congregations (‘house churches’) in urban areas. There has been limited discussion in this literature of Christianity and its engagement with the concept of the rule of law despite this being a key principle in relation to modern societies. Drawing on data generated through extensive ethnographic fieldwork in a group of urban Three-Self-affiliated churches located in ‘Huanghaicheng’ (Huadong region of China) since 2009, this paper explores not so much ‘Christian perceptions of the rule of law,’ but the lack of perception and discourse on this concept in this particular Protestant context. Recognising that China does not have a law on religion, and that the rule of law has not been fully established in the PRC, this paper focuses on the legislation relating to and practices of proselytizing through ‘gospel leaflets’ (fuyindan) distributed in large numbers in Huanghaicheng and analyses the interactions between local state organs and church leaders in the Three-Self-affiliated congregations. Church leaders in Huanghaicheng have talked about Three-Self-affiliated congregations as ‘legal’ (hefa) institutions and more broadly viewed the lianghui (‘Two Committees’) as a ‘protective umbrella’ (baohu san) with ‘legal protection’ (falü baohu), revealing a particular understanding of the legal framework. This paper argues that the implementation of existing legislation on proselytization in Huanghaicheng is centred on personalised relationships between officials and church leaders and much less on institutions and legal principles based on the rule of law. Church leaders often skilfully negotiate with local officials and employ a range of strategies to overcome challenges and expand the space for religious activities. However, this paper argues that the actions of church leaders to enlarge the space for their own congregations reinforces this personalised approach to the implementation of existing regulations and does not contribute to the establishment of rule of law principles. This paper therefore furthers our understanding of local-level practices of the implementation of regulations on religion and suggests that the calls for a law on religion in the PRC may be premature due not only to the lack of a legal framework which could support such a law but also to the lack of an identifiable rule of law culture at the grassroots. While Christianity may have resources which could contribute to the building of the rule of law in China, recent manoeuvres by the central Chinese state against religion and a lack of impetus for change at the local level as suggested by the Huanghaicheng case, mean that the realisation of the rule of law in the PRC is unlikely anytime soon.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2019
EventChristianity and the Rule of Law in Chinese Societies - Purdue University, West Lafayette, United States
Duration: 29 Mar 201931 Mar 2019


ConferenceChristianity and the Rule of Law in Chinese Societies
CountryUnited States
CityWest Lafayette
Internet address


  • rule of law
  • Chinese Christianity
  • Protestantism
  • legal culture
  • negotiation

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