Richard Madsen on China, Christianity, and Communism

Richard Madsen received an M.A. in Asian studies and a Ph.D. in sociology from Harvard. He is a distinguished Professor of Sociology the University of California, San Diego and was a co-director of a Ford Foundation project to help revive the academic discipline of sociology in China. Professor Madsen is the author, or co-author of twelve books on Chinese culture, American culture, and international relations. His best known works on American culture are those written with Robert Bellah, William Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven Tipton: Habits of the Heart (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1995) and The Good Society (New York, Knopf, 1991). Habits of the Heart won the LA Times Book Award and was jury nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. He interviewed with Gayle Lee CMC '20 on February 2, 2018. Biography and photo courtesy of UC San Diego.

During the 19th National Congress, Xi Jinping has said that China’s Communist Party should take an active role to “guide religions to adapt to the socialist society,” and that furthermore, party members “should be firm Marxist atheists and must never find their values and beliefs in any religion.” What does it mean for socialist values to guide religion, and further replace the role of religion in China’s society?

Xi Jinping is trying to make religious organizations obey the basic policies of the Communist Party, and not do anything that would undermine the party’s rule. That means obeying all laws, not carrying out any activities outside the control of the government, and generally upholding the premises of the party.

The party is officially atheist, but the Chinese constitution allows the practice of religion. To be a party member, you have to say that you’re an atheist, but the party is committed to allowing freedom of religious belief within the social control of the government. Overall the party doesn’t want religion to expand, although it seems to recognize that if it stops such expansion in too heavy-handed ways it can cause a backlash. Alternatively, it can work to discourage its expansion. One way to do this is to control the education system, to have the education curriculum based on science, which supposedly says that you don’t need religion.

Local politicians are encouraging devotion to the communist party and Xi Jinping as the solution to citizens’ concerns such as sickness and crop results. How is Xi Jinping replacing Jesus in the lives of citizens?

The problem is that local Chinese politicians are not really replacing religion in the lives of average citizens. Marxism or official ideology doesn’t mean much to ordinary people. The party is supposed to be full of people who are dedicated to self-sacrificing for the good. The problem is that the party is widely viewed as corrupt. So it loses credibility in that regard. Xi Jinping is trying to clean out the corruption with his highly publicized campaign against corruption. Whether that will succeed we’ll have to see. He’s trying to do that for multiple reasons, but one reason is to improve the image and authority of the party.

The Chinese government has a great indigenous moral tradition in Confucianism and is going to rely on that to legitimize its rule and promote values of harmony and stability. There are other strands within Confucianism that wouldn't be so compatible with it so he wants the type of state-approved Confucianism that emphasizes family relations, strong filial piety on the one hand, and then loyalty to the government and authority on the other. He tries to use that as the basis for values and its connection with the party by preaching the values of nationalism to give itself legitimacy.

You mentioned that Xi Jinping is focusing on the revival of traditional Chinese culture, especially through the method of Confucianism, which emphasizes values of stability and harmony. In comparison with Confucian values, what aspects of Christianity in China might seem dangerous to the Communist Party?

The problem with Christianity in the eyes of the party is that, first of all, it’s a foreign religion. Christians see themselves as part of a wider community that transcends China – a global community and global tradition, with  missionaries and papal authority and so forth. Most of Chinese Christians, I think, are quite loyal to China and to the Chinese government. The party still is worried that they potentially see themselves as part of a wider community. The ultimate Christian vision is that ultimate loyalty is to God, and not to any earthly ruler or king. The Confucianism that Xi Jinping is promoting says that the ultimate loyalty is to the ruler. Christianity says that the will of God goes beyond the will of the ruler, giving them a basis for criticizing the ruler, either a moral basis for dissenting, or by the long prophetic tradition within Christianity.

Probably most ordinary Chinese Christians don’t embrace dissent all that much, but some do. And it may be no accident, that among dissidents to the party, the so called rights-lawyers and people sent to jail for advocating democratic rights in China, close to 50 percent of them are Christians, whereas Christians account for no more than 10 percent of the general population. Such things must worry Xi Jinping.

You’ve mentioned that the danger for the party comes from how believers feel affiliated with the bigger community. How has the relationship between Vatican Catholics – China affected the attitudes of believers in China?

Roman Catholic Christianity is a special case. The Catholics are growing much more slowly than the Protestants. The real rapid growth has come with various kinds of Protestant Christians, the evangelical Christians. They’re up to 50 or 60 million now, whereas the Catholics have only around 13 million or so believers, which is more or less in line with the population increase in China. The Catholics are a relatively small group in China – about one percent of the population.

An important part of their faith and their teaching is that their ultimate religious authority on earth is the Vatican Pope. The Chinese government wants them to say that the ultimate loyalty of all kinds is to the state. In the 1950s after the communists took over China, the Vatican denounced communism,and basically told Catholics to resist it if they could. The result was that many Catholic priests and bishops and also lay people were sent to prison as martyrs for resisting communism.

More recently, the Vatican has backed off from its strong anti-communist stance. Catholics became more loyal to society and government, but in the process, two factions grew within the Catholic Church in China. The Patriotic Catholic Association, which works within the government-established structure, and the underground church, which refused to be a part of the structure. The underground church operates outside the legal framework that the government has set up. There are bishops, priests and nuns in this underground church, who lead it, and also have professed loyalty to the Vatican church. There are also other priests and bishops in the Patriotic Catholic Association who are also approved by the Vatican but are loyal to the structure set up by the government to control the church.

A key principle in the Catholic church is that the appointment of new bishops, new leaders of the community, must be approved by the Vatican. The standard procedure around the world is that a representative from the Vatican does a search for those eligible to become a bishop in the area, and then makes an recommendation to the Vatican. The Chinese government wants to say that they have the authority to appoint leaders, so there’s a conflict there.

The government-controlled Patriotic Association has appointed and has ordained some bishops that were not approved of by the Vatican. These people are automatically excommunicated by the pope. On the other hand, a high percentage, maybe 95 percent, of the bishops who are a part of the Patriotic Association are also approved by the Vatican, in informal, backdoor sorts of ways. Then there are these bishops who are outside this legal framework, who are approved by the Vatican, too.


The Vatican is trying to negotiate with the Chinese government to regularize the status of the Catholic Church. These negotiations are going on now, and have been in the news the last few days, and maybe have had some progress. What the Vatican would like is a standardized framework where the Vatican officials and Chinese officials could meet together and decide on who would be a bishop in the area. The Vatican could veto someone the government wanted, and the government of course could block someone the Vatican wanted, but they would make some compromises.

Right now the only procedures for this are informal and ad hoc. There’s a representative for the Vatican based in Hong Kong who carries out research by having people traveling to and from mainland China to Hong Kong to check up on who is ready to be a bishop and what their qualifications are and so forth. Then informal negotiations are made with local officials with the Chinese government to say that Vatican approves of this person, and the government approves of this person. That’s the ad hoc procedure, and the information available is very limited because the Vatican representative in Hong Kong can’t travel to China, so the information is all second-, third- hand.

It’d be in the Vatican’s interest to make it an official procedure for the Vatican delegate to go himself to China and check up on the people available and what their qualifications are. The Chinese government under Xi Jinping also wants to have under Chinese law a kind of organized procedures. So there is a confluence of interest in this regard, and they seem to be close to working out an agreement to making that happen.

Two problems remain: what to do about these bishops that were appointed or ordained by the government organization over opposition to the Vatican, and what to do about these underground bishops and priests. The Chinese government would like all these bishops that they approved to be approved too by the Vatican. The Vatican says that some of these could be approved if they have pardon from the pope while others could not. For one thing, bishops and priests are supposed to be celibate, not married. A couple of these people that the government has approved are either married, or have girlfriends and are publicly known to have children. The Vatican would not make them eligible. The government would like all of them to be eligible. Apparently, they have made compromises such that they mutually agreed upon half of them and the Vatican will recognize them. There’s also the issue of what to do about the underground church – the Vatican would like all of these people officially approved, but the government says some of these people are anti-communists and will never approve them and wants them to step down and be delegitimized.

In the last week, there was a move whereby the Vatican forced an underground bishop to retire and to appoint the official bishop who was previously excommunicated by the Vatican because he was ordained without permission as the Vatican approved bishop of the diocese. This has caused a lot of consternation among underground Catholics who feel that this bishop who was made to step down was loyal to the Church, and the other bishop is acting as the government’s agent.

This is affecting the Church and causing anger in the people in parts of the Catholic Church, and there are complicated diplomatic things going on. This kind of conflict is going to have to get resolved, and there seems to be some optimism on both sides that some sort of loosely acceptable agreement will be worked out in a month or two, although they had said that before and it hadn’t worked out.

In the meantime, this has caused a split within the Catholic lay people, between those who think the Vatican should do more to protect the underground church and those who say that they need to work more with the government. The government likes this kind of split within the Catholic community  because it shows its weakness in a way that fits the government’s overall agenda to keep the Church under control and ensure it is relatively weak.

Could you clarify what interest the Vatican has in improving relations with the Chinese government?

It would like a more official connection with China. China is a major world power now, and a major world culture, and the Vatican would like to have at least some more substantive relationship between them. They would like the situation of bishops to be basically protected and not have those in this underground church be subject to persecution and arrest. They would like the church to be more stabilized, and the appointment of bishops to be more regularized. They would like all these things. They would even like to be connected with China diplomatically, in the long term. This connection would be great for the Vatican.

The problem is that the Chinese government is atheist, and it has persecuted the Church over the years. Does that in any way accord with the Christian values that the Catholic Church proclaims? That’s the dilemmas that the Vatican and Catholics in China face.

Of China’s estimated 60 million Christians, less than 20 million attend official state-sanctioned churches. To target the non-official church attending population, the state has been passing more regulations to curb these non-state sanctioned houses of worship. Have regulations proved to be an effective strategy at controlling underground religious practices?

The new regulation is just going into effect, in fact, yesterday, to control religion more effectively. It allows for some of these non-Catholic Christians in China who are not a part of the official organization to register themselves with the organization. It also more explicitly outlaws people worshipping outside government regulation.

We need to see what that does, and how this balance of interest goes. The government would like to do completely away with the underground church and make all Catholics worship in government-controlled associations. Some of the Catholics resist because of anti-communism, some because they felt persecuted over the years by the government and don’t trust it. Others feel loyal to particular communities and clans and never wanted that much government control over them. There are different reasons, but a good percentage of the Christians who are part of the underground church would not want to be connected with a church organization that was too obviously under the control of the government. We’ll see how harshly the Chinese government cracks down on those praying outside the framework.

The Patriotic Association has existed since 1957. Does the Vatican see more of an opportunity to come to terms with the Chinese government in current times because of Xi Jinping’s strong hold over the government?

Maybe it works both ways. In the past, the problem has been local officials, local control. You could work something out with one official, but not with another. Now, there’s more sense of control that if you can work out a deal with Xi Jinping then it can be implemented everywhere. The problem is, of course, whether Xi Jinping wants a deal that gives the Catholic church any kind of local autonomy. In many ways, the Chinese political system was tolerable to ordinary people only because it was corrupt; you could always work out local deals or use bribes to carve out a space for yourself. When it is totally non-corrupt, which it probably could never be, then it could become very oppressive.

What is your personal perspective on Xi Jinping’s cultural initiatives which includes increasing control over religion?

Xi Jinping wants to rule by law, which comes from the legalist tradition. This is basically regulation proposed by the Communist Party, but not a rule of law that transcends the rulers.  In the liberal tradition here in America, the law is above the president, so that the president is not immune to the law. In China, the rule of law is not above the Communist Party – the Communist Party is the law. Xi Jinping wants to maintain this, and he wants to revise traditional culture. The problem is that doing it this way tends to create a one-size-fits-all culture. Xi Jinping wants everyone to fit in the same page. And people are complicated and diverse. They have their local traditions and their own local values. Whether they can or would ever accept being fitted into a homogenous government is, for me, very open to doubt.



Gayle Lee CMC '20Student Journalist


Share this:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *