End of an era – and the start of a new one?

China is changing, not only with the CPC leadership change through the 18th party congress a few weeks ago. Thursday morning last week, 22 November, bishop Ding Guangxun (K. H. Ting 丁光训) passed away, just over 97 years old. Today, 27 November, his funeral was held in Nanjing. You never heard of him? Well, he was not that often mentioned in Western media, and his death seems to have escaped Western attention almost totally, except for brief statements by the World Council of Churches (世界基督教会联合会), the Fuller Theological Seminary (福乐神学院) and a few others.

This is quite remarkable. Bishop Ding was one the major Protestant leaders in China for nearly 60 years, and from the late 1970s he was predominant leader of the Three-Self Movement (三自爱国运动) until his death. He established the China Christian Council (中国基督教协会) in 1980, which became a more church-like structure in post-denominational China. All Protestant denominations were abolished in 1958.

Bishop Ding Guangxun

When he died the registered congregations within China Christian Council had around 25 million members, probably the largest Protestant church in the World. It is noteworthy, however, that so-called ”house churches” (家庭教会), or better ”unregistered churches” (非登记教会), probably have even more members together, making the total number of Protestants in China more than 50 million.

Bishop Ding initiated one of China’s first NGOs, the Amity Foundation in 1985. But he was also very controversial, because of his close relation to the party-state. He was one of the Vice Chairmen of the the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (中国人民政治协商会议 CPPCC) for almost twenty years (until 2008). He was also on the standing committee of the National People’s Congress (中国人民代表大会 NPC), China’s parliament. The CPC called him a ”close friend of the Communist party” (中国共产党的亲密朋友) after his death.

He was often criticized for being a ”non-believer” (不信派), and for what some saw as theological deviations. Such comments have dominated Chinese microblog Weibo writings about him the last few days. Others loved him, and credited him for making it possible for the church to function openly in China at all. He was respected by many as an important ecumenical leader in the worldwide church.

His last years were darkened by dementia (失智症) and hospitalization, but as long as he lived his thinking and theology continued to influence church life in China. Research on his life and theology is only starting, but Philip L. Wickeri (魏克利) and Li Jieren (李洁人) have already made good contributions. But what will happen now? Will the church be even more fragmented, will denominations come back? How will the party-state react? At best Ding’s legacy will serve as a reminder and inspiration for the future, and a new era will start. At worst things will just continue, without reflection and change.

What happens in Xinjiang? Or, China is not only Beijing and the CPC congress

These days of 18th CPC congress (十八大) frenzy, it can be interesting to note that many other things happen around China. A few weeks ago news emerged about an attack on a border post in Kargilik county (叶城县), south of Kashgar in Xinjiang. The attack occurred on Chinese national day 1 October. A young man rode his electric bike (电单车) into a border post, and around 20 people were killed or injured in an explosion. The border post was in Kokkowruk village (阔可寇热克村) in Chasamechit township (恰萨美其特乡).

Not long before the attack, but well ahead of the party congress, state news agency Xinhua (新华社) started a dedicated Uyghur news page. It almost immediately came under fire from Uyghur exiles for ”brainwashing” Uyghurs. But how many people trust official Chinese media without reflection, even in Xinjiang? Maybe no-one cares, but maybe it also fits very well with CPC media strategy and with giving an image of multiculturalism.

The media focus on the CPC congress is understandable, but one may also learn much about what happens in China through watching other areas, following trends and events outside Beijing. It is highly unlikely that anything unexpected would happen at the CPC congress, and that Xi Jinping and other leaders-elect would make drastic changes day one of their term of office. Therefore it is more interesting to look into the play on the sides, the protests in the countryside – and the games around leaders even further on in time. It seems that even Xinjiang may play a part in the game.

”Iron fist against terror” – Nur Bekri

In 2009 the Chinese journal Huanqiu renwu 环球人物 (Global People, a subsidiary of People’s Daily) published an interesting article on the questions of youth and “the 6th generation” leaders. Xinjiang governor Nur Bekri (Nu’er Baikeli 努尔·白克力) was ranked among the top five of ”the post-60” (60后) CPC leaders, the generation born after 1960. He is portrayed as a ”scholar ruling the region” (文人治区) and an ”iron fist against terror” (铁腕反恐). What do we make of this? Nur Bekri and the four others (Zhou Qiang 周强, Sun Zhengcai 孙政才, Hu Chunhua 胡春华 and Lu Hao 陆昊) were predicted to become top party leaders in 2022, at the 20th CPC congress. The idea that an Uyghur would even be considered is quite astonishing, even if it is only a token ”affirmative action Chinese style”. It has never happened before. But will there be a 20th CPC congress?