Transnational Networks & Religious Freedom in China


A Review of Quiet Confrontations: Transnational Advocacy Networks, Local Churches and the Pursuit of Religious Freedoms in China, by Yun Wang

Yun Wang investigates the uneasy progress of Chinese Protestant groups from the early 1990s to the early 2010s. To shed new light on conventional transnational activism theories as they relate to China, he questions “how activist networks operate in a highly repressive country when outside intervention is restrained” (p. v). Unlike the conventional framework of “the ‘naming and shaming’ strategy,” Wang argues that a “strategic alliance” for transnational collaboration occurred through the role of previously ignored parties: “government-sponsored” religious organizations (pp. v-vi).

Chapter 1 introduces the problem. Using the backdrop of conventional theories’ shortcomings (local actors’ constitutive effects and no case of religious activism), Wang sets up an intriguing puzzle: “why the same foreign group in one province is successful …, while finding those same activities impossible [to conduct] in another province.” He further questions: why is it that under an unchanging repressive policy, “the level of political tolerance to religious activism changed significantly” (p. 33)? He argues that “by building a local network including government-sponsored social groups, transnational activists can push a strong authoritarian regime to incorporate basic freedom and build a space for their activism” (p. 6). This strategic alliance requires two key relationships: “the relationship between foreign advocacy groups and the local officials” and “the relationship between two local groups, registered and unregistered churches” (p. 8). The former strategy, called “back-door listing,” would enable transnational activist groups to conduct a de facto legal campaign through their associations with government-endorsed religious institutions. The latter connotes a local collaboration, called a “majority alliance” (pp. 22-24). He presents four prototype cases, representing each of two matrix variants. The adoption of both strategies ensures the most effective case. The denial of both engenders the worst case.

In Chapter 2, Wang explains the logics of his alternative model. In doing so, he reviews two theoretical models: “Transnational Advocacy Network” (TAN), demonstrated by Thomas Risse-Kappen and Margaret Keck and Kakthryn Sikkink, and “Transnational Social Movement” (TSM) by Sidney Tarrow. Both the TAN network model and the TSM opportunity paradigm commonly assume Western non-state actors’ critical roles and the internationalization of local issues. Instead of external groups’ confrontational strategies, he highlights the effects of local actors’ non-confrontational approaches. This alternative model is characterized by a “relation-based framework” in which the success of transnational activism depends on two strategic alliances: the back door listing and the majority alliance (p. 39). He also reviews comparative religious studies to stress the role of the local registered body of Protestants, called “The Three Self-Patriotic Movements (TSPM) Church.”

In Chapter 3, Wang offers a historical analysis of the intersection of Protestant groups’ pursuits for religious freedom and the Chinese governments’ repressive policies. He extensively examines Chinese government law, its enforcement and politics, relating to religion from 1950 to the present. He argues that “the guiding doctrines and central political structures have barely shifted” (p. 99), but a significant amount of tolerance in practice led to the drastic growth of the Protestant population. He mainly attributes this change to the judgment and enforcement of local officials. He sets forth this background analytical explanation for case studies he presents in Chapters 4 and 5 empirically testing his four ideal combinations. Based on confidential interview data collected from China, Taiwan, and the United States, he analyzes the conditions, strategies, opportunities, and consequences of transnational campaigns for religious freedom in four major Chinese cities. He focuses on the interactional relationships among local officials on religious affairs, local believers, and foreign advocates to assess the two strategic mechanisms (back-door listing and majority alliance).

Chapter 4 demonstrates the ways activists failed to promote their campaigns. Wang highlights two notable approaches that resulted in explicit repressions: “to break with or directly disobey the official boundaries set by the government” and “to remove the restrictions set by an outdated religious policy, which was rooted in anti-imperial discourse and bureaucratic despotism” (pp. 175-177). He illustrates the sudden collapse of one ten-year-old unregistered church, code-named Jeremiah Church, when it expanded its low level confrontations into direct confrontational approaches (e.g., attending a joint missionary conference in Hong Kong). He also shows the disastrous consequences of other campaigns for public contestations, such as outdoor worship, without strategic approaches to government officials and/or registered churches.

Chapter 5 spotlights how activists gained opportunities to expand their social spaces. Wang examines various church-related housing projects to show how local leaders strategically mobilized foreign resources even under anti-imperial rules and sentiment. From his findings, he highlights that participants’ strategic choices, especially those made by activists in the local establishment, germinated local officials’ inaction in enforcing laws and regulations. He calls this interaction “quiet confrontation” whereby transnational advocates, local officials, legal churches and even underground congregations were shaped. He thus argues against old theoretical models, such as Keck and Sikkink’s liberal institutionalism or Tarrow’s structuralism, which assume that local actors “have little capacity so they need empowerment, from outside to jump start their activism.” In contrast, he articulates his alternative model, “empowerment from the bottom up”: “a boomerang process that starts from local activities to empower foreign advocates in pressuring [a] religious freedom agenda, which in turn brings more resources and chances to expand their influence beyond their hometown” (p. 257).

In Chapter 6, Wang assesses the strength of his theoretical model beyond Chinese Protestant groups. Based on his phone survey, he examines the historical development of other religious groups in China, especially Catholics and Buddhists. He also analyzes the Vietnamese experience because of the two countries’ ideological and political similarities. Consequently, he largely reconfirms the constitutive effects of local actors’ strategic approaches.

In short, Wang’s research deserves special attention, once published. His theoretical and empirical discussion on transnational activism from the local standpoint ensures greater awareness of an understudied, but undeniable, perspective. In addition, his interdisciplinary approach attracts a wide range of readers from numerous fields.

Ingu Hwang
Department of History
University of Chicago

Primary Sources
Telephone survey

Dissertation Information
University of California, Riverside. 2013. 316 pp. Primary Advisor: Bronwyn Leebaw.

Image: Huang Tang Fuyintang, Huang tang protestant church, Meizhou, China, Wikimedia Commons.

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