Saturday, August 30, 2008

State of Christian Persecution in China

On Aug. 8, I watched the Beijing Olympic opening ceremonies in Atlanta with about 100 Chinese people. They cheered with each spectacular act of choreography and acrobatics. They were dazzled by the thousands of colorful, luminous costumes. They sat stunned by each passing vocal or dance performance. At commercial breaks, they scrambled to answer Olympic trivia questions. As an outsider, I saw a moment of pride unfolding.

And so it should. China has come a long way since most of them have been alive. Many in that room lived through the Cultural Revolution, when young people ruled the nation and sometimes imposed a state of near anarchy in their zealous pursuit of Chairman Mao's ideal of revolution. During that time, all things foreign, intellectual and religious were considered regressive and "counter-revolutionary" and targeted for humiliation and destruction.

Contrast that climate with China's current hospitable stance toward foreign investment, global brands and even iconic American athletes like Kobe Bryant, and it's easy to see the substantial progress over the past three decades since reform and opening helped China begin to shake off its dour international face and march towards political integration.

But just like in the U.S. and every other country, progress simply means strides toward an ideal, not its achievement. China still has ample room for improvement on that eternally wide continuum between totalitarian regime and full-on democracy.

For one, the Chinese economy's dizzying growth has produced a cavernous wealth gap. Many companies are targeting China's emerging middle class, but it should also be said noted that classes of super rich and super poor are being created along with this new consumer market. Peasant farmers still make up the majority of China's population, though many believe that a massive urban migration will occur over the next 20 years, at which point three-fifths of the country's 1.3 billion people are projected to live in cities. That huge movement of humanity will create a whole new set of problems.

During the Olympic run-up, human rights have been the buzz word. Even as the festive echo of fireworks hangs in the Beijing air, many residents have been forced from their homes and businesses. Dissidents have been jailed or cordoned off while the foreign press is present. Farther off, in areas like Xinjiang, Tibet and Sichuan provinces, periodic unrest has forced the government into defense mode, meaning more crackdowns on groups that don't exactly share the Party's point of view.

This has far-reaching implications for leaders of Christian house church networks and foreign missionaries, who often operate outside the realm of legality for the sake of theological and organizational independence. A missionary friend told me that the well-meaning efforts of many believers looking to "win China" during the Olympics were making it difficult for the folks on the ground there, who have to deal with government monitoring and interrogation in a very real way.

So how bad is Christian persecution in China? I often wonder how to answer that question. I've read and heard firsthand horror stories, but its easy to extrapolate incorrectly when working from emotional anecdotes. A few ministries have made it their mission to compile these stories into a systematic and ongoing study of the fate of believers in China.

The China Aid Association is led by former house church pastor and Tiananmen democracy activist Bob Fu. The association tracks stories of persecutio, using the power of public opinion by reporting their untold stories. Recently, the association partnered with Voice of the Martyrs, a group that ministers to the persecuted church worldwide. Fu joined Todd Nettleton, VoM's director of media development, for a conference call moderated by "Charisma" magazine.

A few highlights:

-The Olympics are being used as a massive PR tool by China. "This is our party, our face to the world. Don't do anything to cause a bad impression." That was Fu's summary of the Chinese government's justification for jailing pastors and kicking many out of their homes in Beijing.

-Bush urged to attend house church. Instead, for the second time, the president decided to go to a registered Three-Self church and advocate for religious freedom from the front steps. Bob Fu says it wasn't enough: "By choosing to worship in government-sanctioned church again, it will further validate the government's stance," he said, adding that 80 percent of Chinese believers worship in unregistered house churches.

This point of view ignores many of the diplomatic and cultural issues Bush would face in going to a house church. Fu has the luxury of ignoring such considerations. Bush doesn't.

-Amity Press in China recently celebrated publishing its 50 millionth Bible. Many believe this is a sign of openness. Nettleton points out that most of these are exported, and even if they were all Chinese, they'd only be half of what's needed for all the Christians there.

-House churches that have relations with foreigners and sophisticated networks may be targeted more heavily by the government. The highest ideal in Chinese politics is stability, which the government perveives is threatened by belief.

-China Aid found instances of persecution in half of China's 22 provinces in 2007. Labor camps are still prevalent as a tool of the government to "re-educate" offenders.

-Nettleton rejects the idea that we can't use capitalism as a tool to convert them to our ways. "I think that's a myth, that we're gonna trade them into democracy, trade them into relgious freedom," he said. Personally, I think it's a way to work from the inside.

-With local officials running their own fiefdoms, there's no end in sight for rural and urban persecution, but government policies have gotten more receptive to a general idea of religion.


Photo: Our bags confiscated at a border stop. Notice the green hats of the border patrol agents. Copyright Trevor Williams, 2008.

August Access Recap

I don't do this to put more notches into my belt or to tout my accomplishments, only to show how much God continues to bless me by putting me in situations where I can meet prime decision makers on the world stage. I still don't know what God's preparing me for in the big picture, but for now, I'm enjoying the ride as an international business reporter at GlobalAtlanta. Here's an August recap of the officials I've been able to meet or cover.

-Lord Mayor of London David Lewis, an alderman elected to a one-year term as head of the City of London, a small area within Greater London that handles the city's financial institutions. I conducted an e-mail Q&A with him. Article here.

-U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, the first Asian-American to serve in a cabinet position. She's been in President Bush's administration for more than seven years and has a great story that goes from immigration at 8 years old to one of the highest offices in the land. Article here.

-Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue. On his second trip to China, Mr. Perdue called back for a conference with media to tell us what he was up to. Turns out he was representing Georgia at an international forum called the Regional Leaders Conference in Jinan, Shandong province. Article here.

-Presidents Alvaro Uribe of Colombia, Elias Antonio Saca of El Salvador and Alvaro Colom of Guatemala, along with U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez. All the men were in Atlanta for the Americas Competitiveness Forum, a gathering of government and business leaders from around the Western Hemisphere to share knowledge on how to cooperate to better the region's standing in the world economy. Read my article here.

-Chilean Economic Minister Hugo Lavados, also in town for the forum. Conducted a video interview with him at the Hyatt Regency Atlanta. For video and article, go here.

-Alessandro Teixeira, head of Brazil's export promotion agency, ApexBrasil. He gave a speech at the forum and a presentation about the Brazilian economy at a local law firm. He cited ethanol as one of the largest areas for potential trade between Brazil and Georgia, already the South American powerhouse's third largest state trading partner. Click here.

-A long-anticipated Brazilian consulate opened in Atlanta. I was on the scene. Click here for my coverage.

-Indonesian Ambassador Sujadnan Parnohadiningrat (I can actually spell his name by heart now.) He serenaded an audience with his saxophone at a gala I attended last weekend. He needed something to break the ice after the stat-filled speech he gave. My job is to make his comments interesting. See the article and video here.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Classical History on the Open Road

America has got to be the best country in the world for road trips. We have gorgeous scenery, quality roads, a ton of land, and best of all, 300 million people itching to show their creativity. Through bustling metropolis and country town alike, the best and worst of American ingenuity and artistry is on full and unabashed display.

Sometimes these exhibitions are serious and awe-inspiring. Others, like the "Goats on the Roof" convenience store in North Georgia (yes, they literally have goats on their roof), are just plain hilarious. Click here for video...

What my wife Katy, my friend Evan and I saw as we traveled recently on the I-65 corridor from Louisville, Ky., to Nashville, Tenn., was somewhere in the middle of that continuum.

The drive was reminiscent of a coming-of-age excursion Evan and I took after high school graduation. Five years ago, we packed up his mom's Cadillac and took a 7,700-mile journey to 13 different baseball stadiums over two and a half weeks. On that trip, for various ridiculous reasons, we covered the stretch of highway between Nashville and Louisville at least three times.

On this recent jaunt, we were headed home to Georgia from my cousin's wedding in Kentucky, but didn't want to give up the road trip spirit just yet. Fittingly, Evan had brought along the same tattered atlas we used during our inaugural baseball trip. We consulted it to see if there were any interesting bits of Americana we had missed while zipping by Nashville.

The Music City did not disappoint.

"We can go to the Parthenon," Evan said with the typical mix of utter seriousness and whimsy that makes him such a great travel companion.

I didn't know how to respond. He explained.

"Nashville has a full-scale replica of the Parthenon in the middle of a city park."

"With the ruins built in, or as it was supposed to be?" I asked.

"I'm not sure. You wanna check it out?"

How could we not?

We took awhile finding it, but soon we came upon Nashville's Centennial Park. This is no Acropolis, but the modern-day Parthenon's digs are not too shabby. Students threw frisbees on open, grassy fields near the imposing edifice. Folks sat on picnic blankets and wandered on concrete walkways next to man-made lakes, where greedy ducks gorged themselves on store-bought bread. To me, the Parthenon stuck out, its concrete columns and sculptured frieze out of place in the park setting. To locals, it's simply the anchor of this public space.

Turns out, this Parthenon was built to show what the real thing would have looked like before erosion and looting took its toll. As far as I can tell from the Web site, it was initially built in 1897 for Nashville's Centennial Exhibition, which means this was a hundred-year-old replica of a 2,500-year-old architectural wonder: a historical portrayal of history.

We didn't make it inside. The museum was about to close, and we felt satisfied without paying $4.50 to see the 42-foot Athena statue (another exact replica) they keep behind 24-foot bronze doors.

For me, the best part was the fact that no one thought this was weird. Everyone seemed perfectly content to enjoy their Sunday afternoon in the shadow of what the Web site calls the "pinnacle of classical architecture." Even street signs apparently saw no need for explanation: "Parthenon, Straight Ahead," they said.

And then there were the modern rules posted near the "ancient" building: No skateboarding on the Parthenon, and if you go into the building, which also serves as Nashville's art museum, make sure to put out your cigarette and toss your water bottle.

A meal at Five Guys near the Vanderbilt campus brought us back to the 21st century. It was a brief stop but a historic discovery for the three of us.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Firsthand View: China's Olympic Grand Opening

This is a guest post by Evan Sussenbach, my best friend and a fellow Chinaphile. We've been to the Middle Country four times together, and we've each gone separately once this year. Evan recently returned from a two-week trip to whitewashed, Olympic-crazed Beijing. Though not inside the National Stadium to witness the flashy opening ceremonies, Evan roamed the streets of the exuberant capital city as it ushered in the Games. Here, Evan lends four years worth of perspective to his description of China's "grand opening" to the world.

In my time I have been to some pretty spectacular openings. A few years back, some friends and the male members of my family sat outside Office Max in frigid, sleeting temperatures for the birth of XBox360 into the video game world. I have been to (though I haven't actually stayed all night) a Chick-fil-A grand opening, where karaoke and overly safe and fun disc jockeys dominate the night. And I have now been on the first fast train from Beijing to Tianjin, a commute advertised as lasting 38 minutes, although in reality it took only 25. We timed it.

But by the time I finish this paragraph, the literature will have been updated
and republished to correct this numerical error, and by the time I finish this
letter, there will probably be a faster fast train that will have opened from
Beiijing to the airport, that will get passengers there approximately minus-three
minutes after they have left the station.

That is because I think I am witnessing the largest grand opening in the
history of the world, the opening of Beijing and China - the forbidden "Middle
Country" - to the West. I was handed a map at the airport the other day by
seven friendly, Olympic t-shirt-clad teenagers with Olympic venues, road
names and famous sites. It is already obsolete. My 2003 China guidebook by
Lonely Planet might as well have been published in the 19th century for all the new
changes in prices, how to get places and relevant information.

When I was going to pick up tickets for the fast train to Tianjin, I got lost on
two separate cab rides because neither taxi driver knew where the new train
station was. Buildings are going up around Tiananmen Square at such a fast
rate that every time I go there, crowds gather to see a new hutong-style
shopping mall or Olympic garden piece and anticipate what will be behind the
next set of concealing poster board and barbed wire.

The Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven have been completely repainted.
Every historic site has the Olympic motto - "One World, One Dream" - plastered
next to the entrance and the Beijing running man emblem at each historic

Perhaps the funniest new thing is the rise of the Fu Wa. Imagine Beanie
Babies gone universal or Izzy (the Atlanta 1996 Olympic mascot) multiplied five times, and you have an idea of the Fu Wa--five very cute, very overhyped creatures (that all look like pandas to me) that have taken Beijing by storm. They are in cartoons, storefronts, Olympic ads, and at the sites, holding lacrosse sticks and riding equestrian horses. They are actually supposed to be representative of four noble animals - the fish, the swallow, the Chinese antelope, and the panda - with the fifth one being symbolic of the torch itself. Their names are Beibei, Jingjing, Huanhuan, Yingying, and Nini. When just the first syllable of each name is taken, it says "Beijing Huanying Ni," or Beijing Welcomes You.

Beijing is certainly doing a good job welcoming me. On publicly run
commercials, government officials are telling the Chinese how to be nice to
foreigners. Taxi drivers are being made to wear white collared shirts and ties.
People are advised not to roll up their wife beaters, keeping their tanned bellies
within their shirts. As I was in a cab to the Tianjin train station, I was given an
English lesson over the cab's radio. "How are you?' "Today is a nice day"
"Welcome to Tianjin."

I am in Beijing for one more day before I go back to Tianjin for the US-Japan
men's soccer game. I have never felt more like an American outsider in a foreign
country as I am here. "Jiayou Meiguo" (Let's go America) said my Chinese friend
Leah today, who went on to explain that she will root for any country
against Japan.

I, like you, will probably be watching the Opening Games on TV, and that will
probably be the official grand opening of China to the world. But this week
leading up to the games has been a delight to experience a world so different
from America getting a face-lift, manners instruction, and a world-class
transportation system to show off "the Jing" to the world.

Note on times: This is adapted from an e-mail written a few days before the opening ceremonies.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

The War on Passivity

Strange how great friendships work. I've seen my friend Chuck only a handful of times in the past few years. Since 2004, we've gone to Jordan and Panama together, and it seems that our paths cross only when one or both of us is traveling.

Building up men is the keystone of Chuck's ministry. When I was in Panama for business in May, he was coincidentally there to lead a men's retreat. I met with him in a small Panamanian church, where a small circle of men had gathered to pray for the weekend event. He humbly asked God to work in spite of his weakness, and he specifically requested that God shake the men of the church from passivity and awaken them into the fierce battle for which they were called. The prayer was refreshing for a variety of reasons. For one, it was in English and I could understand it. Also, as I listened, it touched me with its candor and relevance. Men, including myself, too often allow the tides of the world to carry them and lose the dominion and life that God offers through that strange combination he requires: personal fortitude and reliance on him.

Chuck despises the idea of passivity and does his best to live by design, insomuch as his plans fit into what he believes are God's purposes for him. Usually, his thought process yields some dangerous adventure that make you want to thank God for safety and pack your bags at the same time. Last week, for example, Chuck passed through Atlanta en route to Dubai, where he'd catch a rickety plane bound for war-torn Afghanistan. He's reporting on the war effort, and gathering material for CBN features and possibly another book with Oliver North. North's first book with Chuck as editor, "American Heroes in the Fight Against Radical Islam," recently hit stores to great success.

I caught up with Chuck for a meal during his layover. While asking blessing for the food, he asked God to remove every semblance of passivity from my life. He prayed that God would allow me to lead my family with the strength he provides. Chuck's words are often powerful. He makes his living through speeches, articles and books. But he'll be the first to tell you that they're nothing without the influence of the Holy Spirit. For me, his short prayer was a whisper from God, calling me back into the adventure he's mapped out.

To check out the one God has mapped for Chuck in Afghanistan, visit his blog here. Check out his "Boots on the Ground" CBN news blog for the most recent updates.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Bush Finds Diplomatic Middle Way With China

A few days ago I made a post about the mixed signals China often gives us about its human rights picture, especially in relation to Christian persecution. While in many ways the situation has drastically improved, the sterilized and whitewashed view of China that the government would like us to see at the Olympics has not erased the all-too-obvious blots on the its recent record.

That said, President Bush has a difficult tight-rope to walk in attending this week's Olympic opening ceremonies. Ironically, in a country where Buddhism thrives, Bush has had to take a sort of "middle way" of his own.

The balancing act he'll undertake is typical and necessary in dealing with the Chinese conundrum. The leader of the free world has said repeatedly that he will not stop urging the government to use the Olympics and events beyond as a chance to recognize the religious rights of all its citizens. At the same time, he's come under fire from some human rights activists and even the highest officials of the Democratic Party, who believe he should've boycotted the games altogether.

Somewhere on the line the president is straddling is the right approach. A conciliatory tone toward the government would be deadly to his legitimacy as an advocate for China's persecuted Christians and a step back from the tough line he's already taken. Antagonistic rhetoric could lead him into an equally undesirable quagmire. The Chinese authorities would suffer serious embarassment if Bush were to insult their progress on the eve of their big party. As anyone who knows anything about Chinese culture knows, it's hard to gain the trust of someone there when you've made them lose face.

For all the fiery comments by the Democrats during the primary season, Bush has taken the right tack. He stuck it to the Chinese government when he awarded a congressional medal to the Dalai Lama last October, despite their childish insults and noisy opposition to the gesture. The action turned out to foreshadow of a much more intense conflict that would break out in March of this year, when violent acts of vandalism committed by Tibetans against Han Chinese in the province escalated into weeks of protests and subsequent crackdowns by the government in western China.

On July 29, a little more than a week before Air Force One is scheduled to touch down in Beijing, Bush made another very crafty move. He hosted five high-profile human rights activists at the White House. Among these were Harry Wu, who spent 19 years in a Chinese labor camp; Rebiya Kadeer, the foremost activist in the U.S. for the Muslim Turkic Uighur people in China; Bob Fu, a former persecuted pastor and head of China Aid Association; Wei Jingsheng, a prominent political dissident and Sasha Gong, a dissident and writer.

Bush's message was clear. “These are very high profile people. These are people designed to get the Chinese’s attention. It was not just a political move to provide cover at home. It was an important move to let Chinese leaders know that he’s not satisfied with the progress,” the New York Times quotes Michael Green, an Asia expert and former White House adviser as saying.

Christian activists are urging Bush to do even more during his trip. In a conference call Tuesday night, Bob Fu of China Aid and Todd Nettleton, director of media development for Voice of the Martyrs, a Christian group that ministers to the persecuted church, both urged Bush to attend a unregistered house church while in China. Mr. Fu gave Mr. Bush "Pray for China" bracelets during the meeting at the White House and gave the president coordinates of four different house churches in Beijing where Fu assured him he would be welcomed.

Bush attended a registered church during a 2005 trip to China and held a press conference afterwards. Fu said a return visit to the government-sanctioned church could be seen by some as validating the Chinese government's policies of hosting religion on its own terms. This would be disheartening to see for pastors who have been ousted from Beijing to keep them from talking to foreign media during the games, Fu said.

Some 80 percent of Chinese Christians worship in house churches, he added.

"By choosing to worship in a government-sanctioned church again, it will further validate" the government's stance on persecution, Fu told listeners from around the world who had tuned in for a Webcast and conference call with Charisma magazine. Listen here to the complete interview. You might have to log in or return to the Web site at a later time.

It remains to be seen what the president's legacy will be with regard to China. However it turns out, he's taken as right an approach as his position and its many responsibilities will allow.

Photo: A gate in the Forbidden City. Beijing. Copyright Trevor Williams, 2006.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Power Failure

The lights went out yesterday, and I sat on my porch watching the trees lean and swirl in the wind. Their leaves were sails that caught the gales and bent to their demands. Like a rude guest, the storm came without warning and overstayed its welcome, hovering for nearly an hour in what seemed like the same place. Split seconds separated cracks of thunder and flashes of lightning. The skies flickered like my light bulbs had done before they fizzled out. From my porch it seemed that thousands of neighbors had climbed up on the roof and started dumping out buckets of water right in front of me.

The prolonged intensity of the downpour was majestic and a bit frightening. I sat outside for awhile, but the lightning started getting too close for comfort. As a 60-foot pine tree swayed back and forth in an impossible circle, I started having visions of it landing in my window. I decided I'd be better off watching from inside.

The combination of the power failure and the natural wonder that caused it set me to thinking about how self-reliant people often are, and a reminder of our insignificance is often refreshing. Without the hum of electricity, it's amazing how much more in the natural world there is to hear. When the lights are out, it's easy to see how much we take convenience for granted.

When Katy was on her way home from work, she was excited to hear that the power had failed. She wanted to light candles and pretend we'd gone back to the dark ages. Call us weird, but we like it when the power goes out for a little while. It shakes the routine and reminds us that there's more to living our life than using all the modern amenities electricity affords us.

For the same reason, I liked watching the storm. Although I feared it, I relished the fact that it was huge and overwhelming and that I could do nothing to control it. In a small way, that storm was like God: dangerous but awe-inspiring, fierce but necessary for the life of everything that grows in this area.

There's also a life metaphor there: When our power fails, we realize how little we had in the first place and we take comfort in the fact that the world doesn't spin on our momentum, but on His will.