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.

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