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Light and Shade in China

Compass Direct (1/2/06)

by Xu Mei

NANJING – Confusing and seemingly conflicting reports continue to appear regarding China ’s state of religious liberty – or lack of it.

Compass interviewed house church leaders in six major cities in October. These leaders – particularly the younger generation – showed a remarkable confidence in ministry and outreach. Evangelism, training and Sunday Schools flourish in their cities, despite tighter regulations on religion introduced in March.

Membership in many registered churches belonging to the Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) is soaring. According to TSPM official statistics, about 1 million new believers join the TSPM every year. Henan province alone has seen an average of 40,000 baptisms every year since 1979.

These statistics contrast with those of many Western countries, where church attendance has dropped drastically over the same period.

Government officials use such positive statistics to convince foreign skeptics that all is well for churches in the People’s Republic. For example, China ’s official Bible Exhibition declares that over 30 million Bibles have been printed legally in China over the past 25 years.

Some need no further convincing. Evangelist Luis Palau issued a startling commendation of the Chinese church at the end of November, calling on all house church leaders to register with the government. When house church leaders informed Palau of the more hidden realities of the Chinese church, he hastily revised his statement.

There is little doubt that many overseas Christians share Palau ’s initially positive view. After all, isn’t it true that China has made great strides in religious freedom?

Dual Realities

As so often in China , the answer is both “yes” and “no.” There have been some genuine improvements in the past 20 years. Society now allows a much wider range of religious and cultural expression. Unofficial house churches continue to multiply – Beijing alone may have more than 3,000, according to an official survey in 2005.

Officials in many cities turn a blind eye to Christian activity. Private Christian bookstores are springing up in some cities – unthinkable a decade ago.

Human rights and religious freedom advocates should acknowledge this progress. Failure to do so plays into the hands of government officials who show foreign visitors the realities of packed churches, thriving seminaries and the increasing availability of religious books. These foreigners then return home declaring the “good news” of complete religious freedom in China .

But another reality exists beneath the surface. A senior house church pastor in Beijing spoke of continuing persecution of house churches in rural Henan and Shandong provinces, citing cases where women were cruelly beaten by police.

In November, when President Bush visited China and called for greater religious freedom, a few religious prisoners were released. In the same month however, eight house church leaders were arrested in Wuyang county, Henan . All eight were released – but not before two of them were severely tortured.

Earlier, 12 leaders in Hunan province were arrested; some of them were tortured, beaten and drugged under interrogation.

On November 8, Pastor Cai Zhuohua, a noted Beijing house church leader, was sentenced to three years in jail for “illegal business practices” after a warehouse containing over 200,000 copies of the Bible and other illegally printed literature was discovered. (See Compass Direct, “Three Christians Jailed for Printing Bibles in China ,” November 15.)

On November 23, immediately after President Bush left China , five Buddhist monks were arrested at the Drepung monastery in Lhasa for refusing to denounce the Dalai Lama. Many monks then staged a silent sit-in protest against the Chinese government.

On the same day, 16 nuns were beaten in Xi’an for guarding their convent against demolition by mysterious thugs. One of the nuns was blinded in one eye as a result; another may be paralyzed for life. (See Compass Direct, “Priests, Nuns Brutally Assaulted in China ,” December 27.)

These two realities – one positive, the other negative – exist side-by-side in today’s China . As China positions itself on the world stage, the need to appease international trading partners conflicts with the need to control the troubled masses back home.

Increasing social problems, including huge demonstrations by peasants in the countryside, combined with widespread access to the Internet and mobile phones makes it difficult for the government to continue old-style Maoist repression.

The sheer magnitude of religious revival across the country also threatens the efficiency of the old structures of “patriotic” religious control by the TSPM and its Roman Catholic equivalent.

The government, however, seems committed to forced suppression. Ignorance among civil servants doesn’t help – many police cadres in the countryside can’t distinguish between harmless believers meeting for prayer and politically-motivated cults. Local officials told a foreigner visiting Henan earlier this year that he would have greater freedom to visit local Protestants because officials had learned they were not associated with the Vatican .

With this type of ignorance being widespread, arbitrary acts of persecution are likely to continue.

In the meantime, foreigners do well to consider both realities as they seek to understand the condition of the Chinese church.