By Ryan Morgan
2/1/2013 China (International Christian Concern) – In 1844, Karl Marx, a revolutionary German socialist philosopher, declared that religion was the “opiate of the masses.” Little more than a century later, one of Marx’s greatest admirers, Mao Tse-tung, would begin a program to forcefully eradicate this “opiate” from among the world’s then 537 million Chinese citizens. Hundreds of church burnings and executions later, Mao would fail miserably in his attempt to achieve this goal. Yet, even in modern China something of this legacy of persecution remains.
One vestige of this legacy is the application of the rule of law. Like any one of the other five remaining communist nations today, China’s constitution technically protects religious freedom. Article 36 specifically states that “no state organ…may discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, religion.” Yet even a casual observer of the rule of law in China will quickly recognize that in reality these rights are only protected when it serves the objectives of the Communist Party. How, and even if, the law is applied is almost always a political decision.
For example, last week ICC learned that visitation rights for the family of a prominent Christian house-church leader in Xinjiang, China, were severely and arbitrarily curtailed. The case of Alimujiang Yimiti, a Christian convert from Islam, attracted international attention in 2008 after he was arrested for engaging in Christian activities and sentenced to an unusually harsh 15 years of imprisonment. Police documents show that his original arrest was for “preaching Christianity” but when this didn’t lead to a conviction, charges were changed to “illegally providing state secrets to foreigners.” Alimujiang was then sentenced in secret and refused visits with his family for more than two years.
Last week, when Alimujiang’s wife, Gulinuer, attempted to visit him in prison, Chinese authorities turned her away and informed her she would only be allowed to visit her husband once every three months and that these visits would be limited to 10 minutes. Alimujiang’s attorney said the new restrictions were “certainly illegal” and pointed out that it was customary for prisoners in China to be allowed at least a once-a-month visit with family. Organizations familiar with Alimujiang’s case are suspicious that the new restrictions are somehow related to a recent political transition in Xinjiang province, where Alimujiang is imprisoned. The exact correlation is hard to determine, but past experience has shown that “dissident” groups and individuals, which include house-church Christians like Alimujiang, often face greater repression during political transitions in an effort by authorities to smooth over unrest during a change of power.
However, Alimujiang’s case is only a microcosm of the kind of arbitrary restrictions placed on religious adherents across China. Public evangelism of any kind is almost impossible. In December, a pastor in Shenzen was arrested twice and held in administrative detention for 13 days for attempting to share a Christmas message at a public park. The Shouwang Church of Beijing, forced out of its building illegally by unhappy government officials almost two years ago, has been attempting to hold weekly outdoor services ever since as an act of protest, only to have church members regularly detained by police.
Sadly, many observers are quick to condemn those who are arrested or harassed. They point out correctly that the majority of China’s religious adherents, including Christians, are able to gather together regularly with little fear of arrest or incarceration. In their opinion, it is only when groups like the Shouwang church or the pastor in Shenzen choose to openly defy authorities that they face arrest. They also correctly point out that, compared with the mass repression of a half a century ago, religious believers in China have a great many freedoms today.
Yet, these observations miss the point. For anyone to have to risk facing arrest for handing out a pamphlet on one’s faith in a public park is simply wrong. So too is being required to join a government-sponsored religious organization such as the “Three Self Church,” or facing up to four years in a labor camp – without trial – for telling co-workers about one’s personal religious beliefs. To say that these types of restrictions are simply a result of a difference in cultural perceptions of religious freedom between China and the West is to provide the Communist Party with a carte blanche justification for denying basic human liberties.
Even more disconcerting is the treatment of the few bold Chinese citizens who choose to challenge the status quo. The list is too long for this article, but a quick search of human rights attorneys and campaigners such as Chen Guangcheng, Gao Zhisheng, and Li Wangyang reveal the pervasive threat they face for challenging government abuse of the law. Many are motivated by their religious-based values to defend their fellow citizens from serious mistreatment, including home demolitions and forced abortions. For doing so, they face torture, years of imprisonment, house arrest, social ostracization and often the complete destruction of their careers.
Nevertheless, positive change is happening, albeit slowly. China’s rulers appear to be increasingly responsive to public outcry by the country’s ever-more aware and technologically savvy middle class. Whether or not this change is simply a strategy to contain growing dissent or a genuine start to even greater liberties remains to be seen. For the time being, though, the dream of genuine religious freedom for China’s hundreds of millions of religious believers remains just that, a dream.
By Ryan Morgan