Chinas Urban Christians an Unknown Quantity For Beijing

2007-09-04
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A woman prays beside a crucifix following an early morning mass at Beijing's state-approved Immaculate Conception Cathedral, May 2006. Photo: AFP/Frederic J. Brown

HONG KONG—Christianity is gaining new converts in Chinese cities and towns, especially among the newly emerging and assertive professional class, and the trend is causing the ruling Communist Party some concern, experts say.

A prominent example of this phenomenon is rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who has been detained, kept under surveillance and sentenced to a jail term after he represented the underdogs in sensitive political cases. Gao is also a committed Christian, whose Beijing-based church has been raided by police on more than one occasion.

Gao’s commitment to using the nascent Chinese legal system to fight unpopular civil rights cases—such as representing villagers who wish to indict local officials for graft, or representing members of the banned Falun Gong movement—are underpinned by his strong emphasis on morality and compassion, and bound up with the lawyer’s Christian identity.

“The people who are taking the lead now in proposing not just political change in China, but moral change, are the Christian intellectuals—the lawyers, the professors, the writers,” author David Aikman recently told an audience at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation.

Religion connected to rebellion

The people who are taking the lead now in proposing not just political change in China, but moral change, are the Christian intellectuals—the lawyers, the professors, the writers.

China’s leadership, which always keeps a weather eye on the nation’s history, appears to remember only too keenly that many anti-government movements—the Taiping Rebellion (1850-64) against the highly corrupt Qing Dynasty, for example—have been inspired by religious teachings.

Such movements typically emerge at times of stark social division, which in today’s China is evidenced by the thousands of protests and demonstrations across the country in any given year, frequently with land-rights disputes and allegations of official corruption at their core.

Thousands of petitioners try to get into the capital, Beijing, every year, to lodge complaints against official wrongdoing. Almost none win redress in return for years of queuing, form-filling, and further abuse from officials who object to their complaints.

A new get-rich-quick philosophy in China “has led to huge corruption and dishonesty in the production of goods,” said Aikman, former Time magazine bureau chief in China and author of the book Jesus in Beijing .

“China’s Communist Party keeps saying that it is struggling for the creation of a ‘harmonious society,’” Aikman said. “But it doesn’t know how to create a harmonious society.”

Often, these higher values are provided only by religion, Aikman said.

Civil rights movement

China expert Scott Flipse said China now has “more high-level, highly educated, highly trained lawyers, writers, intellectuals speaking out than ever before—as self-identified Christians or as defenders of religious freedom plus other related human rights.”

In a measure of official unease at the rise of the urban Christian, a small, unofficial house church in Beijing was recently surprised to see a new addition to the congregation.

“We were chanting some psalms, and this policeman called up and asked me if he could attend,” the house church pastor, surnamed Liu, told RFA’s Mandarin service.

“I said, yes, of course. He asked if he could come in uniform. I said I didn’t think Jesus had any particular dress code, and that the only requirement was an open heart.”

The policeman stayed through the service, listening to intimate testimonies of worshippers about their lives and experience of their faith, but he didn’t interfere.

Liu Jingsheng, a veteran dissident who served more than 10 years for his part in the 1989 pro-democracy movement on Tiananmen Square, said he saw no reason why the policeman shouldn’t be welcomed, although his presence was possibly a first for a church in the capital.

Tense atmosphere

“First of all, he is a human being. He probably has a conscience, and he is just carrying out his public duties, which is his way of earning a living,” Liu told reporter Ding Xiao.

“The fact that he came at all probably has something to do with the overall tension in the atmosphere in Beijing at the moment. I for one haven’t heard of this happening before in Beijing.”

China’s leadership is becoming increasingly concerned about “uncontrolled social elements” in the period leading up to next year’s Olympic Games in Beijing.

While Liu believed the tightening of authoritarian control was a temporary phenomenon, others believe the authorities are clearly worried about the speed with which Christianity is catching on among educated urban Chinese.

“There is some concern [among Chinese authorities] that the intellectual class is converting, and this is something that the Chinese don’t necessarily want to see,” said Flipse, a senior policy analyst and director of East Asia programs at the congressionally mandated U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Flipse said house churches in China’s cities try to protect themselves by limiting the size of their congregations and by pursuing official registration. “They try to figure out what the law allows, and then they argue from the law quite effectively.”

“They’re let alone. They’re watched, but they’re not necessarily harassed like in Henan or in Shaanxi or some of these other provinces which are more rural and have more provincial leadership,” Flipse said.

Labor camps, fines, abuse

Unregistered house churches in China’s countryside have meanwhile come under renewed attack, said Bob Fu, president of the Texas-based China Aid Association, pointing to “more arrests and more raids” in recent weeks.

“Some [church members] were arrested and already sent to labor camps,” Fu said. “Some are being detained indefinitely, and some were released after paying a very heavy fine. Some were beaten and abused.”

In some raids, private homes used as church meeting places are destroyed, Fu said.

On July 11, according to the China Aid Association, a house church Bible school in Jiangsu province was raided by county officials, officers of China’s Public Security Bureau, and members of the government-approved Three-Self Patriotic Movement Protestant church.

“The 150 children [attending the school] were traumatized, and they asked to leave the school,” the press release said.

Enquiries to China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing seeking confirmation of the raid received no response.

Scott Flipse said that as religious belief and practice grow in China, China’s government has become a “broadening zone of toleration.” “But that toleration doesn’t necessarily mean legal rights,” Flipse said.

“Legal rights aren’t protected in China, and those groups that are seen as being a threat, or that won’t accept government management and oversight, are harshly dealt with.”

Official churches

Earlier this week, China's Olympic 2008 organizers said they would build a multi-faith worship center in the Olympic Village. "All will be arranged in accordance with the practices ... adopted by other Olympic host cities," the official China Daily newspaper quoted Liu Bainian, vice-president of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, as saying.

The Party-run association governs China's approved Catholic churches, while other officials watch over Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims, and Protestants. Judaism isn't recognized, and worship in non-recognized temples, churches, or mosques is against the law.

Original reporting by Richard Finney in English and by Ding Xiao in Mandarin. RFA Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated from the Mandarin by Luisetta Mudie. Edited for the Web by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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