Quick, check out the link to a new Frontline video about how Christianity is spreading through China and being practiced by record numbers, from underground churches hiding in remote rural caves to Beijing, where Hu Jintao has been working hard to improve ties with the Vatican. The special just aired a couple of hours ago, and I won’t be surprised if the link is soon blocked here, as was Frontline’s superb special two years ago on the Tiananmen Tank Man.
Religious freedom is another area in China that seems to be “getting better,” but some of the stories about the harassment and arrest of Christians, even in these open-minded and reformist times, are pretty wrenching. I haven’t seen the video yet (my broadband is hopelessly slow) but a friend of mine who saw it in the US just a few hours ago writes:
The one thing that struck me was how many poor people from the cities, but mostly from more rural areas, are joining these “home churches.” The ministers see their mission as reaching out to the people that the economic surge has left behind. That’s where the growth is. According to the Frontline report, there are now as many Christians in China as there are Party members. Meanwhile the CCCP response is to beef up the “official” Christian church which most people see for what it is: a means to maintain control.
At one point they showed this huge non-descript modern building which is the home of one of the largest official Christian congregations (I think they said 4000 members.) It wasn’t named for a saint or any usual Protestant name. In huge letters in Latin and Chinese it said “Christian Church.” The pastors for these official churches are actually trained in theology in government schools so that they know how to integrate the Communist message with the gospel. How convenient.
Lots of material and interviews at the Frontline site, for anyone interested in this subject. It’s a good sign that Chinese Christians from underground churches are willing to appear on the record and speak out, but it may be a bit premature to hail the arrival of full religious freedom here. A final clip from the synopsis:
At the most recent Communist Party congress, President Hu Jintao made an historic move, adding the word “religion” to the party constitution for the first time. He urged party leaders to strike what he called a harmonious balance between church and state.
But not everyone trusts the party’s new friendly face toward religion. Fan Yafeng, a lawyer specializing in religious freedom, tells Osnos that the government’s acceptance of Christianity is strategic.
“To control the Chinese society, the government sometimes chooses to be lenient and sometimes tough,” he says.
As Osnos goes back one more time to see house church leader Zhang Mingzuan, he learns about how Zhang was arrested just a few months ago.
“I was preaching, about 12 o’clock, and people from the Bureau of Religious Affairs came in with the police. I was in the middle of my preaching,” he explained.
“All we’re doing is believing in Jesus, nothing else. If there is no religious freedom, how can the country be in a harmonious state?”
I think the Party leaders see it from the exact opposite perspective: If there IS religious freedom how can the country be in a harmonious state? Harmonious is code for conformist, uniformity, unquestioning. Once you start giving people choice, especially in who they answer to, that harmony is threatened.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.