During the debate some years ago over whether or not to continue to grant China “Most Favored Nation” trading status, the pro side of the argument included the idea that if we isolate China, their actions against Christians, and the religious in general, would get worse. They could do it outside of the view of the world and would be unhindered by their watching eyes. Keeping trade open would allow external influences to affect the culture.
I personally wasn’t convinced, but it was a reasonable argument. So how’s it going there these days?
The violent protests in Tibet that began last week and have since spread across (and beyond) China are frequently depicted as a secessionist threat to Beijing. But the regime’s deeper problem in the current crisis is neither ethnic nor territorial. It’s religious.
If there’s a template for Beijing’s policy on religion, it’s the “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” In 1995, the regime effectively kidnapped Gendun Choekyi Nyima, a 6-year-old boy named by the Dalai Lama as the 11th Panchen Lama, the second-highest ranking figure in Tibetan Buddhism. In Nyima’s place, Beijing designated its own “official” Panchen Lama, the slightly younger Gyaltsen Norbu. Nyima’s whereabouts, assuming he’s alive, are unknown. More recently, a new set of “implementation regulations” on Tibetan religious affairs has come into force, drastically curtailing the freedom of monks and nuns to travel within China, and introducing political themes into the qualification exams required of religious initiates. Of the roughly 100 Tibetan political prisoners, fully three-quarters are monks or nuns.
Much the same goes with China’s Christians. The regime has substituted its own Catholic hierarchy — the Catholic Patriotic Association — for Rome’s since 1957, leading to endless friction between the Pope and the Communist Party. Similarly, Chinese Protestantism officially operates under the so-called “Three-Self Patriotic Movement” (the three “selfs” being self-governance, self-support and self-propagation), which in turn is regulated by the party. “The purpose of [the regime's] nominal degree of sympathy for Christianity is to indoctrinate and mobilize for Communist Party objectives,” says journalist David Aikman, author of the 2003 book “Jesus in Beijing.” “I’ve often joked that the most leftist people in China are members of the Three-Self Church.”
I’m not really seeing how the world’s eyes have done much to curb government abuses in China. Not even the arrival of the Olympics there has helped. In fact, it’s possible that it’s causing more oppression so that the government puts it best facade forward.
But there is good news…
The method here is not subtle. The regime banned religion — one of the so-called Four Olds — during the Cultural Revolution. Once it figured out that that didn’t work, it sought instead to turn clergy into bureaucrats, and replace the idea of the divine with the mechanics of political control. The results have been, at best, a partial success. There are now some six million “Catholics” who adhere to the state-approved dogma, along with another 20 million or so “official” Protestants, whose activities are overseen by a director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs. As for Tibetan Buddhists, those who venerate the state-approved Panchen Lama can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand.
By contrast, the number of underground Catholics faithful to the Vatican easily equals the number of official ones. Unofficial Protestants, who attend unsanctioned “house churches,” are said to number anywhere between 70 million and 130 million; one prominent Chinese pastor puts the count closer to 300 million. That latter figure is probably exaggerated, but there’s no question that Christianity of the unofficial kind is winning Chinese converts in huge numbers. Not only that, it’s winning them among every class of Chinese: farmers, urban migrant workers, professionals and intellectuals.
(Emphasis mine.) So, as with other times and places in history, the persecuted Church is not suppressed, but grows. This is great news.
Still, we don’t pray for the persecuted Church so that they’ll continue to be persecuted and exhibit this sort of growth. We pray so that the persecution will stop. But for China, it doesn’t seem to be stopping. Can the case made that it would be worse if not for the eyes of the world? Perhaps, but the actions of the Chinese government of today is making it tougher to make that case.
The problem is that the world, in general, is loathe to isolate such a huge economic market, and has shown itself to rather easily overlook abuses. Perhaps those eyes aren’t all that penetrating, and perhaps with or without favored trade status, religious persecution would continue, more a function of a Communist government that a world unwilling to work up some righteous indignation.
It’s a tough nut to crack.