It's Been a Brutal Olympics for Chinese ChristiansThere could be more Christians in China now than Communist party members. The Chinese state seems to be in confusion how to persecute this “unregulated crowd.”
The Olympic prayer bands – those ubiquitous white bracelets known for championing a cause – were a performance worthy of gold, except for the fact that the Chinese pastor who inspired the idea was arrested just two days before the Games began. The offending prayer bands said, "Pray for China."
"There used to be a saying, 'One more Christian is one less Chinese…' "
The Chinese state seems confused about how best to persecute its massive unregulated crowd of Christians. The director of China's State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) is reported to have put the number of Christians in China at nearly 130 million. The various forms of Christianity in China self-report about half that number, while, according to conservative estimates, Christians now exceed the number of members in the Communist Party of China.
"There used to be a saying, 'One more Christian is one less Chinese,' " said SARA's Ma Yuhong in a recent PBS documentary. "Today, nobody says that any more. It is no longer a foreigner's religion. It's now something that belongs to the people."
It may belong to the people, and China's constitution does proclaim freedom of religion, but it's been a brutal Olympics for China's non-registered church. Just a snapshot of the crackdown happened in Beijing, where all major house churches were forced to stop meeting during the Games and most of their leaders were arrested or put in seclusion. That excludes the names on nearly a dozen pages of documented Chinese church arrests and assaults publicized by [The Evangelical Fellowship of] Canada's Religious Liberty Commission just before the Olympics.
What has China to fear in Christianity?
If Christians have the courage to stay faithful to their beliefs, it is only a matter of time until they find they must say no to what the state has in mind. Eventually, those convictions will reshape the way China interacts with the world.
China did think it could control God, first in the early 1950s by regulating the devout into religious "patriotic associations." That launched a period of extreme persecution that peaked during the Cultural Revolution, when absolute atheism banned all religions. Today, registered churches, such as the one U.S. President George Bush visited before the Olympics, have more than 50,000 meeting points. Restrictions include not being able to acknowledge Rome as their bishop, not being able to baptize or evangelize those under the age of 18, and ensuring that all teaching is "compatible with socialism."
Many more millions have ignored the state and, as in the launch of Christianity in the New Testament, government controls and some wild experiences have been helpful in its expansion. When the Cultural Revolution smashed thousands of idols, for instance, it left the soul market open for Christian teaching. Miracles and deep personal encounters with God fuelled Chinese evangelists on to their nation's new transportation routes. Large-scale literacy projects were undertaken, giving many a chance to read Christian teaching.
In the spring, the world's largest Bible factory expanded to keep up with demand: Nanjing's Amity Printing Press, which reports that it's already produced 64 million Bibles, says it will now print a million Chinese Bibles a month – seeking an audience of readers in a billion-plus market just beginning to discover what a Bible is.
Beijing University professor Zhao Xiao, a prominent Chinese economist, told PBS's Frontline that he spent three months studying the Bible. "I discovered that this kind of book China does not have. China does have morality books. For instance, the Analects of Confucius teaches people morality. China also has many intelligent writings - for instance, the Buddhist texts. But the Bible is a book that claims inspiration from the will of God. It talks about the history of the relationship between God and human beings, and this kind of book does not exist in China."
Well, the book does exist. So, too, do reports of seminary staff in China being arrested for trying to buy Bibles from Amity. Nothing can be generalized about the phenomenon sweeping China in Christian belief, except that suffering and violation of the rights of many is common. It is an awakening outside the control of any propaganda machine, and one by which Western Christians are being instructed.
Lorna Dueck is a Christian broadcaster, author and executive producer of the current affairs program, Listen Up, on Global TV and CTS.
Originally published in The Globe and Mail, August 21, 2008.
Used with permission. Copyright © 2008 Christianity.ca.