10 October, 2002
Christian Adventures Abroad
the life of the chinese faithful
e l i z a b e t h b a r n e s
He has a covert mission to undermine Chinese governmental authority. He enters the country under false pretense of government-sanctioned actions. He is accompanied during the day by a government agent who gives detailed reports to headquarters in Beijing. His subversive activities must be carried out at night, with the aid of underground organizations. All communication home must be delivered in coded messages. And it's all just another day in the life of a Baptist minister.
Okay, so maybe the local Baptist preacher isn't the first figure who comes to mind when you think of international political intrigue, but the state of religion in modern China makes life for religious dissidents seem oddly like some scene from a Cold War-era spy movie. When China set up its Communist state, it quickly labeled most religious sects as subversive to the cause of unity and stability. Religious devotion, political leaders argued, detracted from devotion to the state, which should be the primary focus of all citizens. As a result, the Chinese government set up strict regulations for religious practice that would tie all worship to the state itself and place all religious practices firmly under governmental supervision.
In the case of Christianity, the government instantiated two official organizations: the Protestant Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) and the Catholic Patriotic Movement (CPM). Both groups operate under direct government control, use only government-sponsored texts (including a version of the bible edited to remove any seditious content), and encourage total political submission to their parishioners. Many Chinese Christians, however, have refused to join such organizations, citing either ethical or theological objections.
The Chinese government, in the face of such opposition, has made it clear that any and all religious activity taking place outside government-sanctioned organizations is illegal and highly reprehensible. As a result, Chinese Christians have established an intricate network of covert, underground churches in an attempt to worship as they choose while avoiding the political consequences (which include imprisonment, forced labor, and in many cases like that of an underground church leader brought to trial in December 2001, a death sentence).
Often referred to as house-churches, these Christian underground groups meet in the homes of congregation members; many move from house to house every Sunday in a effort to avoid detection. They use Chinese bibles smuggled in by international Christian groups through a ring of house churches in Hong Kong. The leader of this bible-smuggling effort was recently sentenced to three years in a forced-labor Chinese prison for his illegal activities.
Pastors of these churches must maintain a legitimate business front as a cover for their religious work. The two pastors of the underground church in Xingdao, for example, work as a dentist and an accountant. Most of their communication must be conducted in code, with comments about the weather filling in for details on when the next congregational meeting will occur or what chapter of the bible to study in the coming week.
Many of these underground churches rely on the aid of international missionary organizations for support and resources. Every year hundreds of foreign missionaries enter China under various pretenses (they are allowed into the country as doctors, teachers, etc.) and must conduct their missionary work secretly. Whenever non-sanctioned religious activity is suspected, customs authorities assign government agents to accompany the travelers during the day and report on their activities and whereabouts. As a result, most of the missionaries' interaction with the underground churches must take place at night in private residences and under the guise of socializing or sight-seeing.
If the government uncovers the illegal activities of these foreigners, they will be directly transported to Beijing, put on the earliest available flight out of the country, and forbidden to return. The consequences for the Chinese citizens they were working with, however, will be far more severe. Penalties for engaging in prohibited religious activities range from a year in forced-labor prisons to immediate execution.
Human rights advocates and international political organizations continually urge China to allow greater religious freedom within its borders, and they lobby for the release of imprisoned dissidents, but all to little avail. It seems, in fact, that the more vocal critics of Chinese religious policy become, the more adamant China becomes in enforcing those policies.
It's easy to criticize the US these days. With its hypocritical foreign policy, political corruption, and cavalier "do it our way or we'll use our really big guns to blow your puny little country into the next millennium " attitude, our country makes an easy target for us liberal intellectuals to pick on. Yet in the face of all its flaws, the US also gives us some amazing freedoms--freedoms we often fail to appreciate because we've come to take them for granted. But these freedoms are in no way universal; millions of people in China risk their very lives simply to worship as they choose and would give anything to enjoy the liberty we barely even notice. So let's pause for a moment and appreciate the US for the really kickass place to live that it is. Then we can go back to being critical, because, dammit, that's what being arrogant college students is all about.