Religion and Democracy Threaten Beijing

On December 22 a court in Beijing gave a three-year jail sentence, suspended for five years, to one of the country’s most prominent human rights lawyers, Gao Zhisheng, for posting ‘seditious articles’ on the Internet.

For the Communist government, Gao represents a double threat. Not only has he represented protesting farmers and members of Falun Gong and accused the government of killing its citizens but he is a fervent Christian and democracy activist, belonging to a group named the Arch, the most famous ‘family church’ in China The Arch is one of hundreds of such groups that practice their faith in the privacy of their own because they do not wish to go either to an official church or an underground one.

Religious groups and spiritual movements not registered with the government have continued to experience varying degrees of official interference and harassment, according to the International Religious Freedom Report, released by the US Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. Members of some unregistered religious groups were subjected to restrictions, including intimidation, harassment, and detention, according to the report. .

Virtually since Hu Jintao took power as Communist Party General Secretary in 2003, there have been increasing indications that the party hierarchy are concerned as the party itself comes to be regarded as representing no ideology but merely attempting to preserve itself in power for power’s sake. As an example of this growing concern, in November middle and senior party cadres were required to watch an eight-part series, directed by a general in the People’s Liberation Army, on the breakup of the Soviet Union and the lessons the party in China should learn from it.

They saw in the series the death of Communist ideology, misuse of power by the nomenklatura and their children, widespread corruption and a culture of lying and flattery. The film blames the breakup on failed reforms by Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, especially ‘glasnost’ (political openness), which led to elections and a free media. Its revelations of the past abuses led to a collapse of public confidence in the party.

The message it delivered was clear: democracy, a multi-party system, freedom of the press and religion and unlimited privatization would mean the end of the party in China, as they did in the Soviet Union, and must never be allowed. So the freedoms that Gao and his fellow believers are striving for will grow no bigger and they can expect years of persecution and prison.

The Arch itself was established in 2001 by a dissident writer named Yu Jie and his wife, together with Gao, another human rights lawyer named Li Baiguang and Jiao Guobiao, an outspoken professor of journalism at Beijing University.

At a time of relative calm in Chinese-American relations despite concerns over the trade deficit, the Chinese leadership was jolted on May 11 when Yu and Li, together with another Christian writer named Wang Yi, met George Bush at the White House, the first time a sitting U.S. president has met Chinese dissidents in his office during his tenure. For Bush, faithful to his religious core constituents at home, publicly the most important of these rights is religious rights – and that is the nightmare for Beijing.

For many of these Christian intellectuals, the fight for religious rights has become linked to the fight for democracy, as it was in Eastern Europe, where opposition by the Catholic and Protestant churches was a major reason for the collapse of Communism.

Communist party leaders have long regarded the working class as the biggest threat to its power -- a movement like Solidarity in Poland, where unemployed and low-paid workers revolted against falling living standards, the rising wealth gap and official corruption. It is for this reason that it does not allow any trade union other than the official one and deals ruthlessly with those who try to set one up.

True to the words of Karl Marx, the party regards religion as an opiate of the masses’ and restricts it to the temple, mosque and church. Religious groups cannot operate outside their place of worship and cannot run schools, hospitals, orphanages or institutions that would allow them to penetrate the wider society.

Fervent Christianity is one reason why the national tennis association in November refused the offer of the American Michael Chang, the only ethnic Chinese to make it to the top rank of world tennis, to teach the country’s women’ s team.

But religion is booming nonetheless in China. Since Communism has long died as an ideology, a wide variety of religions and sects – legal and illegal --have replaced it as a source of spiritual comfort for people enduring a period of dramatic change. Official statistics put the number of Christians, in the approved Protestant and Catholic churches, at 25 million. Unofficial estimates, including those who worship in ‘underground’ churches and at home, range from 50 million to 100 million.

Helping to boost the number of Protestants are thousands of evangelicals who come from abroad, mainly the United States, and find work as teachers of English or ‘experts’ in different fields but put their main energy into missionary work.

In rural areas, the party has been ruthless in suppressing non-official churches. Between May 2005 and May 2006, the government detained 2,000 preachers and members of Family churches, according to the China Aid Association, a Texas-based association led by the Revered Bob Fu, a friend of the Bush family. One pastor, Gong Shengliang, who founded the unofficial Church of South China in 1986, which claims over 100,000 members, is serving a 23-year sentence.

But the party has been less severe on the church in the cities because it does not want to create martyrs and wants to avoid the emergence of a Lech Walesa or Nelson Mandela. The threat is a marriage of the mass movement of Christians with that intellectual elite that believes that the path to democracy is through U.S.-style Christianity.

Consequently, the Arch has to constantly change its meeting places to avoid police surveillance. Its members refuse to register, as required by the government, citing the freedom of belief as promised by the constitution.

“We used to believe that the strength of the United States came from law,” said Lu Kun, a Protestant computer engineer whose husband has been sent to prison for dissidence.

“Now we have realized that it comes from God. The Bible is the foundation of the life of Americans and of their constitution. We have nothing of that in China.”

That is hardly a sophisticated understanding of the American political system or its constitution, whose First Amendment specifically guarantees the strict separation of church and state by saying that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Nonetheless, Li Baiguang, one of the White House three, says that “Both George Washington and Mao Tse-tung preached the power of the people and democracy. Washington succeeded, but Mao failed. Why? Because he did not have the spirit of tolerance, which is what determines action. Washington had faith. That was the difference.”

These intellectuals argue that only the Christian God and the gospel contain the message of equality and individual responsibility.

“In Chinese tradition, there is no school of thought that represents liberty, democracy and equality,” said Yu Jie. “Confucianism served the Emperor. Buddhism also is a religion of power. To be Christian does not mean that one is not patriotic. Christianity is part of Chinese history. It is not a religion of the whites, it belongs to all of us.”

But as with Falun Gong and other spiritual movements, all the signs are that theirs will be a long struggle.