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Christianity in China

U.S.-China Relations and the Church

Originally presented to the annual meeting of ERRC (Educational Resources & Referrals – CHINA). Annual meeting March 6, 2009.

T
here has always been a close correlation between the state of U.S.-China governmental relations, and Chinese official attitudes toward Christianity and the treatment of the Chinese church. A brief historical review illustrates this:

History of U.S.-China Relations and the Church

Late Qing–Early Republic:

After 1900, the U.S. was perceived as a relatively neutral power that did not claim territorial concessions on Chinese territory (although insisting on so-called “equal” special tariff rights under the “open door” policy). There was hope that a friendly U.S. would help China survive the predation of other imperialist powers. Because of the world dominance of the West, the institutions and values of the Anglo U.K.-U.S. culture, defined as “Protestant Christian,” were seen as a model for bringing wealth and power to China. These hopes were dashed by the American “lean” toward Japan as early as Theodore Roosevelt’s administration and concessions to Japan under Woodrow Wilson at the end of World War II and beyond. Public attitudes changed from pro-Christian to anti-Christian. Missionaries were forced to flee China in 1926–27 and again in 1941–44, and finally in 1949–52.

The Mao Era:

Chinese government hostility toward the U.S. was exemplified in Mao’s bitter speech titled “Goodbye, Leighton Stuart” (a former missionary who in 1950 was the U.S. ambassador). With the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, attacks on the missionaries as cultural imperialists were accompanied by fierce suppression of Chinese Christianity through the 1950s and 1960s, escalating during the Cultural Revolution as the Vietnam War sustained U.S.-China hostility. Anti-Americanism in those years led to persecution of any Chinese with any American ties. Families were separated, and Missionaries did not hear from former Chinese friends and colleagues for decades.

U.S.-China Anti-Soviet Détente:

The Cultural Revolution was called to a halt in large part because of Soviet aggression toward a severely weakened China. Border clashes in the north frightened Chinese leaders into détente with the U.S. on the premise that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” As U.S.-Soviet rivalry began to tip in favor of the Western alliance in the mid–late 1970s, Deng Xiaoping’s travel to Paris and New York in 1974 convinced him that China’s survival and recovery required opening to the West based on good U.S.-China relations. His official trip to the U.S. in Feb. 1979 after the resumption of diplomatic relations served to ward off a militant Soviet reaction to China’s attack on Vietnam shortly thereafter. Deng and National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski developed a close personal relationship and a proto-military alliance against the USSR.
In this context of anti-Soviet cooperation, President Jimmy Carter was able to exact Deng’s promise to re-open churches in China and allow Bible distribution although his request that missionaries again be allowed into China was deflected. Human rights issues were not a source of friction in U.S.-China relations, so long as the trend line seemed positive through the 1980s, when China appeared to be in the forefront of democratic socio-economic and even political reform compared with the Soviet bloc countries.

The Carter administration was the first to put human rights, including religious freedom, on the formal U .S. foreign policy agenda. Before that, diplomacy focused on cold war geo-strategic goals and was conducted within a small circle of foreign policy elites shaped by real-politik thinking, not idealism. The American public, including Christians, paid little attention as both U.S.-China relations and the church situation improved. But President Carter introduced a requirement in 1980 for annual reports from the State Dept. on the condition of human rights in countries around the world, and thus embassies and intelligence agencies began reporting on these conditions and have continued to do so since then. Most of the Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) doing human rights advocacy still rely heavily on those reports for their facts, even while criticizing the U.S. government for doing too little about the problem.

Bush Administrations:

After 1990, with the end of the Cold War and the tragedy in Tiananmen Square, the U.S. government and public, including politically active Christian groups, began to pay more attention to our human rights goals and religious rights abuses overseas. For a decade, Beijing came under pressure as Americans perceived a rising China, among the last communist countries, as a potential adversary. Even after September 11, 2001 and the launch of the “war on terrorism,” which took pressure off Beijing (a much needed ally) George W. Bush made religious freedom and legitimacy for house church Christians a matter of personal interest, raising it on every occasion he met with China’s senior leaders. In response, International Religious Freedom (IRF) goals became more closely integrated for the first time into general U.S. human rights policy, which had previously been focused on political dissidents. Religious freedom up until then had been raised mainly in the context of the cultural rights of ethnic minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang, not as a right for all Chinese. Now, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) began to cover religious rights, including house church issues.

There were mixed results in China of this turn in U.S. policy, however. The major PRC leadership conference in late 2001, convened to set policy for this decade, elevated concern and attention to religion to a much higher level on the ruling agenda. But in the wake of 9/11, there was a negative focus on concern over “religious extremism” as a threat to national security. Only recently have we seen signs of a positive attitude toward the contributions religion might make to domestic or foreign policy goals. To some extent, this negative focus reflected an American academic and media biases regarding religion.

Meanwhile in 2004–05, the several “color” revolutions in the former Soviet camp, and the continuing growth of the urban house churches both in size and influence, aroused controversy and government debate in China about the policy toward religion, especially on the matter of registration. Beijing assumed that Washington’s China policy favoring political and religious dissidents reflected a goal of “regime change” as part of the new global democracy promotion campaign. So, while Beijing tried to avoid public incidents of blatant religious persecution, secret campaigns to shut down unregistered groups continued.

Before the Olympics in early 2008, there was a major campaign to register or shut down the house churches in Beijing at least temporarily, while allowing registered churches to have a high profile. The earthquake emergency after May 12, combined with a desire to ensure President Bush’s attendance at the Olympics, together took the wind out of the suppression. But given the “lame duck” status of the Bush administration, no major concessions appeared.

This year with unemployment rising and major anniversaries approaching—50 years since the Dalai Lama’s escape from China, 20 years since June Fourth, and 60 years since the founding of the PRC—government anxiety and indecision have continued.

The Clinton Legacy and Prospects for the Obama Administration

In the light of this history, the political theatre in Washington regarding Secretary Clinton’s comments on human rights during her Spring 2009 visit to China seems like a “tempest in a teapot.” She was criticized for mentioning that human rights would not be an obstacle to other bilateral cooperation. This just described the reality that U.S. attention to human rights abuses in China has always played a secondary role in the increasingly complex mix of policies we need to coordinate with China, along with others such as international law enforcement and the environment.

This reality first became clear to Democrats when Bill Clinton first became President on a platform of denying Most Favored Nation (MFN) trade status to China unless human rights were respected. Within two years, he had to do an about face to avoid a trade war. The administration granted China MFN, redefined as Normal Trading Relations (NTR) status and set up diplomatic rather than economic mechanisms to keep pressing China on human rights. These included the governmental CECC monitoring, the independent International Religious Freedom Commission, a special ambassador for IRF, and the State Department’s IRF office. In addition, the White House sponsored the early 1998 visit to China by three religious leaders and efforts to pressure China through the U.N. Human Rights Commission, (now a Council). It will be important to watch how the Obama administration uses these tools, for signs of its continued concern.

The responsibility of the federal government is, as always, national security. Certainly, it makes sense that the current top priorities evident in Secretary Clinton’s Asia travel agenda and speeches are the global economy and North Korea. Of course, it also makes sense for human rights and international religious freedom NGOs to make their voices heard loud and clear at the start of the Obama administration, to make sure their priorities don’t move too far down the agenda. For this purpose, in March 2009, a coalition of groups convened a press conference in DC under the umbrellas of Congressmen Wolf and Smith. Bob Fu of China Aid spoke, along with Wei Jingsheng, Harry Wu, a representative of the Dalai Lama and labor organizers.
For their own political reasons, they ignored Secretary Clinton’s eve-of-departure pledge to “hold ourselves and others accountable as we work to expand human rights and create a world that respects those rights…[a world] where Tibetans and all Chinese people can enjoy religious freedom without fear of prosecution.” This, and similar comments in Asia are important policy statements they failed to note, while giving a negative spin to her alleged dismissal of the human rights issue as an obstruction to cooperation on other matters. In fact she made it clear that she was raising all human rights issues just as she has for decades.

Although the U.S.-China interaction on human rights is important, the prospects for freer environment and positive policy changes in China will depend very little on American opinion. The credibility of the American model for everything is badly damaged. What matters is how the Chinese church responds as the economy weakens and there is social instability due to joblessness. In this environment, the government will be especially fearful of the implicit alliance between religious rights legal defenders and political dissidents such as the drafters and signers of Charter ’08. Both are modeling their actions explicitly on earlier peaceful civil disobedience movements in America and Eastern Europe—precedents feared by the PRC government. In this situation, I think it is very important how the Chinese church organizes itself and how it relates to government at all levels. The same is true for those from the church outside who are involved in China.