Bible-Based Subterfuge in U.S.-China (Religious) Relations
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), one of the worst religious freedom violators in the world, is currently conducting a propaganda campaign sponsored by and directed at American Christians. The China Christian Council (CCC) and the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), state-owned religious associations that govern Protestants, are the main organizers of the China Bible Ministry Exhibition. The exhibition is touring America for the second time, from September to November, making stops in Washington, D.C. (sponsored by Wesley Theological Seminary, United Methodist Church); Chicago (Chicago Temple, UMC); Dallas (Dallas Theological Seminary); and finally Charlotte, NC (Billy Graham Evangelistic Association). Supporters include Jimmy Carter and former White House chiefs of staff Mack McLarty and Andrew Card. The exhibition also counts widespread support from major evangelical and mainline Protestant associations.
The exhibition, titled "Thy Word is Truth (John 17:17)," is a display of Chinese Bibles ranging from Silk Road origins to the current growth of Protestant Christianity in China. This Bible-centric approach suggests that the exhibition is specifically designed to appeal to American evangelicals. The exhibition is billed as a cross-cultural exchange, intended to increase dialogue in a spirit of mutual respect and understanding. Gao Feng, president of the CCC, claims, "The Bible Ministry Exhibition will be a good opportunity for people to know the situation of the Church in China. The Chinese church is really a church which is blessed by God." In the exhibition, neither the CCC nor the American hosts make any mention of the China-sized elephant in the room: religious freedom. There seems to be a respectful, mutual agreement that neither side will talk or apparently care about grave human rights concerns. As Mr. Carter puts it, "[w]e Christians -- both American and Chinese -- worship the same God, believe in the same Savior, and read the same Bible." Indeed.
Since 1999, the CCP's repressive religious policies have continually earned it a "Country of Particular Concern" designation, the worst category for religious freedom violators, from the U.S. State Department. According to the 2011 Annual Report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent, bipartisan federal agency:
While a growing number of Chinese citizens are allowed to practice their religion legally, the government tightly controls the affairs of all religious groups and actively represses and harasses religious activity that the Communist Party does not view as normal.
In other words, the majority of religious adherents who also refuse to register with state-controlled religious organizations face severe punishment and criminal penalties. If one could only Google China's human rights violations, one would find a bevy of detailed reports from a number of reputable international human rights organizations.
One of the major factors behind the Nazis' hold over Germany was that it gained ethical and social legitimacy from the Vatican and the majority of German Protestant churches, precisely because Nazi ideology was religiously warranted. Moreover, recent history has again reminded us that the logical conclusion of state-owned religious institutions is the forced assimilation and/or elimination of undesirables from the state (e.g., formerly Taliban-controlled Afghanistan). Religious institutions essentially become a part of the state security apparatus. This is precisely why such revered German theologians as Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer resisted Nazi control, and their theology reflects this context. Today, as independent Chinese religious leaders and communities are unlawfully detained and harassed, unique local cultures are increasingly under strain to simply exist. While the CCP is not Nazi Germany, there may very likely be slow-moving cultural genocides in China (e.g., against Tibetan Buddhists).
According to USCIRF, the State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA), the Chinese regime's religious agency, issued a document in January 2011 that "outlines measures to maintain extensive government supervision and control over religious communities." Further, as Wang Zuo'an, the head of SARA, put it, "the starting point and stopping point of work on religion is to unite and mobilize, to the greatest degree, the religious masses' zeal, to build socialism with Chinese characteristics." Yet, during the exhibition opening on September 28 in D.C., Wang said:
The Bible connects our churches ... I hope more American friends can visit this exhibition and through this window of opportunity, learn more about the development of the church in China, the piety of Chinese Christians and hopefully, it will lead to greater interest in finding more truth about a colorful China.
All of this suggests that, under the guise of cross-cultural exchanges, there is high interest from the CCP in mutual "understanding" with foreign religious organizations, as opposed to actually promoting international religious freedom norms. Perhaps the many D.C.-area Chinese-American congregations who rejected the invitation to host the exhibition reached the same conclusion.
The objectives of the CCP's state-owned religious organizations are twofold: (1) to maintain control over the domestic population, and (2) to attempt to show the world that religious tolerance exists. Therefore, the claim that the exhibition is a cross-cultural exchange is fallacious. First, this is not an exchange of religious communities or leaders, registered or not. These are American Christian leaders hosting the CCP's religious officials peddling priceless artifacts. Second, exchanges imply reciprocity. While it is hard to imagine uncensored American or Chinese Bible exhibitions in Beijing, Shandong, or Hebei, it is disappointing to see that Chinese officials do not get to enjoy the freedom to publicly listen to dissenting views or alternative displays. Third, the exhibition renders American Christians as state propaganda tools, precisely because America is perceived as a Christian nation. To the Chinese public, this perhaps helps to cement social or political legitimacy of Chinese state-owned religious associations and by extension China's repressive religious policy writ large. Lastly, I would contend that the CCP is aggressively "engaging" American Christians to eventually shift U.S.-China relations. The CCP perhaps recognizes that targeting religious leaders and seminaries has a multiplying effect. The CCP may be intending to engineer a shift in aggregate American religious sentiment and resulting pressure on political leaders toward focusing solely on "understanding" at the expense of human rights concerns and what actually matters: human lives.
So why have so many American Christians so readily embraced the CCC and TSPM? The most salient reason may be a cynical calculation in cozying up to Chinese officials to get a piece of the untapped Chinese-evangelization market. According to the Dallas organizers:
Avenues for Christian relationships and outreach are opening in this great nation of 1.3 billion people, and Christian ministries should stay informed as to how God would use them in the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20. As God opens a way to us, which is now through the registered church, we cannot fail to respond with the love of Christ and the welcome that befits the riches of His gospel.
Even Faustian bargains are wrought with good intentions.
In a final analysis, history will pass this by. But for the systematically "re-educated," forcibly "disappeared," unlawfully detained, beaten, tortured, and executed Tibetan Buddhists; (un)registered Protestants and Catholics; Hmong Muslims, Falun Gong practitioners; North Korean refugees; and many more, these exhibitions seem nothing more than a mockery of their experiences of religious freedom in China. I thought that the religious were supposed to stand with the "least of these," not with their oppressors.
The writer is a recent graduate of Wesley Theological Seminary. He is the former research & policy officer of Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), an international NGO devoted to human rights in North Korea and the protection of North Korean refugees worldwide. His writings have appeared in the International Herald Tribune and The Korea Times.