Implications for China ministry of the American policy of promoting religious freedom

A reflection on Religion and U.S. Foreign Policy: An interview with Dr. Carol Lee Hamrin

This interview raises a number of important issues for American Christians who want to serve God among the Chinese. The questions of the interviewer remind us that American and Chinese government perspectives are quite different at key points.

First: From the questions of the interviewer, we can see just how sensitive the Chinese government is to criticism from any direction, especially by the American government. While that is a normal human response, it is also characteristic of Chinese leaders in general, from fathers all the way up to top political leaders. Criticism of officials and policies has always been dangerous, though there is the ancient and honored tradition of the loyal minister who risked – and often lost – his life in order to present dissenting opinions to the Emperor.

American leaders, from fathers to presidents, on the other hand, are used to being criticized, as is America as a nation. Americans, therefore, including American Christians, have difficulty understanding why Chinese leaders at all levels bristle at the slightest negative comments. If we want to relate effectively to Chinese people, we must learn to choose our words carefully, as did Dr. Hamrin, lest we cause unnecessary offense.( It might be a good idea, also, to ask how we personally reacted the last time we were criticized!)

Second: While no one likes to see his nation accused of wrongdoing, we must understand that Chinese people, with their more pronounced group-orientation, are much more prone to identify with their country than we are, and thus subject to influence by the government’s “victim narrative.”

The Chinese government frequently expresses, and tries to foster in the people, a great deal of hurt and even resentment over what they consider to be 150 years of shameful treatment by Western nations.[1] Beginning with the Opium War of the 1840s and the subsequent defeats and imposition of “unequal treaties upon China by Britain, France, and even the United States, an empire that had been used to supremacy in its own world was subjected to one humiliation after another. Most galling of all was the loss of sovereignty over internal affairs. Not until the abrogation of the “unequal treaties” at end of World War 2, and then the communist revolution and Mao’s famous statement that “China has stood up,” did Chinese feel that they had thrown off the yoke of foreign oppression.

To have a Western nation call Chinese leaders to account for the way they govern their own country is therefore seen not only as inexcusable interference in China’s internal affairs, but also a reminder of more than one hundred years of actual outside political influence in their country. It does not go down well, to say the last. In fact, when we do the “shame and blame approach,” we provide evidence to the government to refer to the 150 years of imperialism.

Third: As Dr. Hamrin points out, official American criticism of China’s human rights policies and practices has not effected the change that American government leaders, and the evangelical Christians whose lobbying partly led to current laws, have sought. Despite temporary and limited gestures, such as the occasional release of a high-profile dissident, China has resisted efforts American efforts to change its treatment of those people the government considers dangerous.

Thus, it would seem wise for American Christians, including evangelicals, to tone down their public rhetoric about human rights violations. In the past, trying to use political pressure, especially, to influence American foreign policy towards China has often resulted in unintended consequences. As Dr. Hamrin observes in this interview and in God and Caesar in China: Policy Implications of Church-State Tensions, edited with Jason Kindopp, there are other ways to prod Chinese leaders at all levels to honor the international agreements which China has signed.

Fourth: We see that the Chinese government is more concerned with maintaining “social order” than in guarding the rights of individuals. There are major differences between Chinese and Western, especially American, priorities at this point. The questioner wonders why Americans are so concerned about religious freedom, when some cults seem to be evil and to endanger public stability. Not only is Western individualism here sharply at odds with Chinese focus on the larger society, especially the stability of the regime, but the very concept of individual rights to freedom of speech, assembly, and the practice of religion is not deeply embedded in Chinese history or culture. A great deal of explaining will be necessary to explain why these rights are part of the very essence of American concepts of society and government, and even more to persuade Chinese that social order is best maintained when individual rights are protected.2 Simple slogans and general hectoring will not make do.

Fifth: There is the vexing problem of Tibet, which, as the interview indicates, does not just involve the rights of Tibetans to practice their religion, but the political agenda of Tibetans. Until recently, the Dalai Lama was not just the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, but the political head of a government in exile that called for autonomy for Tibet within China, which the Chinese government considers to be a “splittist” proposition and a threat to its sovereignty. (“Autonomy” for the Tibetan government in exile includes having their own army and seeing the departure of Chinese troops, as well as having control over both domestic and foreign policy.) As Dr. Hamrin points out, the matter is further complicated by the re-drawing of the boundaries of “Tibet,” by which large portions of the eastern part of Tibet were incorporated into several provinces of China. When Americans, including Christians, voice support for the Dalai Lama, in the eyes of the Chinese they are at the same time appearing to advocate a break-up of China as a nation, something the Chinese government will never allow.

In all this, we see just how important it is for American Christians to be well informed, rather than naively to assume that our ideas of “separation of church and state” apply directly to China.

Sixth: American Christians must strike a balance between concern for the rights of Chinese to enjoy the same degree of religious freedom they do, on the one hand, and a trigger-happy penchant for continuing to accuse China of blanket religious persecution despite recent improvements in the situation. The interviewer voices the opinion of most Chinese that conditions have greatly improved in recent years. Dr. Hamrin agrees that there is much more freedom to practice religion “at the grassroots,” while noting a certain tightening of government restrictions on unofficial religious activity in the past few years.

We must distinguish between restrictions and persecution. A recent story claims that “persecution” of Christians has dramatically increased in the past year. A careful sifting of the evidence indicates that this charge is fundamentally false. Officially, and sometimes practically, Christian churches and non-profit organizations do face stringent restrictions on their activities. On the other hand, it would appear that 99% of all Christian congregations, including unregistered (often called “house churches”) operate with almost total lack of interference from the police.[3]

While longing for full religious freedom for Christians in China, why can we not also rejoice with them that their major challenge now, at least in the major cities, is not violent persecution, and sympathize with them that the greatest dangers to their people come from the allurements and pressures of modernity, including materialism, worldliness, and hedonism, as in the West?

Finally, for those who want to be witnesses of Christ among the Chinese: To protect our Chinese friends we must do all we can to avoid unnecessary identification with American foreign policy. Chinese Government sensitivity, which borders on paranoia, extends to attempts by American Christians to “change China” through evangelism and educating Chinese Christians in a “foreign religion,” especially one that often seems to be married to concepts of democracy and political freedom that the Chinese government is not yet ready to accept.

Before they rush in to fulfill the Great Commission, American Christians should take the time to read a bit of Chinese history, including Chinese Christian history.[4] They should also consult local Christians and ask what, in fact, they think Americans can do that would help, and not hurt, their witness in China. Zeal without knowledge has never been very productive.

G. Wright Doyle

[1] As Dr. Hamrin as commented elsewhere, “many in Chinese society today do not feel the ‘century-old humiliation over imperialism, despite patriotic education/media propaganda, whether out of ignorance, apathy, disbelief of any government slogans, or a balanced view based on knowledge of China's real history.”

[2] My book, Christianity in America: Triumph and Tragedy, forthcoming from Wipf and Stock, traces the history of American Christian involvement in politics and foreign policy, especially our passion for (obsession with?) freedom for ourselves and others. I hope it will help Chinese readers to understand us better, as well as spurring us to be a bit more humble and cautious in our political pronouncements.

[3] See especially the rebuttal of that sensationalist story from ChinaSource: See also China Isn't Trying to Wipe Out Christianity: A new report on persecution belies important changes in the country's religious freedom. Brent Fulton and Jan Vermeer at [4] China: Ancient Culture, Modern Society, by Peter Yu and G. Wright Doyle, might be one place to start. Daniel Bays, A New History of Christianity in China, tells its story well in a brief compass