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Report on Religious Freedom in China PDF Print E-mail

Don Argue
National Association of Evangelicals

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Tokyo, Japan May 23-25, 1998

The issue of religious freedom has a higher profile in the United States now than at any time in our modern history. The passing of the Wolf-Specter bill within the last few weeks, by an overwhelming majority in the Congress, is an indication that Americans feel very deeply regarding what we feel is a most sacred freedom—the freedom of conscience. You cannot put a fence around an idea. The most basic of freedoms is the freedom of conscience. For those of us from the West, it is hard for us to comprehend China.

Language problems in translation are huge. Let me share just a little humorous thing to illustrate this, and I trust it will translate. We were flying after almost three in-depth rigorous weeks in China from Chungdu in the west to Lhasa in Tibet, and that is rather a challenging flight as you go over the rooftop of the world. The airport is about 12,000 feet. I was looking out at these huge peaks and bouncing around with the currents, wondering about the quality of the aircraft we were in, when the my colleague, Archbishop McCarrick, showed me the flight magazine that was in the pocket of the seat. The title was “Thousands of Successful Takeoffs—Many Safe Landings.”

A population of 1.2 billion people is hard to comprehend. There are twelve hundred million in an area only slightly larger than the United States including Alaska. While we were in China, Time magazine reported that close to 400 million additional will be added to the population in the next 15 years. It’s hard to comprehend. One of the consul generals for the U.S. government spoke in one of our briefing sessions. The economic miracle is something that you have to perceive to understand, and then we are not sure we understand it. He informed us that it took England 100 years to double its economy, the United States, 75 years; Japan, 45 years; Taiwan, 25 years. China has quadrupled its economy in the past 20 years.

Let me share how the mission developed. I serve an association of churches in the United States. About this time last year, when Most Favored Nation status for China was being debated in Congress, we were contacted for our opinion. We did what seemed the most logical thing and contacted the church in China. We have broad and deep contacts with the church of China, although it is primarily an indigenous church. The response that came back was universal. Every response, including those from our contacts in Hong Kong, was “Please don’t take a position on MFN, because the moment you do, you politicize the issue, and when you politicize the issue, then you politicize the church in China. That is the exact thing we do not want to have happen. Please don’t politicize it.” So we developed a very clear-cut statement in which we said that we would not take a position on MFN. That was circulated to all members of Congress, all the cabinet, and the president.

On October 1, my wife and I received an invitation from President and Mrs. Clinton to attend the state dinner at the White House for President Jiang Zemin and his wife from China on the occasion of their visit to Washington. I was honored to receive that invitation but also conscience-stricken because the religious persecution reports in China are broad and validated. How could I sit at a table with this man in whose country there are continued reports of religious persecution? So I wrote to the president.

I said, “Dear Mr. President, thank you for the invitation. I am honored. You know it is always my position that when the president calls I answer affirmatively whether it is military service or to serve on the State Department Committee on Religious Persecution. But in this case, because of the reported conditions and lack of freedom of religion and even persecution, I do not feel that I can attend the dinner. However, if you could arrange a venue where, in a civil manner, I could address the issue of religious freedom and freedom of conscience with the president of the Peoples’ Republic, my wife and I would be honored to attend.”

The state dinner was on October 29, a Wednesday. Friday, I received a call from the White House asking if I would be willing to make a trip to China. I asked why. The answer: to meet with top government leaders to discuss the issue of religious freedom. I said, “If we have a degree of freedom in developing our itinerary, I will be pleased to go. If it is a public relations trip for either government, the United States or China, I am not interested in going.” I was assured that we would have freedom and it would not be a public relations trip for either government.

By the way, we refused all funding from either government. We were funded totally by independent foundations in the United States so there would never be the appearance of compromise. We felt that was very important. On Monday, before the state dinner, we received word that the Chinese government had extended the invitation. Usually, these requests take from four weeks to four months to turn around. On the eve of the state visit they turned the request around in 48 hours. My wife and I did have the honor of attending the state dinner and were introduced to President Jiang by President Clinton. At that time, Clinton said that Dr. Argue is one of the three clergy who will be visiting your country. President Jiang Zemin, in his gracious manner and fairly good English, said, “Welcome. I am looking forward to seeing you in China.”

We developed a very specific mission statement. We were not there to be all things to all people. This was an unprecedented opportunity, not to meet with religious leaders, but religious leaders from the United States meeting with the top government officials of China to express concern, and to say that the Wolf-Specter bill had been introduced in Congress and looked as if it would pass overwhelmingly. And to let them know that this issue was a great concern and would impede further development of U.S.-China relations if it were not addressed.

Let me read the mission statement:

The mission of this delegation was to deepen the dialogue between the United States and China on religious policy and practice in a spirit of integrity and mutual respect.

Since the mission occurred as a result of the October 1997 summit between President Jiang Zemin and President Clinton, its specific strength was the opportunity for substantial dialogue on religious freedom and human rights at the highest levels of government. The delegation met with some religious leaders, some scholars, and individual religious believers. But its primary concern was to meet with top government leaders. The delegation addressed specific situations, individuals and groups requiring special attention, including religious leaders detained as prisoners of conscience. Three specific goals were developed and communicated: 1) to deepen dialogue on religious freedom and human rights between the United States and the People’s Republic of China, 2) to review issues (which I will highlight in a moment), and 3) to identify persons and situations in need of specific attention.

One of the three principals was Rabbi Arthur Schnier, who is an Orthodox Jewish rabbi in New York City and the head of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation operating in the field of religious persecution and humanitarian affairs since 1961. He himself is a survivor of the Holocaust. Of their entire family, only Arthur and his mother survived the Holocaust and made it safely to the West. You must know that he feels very deeply about the issues of religious freedom. Second was Archbishop Theodore McCarrick of the diocese of Newark, New Jersey, a leading Catholic spokesman. I was the third.

The leaders held nearly 50 substantive follow-up meetings with the highest-level government officials in Beijing, Nanjing, Shanghai, Chungdo, Lhasa, Tibet, and Hong Kong. It was very critical that we had an opportunity for a 65-minute meeting with President Jiang Zemin because it was in that meeting that the issues were raised, and we pushed our points in a diplomatic way and yet with great strength and candor. That hit the press all across China and, I am told, here in Japan and throughout Asia. This was the first time 1) that religious leaders had met with that level of government leader in China and 2) that Jiang Zemin in his own press conference following our talk shared that the issue of religious freedom, freedom of conscience, was on the agenda for diplomatic discourse with the United States.

I was on the phone twice this last week with the White House. The three of us, Rabbi Schnier, Archbishop McCarrick, and myself, will be spending half a day at the White House in June with President Clinton and National Security Adviser Sandy Berger for an in-depth debriefing on our trip. Both our report, which they have already received, and our personal diaries will be discussed in depth. It was very important that we had the opportunity to meet with President Jiang, especially on the eve of the People’s Congress, because that elevated the discussion to a level where every other bureaucrat that we asked to see realized that the top man had put this on his agenda, and we had an open entrée with them. Our discussion with Jiang Zemin was very frank and pointed. He has some deep concerns, but he also knows that evangelical Christianity, which I represent, is growing dramatically in China. I will give you some of the numbers in just a moment.

The reports of our delegation’s activities within official circles as well as in the Chinese press indicated that religion is now higher on the agenda in China than ever before. Media coverage in the United States is evidence of the importance that Americans place on the issue as well. Extensive official Chinese press coverage did not simply present our visit as evidence of complete religious freedom in China—which there is not—but allowed that there are differences in perception of religious freedom between our two countries and recognized that it is an important consideration in U.S.-China relations.

When we returned, and even before we got back, there were some in the United States who went on the attack against our trip, saying we were used by the Chinese government and were tools of propaganda. Before we ever left, we spent hours and days in debriefing sessions with the leading China scholars in the United States, the China desk, and all the related personnel in the State Department. We met with the National Security Council and with vital interest groups that maintain relationships in China. We knew that there would be a risk, but we also knew that we had a very tightly stated mission statement and, if we stayed within the parameters of that mission statement, we would be safe, and we felt that we would be successful.

Interesting reports now are coming out of China from the churches there. They are coming to us verbally from delegations that are coming from China and they are coming in written form. They are extremely positive. We would be very open to hear if they were negative, but what the reports are saying is simply this: that the delegation was able to raise the awareness of the need for religious freedom in China as perhaps never before.

Certainly, with the level of Chinese government officials that we met with in our exchanges, we engaged in groundbreaking discussions about religious freedom. Both sides politely but firmly voiced criticism and concerns. With these discussions, we were able to broaden awareness of the issues surrounding religious freedom to sectors of society where such questions, to our knowledge, have never been raised. We introduced a new perspective on religious freedom to many Chinese officials and to policy analysts who have focused on trade, the economy, security, and foreign relations but not on international concern over the persecution of religious believers.

It was very interesting for me to observe that many of the second-level leaders have been educated in the West. I met a number who are graduates of the Kennedy School at Harvard University or the Fletcher School at Tufts in Boston. These are people who speak English fluently and are very Western in their orientation. This is not to say they are not communists in their commitment, but certainly in spirit they were democratic in their view. Many times we had discussions at our meals and banquets where there was personal dialogue that let me know that their thinking and their future was not the same as the doctrinaire statements that we have received out of Beijing.

We followed a number of points in our discussions. Let me review them with you, please.

First, the issue of religious freedom can either advance or impede U.S.-China relations. We stressed that there is need for continuing dialogue to resolve concerns regarding religious freedom. And these issues will be on the agenda next month in Clinton’s state visit to China.

Second, religion plays a positive role in American society. Many American business, government, cultural, scientific, military, and community leaders actively practice religious faith. The majority of religious believers are patriotic, law-abiding citizens. In China, we stressed that believers have sound marriages and well-behaved children, they pay their taxes, obey the laws, show up for work, and are good citizens. We said, don’t try to corral them. Allow them to be.

Third, in China people of faith already play a positive social role in the modernization of society and could do much more if given freedom.

Fourth, Americans accustomed to separation of church and state find China’s requirement to register religious sites and activities with the religious affairs bureau to be unwarranted government control over religious life. Failure to register should not be dealt with as a matter of criminal law. Many Americans are concerned that believers who choose to practice their religion outside official bounds are subject to harassment and punishment.

Let me clarify for a moment. China’s constitution says that there is freedom of religion, but religious sites must be registered to be legal. So, in fact, if you are going to be legal, you have to register, and that is an effort to control conscience. We said very pointedly that that is de facto control of religion by the Chinese government.

Fifth, religious freedom involves not only freedom of religious belief but also freedom of religious practice. That includes education and social service. In the People’s Republic of China the concept of religious freedom is limited to worship, which is circumscribed and subject to government control.

Sixth, the administrative procedure of education through labor, a common punishment given to religious believers who participate in unauthorized activity, is out of line with international norms and, in fact, is nothing more than imprisonment.

My list of people that we met with is too long to read to you. We did press all of the issues I mentioned. We also had a very interesting event happen. I had two staff with me, both of whom are China experts, speak Mandarin, and have spent considerable time in China. I had no contact with the unofficial church, because I did not want to put them in harm’s way. Our staff, however, did have contact. In one clandestine meeting in a city that I will not mention, they were given a piece of paper with the official stamp of the government of that area. That document said, “If you continue to associate with the Christians, your water and electricity will be cut off, your children will not be able to attend school, and your distribution or funding will not continue.”

We were in a number of meetings with the Justice Department, the Bureau of Religious Affairs, and others where we heard the official line orchestrated out of Beijing until we could have given it to them. We had about memorized it. When we said, “Thank you, but what do you do with this document?” (Of course, we had had it translated, so we knew exactly what it said.) When we handed it to the officials, on more than one occasion, there were red faces. We said, “Don’t tell us that there is religious freedom. That is a sham. That is simply not the way it is in China.”

Now, there has been some progress. The registered church is seeing some growth. But the unprecedented growth is with the house churches, or the unregistered segment. There is no way of really knowing how many are part of that movement. In a meeting in Washington, D.C., in February I sat next to a businessman from Japan. If I were to mention his name or the brokerage firm that he is with, you would know him immediately because he is a well-known name here. He said, “I understand that you are going to China.” In fact, President Clinton had mentioned my name at that meeting, so the man knew I was going. He said, “I want to tell you the number of believers in China is huge.” I said, “What do you mean by that?” He said, “I am a China expert. My interest is China. I happen to be an evangelical Christian. I can tell you without question that we know there are 90 million evangelical Christians in China.” Now, I have never heard a figure that high. There is really no way of knowing.

The best demographers tell us that there are certainly over 50 million and possibly as high as 70 million. If that is the case, then China represents the single greatest indigenous growth of evangelical Christianity in the history of the church. When the missionaries were forced out in 1948, the best estimates were that there were between 2 million and 2.5 million evangelicals in China. If the conservative figure of 50 million is true, that is incredible growth. If it is 90 million, it is hardly fathomable. The official report from the government is that there are 100 million believers in China. That is everybody—Buddhist, Taoist, Christians, whatever. We know that figure is very, very conservative.

By the way, we were hosted by the Foreign Affairs not the Religious Affairs Bureau. It was our request that the equivalent of the State Department host us. In one province, the head of the Foreign Affairs Bureau gave a speech in which he said there were about one million Christians in that area. Our figures told us that there were many more than that, but he said one million—about 900,000 evangelicals and about 100,000 Catholics. Evangelicals outnumber Catholics about 9 to 1 in most of China, and that is because of Protestant missionaries generations ago. The gentleman who made that statement sat at my left at the table. I made sure that at least one of our interpreters was with me so that I would not get it wrong. After we exchanged pleasantries, showed each other pictures of our children and grandchildren and did the things that you do to get acquainted, I said, “Now you mentioned one million Christians in this area.” He replied, “Oh yes.” I said, “There are really more, aren’t there?” He said, “Oh yes, many more.” “Now we are talking one to one,” I said. “Two million?” “Oh yes.” “Three million?” “Oh yes.” “Four million?” “Oh yes.” “Five million?” “Indeed.” I looked at my personal diary a few days ago. I stopped at ten million and he was still nodding his head yes. So to try to figure how many there are in China is not really possible at this time. We just know that there are many.

The problem of the rule of law is also a definite part of religious persecution or religious freedom in China. There are 100,000 lawyers in China for a population of 1.2 billion people. The Ministry of Justice was bragging, saying that it is wonderful that we have increased to that number. We told them that in the United States we feel that we have about a half million too many and we are ready to export them. They did not take us up on our suggestion.

The problem is accentuated by the fact that a statement will come from Beijing, but without rule of law it could be interpreted various ways by the various provinces, villages, or communities. While in one community there may be wide freedom, in other areas there is harsh persecution and imprisonment. I was deeply humbled to meet ministers of the gospel who had spent 27 or 28 years in prison. I thought to myself, what has my faith cost me? I felt like nothing in the presence of giants who, because of their faith, spent 27 or 28 years behind bars. Part of the problem is that there is no pattern because of a lack of rule of law to litigate the grievances. This says all the more that we must come in with strength in our efforts to call this to the attention of the Chinese government.

Let me close with this. I sat at the state dinner next to Ambassador Nicholas Platt, who speaks fluent Mandarin. He was with Nixon and Kissinger in 1973 when they flew into Shanghai for their secret mission, the first U.S. delegation at that level to meet with the top Chinese government leaders. Remember, ping-pong diplomacy followed that. Nicholas Platt rose to the rank of ambassador to China. He said to me at the state dinner, “Don, there is a faith vacuum in China.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “A faith and spiritual vacuum in China.”

He said that the communist ideology is basically dead with the people, the basic run-of-the-mill people. Economic reform has come in. China’s economy is booming. Chinese are basically business people, entrepreneurs, hard workers, and they rise to the challenge if given the opportunity. The Cultural Revolution, which devastated China, did the opposite of what the leaders were trying to do. It gutted the feeling for communist ideology of the average people. And so the people have lost their faith in communism. They have lost their faith in some of their own indigenous religions. They don’t have faith in capitalism, but that is all they know at this point. And yet he said, and I agreed with him, that capitalism, in and of itself, is not an issue of faith. It may provide the environment for faith to flourish, but it is not, in the sense of being religious, a pattern for faith. Thus, he explained, there is just a tremendous religious or spiritual or faith vacuum in China. The light went on in my mind as to why the church in China is booming.

I come from a stream of Christianity that holds there is a vacuum within the life of anyone—a God-created vacuum that is only filled when a person comes into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ the Savior. That is called being “born again” or being converted, where we turn our life to him. That is the most basic relationship to God. It doesn’t take a clergyman. It doesn’t take a seminary graduate. It can be communicated very easily. I was in Los Angeles on Wednesday all day long with Billy Graham as we are working on some things for the year 2000. Billy Graham would probably be the best-known spokesman around the world for what I am talking about.

It was very interesting to read the Asia edition of Time magazine while we were in China. They gave us a two-page spread with color photos. The article said that in 1974 Mao’s wife reportedly vowed to destroy the Christian church in one day. Yet the more they were oppressed, including the Cultural Revolution, the more resilient the church has proved itself to be. According to Time, since the government has been unable to ban God, it is now trying to co-opt them.

The best statistics indicated that there are about 52 million members of the Communist Party, out of a population of 1.2 billion. Evangelical Christians far outnumber members of the Communist Party.