Fearing turmoil, China clamps down on beliefs
The world has jumped on board the sleek high-speed bullet train to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing as for the next two weeks international Olympic coverage takes over our TV sets. Although Hawaii has strong ties to China, this is not your grandmother's China.
The truth about religious freedom in China today is sobering. There is ample evidence that the Land of the Confucian Dragon has cracked down on religious groups, including foreign missionaries.
While the government watches and dismantles Christian house churches, it prepares to also hand out 40,000 Bibles during the Olympics, 10,000 to athletes and the rest to visitors. This drop-in-the-bucket gesture is meant to show that China is modernizing where human rights and religious freedom issues are concerned, but it does not overshadow the repression.
China suppresses diverse religious groups, such as the Uighur Muslims in northwestern China. Justifying their actions by using broad definitions of words like "separatists" allows the government to catch just about anyone they target. Law-abiding Uighurs resent being ruled by Han Chinese.
Tibetan Buddhist monks were dealt with harshly by the police. President Bush issued a statement condemning China's tactics, but against this backdrop of political posturing, the games will go on, and Bush will attend. Whoever our next president will be, religious freedom will still be a major obstacle in U.S.-Chinese relations. China flatly states that we have no business interfering in its internal affairs.
Maintaining social stability in a country where the populace is somewhere between 1.3 and 1.6 billion people is no easy task, especially while trying to look good in the rest of the world's eyes. China is not about to let anything tarnish this shining moment, doing everything in its power to make sure divergent points of view are stifled.
Terms like democracy and religious freedom have different connotations to Chinese people, invoking mistrust of Christianity and reminding Chinese people of the horrors of gunboat diplomacy and the Opium Wars. The Great Wall was built to keep out the barbarians, i.e., those China mistrusted.
The International Olympic Committee recently admitted they cut a deal with China to allow censorship of sensitive Web sites. The real losers are the Chinese people. China is walking a fine line, having a historical tendency to implode when social unrest becomes widespread.
The "Mandate of Heaven" is a centuries-old concept used to legitimatize each ruling dynasty. It means having the people's blessing to govern.
Given the interconnectedness of the world today, it is becoming less feasible for China to maintain a hard-line policy where issues like religious freedom are concerned. Making small concessions like handing out Bibles is not the same thing as embracing openness to peaceful dissent. The entire world is watching, and China will have a hard time hiding the truth from international media.
This could be the time when China does change for the better, or the current government could lose the Mandate of Heaven.
The Rev. Don Eads has taught at Beijing University and other Beijing schools since 1999. He is active in Beijing International Christian Fellowship, which has 7,000 members from 100 countries. He is senior pastor of Aloha Christian Fellowship and just produced the fourth annual 21st Century China Symposium at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.