Is there persecution in China? Yes, but not what I saw 30 years ago. I was last in China in 1983. Most people were still wearing gray “Mao shirts,” and I was followed by security personnel everywhere I went. The idea of renting a car was out of the question. The situation is staggeringly different now, and my only interaction with the government was at airport security where staff were far more pleasant and efficient than the TSA back here at home. This time, if I had wanted to go someplace alone – and was brave enough to drive in wild Chinese traffic – I could get a car from Avis or Hertz.
I visited seven cities while in China and had seven different guides and seven different drivers. None of the translators, except for the one in Tibet, showed any fear in talking about the realities of China’s communist past. One translator told me of how her parents had to eat the family pet during Mao’s “Cultural Revolution.” Most of the complaints they offered up about China today concerned the horrific traffic jams. One translator did talk bitterly about the Muslim uprising in the west of China. His remarks about Islam and Muslims would have gotten him arrested in France or the United Kingdom.
In Beijing, I had dinner at a restaurant with a friend of mine and his wife. He is an American who now works in Beijing full time. Before dinner we openly prayed at the table. There was no one critical of us, and no secret police rushed over to stop us.
In Shanghai, we met a lady whose grandfather died in a prison because of his faith, under Mao. She is now a highly paid executive at a company with hundreds of employees. She never goes to work without wearing a cross and shares her faith openly. I don’t believe she could do this working for the Chinese government, but at a private company it was not an issue at all.
This does not mean that there is true religious freedom in China. There are strict limits. Churches built without permits will be torn down. Preachers who did not graduate from state approved seminaries and who start churches will be warned once or twice and then arrested. Only the Patriotic Bible can be sold in China, which is basically a Bible with a bunch of propaganda at the front telling Christians they must be loyal to their government. But the situation for Christians is absolutely nothing like the way it was when I was there 30 years ago.
While in one wealthy industrial city in southern China I had the opportunity to speak with a Christian university professor for several hours on issues of faith, politics and business in China. She is a professor of business. Just before that conversation I had received an email from Mindy Belz of World Magazine about a recent survey on atheism. According to the survey, about 13 percent of global respondents identify as atheists – more than double the percentage found in the United States. The highest concentration of atheists in the world, according to the survey, is in China, where 47 percent of the population describe themselves as not believing in the existence of God.
The number of atheists in China is not that surprising considering that the main religion is Buddhism, which does not stress an individual relationship with God. I visited some Buddhist religious sites, and most of the Chinese people present were tourists, not worshipers. They had simply come to look at the same ancient, famous landmarks I was there to see.
The professor, whose name I can’t divulge, told me that the survey figure was probably accurate as a whole, but even higher in the larger cities. She said, “Gaining wealth in the big urban areas has become so competitive that only material things are worshiped, not God.” Her comment made me reflect on the number of Mercedes Benz, Audi, BMW and other high-end cars I had seen in China after arriving. Condominiums in Beijing and Shanghai can sell for $600 to $1,000 per square foot, meaning a 1,000 square foot apartment can cost as much $1 million!
I have never been in a mall in the United States as up-scale as those in Shanghai or Xian where jewelers compete to sell Rolex watches and multi-carat diamond rings. The amount of wealth in China is staggering and on display everywhere. The wealth is also more unequally distributed than in the West and exists alongside great poverty as well. Still, a huge middle class is emerging.
While in Shanghai, I saw more Bentleys drive by than I have seen in my entire life in the United States. None of the owners of these cars costing close to half a million dollars in China have ever voted. The professor told me, “I have never voted in my life.” This blows away the accepted concept that a nation can only have prosperity when its leaders come to power in a democratic electoral process. Business must be free to operate without much government interference, but that does not mean a dictatorial leadership can’t allow free enterprise. There is a reason the United States borrows money from China, and it is simply that the Chinese nation is prosperous.
But prosperity without faith is dangerous. The drive to obtain money without the restraint of faith causes dishonesty and fear.
Several friends and acquaintances in China mentioned the willingness of Chinese businessmen to do anything to get rich, even put cheap fillers in baby formula, causing liver damage and death. Imagine what could drive a man to put dangerous chemicals into baby formula in a nation that allows only one child per family. When that child dies, the family ends. Obviously, to do such a horrendous deed requires that the man have no conscience. Those without faith have little or no conscience.
The professor attends an “official” or state-authorized Protestant church, not a house church. Attending a house church would probably mean the loss of her position as a professor, although she did not say that. Pastors of the authorized churches have graduated from state-approved seminaries. As a result, there is no political activity at all in her “approved” church. By no means does that mean that the Gospel is not preached, for it surely is. Yet many church members, the professor told me, “feel that the state-approved pastors see their pastorate as just a job, not a true calling from God.” Still, the last five years have seen significant advances in church freedom, according to the professor.
Youtube and Facebook are banned in China, but not for political reasons as much as moral reasons. Despite being officially atheistic, the Communist Party of China is pro-family, stands against same-sex marriage and jails people for selling pornography. Punishment for drug possession is very harsh. There are no state lotteries stealing from the poor as there are in the United States, and gambling is allowed only in Macau and Hong Kong.
Anyone willing to pay about $50 a year can obtain a “proxy server” address outside of China and visit all the Internet sites banned by the Chinese government. This of course makes it far easier for the Chinese government to know who is visiting these types of Internet sites. Other than those containing pornography and graphic violence, most of the banned sites are those of groups the government sees as a threat, such as the Falun Gong.
The Internet site of the Religious Freedom Coalition, of which I am chairman, is NOT banned. Neither are the sites of the Heritage Foundation, the NRA, CNN or Fox News. In fact, I had difficulty finding banned sites other than Youtube and Facebook. This does not mean that the Chinese government does not have the ability to turn off any Internet site it does not like at any time. (Of course, our own government has that ability as well.)
The Christian professor told me that there are many delays in the construction of new churches, and while the government continues to promise construction sites, building permits are years away in her city. Currently, many of the congregants are forced to stand during an entire service. House churches are not by any means free, but in some areas tolerated to a degree depending on size. In other areas house churches are brutally closed and pastors are arrested, jailed and sometimes sent to labor camps.
Even in cities with tens of thousands of American and other foreign workers there are services only in Chinese. Although I am a Baptist, I attended a Catholic mass in English in one city on a Sunday because no Protestant English service was available. There was a diverse congregation present from several countries, and the young Chinese priest gave a sermon on the Trinity. There was no pro-government message, but neither was there any criticism of the communist regime.
Still, the professor I spoke with saw materialism and the drive for wealth in China today as a bigger inhibitor to church growth than Chinese government interference. The most important goals in China today are to own your own apartment and a car, she said. She told me, “Everyone wants to be able to come in a place like this for a cup of coffee.” Our conversation was taking place in a coffee house where a latté was about $4 a cup.
The problems of winning the lost to Christ in China are eerily similar to those we have in the United States. There are entire generations of people today who believe the emptiness in their hearts can be filled with a big house, an expensive car and fancy food, not just in the Me Generation of America, but in China as well. That emptiness can be filled and a person can feel a wholeness – but only through a relationship with God that begins with a simple plea of salvation through Jesus Christ.