The media is starting to cover the ironies and excitement of President Bush's visit to China for the 2008 Olympics. The New York Times has already appropriately played up the fact that Bush attempted to go to worship at a house church but was denied by the Chinese government.
Here's the lead of the article which appeared Tuesday:
WASHINGTON -- Aides organizing President Bush's trip to China for the Olympics considered having him worship at a house church, one of the underground religious institutions that routinely face official harassment, but the Chinese authorities ruled it out.
Pastors, lawyers and other political activists whom Mr. Bush considered meeting in Beijing as a signal of support have instead been ordered by the Chinese authorities to leave the city during the president's visit. Scores of others have been arrested.
The idea of giving a Reaganesque "tear down this wall" speech on human rights in China -- as members of Congress and others are calling for Mr. Bush to do -- has been abandoned as potentially insulting to the president's hosts, one senior administration official said. Besides, most Chinese would probably not see or hear it, because of state control of the news media.
While this is symbolically ironic and important, it should not come as a surprise to anyone. The fact is that these house churches are operating outside the country's laws whether we like it or not.
Now please don't jump to the comment button and call me some sort of freedom hater. I am not. My point is that Americans, Christians, people of any faith, freedom lovers, and the entire Western world may not like the China's laws, but it is in fact the law of China and Americans don't get to decide Chinese laws. Also, the comparisons with Reagan's "tear down this wall" speech ought to be either explained better or dropped all together because the situations are hardly the same.
The real story here is that the Bush White House seemed to make a big deal out of Bush's request to visit a house church. Does anyone really expect the Chinese authorities to allow that to happen in their country or to even attempt to reform their laws overnight?
Some of the NYT's coverage reflects the viewpoint that Americans can go over to other countries and convince them to make exceptions to their laws to make everyone happy:
While he evidently will not worship at an underground church, Mr. Bush does plan to attend services on Sunday at the Beijing Kuanjie Protestant Church, one of the most prominent of those officially registered by the government. (And then, that night, he will watch Kobe Bryant and the rest of USA Basketball play China.)
Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, who was among a group of advocates who met with Mr. Hadley last week to discuss China, said the problem with the balance Mr. Bush was striving for was that it too readily accepted the Chinese authorities' conditions.
Referring to the decision to visit an authorized church, he said: "It's not an affirmation of religious freedom. It's an affirmation of government-controlled religion."
An aspect of the story that is missing is the reality of Chinese law. The law in China is fairly flexible. The massive size of the county and huge population makes the American concept of law and order seem an impossible objective. Would it have been possible for Bush to quietly visit a house church during his visit? If Bush minimized any notion that his presence in China would somehow release the bonds on the country's religious freedoms, perhaps the government would have allowed him some flexibility. That said, Bush is president of the United States and he has made his goal as president is to spread freedom around the world. Any notion of avoiding publicity or quietly visiting anything in China is probably my own wishful thinking.
As the next couple of weeks play out, watch for the media's portrayal of the underground religious groups in China, along with their government-approved counterparts and let us know your thoughts on how they are portrayed and covered. I would be particularly interested if the subject of religion came up during any of NBC's coverage of the games.
The Christian church overall is growing quite rapidly in China. I recently heard a statistic that there are more Christians in China than Communist Party members. I hope the issue receives the in-depth coverage it deserves, but think worry that Kobe Bryant's jump shot will receive most of the attention.
Photo of President Bush with Vice President Cheney addressing the media at the State Department, August 14, 2006 used under a Wikimedia Commons license.