It seems that hardly a week goes by without China ramping up its campaign to mold domestic religious expression to its liking, and with some member of the international media elite taking a hard look at Beijing’s anti-religion policies.
Last week, Britain’s The Guardian newspaper took on the task. It’s grade? Let’s just say it achieved less than a perfect score. I’ll get to the widely circulated story’s (online, that is) limitations in a moment. But first let’s give it what praise it also deserves.
The piece focused on China’s Christians, or more accurately, on China’s Protestant Christians.
In this regard, the story was passable. It included the current talk out of China that the government intends to rewrite the Bible — though just which version is left unnamed — to suit its propaganda purposes. (In September, the online, evangelical website the Christian Post reported that both testaments were to be reworked to the government's liking, meaning more in line with its policies.)
Still, any story that draws attention to China’s hyper-paranoid approach toward religious expression is, in my book, a good thing, despite its shortcomings.
Only by hammering the point home again and again can outside pressure be brought to bear on Beijing’s policies, if, in fact, that’s even currently possible. (For example, don't expect President Donald Trump to ratchet up such pressure; for him and most world leaders relations with China are all about trade and financial investment).
The Guardian story led with the case of the Early Rain Covenant Church, one of China’s so-called “underground,” or non-government approved, congregations. Here’s the story’s top.
In late October, the pastor of one of China’s best-known underground churches asked this of his congregation: had they successfully spread the gospel throughout their city? “If tomorrow morning the Early Rain Covenant Church suddenly disappeared from the city of Chengdu, if each of us vanished into thin air, would this city be any different? Would anyone miss us?” said Wang Yi, leaning over his pulpit and pausing to let the question weigh on his audience. “I don’t know.”
Almost three months later, Wang’s hypothetical scenario is being put to the test. The church in south-west China has been shuttered and Wang and his wife, Jiang Rong, remain in detention after police arrested more than 100 Early Rain church members in December. Many of those who haven’t been detained are in hiding. Others have been sent away from Chengdu and barred from returning. Some, including Wang’s mother and his young son, are under close surveillance. Wang and his wife are being charged for “inciting subversion”, a crime that carries a penalty of up to 15 years in prison.
Now the hall Wang preached from sits empty, the pulpit and cross that once hung behind him both gone. Prayer cushions have been replaced by a ping-pong table and a film of dust. New tenants, a construction company and a business association, occupy the three floors the church once rented. Plainclothes police stand outside, turning away those looking for the church.
A bit further on, the story claims the following:
Early Rain is the latest victim of what Chinese Christians and rights activists say is the worst crackdown on religion since the country’s Cultural Revolution, when Mao Zedong’s government vowed to eradicate religion.
That’s a huge claim, given that the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) is said by historians to have claimed the lives of between 500,000 and two million people across China, the overwhelming majority of them for (often dubious) political — not religious — reasons.
The Guardian offered no documentation to back the claim by those sources. And if you take a moment to read this earlier Guardian backgrounder on the Cultural Revolution you’ll note there’s no mention of religious dissidents being arrested and murdered (also, there were far fewer identifiable Christians in China during the years in question).
Moreover — and I guess we’ve moved on to criticizing the story’s deficiencies — why did the story not further explain Early Rain’s theology? Not all congregations, even all presumably evangelical congregations, are exactly the same. Why not tell us more about this one?
My guess is because the reporter lumps all such congregations together, either out of ignorance or as a form of journalistic shorthand, or because her editors cut it from the story for similar reasons. Whichever, they’ve shortchanged readers.
Also, what about the highly criticized agreement struck by the Vatican and China over the fate of the nation's estimated 10-million Roman Catholics, many in underground parishes? Critics say the deal amounted to little more than another Beijing religious power play, to which the Holy See wrongly acquiesced.
As I said above, any attention given China’s attempts to crush all independent religious thought — which the nation’s dictatorial leaders equate with independent political thought — is a good thing.
That even goes for stories, such as this Guardian effort, that fail to mention the full range of China’s persecution of its domestic religious believers.
But how much better for readers if they're repeatedly reminded that it's not just Protestant Christians that face Beijing’s wrath. That it's all believers, no matter what their religious beliefs may be.
I doubt this Guardian story was intended to Balkanize the China situation. But consider how the cause of Chinese religious believers might be strengthened if they were considered a unified group by journalists, and treated as such by religious freedom advocates.
Perhaps the next deep media dive into this ongoing story will, properly, cast a wider net. Let's hope so.