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Special 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"
Washington DC, April 17-19, 1998

For those of us in the West, it is really hard to comprehend China. It had been 12 years since my last visit to China, and the changes were really beyond description. I was joined by Rabbi Arthur Schneider of the Park East Synagogue in New York City, who heads the Appeal to Conscience Foundation. He is a man who feels deeply the issues of religious persecution, having lost all his family, with the exception of his mother, in the Holocaust. Archbishop McKeric of the Roman Catholic Church from the diocese of Newark was the third member of the trio that was selected to go. He has been a leading Catholic spokesperson regarding religious persecution and religious freedom.

In China 1.2 billion people live in an area just a little larger than the United States. That’s 20 percent of the world’s population. Time magazine published an article while we were in China that said at least 200 million more will be added to China’s population.

To get a little idea of what is happening in China, let me give you these figures. For England to double its economy took 100 years. The first time the United States did that, it took 75 years. Japan doubled its economy in 45 years. Taiwan took 25 years. China has quadrupled its economy in the last 20 years.

Let me share how the mission developed. When the most favored nation (MFN) status for China was being discussed in Congress about a year ago, we contacted our representatives who were working in China. We also contacted the national church in China. Across the board the comments coming out of China and from the mission groups working there were, “don’t touch it.” From the unregistered churches and the underground church, as the Catholic Church is known in China, the plea was, “Please don’t politicize the issue. You will do us harm. The government is paranoid about outside influence, and if you politicize the issue, you create greater problems for us.”

Therefore, we took no position on MFN. Some people were very upset with us; some were very, very pleased. Following that, and possibly because of that, my wife and I received an invitation to the state dinner at which President and Mrs. Clinton were hosting President Jiang Zemin and his wife on October 29, 1997. When I received that invitation, knowing it was the hottest ticket in town, I was really perplexed. I wanted to go, but I had this deep problem concerning the issue of religious persecution in China. I was going to turn it down. I sought counsel from the White House staff of previous administrations and other wise people.

I developed a letter in which I thanked the president for his invitation. It said, “Mr. President I do not feel that I can be at table with the leader of a nation where there is such major religious persecution. However, if you will provide a venue while President Jiang Zemin is here where, in a civil manner, some of us could meet with him and present our concerns regarding religious persecution, I would be interested in attending the banquet. Without that, my wife and I will not attend the state dinner.”

On the Friday before the state dinner, I received a call from the National Security Council asking if I would be willing to go to China. I said, “On what basis?” They said it would be a unique trip to meet with high-level government officials to deal with American religious concerns regarding freedom of religion. I said, “If we have a degree of freedom, we will go, but if it is a totally manipulated trip, then I am not interested in going.” They worked further and called back on Monday and said the trip was on.

Here are a couple of interesting sidelines to this story. The State Department told us that a request of this nature usually takes four weeks to four months to turn around. The request for this trip was turned around in 48 hours on the eve of the state visit. Moreover, we made a decision among the three of us that we would not accept any financial help from the U.S. government or from the government of the People’s Republic of China, that we would depend on foundations and individuals in the United States for financial assistance. We held to that 100 percent, so there would be absolutely no appearance of financial compromise.

The mission statement is extremely important to understand. Before our delegation left, knowing that the trip was full of potential mine fields, the appearance of compromise and all the rest, we questioned whether we should go, but we developed a very clear mission statement. We weren’t trying to be everything to everybody. We evaluated the potential risks and also the potential for positive impact. A clearly defined mission statement was vital. To understand what we were doing the mission statement must be understood. Let me read it to you

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

Since the mission occurred as a result of the October 1997 summit, its specific strength was the opportunity for substantive dialogue at the highest levels of government on religious freedom and human rights. The delegation met with religious leaders, scholars, and individual believers in both countries in an effort to seek frank discussion and mutual clarification of basic terms and issues related to freedom of religious belief and practice.

The delegation also addressed specific situations, individuals, and groups requiring special attention, including religious leaders detained as prisoners of conscience. Three specific goals were developed and communicated: to deepen dialogue on religious freedom and human rights between the United States and the People’s Republic of China, to review issues, and to identify persons and situations in need of special attention.

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 Americans place on this issue as well. I am not speaking of our trip alone; I am talking about the whole religious persecution and freedom of conscience issue, which is an item in this nation. Extensive official Chinese press coverage did not simply present our visit as evidence of complete religious freedom in China. The coverage 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.

In our exchanges with high-level Chinese officials, 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 had never been raised. We introduced a new perspective on religious freedom to many Chinese officials and to policy analysts who have focused on trade, economy, security, and foreign relations, but not on international concern over the persecution of religious believers in China.

Prior to departure, our delegation heard concerns related to religious freedom from President Clinton, other White House officials, the State Department, many members of Congress, scholars, U.S. religious leaders, NGOs, and human rights activists. While recognizing that real progress has been made since the institution of economic reforms in 1980, we took the following concerns and issues into meetings with the Chinese leaders.

  • The issue of religious freedom can either advance or impede the U.S.-China relationship. There is a desperate need for progress in this area to be demonstrated.
  • 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, and good citizens. This was news to some of the people we were meeting with.
  • In China, people of faith already play a positive social role in the modernization of their society and could do much more if given the freedom to do so.
  • Americans are accustomed to separation of church and state.
  • Americans, accustomed to the separation of church and state, consider 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, punishment, reeducation, and in many cases imprisonment.
  • Religious freedom involves not only freedom of religious belief but also freedom of religious practice. That includes education and social service. In the PRC, the concept of religious freedom is limited to worship, which is circumscribed and subject to government control.
  • The faiths of some religious believers in China, including Jews, fall outside the five religions recognized by the government. Government policy toward these groups needs to be made clear.
  • The administrative procedure of education through labor—a common punishment given to religious believers who participate in unauthorized activities—is out of line with international norms and must end.

We pushed this agenda very hard with the people we were meeting with. In China, we engaged in serious discussions with leaders at the highest levels, beginning with President Jiang Zemin. We met with the vice-minister of justice; the Ministry of the United Front, the organization that overseas the party’s religious policies; the director of the Religious Affairs Bureau; as well as almost 50 other leading government officials.

We also exchanged views with scholars, religious leaders, and individual believers affiliated with the official (i.e., registered) church and the nonregistered churches. The following are some of the points that came out of those meetings. President Jiang Zemin met with our delegation for over an hour, demonstrating his interest in the issue of religious freedom. We spoke about the value of religion to society, the positive role of religion in the United States, and the genuine concern of American religious believers about the status of religion in China. Questions were raised and pushed hard concerning why religion must be regulated and why churches must register with the government. We stressed the need for religious believers, particularly Christians, to relate more fully with international church bodies. We explored the possibility of expanding exchanges of religious leaders, scholars, and others between our two countries. We discussed the possibility of normalizing relationships with the Vatican. We also pushed very strongly with him that if there are not improvements in freedom of religion and freedom of conscience, it will impact dramatically on the U.S. Congress.

Jiang said he believed the main message of the Bible was “to purify man’s soul as a lofty work.” He observed that the reality of religious practice has not always fulfilled the founder’s faith or ideals. Foreign powers, he said, had bullied China during the 19th century, and many improper acts were carried out in the name of religion. Nevertheless, he recognized that religion can play a positive role in China and showed interest in expanding religious activities there.

An interesting part of our discussion centered on the fact that the best universities and hospitals in China were founded by Western missionary groups. He acknowledged that. In fact, he spoke of being treated as a youth in a hospital in Shanghai that was an evangelical missionary hospital. “Differences can be gradually narrowed and common ground broadened,” he said. President Jiang said that he and the Chinese government would carefully consider the proposals and concerns raised by our delegation.

Many Chinese leaders are aware that freedom of religion is an issue that has a major impact, and will continue to have a major impact, on the development of US-China relations. A majority of Americans profess some kind of religious belief and view freedom of religion as a basic human right. Many Americans believe that the Chinese government limits freedom of registered churches and represses the nonregistered churches as an avenue of control. Chinese officials deny that anyone in China is jailed because of their faith. We confronted that head-on.

The progress of religious freedom in China is linked with the progress of the rule of law. Some religious policies are, at present, implemented unevenly rather than objectively. In fact, in our meeting with the Ministry of Justice, the minister said, “We are delighted there are now 100,000 lawyers in China.” Over a billion people and only 100,000 lawyers! The rabbi spoke up and said, “We have about half a million we would like to export to China to help you.”

Like rule of law, freedom of religion is acknowledged by many Chinese leaders to be a goal that is still in progress. We welcome news of current initiatives in the area of judicial independence. The delegation was concerned with the role of China’s security apparatus in regulating religious activities. We sought meetings with officials of the Public Security Bureau, but our request was not granted, and we protested strongly. China’s leaders expressed concern that uncontrolled religious groups and activists could be a destabilizing factor. Historically, the U.S. and China’s experience with the free practice of religion has been very different. Our delegation made every effort to present the case for free religious practice as contributing in a positive way to a nation’s development.

We identified specific cases in need of special attention. In discussions with the Chinese Embassy in Washington prior to our visit, and in numerous meetings with the Ministry of Justice, the Bureau of Religious Affairs, and other party and government departments, our delegation raised these cases. We talked about high-profile cases such as Pastor Yu and others. In fact, we gave them a list of 30 that we asked for action on, plus a list of another 5 that were very high-profile people. We are not pleased that all 35 have not been given their freedom, though. Some have, and we will continue to follow through.

We were pleased to learn of the release of Chou Pheng upon our arrival in China. We requested specifically to see Pastor Xu, Bishop Phong, and others, including the Panchen Lama who is recognized by the Dalai Lama. All of these we believe are in detention or in prison. Our requests were denied. Concerning the Panchen Lama, we were offered the possibility of seeing the government-approved Panchen Lama only, which we declined. We said either we see the official one, the one recognized by the Dalai Lama, or we don’t see the state-recognized one.

We brought to the attention of authorities and expressed our deep concerns about the report we received while in China regarding Philip Yu’s family being harassed and transported away from their home in Shanghai, allegedly to prevent them from attempting to meet with our delegation.

In conversations with the United Front Work Department and numerous other government and religious officials, our delegation presented documentation of a local government’s directive to eliminate non-
registered churches. Let me tell you how this happened.

We had numerous contacts with the unregistered churches. This was done very carefully, so we would not put them in harm’s way. As one of the three principals, I never met with an unregistered church, but staff did. They were handed a document from a village. By a village, I don’t mean a rural area; it would be like a suburb of one of the major cities. The document, written in Chinese with the official stamp of the village, said if you continue to be part of this Christian church you will lose your distribution, which is your financial support. Your children will not be allowed to attend schools, and your water and electricity will be cut off.

In several meetings where we had been given the state line that the constitution guarantees religious freedom, we handed this document to the authorities. We said we disagree and we have documentation. In the Orient you must be very careful to save face. We were there on a very clearly described mission and the point was clear. We were told that this is one of the situations that was outside the rule of law, and that the law is interpreted according to the various provinces, villages, or whatever. We were not satisfied with that answer.

Our delegation continually stressed the existence of a large underground Catholic Church, together with the official Patriotic Catholic Church. We pointed out the need to normalize relations between the Catholic Church in China and the Holy See, since that would be essential to the life of the two Chinese Catholic communities.

The government’s insistence that religious sites be registered is problematic. The line between Christian house church meetings, which technically should not have to register, and churches meeting in homes, which do, appears to be arbitrary. We pressed for clarification on the critical issue of registration of religious sites. The policy is not clear, and there are many reports of irregularities in its enforcement. Although failure to register is said not to constitute a crime, setting up illegal organizations and holding illegal meetings are given as reasons why certain religious leaders have been detained and, in fact, imprisoned.

When we pressed on the issue, they would say “They were setting up illegal organizations, they were holding illegal meetings.” This is simply a ruse for government control of the unregistered churches.

In discussions with the Ministry of Justice, the United Front Work Department, central government and Religious Affairs Bureau officers, as well as Tibetan Autonomous Region government and Religious Affairs officials, our delegation—the first of its kind to receive permission to make such a visit to Tibet, including a visit to a Tibetan prison—firmly pursued an inquiry into the role of the democratic management committees. They are unique to Buddhist monasteries. We questioned why leaders of Tibetan monasteries and temples must be selected by these committees and approved by the Chinese government, if in fact the Chinese constitution guarantees religious freedom. We also expressed concern about the patriotic education campaigns to which monks and nuns are subjected. To outside observers, the democratic management committees and the patriotic education campaign seemed to be state efforts designed to curtail freedom of religious belief and practice among Tibetan Buddhists. Obviously, that is the case.

The central government has, in recent years, granted some funds to restore or repair some Tibetan temples and monasteries. Our delegation also inquired into the status of Tibetan prisoners. Government officials in Tibet, like their counterparts elsewhere in China, maintain that religious believers imprisoned in Tibet were imprisoned not for their beliefs but for violations of law, such as endangering public security. We questioned this explanation at all official meetings in Tibet.

On visiting the main prison in Lhasa, we learned that one out of six prisoners there had served as a monk or a nun. We spoke with two Buddhist nuns in the prison and later sought their release. We also called to the attention of the prison authorities in Tibet the allegations that torture and human rights abuses are present in Tibetan prisons. The wardens called these allegations “stories,” but I can tell you, it was a grim experience inside that prison.

Here are some of our observations. Our delegation saw some signs of progress in the rebuilding of houses of worship and increased membership in all major religions. Official and nonregistered Christian churches seemed to be growing rapidly. Official figures currently estimate there are 10 million Protestants, about 4 million Catholics, some 100 million Buddhists, 18 million Muslims, and 2 to 3 million Baha’is. We believe that the actual number of believers far exceeds these official figures.

Let me give you one example. We were in a dinner one evening. The head person of the Foreign Affairs Bureau, equivalent to our Department of State, was our host. He said that in his particular area there were one million Christians: 900,000 Protestants and evangelicals and about 100,000 Catholics. We knew from our contacts that there were many more than that. It happened that he sat beside me at the dinner. He spoke fairly decent English, but I had our interpreter with me to make sure we were communicating properly.

After an exchange of pleasantries, I said, “Now, you said there are about one million Christians in this area.”

He said, “Right.”

I said, “You know there are more than that, correct?”

He said, “Yes, I know that.”

“Would there be two million?”

He said, “Yes.”

I said, “Would there be three million?”

He said, “Yes.”

“Would there be five million?”


I said, “Would there be 10 million?”

He said, “I think so.”

And yet he announced there were one million. But sitting with me privately, he admitted 10 times that many.

In discussing China’s stance toward religion and specific policy measures, government and religious officials consistently stated that during the past 20 years, China has gone from a Cultural Revolution era, where a policy of completely banning religious activities was the rule, to a policy of allowing many forms of religious belief and tolerating organized religious activities that take place under the supervision of the United Work Front Department, via the five recognized religious organizations.

This policy shift, officials felt, reflects China’s nationwide trend of economic reform, greater social openness, and increasing contact with the outside world. In all our discussions, Chinese officials patiently listened and often recognized that despite progress made on religious freedom in the last 20 years, there are many, many more problems that need to be solved. Most officials insisted that China is working on solving them, including President Jiang. However, many still view religion as a potentially destabilizing force in Chinese society, particularly among China’s large peasant population.

They talked to us on numerous occasions about what happened in Eastern Europe, especially with the Catholic Church, and have a degree of fear. Some Chinese officials are troubled by the emergence of religious groups that are not affiliated with one of the official religious organizations and by international religious contacts that are not conducted via government-approved channels. Dialogue on the topic of religious freedom is often tainted by Chinese officials’ resentment that China’s internal practices must be held accountable to what they see as an ever-critical American public, U.S. Congress, media, and activists groups. We ran into that head-on, with some pretty sharp exchanges, but we never backed down.

The fact that officials were willing to hold discussions on the topic of religious freedom indicates hope for narrowing the differences between the two countries’ perceptions of the appropriate role for religion and religious freedom in a modern society. We were encouraged that many of the government leaders—and much of this took place in unofficial conversations, around dinner tables— are people who are struggling to help China modernize and thus realize that tolerance of religious freedom and practice of religion is an important characteristic of all advanced industrialized nations. Our delegation was able to further the case for the importance of religious tolerance to the development of a modern society. We believe that with perseverance many of the currently narrow interpretations of religious freedom in China may well be broadened.

We feel that the goals described in our mission statement were largely achieved. Our delegation started a process, and much more needs to be accomplished. We were not there on an inspection tour. We were there with a specific mission of speaking to the highest level of government officials.

These are our recommendations:

We encourage President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to reinforce the concerns we have raised and continue the dialogues we began with President Jiang. In advance of Clinton’s scheduled visit to China, concrete responses should be sought on individual cases we presented to Chinese officials.

We recommend the creation of a channel to continue the pursuit of our concerns. Organizations such as the Interfaith Appeal a Conscience Foundation, which has been involved in China since 1981, could help facilitate further discussions and follow-up.

The web of mid- to lower-level contacts woven during this visit should be reinforced and the seeds of communication nurtured so that they will flourish. Religious umbrella organizations like the National Association of Evangelicals, the National Council of Churches, the National Council of Catholic Bishops, as well as concerned organizations from other religious traditions should be informed of our delegation’s goals and outcomes. Members of these organizations and other concerned parties may find ways to continue what we have started.

We believe that it is an appropriate time to initiate joint ventures in understanding between the United States and China relating to religious belief and practice. This is a good time for many reasons, including the current state of U.S.-China relations, China’s level of development, and the openness to discussion we encountered on our trip. Although our delegation was only able to visit cities, much of the growth of interest in religion in China is taking place in rural areas. Some initiatives, therefore, should reach out to officials and religious believers in rural areas.

At this time the ratio of believers to clergy in China is very high and the number of believers is growing. Although there are centers for clerical training, there remains a desperate need to train more clergy. Specific activities in the area of religious training could include academic and student exchanges between our two countries, which could include theological schools, universities, religious studies departments, and so on. Chinese believers in Hong Kong and other parts of the world would cooperate to supply training centers in China with the needed books, materials, and professors. At present, training centers are held to a very limited size.

We recommend that special attention be paid to the problems of freedom of religion in Tibet and to promoting a dialogue between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama.

We realize that dialogue is only one part of a multifaceted approach of dealing with issues of religious freedom and human rights. We recommend that the kind of dialogue we began be continued and expanded. Dialogue is not a substitute for, nor an alternative to, bilateral and multilateral incentives for improvements in religious freedom.

In the final analysis, domestic changes in China itself will be the most effective means of expanding religious freedom. Multiple contacts were made with unregistered churches. While the unregistered churches do not want persecution, they are not afraid. It has become a way of life to them.

Let me quote this from a two-page feature article on our trip in Time magazine, Asia, which came out while we were in China. It says “to the embarrassment of the officially atheist Communist Party, religion is now enjoying unprecedented growth across China. Christianity alone is attracting 500,000 converts a year, according to government estimates.” We know it is many times more than that. “There have been few weighty articles on Marxist theory of religion and atheism, lamented a Communist theoretician in a 1996 essay for internal party distribution. On the other hand, Christmas activity and Christmas cards have been pretty hot. The more the authorities tried to stamp it out in the past—in fact Mao’s wife reportedly vowed in 1974 to destroy the Christian Church in one day—the more resilient the church proved itself to be. Unable to ban God, the government is now trying to co-op Him. About 100 million Chinese now adhere to some religion, according to official statistics.”

If you take those statistics, which we know are very conservative, that is almost double the membership of the Communist Party, whose ideological appeal has virtually evaporated among the young.