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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Pilgrims in an Unholy Land

July 27, 2010

Kirsten Hall
WJI Times Observer (USA)
July 26, 2010

After years of religious oppression, Communist
China claims to have progressed since the days of
Mao, so why are so many believers, particularly
those in the Christian minority, still keeping underground?

Today, the Chinese government is claiming that it
has moved past the extreme atheism promoted
during the Cultural Revolution, during which time
all religions were deemed treasonous and a
cultist attempt to undermine the state. The
government backs its newfound ideas of religious
“freedom” by arguing that it does not outright
ban religion, the Chinese constitution endorses
“freedom of religious belief and the freedom not
to believe.” However, through intimidation,
restrictions, and monitoring religious followers
in a way that can only be comparable to
Cold-War-Stasi security tactics, the government
has devised a way to make the practice of
religion extremely difficult and risky for
Buddhists, Muslims, Taoists, Protestants, and
Catholics in China. And those are just the five
official religions. Others, such as followers of
the practice known as Falun Gong, are left
completely ostracized from society by the
totalitarian regime, unable to get hired for jobs
or apply for government programs according to the
Chinese Embassy which refers to them as a “cult” on their website.

Of all the official Chinese religions, probably
the one that has gotten the most grief from the
government would be Christianity. For the past 30
years, the Communist government has attempted to
stop the spread of Christianity on the grounds
that it was introduced by foreigners and is
therefore particularly threatening in the eyes of
the Chung Gong. Part of a growing minority in
China, Christians, despite constant and
deliberate persecution, are increasing numbers at
a rate which has never before been seen in
Chinese history. In order to interview Chinese
Christians for this article, a considerable
amount of discretion had to be taken for those
willing to take the risk to talk. According to
Phil B., An American ex-pat living in China, The
Communist State Security has over 40,000
operatives screening emails continuously for
“sensitive words” such as “Bible,” “Christian,”
and “God.” For the protection of interviewees,
code words had to be used when talking about
religion and last names could not be disclosed.

For Christians living in China, being open about
their faith can jeopardize their very way of
life. Stella, a schoolteacher from Tianjin,
explained her struggles with her identity as a
Christian living in China. “I can’t openly show
my real identity to certain people or at certain
places,” she explains, “I need to avoid or ignore
questions or conversations that may cause trouble
to me or other related people.” The feelings of
anxiety and the need for secrecy among Christians
in China is comparable to living the life of a
criminal, constantly having to hide from the
watchful eye of the government. “In one word, I
have to be careful,” Stella says. According to a
1997 statement released by the Communist Party
called The White Paper, Stella and other
Christians who defy the government ‘s unmitigated
control of religious activities are in fact
“engaging in criminal activity.” The document
reads, “.. since the 1980’s, some pernicious
organizations have sprung up in certain areas of
China which engage in illegal and even criminal
activities under the signboard of religion. Some
of the heads of these pseudo-religions distort
religious doctrines, create heresies, deceive the
masses, refuse to obey the State’s laws and
decrees, and incite people to overthrow the government.”

If a Chinese National is caught engaging in
illegal religious activities, the consequences
are severe. Aaron L., a Chinese native from the
Shan Dong province, told of the brutality and
persecution he and his fellow Christians have
suffered under the Communist regime. “The police
broke into churches and questioned everyone;
asked them to write down their names, names of
working units, home addresses, etc.” He told me,
“ [The police] took the pastor to a place, even
beat him down to the ground before the car."
Aaron knew a pastor who was thrown in jail for an
entire year for leading a house church. “He had
to do hard labor 14 hours a day for a year,” Aaron said.

Unlike most national governments, which simply do
not claim a state religion, China has pronounced
that Atheism is the country’s official religious
affiliation. Director of the State Administration
for Religious Affairs, Ye Xiaowen, publicly
expressed that the guiding "Three Represents"
ideology includes serving the interests of "the
more than 100 million persons with religious
beliefs." In a July speech, he also stated that
"upholding the propaganda and education on
atheism and upholding the policy on freedom of
religious belief are both correct and necessary."

Despite the governments repeated emphasis on
religious freedom, restrictions and abrasive
rules on religion continue to make life difficult
for religious followers in China. Not just
Christianity has endured persecution under the
Chung Gong. Even though the government has ceased
it’s campaign to rid the country of sects the
Dalian Government Research Society in northeast
China refers to as “cults and superstition” by
tearing down religious monuments and ransacking
hundreds of temples, synagogues, mosques, and
churches, it continues to use other means to
prevent followers from participating in religious customs and worship.

Islam, which has a rich history in China, has
been another religion, which has fallen subject
to the government’s control. The most recent
figure of Muslims currently living in China is
put at about 20 million. Despite their
prominence, Muslims living in China are subjected
to many restrictions, which force them to go
against their beliefs. Women are forbidden to
wear veils, men are required to shave their
beards, and pilgrimages to Mecca can only be
taken on government run tours. The government has
even gone so far as to peg several Chinese
Muslims as “terrorists” and allowed the United
States to detain them in Guantanamo. All of the
men were later found to be innocent. Why does the
government put such effort into this misguided
war on religion? The sheer size of China and the
immense population are not conducive to an
all-controlling totalitarian government. The
practices shown by the Communist regime in
regards to religious control show that instead of
putting the welfare of the people first, the
government has instead opted to use selective
terror to garner their power over the people of China.

For the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, the government
provided places of worship for visitors of many
different religious backgrounds. These places
however were not made accessible to the Chinese
citizens themselves and most were closed down after the games.

Since being forced to flee Tibet in 1959 because
of the Chinese invasion, the Dalai Lama, the most
important religious leader of the Buddhist faith,
has not been allowed to return by the Communist
Party. In a far-flung attempt to flex their power
over the region, the Chinese government has
banned the remaining lamas living in Tibet from
reincarnating without permission. This has put a
further strain on the possibility of the Dalai
Lama returning to Tibet because if he finds a
successor and reincarnates "illegally" the
government will step in and replace him with
someone of their choosing. ABC News’ Chita Romana
is claiming in her article “The Politics of
Reincarnation in China” that this is no longer
about religion but rather about establishing
political power in the region. Once again, a fear
that religion could threaten the Communist party
has led government leaders to create rules
intended to undermine religious traditions and
customs for the sake of preserving the secular Communist state.

In a Q and A session on his website, When the
Dalai Lama was confronted with the question of
what he thought about the Chinese government
choosing the next Dalai Lama. He explained that
it was just like the current situation with the
Panchen Lama. The Chinese government has
appointed their distorted Panchen while he has
appointed his own Panchen Lama free of their
control. “One is paraded to serve its master's
purposes and the other is the Panchen Lama
accepted in the hearts of all the Tibetans," he
claims. Rather than being subjected to the
scrutiny of the Chung Gong, the Dalai Lama has
remained in exile for the past 60 years operating
in Dharamsala, a city in Northern India, which
has granted them, as well as The Central Tibetan
Administration (the Tibetan government-in-exile),
safety to continue their religious work in peace.

Despite everything, the Dalai Lama claims that he
remains hopeful that one day he may return to
Tibet. But for the nearly 200 million Buddhists
still living in China, and perhaps even more so
the estimated 100 million Christians belonging to
underground churches in China, life continues
under the oppression of the Communist Party of
China, just as it has for the past 50 years.

The Chinese government is much more complacent
about religion when it comes to foreigners
because they are greatly concerned with their
outward appearance on the world stage and because
foreigners practicing religion is not a direct
threat to the Chinese government. Internationally
run churches and faith-based international
schools are permissible in China as long as no
Chinese citizens are included. Despite an outward
sense of total security, even foreigners living
in China have to be cautious when it comes to
matters of religion. Although the rules are not
nearly as strict for them, ex-patriots working in
China are absolutely not allowed to interfere
with religion involving Chinese nationals. If
foreigners are suspected of doing illegal mission
work, they could be asked to leave the country.

Phil B., An American ex-patriot living in
Beijing, describes the Chinese Christians as,
"totally committed to their faith.” “My only
concern is not wanting to get them in trouble,”
Phil explained, “The worst that could happen to
me is that I be asked to leave the country, but
these people can be jailed indefinitely for
almost anything.” The government is not, however,
oblivious to Phil’s family and the other 300,000+
foreigners living in Beijing. Every time that
Phil and his family want to change their
location, they are required to register with the
government with 24 hours and have to register if
they have friends coming to stay. “You forget
that you are in a Communist country until one day
police show up at your door asking to see your information.” Phil said.

He explained that the Chinese Christians are so
much more committed than Western Christians; that
it is almost embarrassing. “I know a guy I worked
with ad he’s in jail for a year. His wife was in
jail for 2 weeks,” Phil elaborated, “7 people
were detained for 15 days. That kind of stuff can happen.”

Most religious followers in the West will never
be able to experience what it feels like to hide
their faith, a vital component of their very
nature and identity, for fear of getting thrown
in jail by their government. “I have no more fear
now,” Aaron L. says proudly, “My only fear is for
more of this so-called ‘freedom,’ because it will
be fake!” But for Aaron and his fellow Christians
in China, this so-called freedom is their
reality. Stella had chosen to look at it from
another angle. "My understanding of freedom is
that it may not be the only key factor for people
to worship,” she said hopefully. Religion is, by
definition, a system of belief, which is part of
the reason it is so threatening to a totalitarian
government. The more you try to tear it down, the stronger it grows.

Phil says he has observed, during his time in
China, the true resilience of oppressed
believers. "Police come and sit at your house
with your wife and kids while you are detained
overnight for questioning,” he says, describing
an ordeal that many Christians he knows have had
to endure, “Their response is you don’t fear
those who can harm your body you fear god who has
control of your soul. ‘Its good for us it makes
us stronger’ they say.” And all of this is coming
from a religious minority that for years was
thought to have been started mostly by "rice-bowl
Christians” a name for converts who were not
truly religiously convicted but converted in
order to receive humanitarian aid from
missionaries. However, these modern, oppressed
Christians smash that stereotype through their
remarkable strength and growth in the face of
persecution. “Churches here are not mature yet,"
believes Aaron L., "Persecution is a fire to refine the hearts."

While the future of China under this regime is
unclear, what is certain is that it will take a
lot more than house raids and wire-tapping to
quiet the anxieties of the Chinese government
when it comes to independent sources of authority
and growth of civil institutions, which it does
not believe it has full control over. Some
believe that as the years progress, religious
intolerance rather than the economy may become
the catalyst for social upheaval of the Communist Party in China.

"This is a crucial crossroads in Chinese
history," believes Phil B. Rob Gifford in his
book, The China Road, claims that if the
Communist party doesn’t move toward being more
democratic that he fears for the “future of
china.” Chinese authorities cannot afford to
allow a greater measure of religious freedom for
the same reasons that they will not permit
freedom of the press or freedom to form political
parties, because they have a clear understanding
that in doing such, they would be driving the
final nails into the coffin of Communist rule.

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