Bush’s worship plans in China

bush on freedom
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.

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  • http://rhog.blogspot.com Citizen Grim

    State media or no, word will get out that Bush wanted to visit a state church and was denied. That’s enough for now.

    Five loaves, two fish. God can get a lot accomplished from very little.

  • Jerry

    I’m far from a fan of Bush, but making a big deal of his desire to visit the church is something I expect an American president to do: to uphold American ideals. The Chinese can use their laws to block him from attending the church of his choice, but he has the duty uphold his oath of office by doing his best to live those ideals.

    I salute the Times for covering this story. It shows what can happen in other places where separation of church and state is not accepted as a governing principle and it serves as a reminder to us to honor the wisdom of those who wrote that principle into our laws.

  • Zak

    Condi Rice worshipped at a house church during a visit to China a few years ago, so it’s not unheard of that he would try to do this.

  • http://www.InklingBooks.com/ Mike Perry

    The massive size of the county and huge population makes the American concept of law and order seem an impossible objective.

    The United States is also quite large, one of the largest and most populous countries on earth. Does that mean that we should also have restrictions on religious and other freedoms that would be considered intolerable in Monaco or Switzerland? I doubt that. Size isn’t the issue. Historically, even democratic Switzerland has had far less religious freedom than the U.S., as Francis Schaeffer discovered when he first moved there.

    The real issue is the obsession China’s leaders have with controlling almost every aspect of the lives of their citizens. That obsession may be made difficult by the country’s size as well as its ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity, but it in no way excuses it. The Chinese Baptists meeting in “illegal” house churches aren’t planning terrorist attacks. Those meetings don’t require any legitimation by the government any more than a Bible study that meets in my apartment requires one.

    I suspect you’re confusing something that does matter, whether pressure from outside will help change these government policies. President Carter was notorious for creating highly publicized clashes that made him appear to be championing human rights, while actually worsening the situation for those under Communist domination.

    In contrast, Reagan was more interested in accomplishment than image, showing a willingness to keep a low profile when the Soviets were willing to bend ever so slightly. The Pentecostal family that had been trapped in the US embassy since President Ford was allowed to immigrate because Reagan promised the Soviets that their immigration would get little press coverage. (Carter would have gloated loudly and often.) And a planned visit to a Jewish couple when Reagan visited Moscow was dropped when, the day before, the Soviets agreed to let the couple immigrate to Israel.

    The real question is whether Bush is a Carter or a Reagan. Is he trying to puff up his image like Carter or genuinely seeking change like Reagan? My hunch is that’s his motives are far more like those of Reagan. And anyone who has talked to people who lived under Soviet domination know how much they appreciated Reagan’s efforts to keep pressure on the Soviets. I, for one, will be very disappointed if Bush doesn’t do something that upsets China’s repressive leadership. Size never justifies repression.

    –Michael W. Perry, editor of Chesterton on War and Peace

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2677 dpulliam

    Thanks for your analysis Mike. My point was that China doesn’t apply it’s laws as consistently as one in the West might assume. (Laws in the U.S. are hardly consistently applied for that matter). In other words, China does not apply or enforce its repressive laws consistently.

  • Jay

    Doug, I thought the point of this blog was not debate policy or religious issues but to discuss the coverage of religion. As MZ says, the press gets the idea of covering political controversy, and they get it here.

    But what about (to use the GR phrase) the religion ghost in the story? What is different between the approved and unapproved churches that one is banned by the PRC and one is not? I mean, this is not the Middle East or Godless Atheists who ban all Christian churches. (Why not? That seems like an interesting story).

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  • Ray

    The most unfortunate aspect of this New York Times article is the errant comment: “The fact is that these house churches are operating outside the country’s laws whether we like it or not.” This statement is neither factual nor considerate of the plight of millions of religious believers who meet in house churches for issues of conscience.

    Chinese constitutional law does not forbid the meetings of house churches. Neither does any provincial or municipal law. It is Communist Party policy, being enacted outside the rule of law, that mandates the harrassment and persecution of religious believers who meet outside the auspices of government-sanctioned religious organs. These state religious bodies were instituted under the Communist Party United Front organization and the Religious Affairs Bureau for the express purpose of controlling and limiting religious expression and with the stated goal that socialist theory regarding the ultimate demise of religion eventually be fully realized.

    Neither does the rule of law in China sanction the unbelievably cruel treatment that is regularly leveled at religious believers by rogue Public Security officers. Rather, it is secret Communist Party directives that emboldens them to do so.

    You may as well have argued that our founding father’s rebellion against the mandates of the Church of England by meeting in Baptist and Episcopalian churches in Plymouth or Jamestown was not based on an issue of conscience worthy of our sympathy. They were, after all, acting in stark defiance of their monarch by doing so, but, they believed, well within the scope of common and universal law as they understood it. (And England of that day hadn’t signed on to numerous international treaties vowing not to abuse them in their free expression of religion as China has.) That is the reason the founding fathers thought it so important to limit the scope of authority of our government when they enshrined the prohibition against government establishment of religious bodies in our constitution. Belief in this issue of conscience is part of what historically defined us as Americans.

    That is why most Christians I have met in China are so grateful to Americans that are bold enough to stand with them in their sufferings and against the travesties being perpetrated upon them by “law-defying” police and officials at the behest of the Chinese Communist Party.

    Thank God that President Bush has vowed to bring up the names and details of specific individuals who are currently suffering injustices at the hands of Public Security Bureau operatives who routinely ignore the dictates of the rule of law in their handling of religious cases. The handful of specific cases of individuals that Bush may be able to address when he meets with Hu Jintao are exemplary of hundreds who are suffering by virtue of a systematic attempt by the CCP to dismantle and destroy any religious sentiment that might suggest there is any power or authority greater than theirs.

    No one expects that Bush will single-handedly bring the CCP to an admission that they are not the true source of the rather limited rights of the people under their rule (as they state that they are). But, to ignore an opportunity to express the idea that all people’s basic human rights are derived by the inalienable grant of the Creator, rather than by the whimsical mandate of a handful of politicos, would be a violation of conscience as it has been typical of an American for nearly 400 years.

    It is unfortunate that Bush will not be able to meet with any of the house churches that are currently experiencing this kind of persecution. The only way I know to meet with them without risking their safety is to sneak in and out without drawing the attention of the PSB. Not an easy job for the President of the most powerful nation on earth.

    But, God Bless him for trying!

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  • Ray

    Excuse me for attributing the comment “The fact is that these house churches are operating outside the country’s laws whether we like it or not.” to the New York Times. I realize now that this was dpulliam’s commentary on their article. Please accept my clarification.