The confiscation of more than 300 Bibles from four American evangelicals arriving in China on Monday did not happen because Christianity is illegal there.
Bibles are not banned in China: indeed, 10,000 bilingual copies of the Bible are being distributed for free in the Olympic Village, reported the state-run China Daily last month. But the printing and distribution of them is illegal -- unless you are the Communist party-approved Christian association which has the monopoly on Bible printing and distribution.
The China Christian Council claims to print 8m copies of the Bible a month, which makes it the world’s largest publisher of Scripture -- an odd achievement for an atheist state which officially regards Christianity as a tool of western imperialism. But these claims should be taken with a hefty dose of scepticism: as the Christian freedom watchdog Forum 18 explains, it doesn’t mean Bibles reach those who want them.
There is an official Catholic Church recognised by the state -- the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, complete with its bishops and clergy -- as well as an "underground Church", nourished by the Catholic Church worldwide. Relations between "underground" and "official" Catholics are more overlapping and complex than they may appear, and Rome has in recent years sought to extend branches to "official" bishops.
But just as important -- and numerically more so -- is the vibrant "dissident" Protestant Church, which is growing fast through a network of house churches in urban areas. The pastors who lead them are unwilling to accept state control, and must deal constantly with harrassment and persecution -- mostly of a low-level kind, but also haphazardly cruel and violent.
It is clear the Chinese state no longer knows what to do about China’s fast-growing Church. As Benedict Rogers points out in the Guardian, the persecution continues. But a recent attempt by the veteran BBC reporter John Simpson to interview a "dissident" Christian pastor shows the authorities as more incompetent than anything else. Pastor Zhang Mingxuan had agreed to speak to the BBC, but Simpson discovered the police had moved him before he could reach him. But because they allowed the pastor to keep his mobile phone, Simpson was able to track him down to the police compound -- and conduct a bizarre interview through its gates, with Pastor Mingxuan waving from a first-floor window, describing with relish over his phone how the Chinese authorities do not want to him to tell the world how bad human rights are in China. It’s more Monty Python than Mao Tse-Tung.
The new breed of Protestant leaders of the urban house-church movement are captured in a profound piece by Frederic Bobin in the French daily Le Monde, under the headline: "Religion: the silent revolution". Here’s a snip (my translation):
Yu Jie is just one example of many. He embodies a small, silent revolution: a growing number of liberal intellectuals in urban China who have rallied these last years to Protestantism. Apart from Yu Jie, the best known are Wang Yi, Li Baiguang, Gao Zhisheng, Jiao Guobiao, Li Heping, Li Jinsong, Ai Xiaoming. Most are teachers and lawyers involved in the defence of civil rights. They are the visible tip of a much bigger phenomenon: moving out from the rural zones in the 1980s, Christian fervour is gradually gripping the large cities, especially among a middle class in search of spiritual values in reaction to the dominant materialism.
Bobin, studying "credible" estimates, puts the number of Protestants in China at 40m-50m, the Catholics at 10-12m. Rogers puts the overall figure a bit higher -- at 80m. Whichever is right, that is still a drop in China’s 1.3bn ocean of people. But it is the kind of people now being attracted to Christianity -- intellectuals, journalists, lawyers -- which makes this a phenomenon to watch. In Bobin’s interviews with them, certain themes emerge: the failure of Buddhism and Confucianism sufficiently to value freedom, combined with the growing recognition that Christianity is the real source of freedom and human rights -- which of course must sooner or later be squared with the communist rejection of Christianity as western imperialism.
It makes sense: intellectuals looking to freedom and human rights are unlikely to look to either the interiority of Buddhism or the traditionalism of Confucianism. And they would be suspicious of liberal rationalism, given that Communism comes out of that intellectual rejection of God -- the last gasp of the Enlightenment project.
But this is not only an intellectual awakening. The "silent revolution" begins in the heart. Here’s another Le Monde snip -- this time on Wang Guangze, a dissident journalist who was deeply traumatised, as a student, by the Tiananmen Square massacre. He joined in the student protests which followed, becoming more and more angry and despairing. Buddhism and Confucianism were of little help.
What revealed Christianity to him, he explains, was "the notion of sin". That was the key that allowed him to pull back from his hatred of the world. "We are all sinners," he says. "There are not better people than others". "Realising this, I was able to pacify my rage against the Commmunist Party. The Communists were sinners like me, but they serve an oppressive system." Wang Guangze became as a result more "tolerant" and "moderate". He believes now that "sinners need to help each other" and has founded an association promoting reconciliation in China on the South African model.
As change comes to China in the next decades, we could well see a cadre of Christian liberal intellectuals and jurists come to the fore as the harbingers of political reform. That prospect must make the Communists even more nervous of them.
But what to do? The lesson of history is that persecution of Christians only makes them stronger.