Caesar in Beijing: The Communist crackdown now includes Christian churches

Friday, April 22, 2011

 The Wall Street Journal   APRIL 23, 2011
As Easter approached this year, Beijing's crackdown on all forms of dissent expanded to include a renewed assault on the right of Christians to worship freely. Authorities in the capital prevented the prosperous Shouwang congregation from occupying premises it bought to hold services. So the "house church," as such unofficial groups are known, prayed outside. That led the police to detain the pastor and many of the faithful over the last two Sundays.

Religious persecution is always abhorrent, but in this case it's also a political blunder. Over the past decade, the Communist Party has cautiously embraced mainstream Christianity, funding the construction of officially recognized churches and seminaries. Unregistered groups like Shouwang continue to face occasional harassment, but local officials usually welcome their good works and turn a blind eye to low-key proselytizing.
Chinese police usher people onto a bus at the site of a planned outdoor service by the Shouwang Church at the Zhongguancun commercial district in Beijing in this still image from April 10, 2011 video.

The reason for this detente is simple: Christianity poses little overt threat to the Party's monopoly on power and it helps to promote social stability. Much like South Koreans before them, millions of Chinese are flocking to churches to find a spiritual fulfillment that balances their material prosperity. Anyone who has tried to attend a service in a major Chinese city knows how powerful this call has become among the new urban middle class: Not only are the churches packed, but it can be hard to find a place outside to hear the liturgy over loudspeakers.
It's true that Christianity is not always and everywhere apolitical. But the past few years in China show that secular and spiritual spheres can co-exist peacefully if there is mutual respect. Now that respect is breaking down. China's state media accuse Shouwang of "politicizing religion" and blame shadowy foreign forces for stirring up trouble. Yet it was the government that created the current confrontation by refusing to allow the church to practice peacefully and quietly indoors.
The incident is a microcosm of the wider problems caused by China's crackdown. Beijing insists it wants to promote a harmonious and stable society. Yet by arresting prominent activists for no apparent reason, the security forces are doing the opposite: Those who were once content to live quietly with the Party's restrictions on free expression are now compelled to speak out.
This may come as a surprise to some in the West. Until recently, Beijing had played a skillful game of applying the screws just enough to keep everybody in line while easing state control over most aspects of people's lives, including employment, choice of a spouse, housing, religion and even the ability to criticize the government in limited terms. International human rights advocates had to admit that most Chinese enjoyed greater freedom than ever before, and many foreigners downplayed arrests of dissidents as aberrations against a general trend of liberalization.
What the present crackdown shows is that those who doubted the Communist Party's sincerity were right all along. Beijing bestowed these freedoms as favors but reserved the right to take them back, as it is doing now. The Party would do well to remember that if it wants to pick a fight with China's Christians, it can have no faith that it will ultimately prevail.

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