A record number of Americans traveled to China in 2005. And even more are expected to visit in 2006 and beyond. The World Travel and Tourism Council estimates that tourism spending in China from tourists of all countries will increase about three and a half times by 2014, from US$87 billion to more than US$300 billion. Fuelling the increase is the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing.
|Photo source: Operation China,
China is a country of paradoxes.
Tourism is part of China’s emergence as an economic powerhouse. But when Americans and other nationalities travel to China, what will they see? Will they see a free society with religious rights for all? Will they see brutal police crackdowns on political and religious dissidents? Or will they see something in between?
China native Johnny Li, minister-at-large for Open Doors International, describes China as a country of paradoxes that is baffling to the outsider. On the one hand, it has some of the world’s highest buildings and first-class road building facilities; prosperous families living in modern accommodations; and the usual American fast food outlets and chain stores.
On the other hand, there are many dirt tracks and unpaved roads. There are villages where entire populations live in caves. More than seventy percent (nine hundred million) of China's 1.3 billion people are farmers who are living below the poverty line.
Of one trip, Li said, “In 2005, I traveled to villages in the desert in northwest China. We drove on a muddy road for over twenty hours. No tourists visit here; the people have no expectations for a bright future. They are not benefiting from the economic reforms in China. But there is a hunger for [the Bible].”
While some Chinese Christian leaders and other dissidents languish in jail, others travel the world talking of religious freedom. Some smuggle in the Bible, yet the Bible is also legally printed and sold. Last November 2005 United States President George W. Bush worshipped in a state-approved church in Beijing while urging Chinese leaders to grant greater freedoms (including freedom to worship without state controls) to all people.
Great Variation of Tolerance
There is great variation of tolerance within China as well. In some areas, house church Christians are left alone by local police and are able to sing at the top of their voices and build their own churches in defiance of formal legislation. In other areas, house church meeting are stopped and the church leaders are arrested, beaten and sometimes jailed. Periodically, there are waves of crackdowns (initiated by higher-level authorities) on unregistered groups. These crackdowns usually come prior to major national or international events and are seemingly meant to send a message to house churches that the government is still in control of activities in the country.
“Whatever you hear about China regarding religious freedom or lack of freedom is probably true,” Li says. “It depends where you go. So many things in Beijing or in the big cities of China look just the same on the outside as they look in the United States. But in the rural areas, there is a lot of persecution in places hidden from view.”
Since 1999, the U.S. State Department has designated China a “Country of Particular Concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act for particularly severe violations of religious freedom. China is ranked number nine on Open Doors’ World Watch List of countries where Christians are most severely persecuted.
Some still deny there are significant levels of persecution in China. Yet the majority of Christians currently refuse to worship within the state-approved churches, finding the monitoring by government bodies invasive and controlling. Evangelism outside the registered church walls is illegal. Although the Chinese government does not have a national law that explicitly prohibits the teaching of religion to anyone under the age of 18, internal provincial regulations exist to forbid baptism of minors and restrict church children’s programs. Sunday School teachers face the likelihood of detention, fines or imprisonment of up to three years if caught teaching children. House church leaders are still jailed and beaten for what in Western society would be regarded as the free expression of their faith.
The Largest Persecuted Community Today
The Christian Church of China may not have as many martyrs as Colombia, face as many restrictions as Christians in Saudi Arabia or fight as many extremist mobs as their brothers and sisters in Indonesia, but the sixty to eighty million Christians in China remain the world's largest single persecuted community today.
Li came close to experiencing police brutality during a recent visit to China. At the end of an Open Doors training seminar, the Public Security Bureau (PSB) surrounded the seminar building, charged in and arrested the twenty students on site. Li had left moments earlier.
All twenty students were hospitalized from the abuse they received during the arrests. The PSB confiscated their Bibles, hymnals, spiritual books, clothing, blankets, gospel CDs, video CDs and mobile phones. The Christians begged for the return of their Bibles but all the Bibles were either burnt or destroyed.
The next morning Li and the Open Doors team heard about the arrests and managed to ensure that all but one of the detainees were released. Li said that following their release, the group encouraged each other and felt honored to suffer for Christ.
For those in the rural, economically-deprived parts of China, Bibles and spiritual books are necessary to help strengthen believers and lead non-believers to faith in Christ. This is what one new believer recently said to Li: “What would happen if I never had the opportunity to hear about this living God? We have nothing here. If we have no Jesus, we will become the worst of the worst in this world.” Let us all seek to help millions of others in China hear the Word of God.