NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–I have vivid memories of the 1989 pro-democracy protests in China. I was a member of an aviation unit deployed on one of three ships that made a historic visit to Shanghai. At the time, it was the first port call to China by a warship in 40 years and it took place during the burgeoning demonstrations that many felt would transform the communist country.
The atmosphere was electric. Shanghai was a crowded city, its then 11 million or more residents ranked fifth in population among metropolises around the world (and first among municipalities in China) … and we were told there were millions of student protesters in town, too. Several times the broad boulevards were so crowded with human masses to the point that nothing with wheels could travel.
We enjoyed special performances by Chinese acrobats and contortionists and the fascinating sights, sounds and smells of an ancient city that blended remnants of the old with turn-of-the-century European influences of architecture and a growing hunger for modern conveniences. We hosted dignitaries, meeting top naval brass, government officials and business leaders, all who enthusiastically offered their support for the pro-democracy movement. “It is our future,” one admiral told me.
Adding to the excitement about the possibilities for democracy, Mikhail Gorbachev, whose policies of glasnost (opening up) and perestroika (restructuring) were leading to reforms in the former Soviet Union, had arrived four days earlier for the first Chinese-Soviet summit since 1959.
But there was a different reality for the Chinese people. The day after our arrival, Communist Party leaders declared martial law for Beijing and the troops moved in.
There was no apparent fear of repercussions because of our presence as representatives of the most powerful fleet in the world or that the arguably second most powerful leader in the world was a guest in their country. Nor was there any change in the pro-democracy rhetoric we heard again and again even as troops mobilized against China’s freedom marchers.
We left and so did Gorbachev, and the crush of oppression worsened, eventually resulting in the Tiananmen Square massacre — the murder of hundreds (some say thousands) — and a brutal crackdown that quelled the millions-strong movement for liberty.
With all the modernization and economic growth in China since 1989, much remains the same. But China pulled off an Olympic-sized sleight of hand with its hosting of the 2008 Summer Games, distracting a curious world by alternately presenting pictures of its rich cultural heritage and at other times dazzling outsiders with elements of booming technology and industry.
It was hard to watch the pageantry of the opening ceremony and not be awed by the spectacle that had been in the making for nearly seven years. It was a four-hour extravaganza that included 10,000 performers and the most exquisite special effects technology could offer as well as a fireworks display of enormous proportions. (According to Chinese officials, 40,000 pyrotechnics were launched from more than 1,800 sites around the city). In all it cost China the equivalent of about $300 million to create the sensational celebration it presented to the world. Afterward the world was captivated by two weeks of actual competitions, an experience enhanced by the gracious efficiency of the Chinese hosts and the many remarkably designed facilities.
Yet, while countries intently watched their athletes compete for individual glory and national pride, China’s communist government continued its abuse of human rights among its people without the slightest hint of fear of backlash in world opinion.
The Chinese Constitution guarantees freedom of association and assembly, but only approved organizations registered with the state enjoy that right. In theory free speech and an independent press also are guaranteed, but in practice the government restricts both.
China broadly promoted its setting up three parks as protest zones but denied the 77 applicants who sought permits — and the government detained some of them. Not a single rally was allowed. Some foreign activists staged a couple of individual demonstrations (holding up signs or yelling “free Tibet,” or simply holding Tibetan flags). All were whisked away for threatening the peace of the state and eight Americans were given a 10-day jail sentence before being released early and deported.
The government has been brutal at times in crackdowns against unrest in Tibet, and although seemingly in abeyance during the Olympic Games, it has been a cruel perpetrator of ethnic violence against such people groups as the Uighurs of western Xinjiang.
However, perhaps Chinese leaders have been no more extreme in denying fundamental rights and exerting cruelty upon a people than in their suppression of religious freedom. The state officially recognizes five religions: Taoism, Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism, making accommodations for each with government sponsored organizations — in the case of Protestants, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. Likewise, there are examples like the Beijing International Christian Fellowship which allows foreigners to gather with each other but denies access to Chinese nationals.
Like the protest parks, the Communist Party’s state-supported religious institutions are symbolic at best, a public relations tool meant to distract outsiders from seeing the reality of this sphere of life in the “Middle Kingdom.” Just as protest parks do not translate to exercise of free speech, state-controlled religious institutions do not evidence China’s tolerance of either freedom of conscious or liberty of religious practice. More than 700 Protestant pastors — mostly evangelical house church leaders — remain in detention, having been rounded up the past year to restrict their activities while the foreign press was given wide access for the Summer Games. One house church leader cannot travel from his home unless he is driven in a police car.
So, what now that the Olympics have ended? Will history repeat? Is another crackdown imminent?
The reality is the crackdown never stopped. However, history definitely is replicating itself.
What God accomplished in spite of a line of Roman emperors who persecuted His Church nearly 2,000 years ago, He also has achieved today despite relentless attacks on followers of the Way in China by a succession of Communist Party officials. Just as Christianity was spread by the dispersion of Believers in the First Century, so has Christianity expanded in China under the harsh rule of communists since 1949. Almost 50 years ago about 5,000 western missionaries were expelled, all churches barred and shuttered, leaving between 350,000 and 700,000 Christian nationals many of whom were deprived, beaten, imprisoned … and some killed. Yet, by some estimates the body of believers in China has grown to between 70 million and 100 million, with nearly 35,000 evangelicals being added daily now through the house church movement which the Chinese government persists to assault and oppress.
It is an eternal assurance that what man intends for evil, God uses for good.
Pray for our brothers and sisters in China. Voice your concerns with elected officials and press them to pass legislation and enact policies that pressure China to respect basic human rights, especially religious freedom.
Finally, be steadfast in your hope. Remember that in God’s sovereignty whether it be the Roman Empire or the Middle Kingdom, while some things may never change, some things cannot stay the same.
Will Hall is executive editor of Baptist Press.