McDonald's just off Tiananmen Square is an anomaly of the first order. In the shadow of streets where pro-democracy student demonstrators took a beating from China's Communist leadership eight years ago, it is a sprawling symbol of free-wheeling American capitalism. It's the largest fast-food restaurant in the world, and its 700 seats are filled day and night with people who once ate only vegetables and fish. Its near-matching flags--the chain's red with golden arches and the country's red with golden stars--stand like twin towers announcing the handshake American business made with Communist entrepreneurs under China's leader Deng Xiaopeng, who died last month.
It looks like rain in Cherry Blossom Lane, as the song goes. Chinese leaders want to pave over the mega-McDonald's with a new shopping mall. A carefully negotiated agreement with McDonald's to lease the property for 20 years means nothing, they say. The maneuver is symbolic: Americana may be chic and money may be king, but in the largest Communist outpost in the world, the Party rules.
So it is poetic justice that the restaurant is normally a reliable drop-off point for Western contraband. Jim Jacobson planned to meet "Peter" there with a satchelful of Bibles. The American would casually leave them under his plastic seat, take his fries and go. But Peter, who is Chinese, never showed. He sensed too much state security combing the restaurant that day and has learned through prior arrests to be more cautious.
Mr. Jacobson is president of Christian Solidarity International. Peter is one of Beijing's house church leaders whose real name will go unspoken (Mr. Jacobson does not know it) because the act of Christian worship and the possession of Bibles without the state's approval make him a practicing outlaw. He did meet Mr. Jacobson several circuitous bus and taxi rides later in a busy lobby. "Then he walked off in the darkness with the Bibles," said Mr. Jacobson. The Party rules.
For Peter and other house church members, life in an increasingly affluent China is harder than ever before. A zeal for economic growth may have replaced ideological purity even before the post-Deng era, but it does not translate to a Bill of Rights for these Christians.
The symbolic transfer of power that took place two weeks ago when Deng's ashes were tossed into the sea changes nothing, observers say, in a country facing a renewed crackdown on unregistered worshipers. The crackdown, labeled Operation Strike Hard by American human-rights activists, has authorities insisting that Christians join the official church, called the Three Self Patriotic Movement, or suffer arrests and beatings.
Operation Strike Hard is also a strike against the Clinton administration, bent on pursuing a policy of engagement going back to Richard Nixon's time. Its recent ferocity undercuts corporate America's argument that freedom would come to China in the course of economic progress. Its boldness mocks the secular human-rights group formula for dialogue and incremental achievements.
In his first term Mr. Clinton aggressively promoted widening trade with China, even decoupling annual review of its Most Favored Nation trade status from a review of its human-rights record. That approach is about to be challenged, just as Mr. Clinton's foreign policy team embarks on a track of high-level meetings with Chinese leaders that will culminate in a summit between the president and Deng successor Jiang Zemin sometime next year.
Last week the Family Research Council's Gary Bauer, with the support of other conservative Christian leaders like James Dobson, wrote both GOP and Democratic leadership on Capitol Hill to serve notice that they would lobby hard to end the trade policy, which eases import duties on Chinese-made goods. "China, bluntly, is an equal opportunity brutalizer of people of faith," said Mr. Bauer.
The evidence that human-rights abuses and repression continue is as undeniable as the surge in China's trade surplus with the United States. Protestants and Catholics who choose to worship or engage in extracurricular Bible-related activities outside state-designated churches are top targets for arrest and imprisonment since Beijing's Religious Affairs Bureau made a point of decreeing last January that they threaten state security.
This year the Cardinal Kung Foundation, a Catholic group, released a Jiangxi Province Communist Party document smuggled out of the country and given to foundation president Joseph Kung. The document concerns "The Procedures Legally to Implement the Eradication of Illegal Activities/Operations of the Underground Catholic Church." It begins:
"In recent years, the population of religious believers in our villages has increased due to the intensified infiltration of overseas religious enemy and opposition forces, and due to the influence of the illegal activities of the underground religious force in our country. Some have used religion to commit criminal activities, seriously disturbing the social order and affecting political stability. Therefore, every unit in this entire township must be highly vigilant in and politically attuned to the gravity and danger of the overall situation. You must strengthen the leadership, and, with resolute, decisive and organized measures, to legally develop this special 'struggle' in order to eradicate the illegal activities of the underground Catholic church."
The document, which runs to 14 pages in English, lays out a disciplined six-month plan of action to destroy the underground Catholic church in Jiangxi, including its "illegal assembly place," and to force its members to write "a statement of repentance" after joining the official church, which for Catholics is called the Patriotic Association.
The order lists by name a staff of two officers, 10 team workers, and an office manager who are to carry out the eradication. Among their many guidelines is this: "Political matters should be treated as non-political ones while the problems of religious character should be so solved as non-religious ones."
Overseas Missionary Fellowship's Tony Lambert, a leading expert on China's churches, said, "There is plenty of evidence that many house churches are experiencing the worst wave of persecution since 1983-84 with arrests, beatings, confiscations of books and personal belongings, and demolition of churches."
Along with Chinese worshipers caught in the crackdown are Americans and representatives of outside ministries who've tried to help them. They are seen as the prime threat to the government's church eradication plan. On his latest trip to China Mr. Jacobson had to leave half of his Christian literature at the airport after Chinese customs officials let him know they didn't like what he was carrying.
"We negotiated with them and they let us go through. Two years ago this would not have been a problem; now they are looking for Bibles," said Mr. Jacobson.
It is possibly the greatest good news/bad news story of the decade: Government officials of the largest country in the world recognize the power of belief in Christ to undo the power of the state. Chinese leaders are right to worry. While official estimates number Christian believers at 20 million, expert Chinese church watchers are increasingly in agreement that the real number could be closer to 90 million. It signifies a phenomenal rate of recent conversions. Long-term political significance will be determined by the near-term perseverance of the saints.
Who are the faces of China's persecuted church? One is Pastor Wong, who runs 40 house churches in Wuhan and met with Mr. Jacobson in December just days after release from his fourth arrest for evangelism. His captors squeezed one hand in pliers until Mr. Wong passed out. Most of the fingers were broken, and Mr. Wong thinks now that if he is arrested again he won't ever get out.
Another is Zhang Daojun. Arrested in Jiangsu province last summer, he was sentenced to 18 months' imprisonment for "counterrevolutionary" offenses as a house church leader. Police strapped him to a metal chair and shot electric currents through his body until he became unconscious. Fellow prisoners forced him to drink "soup" made of urine, feces, and washing powder.
Another is [Name removed pending editorial approval], whose husband [Name removed pending editorial approval] was arrested for running a house church out of the family's restaurant in Beijing that also was a drop-off point for Christian materials smuggled in from Hong Kong. [Name removed pending editorial approval] spent three months in prison, but his wife has seen neither him nor her children--ages 6 and 3 1/2--in nearly two years. [Name removed pending editorial approval] traveled to the United States on a business visa just prior to her husband's arrest. Upon learning of it, she and her family agreed that she should apply for asylum in the United States. Her family's business and restaurant have been destroyed; [Name removed pending editorial approval] has been given a desk job by the government.
To chronicle the fate of religious prisoners does not begin to describe what happens to their families. The relatives become an example to the community. They may have their belongings confiscated or even lose their homes or businesses. They are often forced to pay a fine to compensate the government for the cost of feeding and housing the prisoner.
"I know the Communist Party," said [Name removed pending editorial approval]. "If they charge you in a political activity, they will be against you your whole life."
For this reason few house church leaders are willing to lend their faces to the movement or to the media. Even those who have fled, to Hong Kong or the United States, fear for the safety of family members in China.
"If I say something here, they know about it in China," [Name removed pending editorial approval] told WORLD.
To carry out the Religious Affairs Bureau decree, the local party apparatus either closes down house churches or forces the members to register with the government under the Three Self Patriotic Movement. In a few cases that means churches have moved under the party structure without losing their witness.
"The church situation is very murky," said Brent Fulton, associate director of Wheaton College's Institute for Chinese Studies. "There are different levels of freedom in registered churches, depending on the local party, and in some cases the churches are still able to have fellowship and outreach, to hold services and have youth groups."
Mr. Fulton said that even in the official churches real Christian teaching is sometimes filling a moral, ethical, and spiritual vacuum. But there is no guarantee for it with the state at the helm, he said.
A report, titled "Watchman on the Wall," delivered first-hand to Tony Lambert from an unnamed house church leader sums up the problems most Christians have with the official church:
"We are Christians in Xinjiang. Last year in October the Three Self organization was set up by the Urumqi church with the support of relevant government organizations. If one joins the Three Self, one is 'patriotic.' If not, one is deemed illegal and meetings must be closed down. But patriotism should have regard to real actions, not just a word on a signboard. We Christians are not hypocrites. In principle, all true Christians are patriotic and good citizens. We approve of the Three Self principles of self-government, self-support, and self-propagation in building the church. But we are not able to accept the Three Self organization because Christ himself is head of the church and we believe in the separation of church and state."
In its human-rights report for 1996, the State Department issued one of its harshest criticisms of human rights in China. It said that by the end of 1996 there were no active dissidents left in China who had not been jailed or exiled. That finding has not changed Washington's overall policy toward China, which new Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has said should be "multifaceted."
With the UN Commission on Human Rights set to begin its annual meeting in Geneva this month, the pressure is on Washington to introduce a resolution condemning China for its treatment of political and religious dissidents. A confrontation in Geneva, however, could derail a track of high-level summits set to begin this spring when Vice President Al Gore travels to Beijing.
Human Rights Watch officially denounced that upcoming trip, saying, "For the vice-president to proceed with plans for a late March or April visit would send a signal that the Chinese authorities can step up arrests, impose harsh sentences for peaceful dissent, curtail civil liberties in Hong Kong, and muzzle human-rights criticism through commercial threats and deals without fear of international repercussions."
It also will be important to watch Massachusetts Avenue--Embassy Row in Washington--where Chinese diplomats and at least one known arms dealer working through China's embassy have been linked to improper and possibly illegal campaign contributions to the Democratic National Committee.
Conservative Christian groups will look to Capitol Hill for a more straightforward battle on the MFN vote. "This whole thing will cause indigestion to a number of politicians, mainly for the Clinton administration, but also for some elements in the Republican Party who are more interested in selling a billion Big Macs in China," said Gary Bauer. "The MFN vote was easy and now it will be a very hard vote for a large number of congressmen."
Mr. Bauer's group, Family Research Council, will work with Focus on the Family and others to let Americans know U.S. trade policy is not helping China's Christians. "For pro-life, pro-family, or pro-labor congressmen it means it will be very difficult for them to vote in favor of MFN and still carry one of those labels," he said.
Mr. Bauer told WORLD the effort also includes working with groups on the political left. He is meeting with former Pennsylvania Governor Robert Casey, a Democrat, who is approaching organized labor leaders and Catholics concerned about trade and China.
"Both parts are doing something that is consistent with their own values," he said.
Ultimately all eyes will focus again on Tiananmen Square, where a giant clock is right now tolling the countdown to Hong Kong's return to mainland Chinese rule. When its numbers race down this summer, freedom-lovers in both Hong Kong and China will rightly ask when the real countdown to basic liberties can begin.