Cover Story

The Party rules

In the post-Deng era, Christian conservatives hope to make a fresh start in pressing Washington to take seriously religious persecution in China

Issue: "Beijing Marches On," March 15, 1997

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.

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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."

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