East Gates Ministries reconstructed its website last month and also changed its mission statement. "Serving the Church in China" had been its prime stated goal, but that has now been expanded into serving the church "as well as other entities that best serve China's future growth and development." How can that be done? "By working at all levels in China from engagement in government diplomatic activities to assistance with grassroots rural projects."
Diplomatic activities are an unusual section of Mr. Graham's ministerial portfolio, but not a new one. During his tenure as president of East Gates, Mr. Graham has had frequent contact with high-level Beijing officials. Last year at the Washington Hilton he had to deal with a crisis when the four-star hotel booked Mr. Graham and an entourage of Chinese government religious-affairs specialists on the same floor as the official delegation from Taiwan.
For Mr. Graham-whose coast-to-coast tour with Beijing officials was coming to a climax in the nation's capital-this was a nightmare come true. Mainland China and Taiwan are technically at war with each other, and the room placement would anger some of the bureaucrats with whom Mr. Graham had built up good rapport.
Mr. Graham prevailed upon his Hilton hosts to move the Taiwan delegation, he later told aides-and bragged to staff members about the switch, according to a former employee. The employee also said that Mr. Graham took particular relish in relating that many of the Taiwanese were moved to a floor with fewer amenities and had complained. Other Taiwanese were moved to another hotel; one Taiwan official, Vincent Yao, recalled, "We were told there were not enough rooms."
Maneuvers of that sort helped Ned Graham build good relations with the Chinese Communist Party's religion-control officials. Three of those officials-Ye Xiaowen, director of the Religious Affairs Bureau; Han Wenzao, president of the China Christian Council; and Deng Fucun, vice-chair and secretary-general of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement-seem particularly influential, and all three were on the tour. (TSPM is the organization created by Communist leaders in the 1950s to oversee Protestant churches; it answers to the Religious Affairs Bureau.)
They visited East Gates headquarters south of Seattle, Wheaton College near Chicago, and attractions in New York and Washington, D.C. They met with Billy Graham and his wife Ruth at the Graham home in North Carolina, and attended a seminar on DVD technology at the nearby Billy Graham study center.
Cost of the tour for these leaders and staff members was $36,000, Mr. Graham told WORLD. He said that the trip's "primary purpose was to focus on the need for solid, foundational, theological training at all levels in China." But Rich Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals said of the Chinese officials, "They were clearly on a propaganda campaign."
At the time, three prominent American clergymen were touring China by agreement of President Clinton and Chinese leader Jiang Zemin. Mr. Cizik, who accompanied the group, believes the Graham-arranged trip was a deliberate, if less promoted, counterpoint.
The trip included public pronouncements by Mr. Ye of the Religious Affairs Bureau, which oversees government-sanctioned religious activities. At press conferences in New York and Washington, Mr. Ye told journalists that reports of religious persecution in China "may be a case of general ignorance." Mr. Ye defended the imprisonment of some Chinese Christians: "I can tell you in all seriousness they are in prison not because of their religious beliefs but because they broke the law." In China, meeting for worship without government permission is illegal.
The delegates met with 17 members of Congress, according to China's Xinhua news agency, "some of whom had voted against President Clinton's decision to extend China's most-favored-nation trade status while others had criticized religious freedom in China." The news agency said the delegation "has provided a very good opportunity for people of various circles of the United States to fully, correctly, and objectively understand the religious situation in China."
This past June, during congressional debate over China's trade status, Mr. Graham spoke at a policy forum in Washington sponsored by the Cato Institute. He offered prepared remarks as part of a three-man panel touting the benefits of expanding commercial ties with China.
Then he was asked to talk about the situation of Christians in China. Mr. Graham responded by stating that intellectuals have been persecuted more than "religious practitioners" in China. He said "there are still instances of individuals encouraged to be aborted or forced to be aborted, but not as prevalently as some people would have you believe." He concluded, "I have not in my experience encountered individuals who have recently been detained or interrogated or persecuted simply for their faith structure or beliefs." Cato's Dan Griswold, organizer of the forum, said Mr. Graham "almost left the impression that believers are as free in China as they are here."