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Forgive us their trespass

China | Western evangelicals are plotting an apology to China for 150-year-old imperialist abuses. Critics wonder, how do you make up for the past?

Issue: "Marathon man," Feb. 17, 2007

For evangelical minister Gaetan Roy, promoting amicable relations between Westerners and the people of China is more than a vocation; it's a marital vow. A native of Canada who now lives in Germany, Roy is married to a Chinese woman, an arrangement he says requires ethnic reconciliation every day.

Such domestic realities may help explain Roy's passion for international appeasement. His familiarity with Chinese culture and popular attitudes convinces him that much of China still harbors bitterness for the West's role in its bloody history. Acting on that conviction, Roy drafted what he terms a "Road to Reconciliation" initiative, aiming to gather 50 prominent delegates from Europe and the United States to apologize formally for the 150-year-old Opium Wars and the resulting political climate that produced such massacres as the Taiping Rebellion and the Boxer Uprising.

"They've never forgotten the harm we did to them," he said. "Apologizing is one of the basic values of our faith." Roy contends that because most Westerners 150 years ago professed to be Christians, modern Christians hold primary responsibility to admit fault.

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According to Roy's plan, the 50 delegates-made up of politicians, business leaders, and evangelical ministers-will travel to Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Beijing, visiting various historical sites along the way and attending gala evening events to issue apologies to Chinese officials. The trip is slated for the fall of 2008, affording initiative directors the chance to build their coalition and to help organize China's reception.

But that extended timetable has also left ample opportunity for derision. Critics of the Road to Reconciliation initiative charge that a Christian apology for Western imperialism merely will feed the communist government's propaganda machine, which seeks to justify persecution of some Chinese Christians with distorted pictures of Christianity's historical impact in the country. The government might well exploit the gesture, holding it up as a public admission that Christianity has harmed China rather than helped it.

One Chinese Christian-granted anonymity because the Chinese government sometimes persecutes outspoken Christians-said that "if reconciliation is in order, it should be the other way around. China needs to acknowledge the incredible contributions made by Christians for her progress in the last 150 years." An accurate historical sketch of 19th-century China includes the efforts of Christian missionaries to care for orphans, provide quality public education, build hospitals, and oppose widespread human-rights violations against women.

Many Chinese textbooks gloss over such positive developments, lumping together Western missionaries with imperial forces that attacked China for enforcing laws against the lucrative opium trade. In the summer of 1840, British troops invaded the Chinese port of Guangzhou in retaliation for the Qing Empire's decision to destroy 3 million pounds of illegally imported British opium. Less than two decades later, British forces launched a second military strike to protect again their drug trade from Chinese interference.

These Opium Wars forced China into unfair treaties and opened the once isolationist nation to imperial exploitation by a host of Western countries. By the end of the 19th century, many Chinese traditionalists despised what they viewed as an invasion of "foreign devils." Such brooding animosity erupted in the Boxer Uprising in 1899, a brutal two-year attack on all things foreign that directed much of its wrath toward non-threatening missionaries and Chinese Christians.

Some Chinese academics in recent years have sought to alter the nation's school curriculums to portray accurately this slaughter of Christians as a tragic mistake. Last year, Yuan Weishi, a philosophy professor at Zhongshan University in Guangzhou, published an essay calling the Boxer Uprising "a reactionary affair that ran in the completely opposite direction of social progress. Furthermore, butchering foreigners is anti-humanitarian and anti-civilization."

Such words provoked swift censorship as the government shut down the journal in which the article appeared. Chinese internet sites labeled Yuan a traitor for daring to question publicly the nation's historical orthodoxy.

Roy acknowledges the dangers of introducing his initiative into such an environment of spin and propaganda. But he insists that the moral mandate to do so outweighs any potential collateral damage. He refuses to couch his proposed apology with any qualifying statements regarding China's consistent mistreatment of Christians. "We do not wish to make any statements about any other issue. It would water it down if we had any other agenda," he said. "We don't want to give the impression that we want the Chinese to apologize for what they did to us. The fact that they killed many Christians, they know this very well. We don't want to shove that truth down their throats."

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