EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appears in the January 31, 2005, issue of National Review.
Beijing–I meet Qiu Yue and her friend Yang Jie at an average-looking restaurant. Qiu has chosen the place precisely because it is unremarkable. Our meeting must have a low profile: Qiu and Yang’s safety would be jeopardized if the authorities knew they were having lunch with a Western journalist. In fact, Qiu fears that her security has already been compromised. She suspects that her phone has been tapped, and knows that her e-mails, like those of everyone else in China, are screened by software that searches for terms deemed politically sensitive. We have therefore taken precautions: Our phone conversations have been short and vague, and in our e-mails we have made a habit of writing “C” instead Christian, “B” instead of Bible. Probably we have avoided detection. But one cannot be sure.
Qiu and Yang (which are pseudonyms) belong to “house churches” here in the capital. A house church is a Protestant Christian assembly that is illegal, having refused to register with the Chinese government and join the Three Self Patriotic Movement, the Communist party’s umbrella Protestant organization. A similar division exists within Chinese Catholicism: The Patriotic Catholic Association, which is controlled by the Party, does not recognize the authority of the Pope, while an illegal Catholic church remains loyal to the Vatican and operates underground.
Those unacquainted with contemporary China are often surprised to learn that the Communist party sanctions a kind of Christianity. But this is not surprising when one realizes that many of the Party’s propaganda efforts involve the presentation of a simulacrum of genuine freedom. Religion is a case in point. Although the Party remains dogmatically atheist, it permits worship in state-approved churches such as the Three Self Patriotic Movement. But because China’s Communists remain hostile to anything that posits a source of authority higher than the political, they carefully control what is taught in these official churches to ensure that the realm of the divine is firmly subjugated to the authority of the Party.
This subjugation manifests itself as a tendency to strip from Christianity its claims to transcendence. “The Three Self Church has never preached Christ’s Second Coming,” says Qiu. “They don’t think that Mary was a virgin. They think Christ had an earthly father.” The only kind of Christianity to receive official blessing is thus sundered from many of Christianity’s essential doctrines and reduced to a collection of moral precepts…
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