- Tue, 04/19/2011 - 12:00
The Wall Street Journal
APRIL 19, 2011, 12:19 P.M. ET
The Communist Party picks a fight with Christian churches.
As Easter approaches, Beijing's crackdown on all forms of dissent is expanding to include a renewed assault on the right of Christians to worship freely. The authorities in the capital prevented the prosperous Shouwang congregation from occupying premises it bought to hold services. So the "house church," as such unofficial groups are known, prayed outside. That led the police to detain the pastor and many of the faithful over the last two Sundays.
Religious persecution is always abhorrent, but in this case it's also a political blunder. Over the past decade, the Communist Party has cautiously embraced mainstream Christianity, funding the construction of officially recognized churches and seminaries. Unregistered groups like Shouwang continue to face occasional harassment, but local officials usually welcome their good works and turn a blind eye to low-key proselytizing.
The reason for this detente is simple: Christianity not only poses little overt threat to the Party's monopoly on power, it helps to promote social stability. Much like Koreans before them, millions of Chinese are flocking to churches to find a spiritual fulfillment that balances their material prosperity. Anyone who has tried to attend a service in a major Chinese city knows how powerful this call has become among the new urban middle class: Not only are the churches packed, but it can be hard to find a place outside to hear the liturgy over loudspeakers.
It's true that Christianity is not always and everywhere apolitical. But the past few years in China show that secular and spiritual spheres can co-exist peacefully if there is mutual respect. Now that respect is breaking down. China's state media accuses Shouwang of "politicizing religion" and blames shadowy foreign forces for stirring up trouble. Yet it was the government that created the current confrontation by refusing to allow the church to practice peacefully and quietly indoors.
The incident is a microcosm of the wider problems caused by China's crackdown. Beijing insists it wants to promote a harmonious and stable society. Yet by arresting prominent activists for no apparent reason, the security forces are doing the opposite: Those who were once content to live quietly with the Party's restrictions on free expression are now compelled to speak out.
This may come as a surprise to some. Until fairly recently, Beijing had played a skillful game of applying the screws just enough to keep everybody in line while easing state control over most aspects of people's lives, including employment, choice of a spouse, housing, religion and even the ability to criticize the government in limited terms. International human rights advocates had to admit that most Chinese enjoyed greater freedom than ever before, and foreign apologists for Beijing downplayed the arrests of dissidents as aberrations against a general trend of liberalization.
What the present crackdown shows is that those who doubted the Communist Party's sincerity were right all along. Beijing bestowed these freedoms as favors but reserved the right to take them back, as it is doing now. The Party would do well to remember that if it wants to pick a fight with China's Christians, it can have no faith that it will ultimately prevail.