Religious persecution has emerged as a hot political topic in Washington and a new bone of contention with China. So China's leader Jiang Zemin, now visiting the United States, can expect to hear plenty of criticism from some American church groups.
Adding to the concern are the arrests of two prominent church leaders in recent weeks. Earlier this month, authorities in Heibei Province detained Bishop Su Zhimin, a leader of the unauthorized branch of the Roman Catholic Church in China. In September, Peter Xu, a veteran Protestant evangelist, was sentenced to 10 years in a reeducation camp for disturbing the public order.
The message of growing religious intolerance in China is being fanned by books, congressional hearings, and news articles. Typical was a recent cover story in the influential opinion magazine The New Republic, which stated flatly, "In China, persecution [of Christians] is reaching historic levels, its highest pitch since Mao's Cultural Revolution."
Most Christians who monitor the situation in China closely say they have not detected any special crackdown of late. Comparisons with the 1966 to 1969 Cultural Revolution, when all religion was banned and churches closed or turned into warehouses, are considered absurd.
"I don't believe that there is, in general, any increased pressure on religion in China," says Philip Wickeri, a Hong Kong-based official with the Amity Foundation, a development agency linked to Protestant churches in China.
He says, "There are continuing problems, but I don't think anything is worse."
And the problems? Chinese authorities treat the two main branches of Christianity differently. Beijing recognizes as legitimate only the domestic Chinese Catholic Patriotic Society. Those bishops loyal to the Vatican are often arrested and jailed.
Beijing says this situation won't change until Rome recognizes China as the legitimate government of Taiwan.
There is no official Protestant church in China as such, although Protestants are encouraged to join what's called the Three-Self Protestant Movement and the China Christian Council. However, legally, the only requirement (which applies to all religions) is for the individual churches to register with the local branch of the state Religious Affairs Bureau.
Some Christian leaders in Hong Kong say there is an increasing tendency to brand Protestant churches that decline to register as "cults." "The government is wary about the rapid growth of conservative evangelicals in China," said one leader in Hong Kong who declined to be named.
For example, Mr. Xu's crime was to encourage people to cry hysterically as they worship and pray as a sign that they have received the Holy Spirit.
His real crime in the eyes of the authorities, however, may have been to encourage people to leave their places of work because he preached that the end of the world is near.
China's director of religious affairs, Ye Xiaowen, has likened Xu's "Full Scope" church to the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, or the Aum Shinri Kyo, which was responsible for the nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system in March 1994.
Director Ye asserts that governments all over the world persecute such cults.
Chinese officials are aware of the growing criticism and have taken some trouble to defend their policy on religion. Ye issued a lengthy defense in the official People's Daily, and he also defended religious tolerance in China during a recent trip to the US.
The government recently issued a white paper on "Freedom of Religious Beliefs in China," claiming that the country has 100 million followers of various faiths. However, the report could not resist making a strong attack on Western Christianity's "inglorious role in modern Chinese history," blaming Christians for everything from the Opium Wars of the mid-1800s to abetting Japan's invasion in the 1930s.
That prompted the Vatican news agency to brand the report a "distortion of the truth."
In the past, the China debate in the US has pitted mainly secular human rights groups against the business community. In such conflicts, the business community's desire to continue trade ties with China usually prevailed.
Now the human rights activists are gaining new allies, including some conservative Republicans who see China as the next "evil empire," and thus a plank for Republican Party foreign policy.
It would be easy to overstate the influence that these groups have on America's China policy.
Several elements of the religious right, including Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council, joined forces with labor unions to oppose President Clinton's decision last June to extend China's Most Favored Nation trading status for another year.
Nevertheless, the president's action was sustained in the Republican-controlled Congress by a comfortable majority.
Fewer Bibles Slip Into China
T has been "worship as usual" for Hong Kong's Christian churches in the four months since the former British colony was handed to China.
But the number of Christians willing to smuggle Bibles into China has fallen dramatically since the July 1 handover, says Dennis Balcombe, who runs a Bible-smuggling operation called "Donkeys for Jesus." He blames the falloff on the "prophets of doom" in the Western media who have painted a grim picture of Hong Kong under the Communists.
"With such coverage, it is no wonder that people are no longer enthusiastic about coming to Hong Kong. Thus tens of millions of Christians who desperately need Bibles have been denied them," says Mr. Balcombe of the Revival Christian Church.
During most of 1996 and the first half of 1997, as many as 100 Christian "tourists" a day worked as "donkeys," carrying suitcases full of Bibles and other religious materials into China from Hong Kong. Since the handover, the number has dropped to a few dozen a week, Balcombe says.
It is legal to take Bibles into China for personal use, but it is not lawful to import them (or any other unauthorized literature) in bulk.
Ironically, Balcombe himself has contributed to the negative impressions that Americans have about religious freedom in China. After being expelled as an unlawful missionary in 1994, Balcombe testified before the US Congress and met with then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher.