In previous lecture tours in China, I worked on Sunday. It is a day when Chinese teachers can come in from surrounding regions to hear about American teaching. But this last trip I found myself free on the last Sunday. I asked my host if we could attend a church in Beijing and he said sure, no problem.
I had seen many churches while traveling, from a small World War II era church in Yangling to a brand new Catholic Church in Yichang near the Three Gorges Dam. And a church dominates the skyline of Wuhan. And religious belief is growing fast. A survey by professors at East China Normal University found a third of those surveyed described themselves as religious, providing an estimate of about 200 million Buddhists and Taoists and about 40 million Christians. The church we visited was a brand new white building in Haidian District in the middle of Beijing, a five story cross in its entrance and “Christian Church” carved in ten-foot-tall letters atop the building. It was a multimillion dollar building on choice business property.
The service was a standard evangelical service. Much singing. No alter call. Nearly all in attendance were young college students, mostly female, from Beijing University and other schools. Were there secret police in the congregation? Probably not. I looked around. If there were, they were completely caught up in the singing and worship.
After the service, I asked several students if I could look at their Bibles. They carried the New International Version with English and Chinese columns side-by-side, printed in Nanjing. The Amity Printing Company, a joint partnership between United Bible Societies and Chinese firms, cannot keep up with demand. They are installing a new high-speed printing press to produce one million Bibles a month.
This openness appears common in the big cities like Beijing. However, in more rural areas, Chinese students indicated they had to meet in homes. The English-speaking churches in some regions were limited to Westerners-only. And yes, churches must register their membership.
So, is there religious freedom in China?
Their Constitution is closely modeled after ours.
But there is a slight difference in how “freedom” plays out in this crowded land. A representative from the Chinese Embassy in the U.S. put it this way: “The Chinese Constitution specifies that the citizens in China enjoy full freedom in religious belief and that no administrative organs, institutions or individuals can force or forbid conversion to a certain religion....”
So a big difference is that, in China, you cannot try to aggressively convert others.
You can not proselytize.
You may believe as you wish, but you cannot try to force your beliefs on others.
This may seem a violation of “rights” to us but the believe-as-you-wish-but-no-badgering-your neighbor is their view of freedom.
When I talk with my colleagues, some of whom are party secretaries, they point out that nearly all the violence in the world seems to center on religious differences: Jerusalem, Beirut, Belfast, Kosovo, Iraq. I cannot argue with that.
They also point out that we have limits on our speech: we can’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater. They see aggressive proselytizing as shouting fire.
And no one can deny that China is a crowded theater.