The Common Good
May-June 1997

A Bridge Between East and West

by Mary-Margaret Patterson | May-June 1997

Hong Kong churches prepare for July1.

As the clock ticks closer to China's July 1 repossession of Hong Kong, one spotlight in the West is on how nervous the island's Christian minority is about maintaining its freedoms. The concerns are real and the international community must help Hong Kong be vigilant about any abuses. But many, if not most, Hong Kong Christians are also suffused with hope and a deep sense of mission that God calls them to build a unique bridge between West and East.

In the past decade, Hong Kong saw a pastoral exodus and some concerned groups, particularly in the Roman Catholic Church, are breaking into "cell groups," perhaps as insurance for survival should the climate for Christians sour. But before anyone succumbs to catacomb mentality, it would help immensely if Westerners shed the outmoded rhetoric of the Cold War with its emphasis on "underground" churches and "us" vs. "them." Without being Pollyannas, we need to look hard at Chinese Christianity on the mainland today before wringing our hands over prospects in Hong Kong.

Since 1994, the number of organized Protestant churches in China recognized by the government has grown from about 9,500 to more than 12,000. These churches must be run by Chinese, not foreign groups. Though legally Chinese churches must register with the government, this requirement has not kept them from growing. Anyone who has witnessed throngs crowding around an overflowing Chinese church to accept Communion through the open windows cannot forget the sight or downplay its meaning, even if Christians are only 1 percent of the 1.2 billion people in China.

In addition, there are more than 30,000 so-called "house churches," more properly termed "meeting points." They meet openly and cooperate with the organized churches, often borrowing their facilities and getting Bible supplies from the Amity Printing Press in Nanjing, the government-approved joint venture with the United Bible Societies. Many have built their own large sanctuaries and have their own designated evangelists.

Other Christian groups meet privately. Though urged to register, many apparently are tolerated if they stay out of "politics" and away from foreign evangelists. Sometimes the authorities harry them. No matter how this offends our commitment to individual rights, it may help to better understand China as a communal culture where consensus is expected and, as the saying goes, "the nail that sticks up gets hammered down."

Repression of Christians, however, is not the norm today. Foreigners who can be considered missionaries, and Catholics in particular, have the most difficulties—the latter because of the split between the approved Catholic Church, which is forbidden to recognize the pope as sovereign, and those who remain loyal to the Vatican. Slow change appears even here as approved Catholic churches now openly pray for the pope.

Evangelism by foreigners remains illegal, but foreign Christians increasingly do more in mainland China, including teaching in the seminaries. They don’t behave like old-style missionaries, but they provide witness and a link in the growing openness to the outside world that is transforming China.

INDISPENSABLE IN THAT ongoing transformation will be the return of Hong Kong to China. Over the long term, Christians in both places expect greater cooperation. Already, Hong Kong Christians have been receptive to the appeals of some mainland churches for funds to build much-needed new buildings.

When the mainland and Hong Kong become "one country" after July 1, the government promises "two systems"—one for China proper and another for Hong Kong that sounds very much like business as usual. During an invited visit to Hong Kong last fall, the head of the government’s Religious Affairs Bureau asked for "mutual respect" for each system’s differences. While making it plain that Hong Kong Christians must abide by the rules for aliens when they engage in religious activities on the mainland even after July 1—i.e. apparently no proselytizing—he assured the Hong Kong religious community that the government would not apply to Hong Kong "any religious policy or rules and regulations that are in effect in China."

How whole-heartedly can Beijing be believed, in light of China’s historical behavior toward Christians and its human rights record?

We must first recognize there are good intentions and committed Christians on both sides of the border. The level of trust varies among Hong Kong Christians, and they disagree on where religion stops and the state begins. One Anglican minister guesses that 20 percent of freedoms will be muted or lost. Clearly, it boils down to a matter of faith, but who is better equipped to gamble on the risks of faith than believers?

Christians and others in Hong Kong pray that they will continue to enjoy the freedoms guaranteed in the Basic Law for the next 50 years, as promised. But what about after 50 years? A telling reply came back recently from a United Front Communist Party official: "In 50 years, China itself will have changed."

MARY-MARGARET PATTERSON, a writer and media consultant based in Chevy Chase, Maryland, lived in Nanjing, China, in 1990-91.

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