Church-State Tensions and Christianity in China

President Bush worshipped at a state-sanctioned church in Beijing Sunday morning, a gesture meant to encourage greater religious freedom in China. Debbie Elliott takes a closer look at the practice of Christianity in China with Carol Lee Hamrin, co-editor of God and Caesar in China: Policy Implications of Church-State Tensions.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

To find out more about the practice of Christianity in China, we turn to Dr. Carol Lee Hamrin. She edited "God and Caesar in China: Policy Implications of Church-State Tensions."

Welcome to the program.

Dr. CAROL LEE HAMRIN (Editor, "God and Caesar in China"): Hello.

ELLIOTT: Of people who identify themselves as religious believers in China, how many are Christians?

Dr. HAMRIN: Official numbers are around 20 million, and the estimates that include unregistered Christians go up to 70 million, so somewhere in between.

ELLIOTT: Communist China has very let in the way of Communist ideology these days. Is religion filling that vacuum?

Dr. HAMRIN: Yes, along with a lot of other things. Materialism is certainly filling the vacuum to some extent. But I've actually been surprised at how even some of the young, new middle class in the cities realize that that's not enough and continue to be increasingly interested in exploring the spiritual aspect of life.

ELLIOTT: President Bush attended a state-sanctioned church today in Beijing. The churches that are sanctioned by China, do they have to make compromises in the way they operate in order to have that authority?

Dr. HAMRIN: Yes, and that's one of the problems. The government regulations make it very difficult to register. There are a lot of hurdles that you have to overcome to register, and so many of these groups really don't want to meet those conditions. You know, you have to list all your members and all your assets, and you have to accept government authority over fairly intrusive decisions about how your church operates. In terms of actual preaching and teaching, however, there is not that much control over content.

ELLIOTT: What is the risk to an underground congregation?

Dr. HAMRIN: Basically, if you're in a very small group and you're just meeting in house churches either in the cities or the countryside, you're fine. That's acceptable. It's kind of under the radar screen. And that's what happens. I mean, more and more thousands and thousands--even just in Beijing, probably 5,000 fellowship groups--meeting.

But the most dangerous thing is if you try to create an association, a large organization that crosses provincial lines and city lines. This is when the government really is cracking down. And it's not just religious groups but non-profit organizations of all sorts. The government is fearful that if they could really start growing and associating in large numbers nationwide, that they would face opposition.

ELLIOTT: President Hu told President Bush today that China has a, quote, "unswerving commitment" to development of democracy and human rights. Is that a significant statement?

Dr. HAMRIN: Well, it's always significant when they repeat this and do it in public and do it to President Bush. You know, in some sense, that's a pledge to the international community that he will work on those. The reason it's not astounding or surprising or new, though, is that the government actually put into the state constitution an amendment declaring this goal of protecting human rights. However, at the time, it seemed to me that it was something that this leadership did instead of promulgating officially the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

ELLIOTT: Carol Lee Hamrin is a research professor at George Mason University.

Thank you.

Dr. HAMRIN: You're welcome.

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