This is a Bad Thing?



or The Root of Democracy is the Spirit of Christ

An excerpt from Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power by David Aikman, Chapter 13: “Artists, Writers and Academics.”

This post is dedicated to the memory of the false premise of Christopher Hitchens.

The late 1980s in China was a heady period of pushing the limits on many fronts, especially in culture and law, and in this environment of creativity and new ideas, a daring, six-part documentary was aired on national television in the spring of 1988. River Elegy was co-produced by Yan Zhiming, a prominent documentary producer,and its theme was that popylar symbols of China’s historic greatness, such as the Great Wall and the Yangzee River, should be regarded as emblems of captivity and restriction. River Elegy argued that they had hindered China from access to the great progress and discoveries taking place in other parts of the world, expecially in the West. The final episode of the series, “Ocean Blue,” shows the Yellow River emptying itelf into the Pacific as an emblem of China engaging with the outside world openly and confidently. “The dream of River Elegy,” Yuan wrote later, “was born out of concern and hope for China.”

That sentiment wasn’t shared by many of the old reactionaries still powerful in the Communist Party and the People’s Liberation Army. While students, intellectuals, and many others hailed River Elegy for pointing to the new, more open, pro-Western direction China should be taking, old-guard revolutionaries were outraged, accusing Yuan of “vilifying the Chinese people and the symbols of the Yellow River and the Great Wall.” When the authorities after the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen massacre began looking around for people to blame for the weeks of student-led pro-democracy protects, Yuan Zhiming was one obvious target. But he succeeded in eluding a national search, escaping finally to the United States. At Princeton University, to which many reform-minded Chinese intellectuals flocked, he encountered a group of committed Chinese Christians who were pro-democratic but who did not believe that democracy, in and of itself, would solve all of China’s problems.

Neither Yuan nor his collaborators on River Elegy had ever been to the West before fleeing China. On his arrival in 1989, Yuan was shocked and disillusioned; he heard about crime, suicide, homelessness, declining moral standards, and family breakdown. Yuan began to read the Bible, became friends with many Chinese Christians, and was baptized in April 1992. He then decided to deepen his knowledge of his new faith by attending the Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, where he studied Christianity in greater detail during the 1990s.

Yuan never doubted that China, for its own basic health, must sooner or later become democratic. But based partly on what he saw in the United States, Yuan also came to believe that a successful democracy in any country had to be constructed on more than tried and true institutions. “If a person lacks a firm and overcoming faith,” he wrote later, “he or she is easily tossed around on the sea of life. No democracy can be built on this.” He admitted, however, that many of his fellow dissidents, including those who had worked with him on River Elegy, didn’t share this perspective.

Democracy is not merely an institution nor simply a concept, but a profound structure of faith. At times I have called this to the attention of my friends in the democracy movement who have been in America for quite some time, but continue to lack a deep understanding of democracy. I told them that just because they have read Montesquieu and Locke and have seen an American presidential election, it does not mean that they have found the fountain of democracy. The root of democracy is the spirit of Christ.

In retrospect, as Yuan told British journalist Ian Buruma, he thought that River Elegy was superficial because it left out “the most important thing, the core of Western civilisation, which is Christianity. Without that, you cannot have democracy or human rights.”

While many Chinese dissidents would disagree, the idea became more and more powerful in Yuan Zhiming’s mind. He set out to produce a new TV documentary, in many ways even more ambitious than River Elegy. This was a multi-part series that aired for the first time in Taiwan in 2000 and was spread throughout China and Southeast Asia in VCD format. The English title, China’s Confession, doesn’t do justice to the Chinese name Shen Zhou, which is an ancient name for China, approximately “Land of God” or “God’s country.” Yuan — whose seminary research focussed on connections between the dao of Chinese philosopher Lao Zi’s boo, the Dao De Jing, and the Biblical sense of God, the Holy Spirit, or Christ — interprets the whole of Chinese history as a tragic letdown from a previous era when, he says, the Chinese worshipped God (shangdi in Chinese) and sought to live moral lives. The narrative of China’s Confession tells us:

This was the ancient land of God where people believed in God, feared heaven, obeyed the Tao (i.e., the dao of Daoism), and worshipped God… Our ancestors held firm their belief, which is: the justice of God will prevail, nothing could escape the sight of God, and sinners will receive their punishment. This belief is the moral power o promoting the good and discarding the wrong. it is the moral cornerstone of an ideal universal society. It is the dream of Confucius.

According to Yuan’s view of Chinese history, the real downturn in the behaviour of Chinese toward one another occurred about 2,500 years ago, when China was plunged into a turbulent era of internal regional warfare called the “Spring and Autumn” period (770-476 BC).

Leaving aside the historical validity of Yuan’s argument that the Chinese worshipped God at the origins of their civilisation and lived in an upright moral universe, China’s Confession attempts to account for the fact that despite China’s cultural early greatness, God’s revelation of Himself as recorded in the Bible took place in the Middle East, not in China. Like many Chinese intellectuals, Yuan sought a moral historiography of China that suggested God hadn’t simply bypassed Chinese civilisation. According to Yuan, God did actually set the moral foundation in China for what could have been a righteous and benevolent civilisation.

Well financed by overseas Chinese Christian backers, Yuan used dramatic excerpts from several historical dramas about ancient China to illustrate his point. He flew in one of Beijing’s top TV documentary narrators for several days to help out. Toward the end of the documentary, there is news footage of Chairman Mao at different stages of the revolution, including the fanatical Red Guard idolatry of him in 1966. Aired on TV across Southeast Asia as well as Taiwan, China’s Confession is unlikely to be released legally in China in the near future. But China’s Confession has been shown secretly to Christian groups all over China. Those Chinese Christians I spoke to were full of praise for what Yuan was trying to do. They said they knew a number of peole who had become Christian after watching the documentary. Yuan is also an accomplished preacher; tapes and videos of his sermons are in wide circulation across China and are enthusiastically received.

Yuan’s objective is very ambitious. “Our goal,” he explained in his modest home in Petaluma, California, “is to change the perception of China by the Chinese. If you go to any city and ask the average person, 99 percent of the people don’t understand Christianity. They don’t even know what the question is. Some people in China don’t even know that there are Christians in China.”

yuanzhimingTo counter this lacuna in basic knowledge, Yuan in 2001 embarked on an even more ambitious documentary a multi-part series on Christianity in China. Making many secret trips in and out of China that year, Yuan took his film crew to Christian communities the length and breadth of China. At one point, early in 2002, they filmed a Christian rock concert in the city of Daqing, close to the Russian border. Having a total of some four hundred hours of interview and narrative film, Yuan’s latest project is called The Cross. It seeks to explain to ordinary Chinese what major contributions Christians have made to Chinese life in the past century or more. He said in 2002, “We want to let government leaders see the movie. The most important thing is to make people realise that Christianity is related to Chinese culture. It is not a Western religion. The main purpose is to tell the Chinese people that the God of the Bible is the God of the Chinese people.” Yuan would like to have the English-language version of The Cross shown on American TV.

The Cross was released in both the United States and China in October 2003 and immediately achieved what Yuan had hoped: it attracted the attention of the Chinese authorities. The State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) showed the documentary to several of it high-ranking officials, and also distributed it throughout the country to lower-ranking officials in charge of religious work with orders that everyone watch it. The intent was to put them on alert to the alarming trend of the spread of Christianity throughout the country and society. According to one Three-Self [government approved] pastor, however, some low-level Communist Party cadres who watched The Cross were perplexed. “This is a bad thing?” he quoted some as asking in response to the stories of repentant criminals, healed marriages, honest businessmen and well-behaved teenagers as a result of conversion to Christian faith.

David Aikman is a former Beijing Bureau Chief for Time Magazine.

Share Button

One Response to “This is a Bad Thing?”