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Religion and control in the People's Republic of China

The wind flowed through my hair as I stood at the front of the boat, arms stretched out, marveling at the natural beauty of the Three Gorges as we approached it. A herd of middle-aged Chinese men anxiously pushed their way through the crowd behind me; with cameras clutched in hand, each was eager to have a photo in front of China’s most famous picturesque landmark. Each of them posed in a similar fashion: serious-faced, proud posture, upright, arms pinned to their sides, looking directly into the camera lens.

I traveled through the Three Gorges in the Spring of 2008 when I was working as an English teacher in the coastal city of Qingdao, China, with a few close friends who were also my roommates and colleagues. There were only two other foreigners on the boat, a missionary father and son from America, traveling with a Chinese man who ran the mission in the northwest of China.

The Chinese man had been imprisoned several times. His parents, learned and Christian, had been killed during the Cultural Revolution for their faith and education. In spite of imprisonment and with the knowledge of his parents sacrifice for their faith, he continued to practice his religion.

While Christianity is permitted to some extent now in China, the churches are controlled and services closely monitored. Although my work schedule never afforded me the opportunity to attend services, I was told that as a foreigner I would be required to present my passport.

The real Christian movement in China, however, can’t be found in its churches. Many Christians, disillusioned by state-controlled religion, have gone underground – preferring to meet in households where they have the freedom to practice without scrutiny. A good friend and former student of mine, Qiqi, was one of the many who, frustrated by the regulations imposed by the government, flocked to the underground movement.

Of course, religious suppression does not only affect Christianity. Falun Gong, a spiritual movement founded in China in 1992 which emphasizes morality and promotes a set of physical and breathing exercises to promote health, has also been an extremely contentious issue, and one which I learned to approach with caution.

One person whom I was able to seriously discuss the issue with, my Chinese teacher and good friend, Liu Yan, became very emotional as we talked. On the verge of tears, she explained to me that the leader, promising to heal sick followers, took their money and ran to the U.S. where he was given protection by the U.S. government. While the Chinese government has cracked down on members of the so-called ‘cult’ of Falun Gong, there are still many people who continue to practice the teachings.

Similar to Christianity and Falun Gong, Buddhism has been closely monitored by the government, especially in the religious region of Tibet where many sympathize with the Dalai Lama.

Violations of human rights as they pertain to religion in China are complicated by fervor, rumor, development, occupation, pride and the desire to maintain stability. While there are many unknowns in this complicated equation, there is one strong certainty: In a rapidly developing and economically open China, where people no longer identify with communist dogma, they will turn increasingly towards religion.

As stated by Chinese citizen Xun Jinzhen in the UK newspaper Telegraph about the rise of Christianity in China, “We have very few people who believe in communism as a faith, so there’s an emptiness in their hearts.”

Eventually, the government will have no choice but to concede to the people – albeit to a varying extent.

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