Monday, January 24, 2005

January 24, 2005

11:28 PM Some final thoughts on our trip to China … I enjoyed my time in Beijing and I greatly enjoyed the Chinese people we met. We did not feel a single bit of anti-American feeling. To the contrary, the young people especially seem to love everything about America, from its sport stars to its music to its fashions to the economic prosperity brought by so much American investment in China. China is a country in transition and no one can say what the end result will be. Downtown Beijing looks a great deal like any modern city anywhere. I think there are more McDonalds in downtown Beijing than in downtown Chicago. Ditto for KFC. Wal-Mart has already come to China. When you watch Chinese TV, many of the shows look and feel very Western. But consider this. In a city of 13 million people (millions more if you count the larger region), you can find almost no evidence of religion. During our visit, we didn’t see any church buildings at all. The guidebooks speak of a few historic church buildings, but they are few and far between. Imagine Chicago or Philadelphia or New Orleans or New York City with no churches at all. None. And imagine a society where religion is not discussed in public. And imagine a society where you are not free to voice criticism of the government. In America we talk endlessly about politics and religion. We argue about the impact of the “values voters” last November, and about how much President Bush’s faith influences his policy decisions. As divided as America may be, at least we are free to voice our opinions. Last week I spoke with a Chinese man who may or may not be a Christian. For various reasons, you approach all discussion of “religion” very carefully. He told me that he believes “religion” is good for a nation because religion provide a moral foundation. China needs that foundation, he said, and it does not have it today. “I have a Bible in Chinese and English and I read it,” he told me. “The State cannot tell you what to believe in your heart. And if the State says, ‘Don’t go to church,’ you can have church in your home.” He folded his hands and touched his heart as he spoke those words. Everyone seems to agree that China is opening up in many areas because of the 2008 Olympics. There is hope for greater religious freedom. One man told me that the church in China numbers somewhere between 70-110 million. If that is true, it is the greatest move of God in the last century. Another man spoke of home groups that meet in apartments all across Beijing. To put things in perspective, last year there were 8-10,000 Christian books published in the US. One man told me that they could account for 450 new Christian books in China in the last 20 years. But there is good news. A year ago there were 15 private Christian bookstores in China. Today there are at least 43. Here is something else I was told. Today the window of opportunity in China is opening bit by bit. No one can say how long it will last. Historically these windows have opened and closed in Chinese history. No one knows what will happen after 2008. Meanwhile China continues to have the world’s fastest-growing economy. One final point. Have you ever heard of Zhao Ziyang? Besides being China’s premier in the 1980s, he was sympathetic to the students who demonstrated in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Because he sided with the students, he was placed under house arrest until he died at the age of 85 a week ago. Chinese officials feared there might be mass demonstrations by those who remember what happened when the tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square, killing hundreds and perhaps thousands of students. But it did not happen. Writing in the Taiwan News Online, Todd Crowell summed up China’s dilemma this way:

Zhao is as close to being an “unperson,” to use George Orwell’s phrase from “1984,” as is possible in this modern media age. The People’s Daily announced his death in one paragraph buried on the last page of its first section, just above the weather map. It as was as if the Washington Post had put news of the death of Ronald Reagan on page 24, next to the corset ads.

I found out about his death through the Internet. I also spoke with a man who taught English in Beijing in the spring of 1989. He spoke of those “incredible days” when he and his students went every day and demonstrated in the square, calling for freedom and some form of democracy. On one hand, there is more freedom in Beijing than there was in 1989. An American who has lived there for years said that China is more capitalist than the US. You can see the signs everywhere. When we visited a fancy, multistory shopping center that would not be out of place on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, I told my wife, “Communism didn’t build this. Capitalism did.” China is on the move, make no mistake about that. Change is in the air, and our brief visit served to remind us of how much things have changed in the past few years. As I thought about China, I realized that I truly loved the country and its people. We felt welcomed wherever we went. These words from President Bush’s inaugural address last week ring in my heart:

We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.

New cars, the latest music, the best of the West, and higher salaries can only take you so far. God has placed eternity inside every heart (Ecclesiastes 3:11). There is a “God-shaped vacuum” inside every person. God made us to know Him. He designed us so that we would want to know him, and then he guaranteed we wouldn’t be happy unless he himself fills the void within. Augustine gave us this oft-quoted prayer: “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” I pray that the day of true freedom in Christ will not be far away.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?