WASHINGTON -- Over the last five Sundays, more than 100 members of the Shouwang Church in Beijing have been detained to prevent them from meeting. It is a confrontation between state and conscience with broad implications for the future of China.
A member of the church, speaking to me anonymously, described the congregation as mainly "intellectuals and professionals." What began as a Bible study group for university students has grown to 1,000 worshipers -- the Chinese equivalent of a mega-church. "The Christians are very serious Christians," she told me. "They are not political at all. They respect the government, love the country, respect authority. But they want to follow God, to engage in normal Christian practice." And they find such practice impossible in China's state-sponsored churches, which were initially designed to keep religion a government-controlled monopoly.
Years of government harassment eventually prevented the Shouwang congregation from renting or buying a building, so it began meeting in the open air. During a police crackdown on Easter Sunday, hundreds of congregants were detained in their homes and more than three dozen taken into custody. Pastors and church leaders remain under house arrest to prevent further services. Members have been pressured by their employers and university professors to renounce their association with Shouwang.
Such mistreatment is not widespread in China, where 50 million to 70 million people meet regularly in house churches. But the Shouwang Church is the symbol of an increasingly educated, urban Chinese Christianity. Their treatment is a signal to the house church movement, and could be an example followed by authorities and police elsewhere.
The motives of Chinese authorities are, as usual, murky. Revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East may be causing heightened suspicion of any form of defiance or dissent. But this attitude is not new. The Chinese government has a long-standing fear of any organization with sources of unity and belief outside of the state -- not only of political organizations but also of potentially political organizations. And Protestant house churches have become the largest non-governmental organization in China.
As is often the case, government repression has produced the opposite of its intended effect. The Shouwang Church, which only wanted to be left alone, is now raising larger issues of legal principle. Its pastors, joined by other house church leaders, have sent a petition to the National People's Congress, calling for an investigation of Shouwang's treatment. But the petition also requests broader legal protections for religious expression, based on the Chinese constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. What was a regulatory matter has now been raised as a legislative issue -- making it an unavoidably political debate.
This petition has the potential of being one of the founding documents of a new China. It reads, in part: "We believe that liberty of religious faith is the first and foremost freedom in human society, is a universal value in the international community, and is the foundation for other political and property rights. Without the universal and equitable liberty of religious faith, a multi-ethnic, multi-religion country would not be able to form a peaceful civil society, or bring about social stability, ethnic solidarity or the nation's prosperity."
The Chinese government does not respond particularly well to outside pressure on human rights. But this is a Chinese argument addressed to the Chinese people. Christian leaders are contending that their faith contributes to the common good. In a society beset by rapid globalization and urbanization, faith is a source of charity and compassion. In a society where traditional values are undermined by materialism, faith is a source of ethics. "China has a long history of belief in moral systems instead of transcendence," argues the member of the Shouwang Church I interviewed. "But the moral system has crashed. The society has become materialistic and money-oriented. If money is the only goal, people ignore principle and morality."
House church leaders argue that justice, fairness and inclusion are ultimately more stable than oppression -- the real lesson that Chinese authorities should be drawing from recent events in the Middle East. America will not determine the success of this argument, but we depend, along with many others, on its outcome. A fearful, repressive China will be a fearful, unpredictable global power. A China that recognizes the rights of its own citizens will be an improved international citizen. And no right is more fundamental than the right of conscience.