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.