Saturday, October 17th 2015
Over the years, visits to other nations by U.S. Speakers – once known as American Participants, or “Amparts” – have been a staple of Public Diplomacy programming. In 1999, Alan D. Hertzke, the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation Presidential Professor of Political Science at the University of Oklahoma, visited China for three weeks at the invitation of the U.S. Information Service. In an article in the March, 2000, issue of First Things, “What I Learned in China,” he wrote at length about his visit.
“At least a hundred Chinese college students packed into the small auditorium of the American consulate in Shenyang, in the heart of old Manchuria, to hear my lecture on the civic role of churches in America,” he began. And “my lectures developed the theme that one cannot understand American politics without comprehending American religion.”
It’s an important article, worth reading in full, for at least four reasons. First, Hertzke explained many insights on the place of religion in American society that he shared with Chinese audiences. Second, during the visit he learned of China’s own debates on religion and meaning in society. Third, he frankly acknowledged how U.S. speakers may express personal opinions and connect with local people in a personal way. Fourth, his visit illustrated how an American expert may know more about a society where information is tightly controlled than do its own citizens. Here are just a few highlights of an article rich with insights.
Because the subject was religion and the U.S. State Department had just issued a report critical of religious persecution in China, these lectures often evolved into extended discussions, often debates, about the religious situation in China, the nature of a free civil society, the concept of religious freedom, and the meaning of faith in the modern world. Plentiful opportunities for quiet, one-on-one conversations also allowed me to hear personal accounts, whether of suffering during the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen crackdown, or, with striking regularity, of the continuing struggles of religious believers in this one-party state. These encounters -- some of the most poignant I have experienced as a scholar -- opened a window into Chinese life and thought that I could not have anticipated. * * * * *
Wonderfully revealing also were questions about American religion. What does the American government do about religious groups that engage in antigovernment activities? How does the American government protect people from cults? How does the American government deal with bad religions? Many found my laissez faire answers unsatisfactory, and some even argued that China had a better way because it protected people from bad religions. My standard response, which occasionally elicited chuckles, was that as a typical American I apparently trusted my government a lot less than they trusted theirs to make the judgment about what is good or bad religion.
An excellent illustration of this was the response to the crackdown on Falun Gong, which involved the arrest of thousands, the burning of books, and a propaganda blitz of immense proportions. China has a long history of secret societies that undermined rulers, so the Communist response was perhaps understandable, if unfortunate. But almost everyone I talked with in China viewed the government ban as appropriate. * * * * *
Another lesson I brought home concerns American diplomatic efforts to raise the issue of religious persecution in China. Today in China access to information is largely limited to the state-run press. And it reports that the Dalai Lama is a political hack, that China rescued Tibet from feudalism, that the Falun Gong is a dangerous cult, and that good Chinese Christians belong to patriotic churches. One of my interpreters, in fact, had trouble translating “house church” because she had never heard of the term. If the U.S. government does not raise the problem of religious persecution in China, therefore, who will?
Ironically, we in open societies have better access to certain kinds of information on the religious situation in China than most Chinese. The arrest of Zhang Rongliang, for example, leader of the major unregistered Protestant movement in Henan, was reported widely in Christian circles in the U.S., but not in China. Thus, when I used as a lecture prop his photograph from a Focus on the Family publication, people in the audience invariably wanted to read the story, which was fresh news to them. If American officials continue to raise these issues, at least the Chinese authorities know someone is watching what they do.
What most Chinese know of the United States, unfortunately, is also largely what the state-run press reports. From city to city, for example, I kept getting questions about religion and mass suicides. What was going on? Finally I was told by a U.S. consulate official that in the wake of Beijing’s banning of Falun Gong, the party organs blitzed the airwaves with footage of Jonestown, Heaven’s Gate, and Waco, to show how cults induce suicides, thus justifying the government’s crackdown. In correcting their impression that mass suicide was a common trait of American religion, I tried to indicate how precious religious freedom is to Americans, and why American leaders raise the issue with Chinese officials.
Foreign policy realists, of course, may chafe at the prospect of religion “muddying” America’s international posture. But religious freedom is central to the protection of human rights and democratic evolution around the world; thus pressing the issue would seem to be in our national interest. Moreover, as mandated by the International Religious Freedom Act, which Congress passed unanimously in 1998, the promotion of religious freedom as a universal human right is now a “basic aim” of American foreign policy. And one of the legislation’s first fruits was a hard-hitting report on China’s suppression of religion, which will be followed by recommendations from an independent commission for specific presidential action.
Policy makers, to be sure, will differ on what blend of trade, engagement, and sanctions might promote greater religious freedom in China. My conversations with believers, at least, suggested that independent religious communities constitute a signal hope for a genuine civil society in China. * * * * *
The final lesson I brought home from China is that the world is watching us. As the globe’s indispensable nation and superpower, the United States symbolizes democratic governance, human rights, and free civil society. Thus many people abroad are keenly interested in how our experiment fares, and they pay attention to signs of decadence and disorder in our culture. From Chinese audiences I heard about school shootings, family breakdown, and President Clinton’s misbehavior. And when the American government messes up, as it did at Waco, that has greater implications than we imagine.