The 70th anniversary of China’s Communist revolution, celebrated vigorously this week by its despotic heirs, recalls one of history’s greatest calamities. Had Mao been defeated, China today could resemble Taiwan, prosperous and free. It would be the world’s largest democracy.
Instead, thanks to Mao’s 1949 victory, tens of millions died in his state orchestrated famines, millions more were killed more directly in Communist terror, and hundreds of millions have lived under a police state dictatorship in which everyone must lie to survive.
America has always prayed for and had high hopes for China, which was long seen as the premier missions field. If China were evangelized and turned toward the Gospel, it would in turn transform the world, it was imagined. Missionaries in China were fondly dispatched, supported, esteemed and would themselves, or their children, become influential elites in American opinion making.
The dream of a Protestant, democratic China reflecting modern American values fueled American enthusiasm for Chiang Kai-shek and his USA educated wife, who converted her husband to Methodism. She bewitched American politicians, while he would theoretically rank as one of the Big Four with FDR, Churchill and Stalin. Chiang’s indecision and strategic ineptitude instead made him the Man Who Lost China. The Soviet invasion of Manchuria at the close of WWII, in its war against Japan, urged by the USA, which was not yet confident that atom bombs would suffice, had also empowered Mao.
Chiang’s defeat and retreat to Taiwan, leaving over one quarter of humanity under Communism, had horrified America, still reeling from Stalin’s shift from ally to chief enemy, and his seizure of East Europe. China was no longer a projection of America’s loftiest hopes for a christianized and democratic partner in world leadership. It had become enemy #2 after the USSR, but more populous, more mysterious, more unpredictable, more sinister and, in the Korea War, more lethal.
After the Communist conquest, the Chiangs’ Methodist pastor, who had not escaped to Taiwan, was forced by China’s new masters to publicly renounce his former parishioners. It symbolized the impending persecution Christianity would suffer in the new China, which has continued for 70 years, fluctuating between extreme and almost tolerable.
There were several million Christians in China in 1949, the fruit of over a century of Western missions. (In the first millennium Nestorian Christianity had thrived in parts of China and then was nearly eradicated.) Under Communism, churches were closed, the visible adherents dispersed and/or imprisoned. This dispersal, intended to kill Christianity, instead spread its seed, fueling the revival to come.
China’s Communist rulers suppressed religion and then channeled it through state controlled agencies, with Christians by the 1970s expected to operate through the official Protestant and Catholic structures that subordinated faith to Party authority. Denominations were long since abolished. But even distilled through state propaganda the Gospel in official churches gained sincere believers, while the more fervent worshipped in growing and independent house churches, whose dramatic expansion China’s confident masters had not foreseen.
Nixon’s 1972 visit to China began America’s rapprochement with Beijing, which was only then concluding the last murderous stages of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. William Buckley, on the trip as a lonely conservative commentator, disdained the enthusiastic obsequiousness that his fellow Americans lavished on the Chinese dictatorship, whose mysteries were seductive. Nixon reveled in his diplomatic coup and saw China as a new strategic partner against the Soviets. He rejoiced in meeting Mao, who by then was elderly, ponderous and had ceased bathing or brushing his teeth, an odious red Jabba the Hutt, who could still exude malevolent charm.
Until his death Nixon saw his China opening as his greatest presidential accomplishment. It was a necessary step in containing and ultimately defeating the Soviets. But it also opened nearly four decades of presidential ingratiation towards Beijing, for initially strategic and later economic reasons, which typically included silence about human rights. George H.W. Bush’s reluctance to react to the Tiananmen Square massacre with public outage was sadly one prime example. But this reluctance to criticize is also rooted in America’s dream for China.
There has always been the hope, latent in American missionary zeal for China, that whatever the brutalities and oppressions of today, the overall trajectory is toward an Asian partner that shares American political and spiritual goals. Market fueled economic growth and the expansion of Christianity in China had seemed like unfolding fulfillment of this dream. Beijing’s recent renewed repression of religion and other authoritarian progressions, enhanced by refined police state technology, and now even aimed increasingly at Hong Kong, have further sullied this dream in the eyes of many. China will always be China, cry the Realists. There will always be an emperor who crushes any perceived dissent in defense of a certain ideal of national unity. Cohesion requires obedience, the current Communist emperor believes, as have nearly all his predecessors across millennia.
It’s a new development that the emperor now thinks he must purchase obedience and cohesion with economic growth. Perhaps this shift is the partial creation of some tacit social contract between ruler and subjects. Perhaps it’s a small fulfillment of America’s dream for China to be more like America. The Hong Kong demonstrators who wave American flags and sing “The Star Spangled Banner” seem to share and incarnate that dream.
The last chapter is not yet written on China, and it’s premature to dismiss China as locked in its own captive historical cycle. Its swelling middle class may yet grow restive. Hong Kong’s defiance, even if suppressed, may plant long term seeds of wider political ambition. Chinese Christianity, always on a rollercoaster of fluctuating persecutions, is reputedly now one of the world’s largest, even if only 5-8% of Chinese. The Gospel’s expansion always has political implications, often challenging to despots, as Beijing knows.
God certainly has a plan for China. And possibly that plan ultimately overlaps with America’s longtime dream for China, in which the Chinese are free, prosperous, and serving their Creator. This week’s celebration of 70 years of Communist oppression is far from the last word, which ultimately belongs to the Eternal Word.