Washington By instinct and training, we journalists are suckers for political dissidents. Their struggles are the ultimate underdog stories, with prison terms or even death as the stakes. Editors reinforce reporters' instincts by awarding prime display to the act of protest in its many forms.
By instinct and training, we journalists are skeptics about religious activists. Their appeals are seen in newsrooms as special pleadings from organized interest groups. Editors reinforce reporters' instincts to treat religion politely but suspiciously. Ours is a secular trade honoring information more than faith.
This professional dichotomy ran through my mind during a recent conversation here with Yu Jie, a Chinese writer who says his political opposition to the Beijing dictatorship is deeply rooted in Christian faith. Yu insisted to me that Christianity will play the decisive role in bringing to China the freedoms that political protesters died demanding in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Yu made the same points two days later to President Bush in a White House meeting that suggested that even a faith-based president also can be uneasy with removing the walls between dissident politics and religious worship. When Yu steered the conversation to that connection in China, the president shifted to other topics, according to the notes of one participant in the May 11 meeting.
Bush did not shy from talking about his own religious experiences in the little-noticed encounter, which also was attended by Vice President Dick Cheney. But when Yu appealed for public support for China's underground Christian movement and urged Bush to avoid "the mistakes made at the Yalta meeting" of 1945, Bush responded, according to the detailed notes: "Are you married? Do you have kids?"
Bush no doubt was following diplomatic protocol. He may not want to risk new frictions right now with President Hu Jintao, who was embarrassed by a tirade from a Falun Gong protester on the White House lawn in April. And later in their conversation, Bush agreed to Yu's suggestion that Christian dissidents be invited to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing more often.
But the president's caution also seemed to reflect the difficulties that politicians, journalists and other citizens are having in coming to terms with an era in which religion has again become the driving engine of world politics.
A gathering struggle for the soul of Islam has triggered war across the Middle East and Central Asia. Right-wing fundamentalists are seen throughout Europe and much of Asia as dominating U.S. politics today. And according to Yu and others, the most important political challenge that China's communist leaders have faced since the Tiananmen protests comes from the two rapidly growing but antagonistic religious movements: the Christian dissidents and followers of Falun Gong.
"Tens of millions of Chinese are becoming 'house church' Christians," says Yu, 33, who was briefly arrested two years ago for speaking out about human rights. His books and other writings are banned in mainland China although published in Hong Kong. "House church" Christians worship in private in small numbers without sanction from the government.
"We are essentially different from the democratic fighters in the past because we have guidance from God. We want to bring changes to China through the love and justice of God and through nonviolent means," he said in language that none of the Tiananmen dissidents I interviewed in the square in 1989 and afterward in exile ever used.
Yu's activism began in 1989 at age 16. He watched first in awe as millions of students and workers filled the streets to demand political change and then in horror as many of them were slaughtered by Chinese military units to end the protests.
"After that there was only despair about politics," Yu said. "The choice my generation seemed to have was going to jail or accepting injustice in order to pursue wealth. It was only through religious belief that I could sustain my convictions about the changes needed in China. We must not drink the milk of the wolf by using the rulers' tactics of violence and of ideology against them."
Assessing the accuracy of Yu's claims about the strength and direction of his underground religious movement from the distance of Washington is a hopeless task that is complicated by the journalistic habits of compartmentalizing the political and the pious that I mentioned at the outset.
But this dissident's sincerity, discipline and clarity of purpose were all evident in our extended conversation. Bush did well to receive him at the White House and should seriously consider accepting the invitation that Yu extended to worship with "house" Christians on the president's next trip to China.