Sometimes meetings take place at the White House that are hardly reported on at the time but that, in retrospect, turn out to have great historical significance. One such barely noticed meeting may have occurred last May, when President Bush welcomed three Chinese Christians to what is known as "the Yellow Oval Office," a reception room in the private quarters of the White House. The writer Yu Jie and two Christian lawyers, Wang Yi of Chengdu University and Li Baiguang, the director of a Beijing research center that seeks to protect the legal rights of Chinese farmers, were in Washington for a Hudson Institute–sponsored conference on religious freedom in China.

President Bush has done more publicly to promote religious freedom in China than any other President or, for that matter, most other senior American political leaders in recent years. In early 2002, during an official visit to China, he made a speech to students at Beijing's prestigious Tsinghua University, extolling the benefits to any society of religious freedom. He has twice welcomed China's exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama, to private meetings at the White House. During his November 2005 China trip, he worshiped publicly in an official Beijing Protestant church, an event which, though barely reported in China's official press, was the talk of the town for days.

What was different about the May White House meeting was not only the public identification of America's head of state with representatives of China's house churches, the unregistered Christian gatherings whose members are often sorely persecuted in various parts of China. It also signaled the changing makeup of China's house church leaders. Yu Jie, for example, a writer who sold a million copies of his first book of observations on Chinese society, Fire and Ice, was not a Christian when I first met him in 2002. Nor were the lawyers Wang Yi and Li Baiguang.

Yet in the past two years, according to Yu Jie, who appears to have converted to Christianity in 2004, there has been a major movement toward Christianity among Chinese intellectuals—one of the most prominent being the Beijing human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, 41, who became a Christian in 2005. What has changed the situation is a new focus on legal rights for ordinary Chinese and especially for Chinese Christians.

As China's warp-speed economic growth has continued, there have been more and more cases of peasants facing land expropriation at the hands of greedy developers, working hand in glove with local Communist Party bosses. At the same time, under the party leadership of Hu Yaobang, far more of an ideological hardliner than his ukulele-playing predecessor Jiang Zemin, there has been in the past two years a relentless crackdown on many meetings of unregistered house churches.

Article continues below

In response to these developments, China's fledgling group of human rights lawyers has bravely taken up the cases increasingly filed through public legal channels by peasants and house church leaders. As Yu Jie put it at the conference, "Christians need to change from 'silent resilience' to a more practical approach. Christians have to change." That more practical approach will require a shift in consciousness and terminology—from "underground church" to "family church," said Yu Jie.

Yu Jie goes further. "We want to bring changes to China through the love and justice of God, and through nonviolent means. God will raise great spiritual men like Martin Luther King and Archbishop Tutu who changed their countries by their faith."

Changing China "by faith" is indeed a fascinating notion. There are, to be sure, some nasty people who don't want it to happen. China's Communist Party leaders are profoundly aware of the role that Christianity played in the downfall of Communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. They are determined to prevent a repetition in China.

The bold "above-ground" approach by lawyers has brought risks. Gao Zhisheng's family has been intimidated by police, who have followed his daughter to school, and he has also had cars try to force him off the road. After Gao Zhisheng began videotaping the officials watching his family, he was arrested for several days. He has said, "I predict one of three possible outcomes for me: death, prison, or a change that gives me and the population of China the rights we should have."

Those rights, almost certainly, will come. With the emergence of Yu Jie and dozens of other "Martin Luther Kings" in the country, China's rule by the Communist Party may not be fixed in eternity. China's Christian faith, of course, is.

Related Elsewhere:

More about David Aikman is available from his website. He is author of Jesus in Beijing and A Man Of Faith: The Spiritual Journey of George W. Bush. His latest book Qi, a novel, is now available.

David Aikman's previous Global Prognosis columns for Christianity Today include:

An Ugly Phoenix Reborn | European anti-Semitism is more widespread than has been let on. (June 6, 2006)
Article continues below

Previous CT coverage of China includes:

Palau Pulls Back | Evangelist had told Chinese house churches to register with government. (Jan. 5, 2006)
U.S. Court Calls for Deportation of Chinese Christian | Court believes Christian's story, says China has the right to maintain social order. (Sept. 6, 2005)
Escapee Denies Rape Charge | Star witness in criminal case against prominent Chinese pastor alleges officials tortured and sexually abused her to gain false testimony. (Feb. 14, 2005)
Behind China's Closed Doors | Newly confident house churches open themselves up to the world. (Feb. 07, 2005)
A Look Of Love | Persecuted priest's smile planted faith in a Chinese activist. (Feb. 07, 2005)
North Korean Refugee Advocates Roughed Up | Security officers forcibly break up Beijing press conference that called for 'compassion.' (Jan. 13, 2005)
House-Church Leader Arrested | Zhang Rongliang has a high profile in China and internationally. (Jan. 05, 2005)
The Chinese Church's Delicate Dance | A conversation with the head of the Protestant Three-Self Patriotic Movement. (Nov. 11, 2004)
Loose Lips | Christians in Hong Kong worry over remarks by broadcaster. (Aug. 13, 2004)
A Captivating Vision | Why Chinese house churches may just end up fulfilling the Great Commission. (April 14, 2004)
China Arrests Dozens of Prominent Christians | At least 50 detained in fresh crackdown on house churches, reportedly promoted by new video and book releases. (Feb. 18, 2004)
The Red Glowing Cross | A veteran journalist makes vivid the hidden and expanding world of Chinese Christianity (Feb. 18, 2004)

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Global Prognosis
David Aikman is professor of history and writer-in-residence at Patrick Henry College and wrote for Time magazine from 1971 to 1994. Among his books are Jesus in Beijing and A Man of Faith: The Spiritual Journey of George W. Bush. His column, "Global Prognosis," ran from 2006 to 2007.
Previous Global Prognosis Columns:

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.