Institute on Religion and Democracy
September 13, 2000
The Amity Foundation is the only relief organization in China through which most U.S. Protestant churches funnel their dollars. This situation is almost completely unique in the world. U.S. churches typically cooperate with a wide range of local church groups in almost every other country. But in China, there is just one church partner: Amity. Why so?
During the Cultural Revolution of the 1960's and 1970's, the Chinese government tried to eradicate religion in China. Having failed to do so, the Chinese government decided that regulating - and preempting - religious bodies would better serves its interests. Amity and its affiliated religious groups in China are the result of that decision.
With its $6.3 million annual budget, Amity seems to perform many admirable relief projects. But it also defends China's repressive policies towards religion, and it serves as a tool for Chinese government oversight of church activities. Although it is the official social service arm of China's legal Protestant churches, Amity's religious intentions, as expressed through its publications, are usually vague. (The Catholic Patriotic Association, which has no ties to the Vatican, performs a similar function for officially sanctioned Catholics in China.)
Almost all of Amity's financial support comes from U.S. and other Western churches. And those churches largely ignore Amity's limitations as a purportedly Christian relief agency.
Founded in 1985 as an officially sanctioned conduit for relief, teaching and publishing activities by foreign churches, Amity's ties to the Chinese government are rarely acknowledged by its foreign church supporters. U.S. donors to Amity include the United Methodist Church (through the General Board of Global Ministries), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, the National Council of Churches (NCC) the American Baptist Church, and even the conservative Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. The Southern Baptist Convention once cooperated with Amity. But the Chinese government discontinued that cooperation because of Southern Baptist support for unofficial evangelistic projects.
Supporters of Amity point to its publication of 26 million Bibles, to its language-teaching program, health care and other social services. More than 1,000 foreign teachers (including more than 150 from the NCC alone) have worked in Chinese schools through Amity. And Amity claims to have trained 13,000 rural Chinese doctors.
Skeptics point out that Amity is a partner of the China Christian Council, which was founded in 1980 as the Chinese government's official organization for Protestants. And skeptics note that Amity disavows any specific evangelistic or religious purpose. "Our work is not religious, but to serve China's neediest," explains one Amity official. Some of its employees claim a Christian affiliation, but others do not.
Amity's chairman is also a Chinese government official. Bishop Ding Guangxun, who is vice-chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, is Amity's founder and chairman. And he is honorary chairman of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement Committee of the Protestant Churches of China, another governmental effort to control religious activity in China. Amity's general secretary is Wenzao Han, who is president of the Chinese Christian Council.
Amity forbids its foreign volunteers from evangelizing, urging them to express their faith "through service rather than proselytization." Undoubtedly there are still some volunteers who do share their faith discretely. The Chinese government is not blind to this. But it prefers to retain some control over these activities and channel the foreign teachers' efforts into needed relief work.
Chinese law forbids Amity teachers not only from evangelizing but also from importing religious materials "whose content is harmful to the public interest." They also may not form their own religious organizations, may not preach to even recognized congregations without official approval, and they may not appoint or ordain clergy.
Concerned over Chinese government control, the Southern Baptist Convention attempted to work through Amity while continuing to dispatch missionaries through unofficial channels. This "two-track" policy was to a have allowed Southern Baptists to minister both to official churches in China and also to unofficial "house churches" not affiliated with Amity. The Chinese government retaliated by cutting all ties to the Southern Baptists in 1997, including expulsion of all their known missionaries. The Amity News Service dutifully explained the government's allegation of "deception" by the Southern Baptists.
The Amity News Service, which is aimed at Western readers, is a faithful defender of Chinese government policy towards religion. It regularly publishes denials by official Chinese religious leaders of serious religious persecution. Rebutting Western "propaganda" against China is a major theme for Amity.
In 1997, for example, the Amity News Service published a statement by Bishop Ding Guangxun, then head of the China Christian Council, that condemned U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright for urging increased State Department attention to religious persecution around the world. Bishop Ding likened Albright's concern to a "present-day operation of the 19th century American 'manifest destiny.'"
"I feel strongly that any U.S. government intervention as 'Protector of Religion' in the name of religious liberty would only jeopardize what we have been doing ourselves and.[potentially violate].our principles of self-government."
Another article in the Amity News Service likened Chinese imprisonment of an apocalyptic preacher to the U.S. government's actions against Branch Davidian David Koresh. "We can only enjoy the security of the law and the rights bestowed by the law if we conform to the law," insisted the Chinese religious official. "Otherwise, we must receive the penalty of the law."
Still another article, featuring an interview with the president of the China Christian Council, criticized the "illegal and heretical activities" that are occurring in unsanctioned churches. "Illegal activities in the name of religion should be restricted," the official insisted. "This is the practice everywhere in the world, so why not in China?" He also complained about reports of persecution against house churches, which he dismissed. Rather than defending fellow believers suffering for their faith, official Chinese church leaders denounce them and even deny they are Christian.
Amity News Service has carried a defense of Chinese policy towards Tibet, commending its "peaceful liberation" by the Chinese Army, and defending the right of the Chinese government to select a new Panchen Lama. The Dalai Lama, it lamented, was "far off in India" and was "transgressing the religious rituals" of Tibet by trying to identify his own successor Panchen Lama. The Dalai Lama should be "censured," the article declared.
In 1996 Human Rights Watch/Asia, alleged that Chinese orphanages, particularly one in Shanghai, routinely allow baby infants to starve to death. The well documented report alleged that infanticide resulted not from lack of funding but from lack of interest in sustaining the lives of babies who were born in violation of China's one-child-per-couple-policy. Amity criticized these reports, claiming they "employed highly charged rhetoric but [failed] to substantiate many claims." However, Amity did not specifically deny that babies were allowed to die in Chinese orphanages. It did express doubt that orphanage workers would have "criminal intent," and it questioned the "true motive of the Human Rights Watch report."
According to Amity, China has 14 million Protestants. But its figure largely ignores unofficial house churches, and some independent observers estimate there as many as 70 million evangelical believers in China. In its public statements, Amity largely ignores the existence of house church Christians, except to deny their persecution or harassment by the Chinese government.
A recent delegation of Amity and other church leaders to the U.S. emphasized that all is well with China's legitimate religious believers. "There is no massive persecution of Christians in China today, the Rev. Jia-yuan Bao assured Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) officials during a meeting. Bao is the China Christian Council's associate general secretary. "A lot of what is being reported as 'persecution of Christians' could better be termed 'religious persecution' because it is directed toward cultic groups and activities."
Bao and the other Chinese church leaders struck an agreement with Presbyterian officials "to devote more attention to education in our churches, so as to overcome misunderstandings about one another." Presumably that "education" will include denials of any religious persecution in China.
U.S. churches cannot be entirely faulted for cooperating with the Amity Foundation. Its teaching and relief activities potentially allow the opportunity for a discrete Christian witness. But U.S. churches can be faulted for ignoring Amity's obvious limitations, and especially for often transmitting Amity's denials of serious religious persecution problems in China.
It is an irony that U.S. denominations that like to boast of their "wholistic" ministry have so readily consented to restrictions that prevent such ministry in China, i.e. no evangelism, limited Christian education, and of course no "prophetic" critiques of social injustice in China.
The Amity Foundation has been an effective tool for the Chinese government to prevent independent missions activity by U.S. churches. Its also represents another sad chapter in the long history of U.S. churches that are willing to be duped by communist regimes that offer cooperation and a smile.