HONG KONG - Almost every month, Bassanio Hung returns to the land that his parents fled, searching for small pieces of the massive puzzle that is China.
The group that he represents - East Gates Ministries, International - tries not to make headlines. Hung smiles and bows and plays by the rules. He knows that life isn't easy for Chinese Christians, but he tries to be positive. That's the plan and he is going to stick to it.
"We are only one small group. We have one calling -- one mission," said Hung, who has made at least 50 trips from Hong Kong into China in the past five years. "We are not saying that there is only one approach to take in China and we know that others use different approaches. But we are doing what we believe we are called to take."
If Hung sounds cautious, that's because he is. China is on the front burner, right now, and even groups that want to be non-controversial are feeling the heat. The handover of Hong Kong at midnight on Monday will focus even more attention on China and the current regime's policies on human rights.
"Negative reporting focusing on both Hong Kong and China has been used for years as a tool by Christian organizations that operate illegally in China," wrote East Gates President Ned Graham, in a recent newsletter. "Recently, a very prominent evangelical leader made a scathing, although ill- informed, attack on China. ... He is being fed faulty information from some congressional offices and radical human rights-special interests groups that are more interested in overthrowing communism than in sharing the gospel."
Threats to deny most-favored-nation (MFN) status, he added, would only "bring more persecution to bear upon our brothers and sisters in China, thus causing the very thing that these well-meaning Christian leaders seek to end." Graham, who is the son of evangelist Billy Graham, then wrote a similar letter that was distributed to congressional leaders, backed by a statement signed by a number of mission leaders with years of experience in China.
This drew an immediate response from Family Research Council President Gary Bauer, James Dobson of Focus on the Family and others who oppose MFN status for China. It is, they said, a form of "hostage taking" to allow China to manipulate American policies in this way. "Should we all keep silent about China's massive campaign of forced abortions and compulsory sterilizations?", asked their letter to congressional offices. "Should we avoid criticizing China's use of slave labor?"
Another divisive question is whether Western churches should do as much work as possible through China's government-run Catholic Patriotic Association and the Three-Self Patriotic Movement for Protestants. Some missionary groups - such as East Gates - stress that working through legal channels is yielding increased permits to distribute Bibles and invitations to prepare new educational and evangelistic materials. But others insist that the emphasis should be on protesting China's efforts to punish or control underground Protestant churches and Catholic congregations that have stubbornly remained loyal to Rome.
Hung stressed that he sees signs of progress during his trips to the mainland. Yet, he also noted that China is "very, very big and I cannot say that what I have experienced is true everywhere." Thus, activities that can lead to Christians being jailed or tortured in one part of China may be overlooked in another. Evangelism and education efforts that are growing in one region may be banned in another. Truth is, almost any statement one wants to make about religion in China can be proven true or false - somewhere in China.
Meanwhile, Chinese authorities know that when people are free to preach, teach and pray, it's hard to tell them what they can or cannot preach, teach and pray about. From the viewpoint of the Chinese police, an evangelist looks a lot like a political dissident.
"We don't know how to take away the government's fears," said Hung. "We can only do our work and pray that China's leaders will grow to realize that Chinese Christians love their country. They are not criminals. They are good citizens. We want them to see that Christians can be a positive force in China. ... At the same time, we must be patient and remember that Christ holds the future in his hands."