An anonymous voice in China

Alex Buchan has a source inside the Communist Party in China.

The Hong Kong-based reporter calls him a "high-ranking official" active in Chinese efforts to monitor and control religion. This source is a secret Christian. Buchan won't say whether a recent meeting took place in Hong Kong or during the journalist's latest trip into China. However, the contents of this anonymous interview will cause discomfort on both sides of America's fierce debates on religious persecution.

Americans must realize that Chinese officials deny that "discrimination" equals "persecution," said the source. Chinese Christians automatically lose many educational and economic rights. They can practice their faith only in settings controlled by the Communist Party, which also judges whether they are "heretics." That's discrimination.

Persecution is when believers are "thrown in jail, beaten, harassed, physically abused in some direct fashion," he said. "Now I may be too far up the tree to know what's going on at the roots, but I would be very surprised if there were more than a couple of hundred people incarcerated for their Christian faith. ... It is wrong to say there is no persecution, but it is minimal when you consider the Christian community may number more than 50 million."

So is the glass half empty or half full? Those calling for sanctions will say it's appalling that hundreds are in jail for openly practicing their faith. Those seeking increased ties with China will say this statement is another sign of progress.

This assumes that anyone reads the interview. If Buchan worked for the New York Times or CNN, it would have been discussed by politicians and pundits during Chinese President Jiang Zemin's recent U.S. media blitz. After all, news reports often cite mysterious "high-ranking officials." However, Buchan doesn't work in a prestigious newsroom. The veteran British reporter works for Compass Direct, a Christian news service covering religious-liberty issues.

If the New York Times printed this interview, it would be news. But Compass Direct carried it, so it's merely data on the Internet. Many will doubt that Buchan's source is real. So, if the cell door slams on a priest in China, and CNN doesn't report it, does it make a sound?

In a totalitarian society, noted Buchan, it's easy to quote those who make the laws, such as Communist leaders, and those who obey the laws, such as state-sanctioned clergy. The problem is reaching those, such as his source, who oppose the laws.

"To dissent openly in China is a huge undertaking, often involving exile and the disgrace of one's family," said Buchan. Many Chinese believers "want to tell the truth, but they want to stay too. So its truth without attribution. Take it or leave it. They didn't make the rules."

Compass Direct has been breaking stories that occasionally filter into other media. One example: the arrest of Protestant house church leader Xu Yongze for "heresy" and his eventual sentencing to 10 years in a labor camp.

According to Buchan's source in China, these kinds of repressive acts have increased in recent years, but the overall trend has been towards freedom. "There is much more religious freedom today than 20 years ago and all indicators suggest that there will be much more freedom in 20 years. ... China is committed to capitalism, which will continue to open the country up to Western ways, and the Maoist ideology -- the motor of past persecution -- is worn-out."

This is essentially the viewpoint of the White House and others who say that economic change will produce improved human rights, not vice versa. But the anonymous official also stressed that China continues to fear, and misunderstand, the power of religious faith.

"Buddhism especially is booming in the provinces," said the source. "It's the fastest growing religion by far. But Christianity is also growing, especially among educated young people. ... To a generation that genuinely thought religion had been virtually exterminated, its resurgence is puzzling. 'Where did religion go, if it wasn't destroyed?', said one of the Party leaders to me recently. I answered: 'It went where it always is -- the heart.'"