China's Diocletian

by Dr. David Aikman
January 26, 2011

One of the most dramatic events in European history took place in the Roman Empire, nearly 300 years after the birth of Christ.  The Roman Emperor Diocletian, after wavering between policies of sporadic repression and periods of tolerance, decided to crack down unmercifully and eliminate once and for all -- if he could -- the Roman Empire's ever-growing Christian community.  At the time, Christians comprised about one-tenth of the empire's population of approximately 54 million.
 
Diocletian failed in the brutal persecution that began in 303 AD.  Less than a decade after the campaign's launch, the Emperor Constantine, a Christian himself, signed the Edict of Milan that granted total religious freedom to all Roman citizens. That act set the empire itself -- and eventually all of Europe -- on a path to becoming completely Christianized.
 
It's not hard to draw parallels to Diocletian's crackdown when one learns what China's Communist Party Politburo launched in December.  According to ChinaAid Association, which monitors and reports on the treatment of China's house church Christians, China's top leaders signed off on what could become the nation's most savage campaign against Christians since the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution.  In a campaign called "Operation Deterrence," the Politburo decided to label China's entire house church community a "cult."  The Politburo gave these reasons for its decision:

  1. The house churches want to Christianize China;
  2. The house churches want to unite all churches in the country, including the government's Protestant umbrella organization, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement;
  3. The house churches want to have unity with churches outside of China;
  4. The house churches want to have a dialogue with the government.

How any of this qualifies as cultic behavior is a mystery.  The usual dictionary definition of a cult is a group that holds tightly to extreme beliefs and practices and is often under the influence of a single domineering, charismatic leader.  But regardless of whether the label fits, the fact of the label itself is ominous, if only because use of the term at the official level can lead to the harshest persecution of people suspected of "cult" membership.  After the Communist Party decided to crack down on the meditation sect Falungong in 1999, thousands of practitioners were rounded up, tortured, beaten -- sometimes to death -- and scattered throughout China's vast labor camp system.
 
There is, of course, a reason behind the Politburo's outburst.  When the selection of Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo as the recipient of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize was announced in October, China reacted with fury, labeling the award "an obscenity."  Liu -- who is serving an 11-year prison sentence for his authorship of a dissident document, "Charter 08," which calls for democracy in China -- was, of course, unable to travel to Oslo to attend the December 10 award ceremony. A chair was left empty on the stage as a symbolic gesture. Neither was Liu's wife nor any of his friends from China in attendance. The authorities had placed his wife and all their close friends under either house arrest or close surveillance.  Meanwhile, on the day before the Oslo event, a rival "peace" ceremony was held in Beijing, to award the suddenly concocted "Confucius Prize."
 
China's souring towards its Christians was not without warning.  After seeming to cooperate tacitly with the Vatican since 2006 in ordaining bishops whom Rome had quietly approved, Beijing suddenly, on November 20, ordained a bishop of the Catholic Patriotic Association whom the Vatican had clearly indicated it did not approve. The only "Christian" churches officially allowed to function in China are the Catholic Patriotic Association and the Protestant Three-Self Patriotic Movement.  In October, authorities prevented all but two of China's invited Christian delegation of 230 from traveling to Cape Town, South Africa, for the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelism.   The Chinese authorities must have been infuriated that no Three-Self representatives were invited, which occurred for the simple reason that the conference was for evangelical Christians. The Three-Self church is not allowed to evangelize because the Chinese constitution prohibits proselytizing.
 
The Diocletian connection becomes clear when one looks at the estimates of China's Christian population. Although no one knows the actual figures, the estimates range from three percent to ten percent of the population. The upper end of that range is close to what the Roman Empire's Christian population was when Diocletian got rolling.  The Chinese Communist leadership clearly feels threatened by Christians, who have little regard for the mythology of Marx, Lenin, and Mao. Yet the move to pin the "cult" label on all of China's house churches as a whole is as dangerous as it is desperate.  If the campaign really builds steam, many of China's Christians could be arrested, beaten, imprisoned, or worse.
 
On the other hand, it is exceedingly unlikely that the campaign will succeed; China's Christians are simply too deeply rooted in society and also too tempered by past persecutions to quietly fold under this new pressure.  The immediate comment of one house church friend upon hearing of the news of the crackdown was the observation that past persecution had always led to a surge of growth of the Chinese church, and so it would again.  If, however, President Hu Jintao is forced to suspend this campaign or even reverse the decision to use the "cult" label against house church Christians, the Communist Party's credibility could be seriously compromised.
 
It's certainly much too early to begin predicting regime change in China, but that's exactly what has sometimes happened in the past when authorities had to backtrack on decisions.  Those who tried to stamp out Christianity in different parts of the world, at different historical periods, have almost always seen a much different result than they expected.

A version of this column appeared originally at OneNewsNow.com.

For 23 years Dr. David Aikman was a foreign correspondent and senior correspondent for Time magazine. A former foreign policy consultant in Washington D.C., he is a current senior fellow of the Trinity Forum.