Rev. Dennis Balcombe, a Hong Kong-based faith healer known for his confrontational evangelism, has a history of provoking Chinese authorities.
Police in Guangzhou (Canton) once detained him for conducting a weekly “English class” with only one textbook--the Bible. Another time, the 49-year-old American preacher says, he evaded arrest during an illegal outdoor prayer meeting by hiding under blankets in a Chinese burial cart.
Given such brazen acts, it is no wonder that Chinese officials chose Balcombe, whose “Donkeys for Jesus” program is one of the biggest Bible-smuggling operations in Asia, as the first target for new rules controlling foreign religious activity.
Balcombe, who runs his Bible project out of a storefront Hong Kong church, is clearly on the radical fringe of Christian activists. But his arrest Feb. 11 in Henan province focused world attention on a surprising resurgence of Christian missionary activity in China. It also revived an old debate over proper behavior for Christian foreigners seeking converts and sent a warning to Christian teachers here and to their overseas sponsors.
Forty-five years after Communists under Mao Tse-tung expelled most foreign church workers, hundreds of missionaries--though few dare use that term publicly--are back.
The Communist government tolerates some low-key religious activity by foreigners because it needs English teachers, especially those willing to take on the toughest, most remote assignments. But officials have now drawn certain lines, banning missionary work and limiting the religious activities in which Christian foreigners can participate. New regulations consolidating rules that existed in several provinces were signed by Premier Li Peng on Jan. 31.
Officials said the new rules were intended as guidelines for thousands of foreigners who have flooded into China during the recent era of economic reform. Many of these foreigners--business people, consultants, professionals--brought strong religious beliefs with them. Authorities felt the need to codify acceptable behavior.
In what officials admit was a test case, Balcombe was arrested 11 days after he conducted an all-night mountaintop prayer meeting with peasants.
“It was a warning,” Chinese Religious Affairs Bureau official Zhang Weida said in a Beijing interview. Zhang heads the policy section of the office that drafted the new regulations.
Officially, there are 12 million Christians in China, 7 million of them Protestant and 5 million Roman Catholic. Officially at least, the number of Christians falls far below that of Buddhists, estimated officially at 100 million, and Muslims, at 17 million.
China now recognizes Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism.
The Chinese Church Research Center, a Hong Kong-based group that tracks Christian activities in China, estimates that more than 2,000 Christians, mostly Americans, work as “foreign experts” teaching English and other subjects in remote areas. These teachers account for more than one-fourth of the nation’s 7,500 foreign advisers and experts.
Some carefully observe laws against proselytizing.
“We all knew the restrictions before we came here,” said Thom Downing, 32, a Quaker teacher from Pittsburgh, Pa., who works in Jiangsu province. He opposes overt missionary activity: “Personally, I don’t have a lot of respect for people who come exclusively to proselytize under the guise of being teachers.”
Others, however, come to spread their religion, some by clandestinely recruiting Chinese.
Reports of “bathtub baptisms” and unauthorized Bible classes are common. Lay teachers in universities regularly complain that some of their Christian colleagues are more interested in “saving souls” than they are in teaching grammar.
“They keep a score card,” complained a foreign teacher in Nanjing. “Every day they come in and say, ‘I made another Christian today.’ ”
Unlike many lay foreign experts, the Christian teachers are willing to travel to the most remote and primitive settings to work for token salaries paid by the government. Missionary teachers can be found in the barren reaches of Inner Mongolia and the mountainous terrain of Tibet.
“There are some places in China that no one would go to unless they were convinced God wanted them to go,” explained a Hong Kong-based Christian publications editor, who asked not to be named because of his organization’s missionary activity in China.
Also, local authorities sometimes prefer the Christian teachers because they are less likely to become involved in sexual relations with residents or in political activity, both of which officials fear even more than religion.
Nevertheless, missionary work is still a very sensitive subject. Since Jesuit priests arrived in the late 16th Century, Christian missionaries have often been at the center of conflict between China and the West.
In the 19th Century, inspired by Christian missionary tracts and convinced he was the younger brother of Jesus, charismatic leader Hong Xiuquan led peasants in the bloody Taiping Rebellion against the Qing Dynasty. For 11 years, until the rebellion was crushed with the help of Western mercenaries in 1864, Hong ruled his “Heavenly Kingdom” from a base in Nanjing.
During the Boxer uprising of 1898-1900, Christian missionaries and their converts were the main targets of a bloody movement mounted by a mystical order, the Righteous and Harmonious Fists, known to foreigners as the Boxers. The movement’s members, who believed they were immune to gunfire, accused the missionaries of plotting to overthrow the Qing Dynasty and obliterate traditional Chinese culture, among other crimes.
Before the Communist Party defeated the Nationalists in 1949, 6,000 Christian missionaries worked on the mainland, many sympathetic to the Nationalists. In its literature, the Communist Party still views missionaries as “tools of imperialism.”
But despite their large numbers at various times (6,000 in 1930, for example), foreign missionaries have historically been ineffective in obtaining converts. Their main contributions were in the creation of schools and hospitals.
The recent emergence of foreign missionaries largely results from the opening of the Chinese economy initiated by senior leader Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s.
Because of the economic reforms, China desperately needs foreign teachers and funding for universities and technical institutes.
One of the largest sponsors of Christian teachers in China, the English Language Institute/China, based in San Dimas, has 200 teachers at 60 Chinese universities. In a telephone interview, institute Executive Vice President Bill Bauer said the organization, whose budget last year topped $4.8 million, has a “professional, non-religious focus.”
However, the institute’s recruitment brochures, distributed mainly on Christian college campuses in the United States, stress “a Christian commitment” as the first requirement, followed by an undergraduate or graduate degree, an aptitude for teaching and “the ability to build close personal friendships.”
“Since 1982,” states one publicity brochure, “the English Language Institute/China has had the exciting privilege of sending qualified Christian professionals to China. Through E.L.I.C., over 150,000 Chinese students have been touched in over 60 of China’s most important universities.”
Although he assiduously avoids calling his teachers “missionaries,” Bauer said they are highly appreciated by their Chinese hosts “because of their Christian, moral, ethical standards.”
One man who does not shrink from the missionary title is Balcombe, who is affiliated with the Shiloh Christian Fellowship in Oakland. Tall and fair, with a talent for language--gained by studying the Bible in Chinese, he says--Balcombe came to China 25 years ago after serving as an Army cook in Vietnam.
When he was expelled three days after his arrest in February, Balcombe held a news conference in Hong Kong at which he accused Chinese authorities of brutality and the theft of more than $14,000 in cash and video equipment. He later testified before a U.S. congressional subcommittee investigating possible trade sanctions against China.
Many other Christian groups in China object to Balcombe’s guerrilla-style tactics. In a manual, “How to Prepare for Possible Arrest in Visiting Christians in China,” Balcombe advises followers to feign ignorance of Chinese and to “speak in tongues” if accosted by authorities.
In another section of the six-page manual, he instructs followers to “go on the offensive if the Lord tells you to do so.”
“Never use force or violence,” wrote Balcombe, who grew up in Southern California and attended high school in Pomona, “but make them do something against you. Refuse to move without notifying your embassy. Then, when they forcibly move you, accuse them of hitting you or hurting you.”
In a recent interview in his Hong Kong church, Balcombe said he sometimes invests in Chinese joint-venture businesses, such as local department stores, to provide a rationale for his frequent missions. In this age of economic development, China looks more kindly on businessmen than on preachers. Most of the money for Balcombe’s investments comes from contributions by U.S. churches.
During the interview, other members of his church practiced speaking Chinese in one room. Volunteers in other rooms packed suitcases with Chinese-language Bibles and other religious tracts that are smuggled to the mainland on daily Donkeys for Jesus runs.
“We never use the word smuggle ,” he explained. “We just put them in our suitcase and we take them. We are not using (shipping) containers or other sleazy methods.”
The church has about 20 regular couriers and distributes a brochure urging overseas Christians to participate, providing low-cost dormitory housing in Hong Kong for those who come. The couriers enter China as tourists, with the understanding that authorities will not arrest them for smuggling but may confiscate their Bibles.
“To some of us who get involved in this type of work, it’s a bit like 007 (James Bond),” said one courier, a 46-year-old man from Shawnee Mission, Kan. “Everyone who gets into this kind of work has a spirit of adventure.”
More than most of the foreign Christians working in China, Balcombe sees himself at war with authorities who would block the spread of the faith.
“Some people will say that Dennis Balcombe is a troublemaker and that all these missionaries should keep out of religion,” he said, speaking in staccato bursts. “But to us, what is the sense of being a Christian? We don’t think that just helping a nation learn English or improve the economy is going to do anything. We think people need Jesus Christ. They need the Gospel. The problem of society is not education, but that there are no morals.”
Balcombe’s arrest and the resulting publicity rekindled the debate here about the conduct of foreign Christians in China, where governments dating from the early dynasties have viewed foreign religions as potential threats to stability. Foreign Christians recently worried that Chinese authorities planned a general crackdown on missionary work.
At the very minimum, one Hong Kong-based church scholar reported, the new regulations give local authorities the power to quash foreign religious activity when and if they want.
In an interview in Beijing, Religious Affairs Bureau policy director Zhang said the new regulations were necessary because of the flood of foreigners working in China during the period of economic development.
“More and more foreigners are coming to China,” Zhang explained. “Most have religious beliefs. These foreigners want a religious life.”
The regulations grant foreigners some expanded rights to practice their religion.
If invited to China by officially recognized religious bodies, for example, foreigners theoretically are permitted to discuss the Scriptures and even deliver sermons.
But the new rules also clearly state what the foreigners are not permitted to do, including “establish religious organizations, set up religious offices, open places for religious activities or run religious institutes. Nor may they develop followers, appoint religious personnel or conduct missionary activity among Chinese citizens.”
After the new regulations came out, many foreign Christians acted quickly, through letters and articles in church bulletins, to reassure overseas sponsors that the Balcombe incident was an isolated case that would not affect most Christian teachers here.
Elyn MacInnis is the pastor of the international congregation of St. Paul’s Church in Nanjing. Most of her small congregation--about 50 people attended the Palm Sunday service--are English teachers in the Nanjing area who were recruited by Christian groups.
MacInnis, an Episcopal priest from Rochester, N.Y., said few feel threatened by the regulations.
“We were just horrified that people in the West would think that what happened to Dennis Balcombe is what is happening in China,” she said.
“From my point of view, the new regulations are beneficial,” said Susan Stiles, an Episcopal minister working as an English teacher at a technical institute near Nanjing. “The regulations tell us where we stand with the Chinese and give us legal recourse.”
Nevertheless, the Balcombe incident deeply divided the church community both inside China and abroad. The debate is between those who advocate working within the rules set by Beijing, and those who favor clandestine church work.
In the balance are millions of dollars in donations for China missions raised in the churches of the United States and Europe, and in the powerful Protestant Christian communities of South Korea and Taiwan.
In a recent interview, Father Peter Barry, a Roman Catholic priest with the Holy Spirit Study Center, a Hong Kong-based research center for Chinese religious matters, crystallized the terms of the debate: “Should it be Bible-thumping or dialogue? An analysis of missionary method is badly needed at this time.”
Special correspondent Christine Courtney in Hong Kong contributed to this story.