Monday, October 12, 1998

Pat Robertson -- A Modern Day "Matteo Ricci" Fosters Ties Between Religious Right and China

Editor's Note: America's "religious right" has long been home to the harshest critics of China -- until Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition, visited China late this summer and met with Premier Zhu Rongji in Beijing. The visit and the "summit" may do more to improve U.S.-China ties than President Clinton's earlier trip. PNS commentator George Koo recently interviewed Robertson about the trip. Koo is an independent business consultant, former Chairman of Silicon Valley based Asian American Manufacturers Association, a Human Relations Commissioner of Mountain View, Ca. and a member of Committee of 100, a national organization of prominent Chinese Americans.

Two months after President Clinton's trip to China, a different sort of summit took place in Beijing. Dr. Pat Robertson, Chairman of the Christian Broadcast Network (CBN) and a founder of the Christian Coalition, accepted an invitation to visit China and meet with China's Premier Zhu Rongji in Beijing.

The purpose of Robertson's trip was to bear eyewitness to the practice of religion in China. The outcome could contribute more concretely toward a positive U.S.-China relationship than even the President's earlier high profile tour.

"China's society has already made tremendous strides," Robertson said in an interview with this writer. "China is in the midst of building an economic miracle. Furthermore, the people of China are enjoying religious freedom to a degree far greater than has been described by the American media."

Robertson's remarks about China clearly put him on a collision course with many members of the religious right -- a terminology Robertson dislikes. When asked, he said people like Gary Baur, head of the Family Research Council, are hard to influence. "He does what he likes, but he does not speak for conservative Christians. I do," Roberston said. "I don't believe he has ever been to China."

Roberston himself first went to China in 1979. He called the change in China between then and now "breathtaking."

The seeds of Roberston's visit were planted a year earlier when a group of prominent Chinese Americans belonging to the New York-based Committee of 100 met with government leaders in Taipei, Hong Kong and Beijing. Time Magazine had just published a special report on China bashing by America's religious right. Recognizing its power, Liu Huaqui, head of China's Foreign Affairs of the State Council, asked the Committee members how best China could respond.

The Committee of 100 has consistently supported constructive relations between the U.S. and China based on common interests as well as respect for differences. Development of such relations, the Committee believes, depends on government officials and leaders with insight and understanding.

In a private caucus, Committee members noted that most of the outspoken personalities of the religious right have not been to China. Dr. Richard Cheng, Chairman and C.E.O. of ECI Systems Engineering in Virginia Beach, suggested that he could approach Roberston about a possible visit to China. The idea was warmly endorsed by the group. Cheng became the intermediary between Roberston's organization and the leaders in Beijing.

Zhu began his meeting with Robertson by reviewing the status of religion in China where, out of a population of 1.2 billion, roughly 100 million are followers of some religious faith. Christianity's relatively small following, Zhu told Robertson diplomatically, reflected its relatively short history in China -- dating back to 1602 when Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci brought Catholicism to China.

Zhu further noted that throughout China's history, many religions and sects had a turn of being in favor. Even those out of favor were tolerated. Since the founding of the People's Republic, laws were put in place to protect the freedom of religious practices.

Robertson congratulated Zhu on China's economic achievement and warned that China will need more than ever the moral and spiritual values from religion as the standard of living increases. "Materialism of a booming economy without counterbalancing religious values is dangerous to the society, as can be seen in the United States," he told Zhu.

The meeting lasted 75 minutes -- well beyond the appointed time -- and opened the door for Roberston and his delegation to visit churches and talk to scholars and religious leaders of all faiths. Some -- like Alan Yuan, an 84 year old pastor who spent 22 years in Chinese prisons for preaching and running a home church without registering with the government -- came from China's so called underground churches. Yuan's story subsequently aired over Robertson's CBN.

Robertson also met with senior officials in charge of flood relief in China and agreed to ship 8 tons of medicine to China. He cemented ties with the Ministry of Information Industries which is now co-producing TV programs for telecast in China. His Global Business Development Network -- which has operations in over 90 countries -- is helping Chinese organizations design web pages and translating western web pages into Chinese. "We have also designed a Chinese search engine called 'zhaodaole,' and we are hosting a 'Yahoo' kind of portal on the Chinese internet," Roberston said.

The successful outcome of Roberston's visit is, in no small part, due to his understanding of Chinese history and culture. Throughout his meeting with Zhu, he liberally sprinkled his conversation with references not only to Deng Xiaoping but Confucianism and even Sun Zi's "Art of War."

In a way, Robertson followed the path blazed by Matteo Ricci who represented himself as a scholar rather than as a priest. He adapted Catholic rites so that they were easier to understand by the Chinese. He did not ask converts to renounce ancestor worship and he paid homage to the influence of Confucius.

The decline of the influence of Catholicism in China began when the Pope disagreed with Ricci's approach. He specifically prohibited missionaries from allowing converts to retain traditional Chinese practices. In disgust, China's emperor then proceeded to expel the priests showing such intolerance.