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Social Issues: Religion

A Chinese Dissident Looks At America

Yuan Zhiming took part in the intellectual incubation of the pro-democracy movement in China. He produced and collaborated to write a six hour nationally broadcast television series called "The River Elegy." It documented the decline of China from past glory to pessimism and poverty.

The Yellow River nurtured the great civilization of the past. But a glorious future is inhibited by a land- locked, walled-in mentality and by political totalitarianism. Space has become scarce and human life cheap. As the Yellow River flows into the sea, China must merge with the larger world. The series concluded by calling for intellectual freedom and individual initiative.

When the Tiananmen Square conflict took place, Yuan fled. It was obvious that investigators would find him partly responsible for motivating the freedom fighters. While exiled in Paris, he established a magazine called Democratic China.

On March 22, 1996, Yuan Zhiming addressed nearly 400 people at the St. Paul Campus of the University of Minnesota, most of them Chinese students and visiting scholars. He told of what he considers the turning point and most important decision of his life, when he became a Christian and was baptized in Princeton, New Jersey in April 1991.

He encouraged his countrymen, living as visitors in the United States, to look seriously at Christianity. Why should they do this? One reason to do so is because, "America is a Christian country." His statement coming over closed circuit television, was translated into English for a room of non-Chinese-speaking Americans. A split second later, there was a barely audible "Hmm" from the audience.

What did he mean? Is he speaking superficially and generically of a country he hardly understands? Why also did his remark produce such a quizzical reaction among cultural Americans? If there were any humanists present, they would surely be thinking that America is a successful secular experiment, not a religious one. The Christians, however, reacted to the statement by thinking of how far we have drifted since the founding of the republic, so that it might well be said that we were once, but now no longer, "Christian."

Do Mr. Yuan's remarks have any significance? Does an outsider see us better than we see ourselves? I suggest that his experience as well as his position have made him acutely aware of the factors that lie at the root of America's national character. He has probably seen enough movies or news broadcasts to know the extent of our moral decay, but he also knows that America has preserved personal freedoms and human dignity, while China finds them fleeting and elusive.

Even American thinkers of recent generations, in attempting to transplant democracy, have been frustrated to find it not always taking root. And the value of the individual, with all the safeguards we take for granted in this country, seems hard to graft into other world views. Accusations of cultural imperialism, and the political incorrectness of acknowledging that we may have been given something unique, hinder analysis.

Yet, the truth is, this country was built on a Christian understanding and consensus. This fact was well understood by elementary and secondary students of previous generations who actually studied the statements of the founders of the United States. As these have been clipped from the texts, many of the principles they illustrate have been turned on their heads. Thus, even the still quoted "Preamble to the Declaration of Independence" can be heard without a glimmer of understanding from the average citizen.

Yet what in the world does it mean if it does not mean what it says? "We hold these truths to be self- evident, that all men (persons) are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

It was on this foundation that the durable human rights of America are established. Our individual freedoms exist not at the whim of the state, but by virtue of our value as creations of God. And for the one who thinks the system can be beaten, origin also predicts destiny. Ultimately, we are also accountable to the God from whom nothing can be hidden.

An outsider can see the central value of what many "insiders" want to discard, namely the Christian heritage of America. Those insiders are using their freedom in an attempt to cut off the root from which their very freedom grows. They would do well to understand the lessons of China.

Ross S.Olson MD

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