After the Religion Bureau emphatically shot down my petition to do a documentary on Christians in Beijing, I called back the Three-Self Patriotic Movement Committee of the Protestant Churches of China for guidance. “Please,” I pleaded over the phone, “tell me how I could sway their opinion. All I want is to do a positive portrayal of the believers. Sure there must be a way.”
It was only later that I understood that the Three-Self Committee was a religious organization made up of Christians, and the Religion Bureau of bureaucrats extending the reach of the communist propaganda machine. At the time of the call, I smelled kindness through the phone line and I hustled to all my might. The female voice hesitated on the other end of the line. “Why don’t you call Mr. Wen in our Committee? He produced a promotional film on Beijing Christians. Maybe he can help you.”
I called Mr. Wen and arranged to meet with him two days later. The office building of the Three-Self Committee is located in Dong Dan, a bustling shopping area close to Tian’anmen Square. The two-storey building itself, with its traditional up-turned eaves and gray walls darkened by age, stood in stark contrast to the shops around it competing in noise and vulgar store-front designs to attract customers.
Mr. Wen came out of his office and greeted me. He wore a short-sleeve white shirt, long black pants and pointed leather shoes. If he had been carrying a fake-leather man purse, I could have mistaken him for a typical Beijing businessman. Except he smiled a lot, quite warmly.
We exchanged business cards. He studied mine. “So your company is based in the US. Where is your office here in Beijing?”
I had just registered an LLC (Limited Liability Company) in Pennsylvania two weeks before and printed out the business cards several days prior. The local print shop took liberty with the fonts and the sizes, so the cards looked not much different from those of the cab drivers (everyone in China seems to have a mobile phone and decks of name cards). I had also been running errands earlier that day and went to the meeting wearing cargo shorts and an Amnesty International T-shirt. I worried about the first impression I was projecting.
“Oh, my office is in CBD (Central Business District, the prime business area in Beijing).” The Beijing address on the card is of the apartment we are moving into. But nobody had to know it’s not in an office tower. Plus, the name of the company, Tripod Media LLC, transliterated into Chinese as Broad Creation Media Limited Liability Corporation, sounded pretty stately.
We then watched the 20 minutes promotional video. He prefaced it by stating that the video crew led by him probably wouldn’t measure up to the standards of pros like my team. I replied modestly “na li na li (where where)”, and I wondered how he would have acted if he had known I had been the one-man crew for my documentary, and I learned everything I know about filmmaking from this first attempt.
The video, like everything else produced officially on such a weighty subject as religion, was full of superlatives, references to the party and emphasis on progress. The repression of religion during the Cultural Revolution got one line: “The Three-Self Committee and all churches were closed in the Cultural Revolution and suffered a setback.” The video harbored an earnest desire to get the past behind and just move ahead and worship God.
Mr. Wen was no short-sighted bureaucrat. He was in charge of international relations for the Three-Self Committee. The US embassy had just had lunch with him that day to thank him for arranging Condi Rice’s Palm Sunday Service during her trip to Beijing. After watching the video we chatted for a long time, from his joining the church in 1984 to his opinion on why the underground Christians refuse to join the government-sanctioned churches.
Finally, I asked him point-blank – could he foresee any way I could get the government’s approval to shoot in the churches? He pondered for a short while and looked up at me.
“I know your intentions are good. The government needs people like you to provide the outside with an unbiased view of what’s going on.” Throughout our conversation, I continued to play the role of an ardent admirer of the official Christian church in China. Only positives, I kept on stressing, only positives. “The problem is,” he continued, “the government has to be interested enough in your project to let you move forward. It’s still too sensitive.” I could envision the bureaucrats at the Religion Bureau reading People’s Daily, sipping tea from their white ceramic cups and only moving to kill anything on their desk with a fly swatter.
“Have you thought about doing this project in a second-tier city, like Hang Zhou? There’s too much attention on Beijing the capital.” I replied that all my work is on Beijing, and I would like to continue this focus. I was embarrassed to tell him that I couldn’t possibly live in another city; my boyfriend would throw a huge fit, I’m too lazy, among other reasons.
“How about working with a foreign church organization? We helped the Episcopalian Church of America shoot a video all over China. In that case you could talk to the National Religion Bureau directly.” Not likely. Dealing with a US Church and the National Religion Bureau could both be nightmares. Mr. Wen probably thought I had a whole team of secretaries and camera crew who were ready to jump hoops. No, I said, tai ma fan (too troublesome).
The conversation went silent. He sighed. “The only chance I think you have,” he said, “is to write up a proposal. In the proposal you’ll have to convince the government that your documentary will fight back the heresies from overseas, that it will clearly demonstrate that there’s religious freedom in China, and the Three-Self Church is a true believing Christian church.”
So far so good; I grew up in China’s education system writing compositions of false intentions. But then, “You have to promise the government you’ll deliver that. After you’ve finished the film, you’ll have to show the government what you’ve done.” He said solemnly. Otherwise? A slight chill slowly ran up my spine.
“Good.” I said, “When I finish the proposal, can I send you a copy to get your feedback?” What had I been thinking – getting official approval for a controversial (heaven knows why it’s controversial) project? The past 100 years of Chinese history ought to have taught me that things are not done in China that way.
“Just in case,” I asked casually, “that the Religion Bureau still do not approve my proposal. Do you think it could be possible for me to follow the people I interview into church services and shoot with a tiny camcorder?” Chairman Mao famously discussed the merits of guerilla warfare combating the Japanese and the Nationalists. What had I been thinking?
“Oh,” Mr. Wen stared at me for a beat, “in that case at least get the pastors’ permission.”
It looks like there’s still a way.