Han Wenzao

Communist Party Protestant
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The Independent Online

Han Wenzao, lay religious leader: born Shanghai 1923; General Secretary, Amity Foundation 1985-2003; President, China Christian Council 1996-2002; married Zhuo Zhaohua (two sons); died Nanjing, China 3 February 2006.

Whenever the Chinese authorities needed a reliable Protestant to reject accusations that the country abused the religious freedom of its citizens, Han Wenzao was on hand. Whether at the World Council of Churches assembly in Harare in 1998 or at a press conference in the Chinese embassy in Washington in 2000, he denied any government harassment of religious communities, complaining of a "big deep misunderstanding" in the West about the religious situation in China.

When critics questioned why the government had to dragoon all Protestants into one government-loyal organisation, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), and ban all others, he was there as President of the China Christian Council (CCC) with eloquent English to justify the essentially un-Protestant idea.

For decades the Protestant organisations allowed to exist in China have been run by a tight-knit handful of Communist Party loyalists, whose grip is only now starting to loosen. Han Wenzao - though not as formidable a government enforcer as his colleague Ding Guangxun, or as prolific an author - did his bit to defend the bending of Protestant theology to Communist beliefs in Bishop Ding's controversial "theological reconstruction".

Never ordained, Han was a vocal advocate within the TSPM of the importance of lay leadership. He was also highly visible as head of the Amity Foundation, in effect a business allowed by the government to produce bibles and other literature for the TSPM. The foundation - set up in 1985 and also involved in charity work - partnered with the United Bible Societies and other international Christian agencies.

Born in Shanghai in 1923 into a non-Christian family, Han converted while attending the mission-run Hangchow Christian College, was baptised at 17 and became a student Christian leader. He graduated in civil engineering from the Anglican-run St John's University in Shanghai in 1944. Refusing to work under the Japanese, he ended up joining the staff of the Shanghai YMCA.

After the 1949 Communist takeover of China, Han flourished in the new, post-denominational Protestant order imposed by the government. With foreigners expelled and ties with foreign Christians cut, he worked enthusiastically in Christian organisations in Nanjing, promoting the new line. He denounced foreign missionaries as "imperialists".

In 1961 Han took charge of the administration of Nanjing Union Theological Seminary (a shift, he later joked, from civil engineering to human engineering). But like all religious believers he suffered during the Cultural Revolution: he was driven out of the seminary by Red Guards in 1966 and forced to work in the fields. He reportedly persuaded the Red Guards to save a tenth of the seminary library from destruction and managed to hang on to his own copy of the New Testament and Psalms. Han later glossed over this period, merely claiming that it raised his awareness of the needs of rural Christians.

A consummate networker, Han worked hard to retain friends in important places within China and among Christian agencies abroad. But he lived long enough to see the TSPM fade in importance as Protestants who rejected its very essence became increasingly prominent both in official and underground Protestant churches.

Felix Corley