China’s Quest for Liberty: A Personal History of Freedom” by Promise Hsu; forward by Ellis Sandoz. St. Augustine’s Press, 2019. Available from St. Augustine’s Press and on Amazon.
“Why do you have liberty and we don’t?”
This is the core question Promise Hsu, founding editor of the online journal Kosmos and a member of Beijing’s Shouwang Church, seeks to address in his long-awaited book, which was originally scheduled for publication in 2014 and finally appeared last year.
Hsu posed this and similar questions to Louisiana political science professor Ellis Sandoz and hundreds of other scholars back in 2006 as part of a personal project to understand “how and why individual liberty under the rule of law was first institutionalized in the West and why it has survived there as nowhere else.” (p. 221)
In a 2007 address to the American Political Science Association entitled “God and the Essence of Liberty,” Hsu summarized his conclusion: “Faith in God as the Lord is the beginning of freedom.” (p. 14) This is the theme he develops in his book, using both philosophical argument as well as engaging stories of individuals whose lives validate his thesis.
Chronicling his own intellectual and spiritual journey, Hsu proceeds along two parallel paths. Chapters of the book alternate between a survey of the concept of liberty in Western political thought and the unfolding saga of Hsu’s church as it unsuccessfully sought legal registration and a permanent place to worship.
Hsu’s intellectual quest began with his passion for learning English as a youth and his studies in international journalism at the Beijing Broadcasting Institute, where he pursued a growing interest in history, politics, philosophy, and other subjects. Following nearly six years as a world affairs journalist with the state-run CCTV network, Hsu left broadcasting to resume what he calls his “freedom project” in earnest by translating Western books, carrying on correspondence with scholars abroad, and writing for various publications in China. Translations of several of these articles appear as chapters in Hsu’s book, covering the spiritual lives and thinking of historical figures such as C.S. Lewis, Peter Drucker, and Marshal McLuhan, as well as contemporary leaders including Leadership Jazz author Max DePree and Wired magazine founder Kevin Kelly.
Other chapters documenting his wide-ranging email exchanges with Western scholars offer a thoroughgoing treatment of the relationship between the transcendent and human liberty. These discussions, and Hsu’s reflections, cover a broad swath of history extending from the era of Plato to Augustine, Calvin, Locke, Hume, and up to contemporary political thinkers including Hannah Arendt, Joseph Needham, John Howard Yoder, Mark Noll and Erich Voeglin (a mentor to the abovementioned Professor Sandoz, who in turn became a mentor to Hsu). Hsu also includes reportage on the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and a fascinating history of churches in Xinjiang born out of the “Back to Jerusalem” movement in the 1940s. Several chapters containing Hsu’s reflections on contemporary developments in China were originally presented at gatherings of The Media Project, an international network that engages journalists around the role of religion in public life.
Hsu’s personal spiritual journey took a decisive turn in 2006 when, through a Chinese scholar referred to him by Professor Sandoz, Hsu came into contact with Shouwang, a rapidly growing unregistered congregation in northwestern Beijing. There he was baptized and became active in the life of the church and in its quest for legal recognition. Hsu was a frequent contributor to the church magazine Almond Flowers, and several of these contributions appear as chapters in the book. Detailing the frustrating, oppressive, and at times brutal suppression of freedom in China, these chapters provide a stark counterpoint to his philosophical discussions of liberty in the West.
As Hsu points out in a postscript to the book posted online following its release, China today is a very different place from what it was when the book was originally written. Hsu’s ability as a CCTV reporter and, later, as an independent journalist to profile Christian figures and to explore in the Chinese mass media the questions he deals with in his book suggests the unique opportunities for influence Chinese Christians had during this period—arguably a much more hopeful era. So does Hsu’s own work of translating Western Christian books for publication in China. Shouwang, a congregation comprised largely of upwardly mobile professionals, symbolized this burgeoning potential, with each twist and turn in its protracted struggle with Beijing authorities holding out the prospect of a breakthrough for the church in Chinese society.
At one point in the book Hsu asks, “Will there be an Esther who can deliver Shouwang and other churches from the crackdown? If history is any guide, the possibility is not unreal [although] how and who could be anyone’s guess.” (p. 88)
Hsu goes on to reflect on the momentous change Deng Xiaoping’s reforms had brought to Chinese society, creating the conditions for the emergence of a church like Shouwang:
If the current government leaders could carry on with this part of Deng Xiaoping’s theory, they would probably help usher in the continued rise of China. They would see a newer China where some truly respected schools, universities, research institutes, hospitals and philanthropic foundations could grow out of house churches or those church-goers, like it has been in the global church history. (p.88)
This hopeful vision of a “Christian China,” a country and culture changed through the influence of the gospel, remains an elusive goal for Hsu and others of his generation who have watched personal freedoms systematically eroding under Xi Jinping’s authoritarian rule. As Hsu says in his postscript:
The partial opening-up initiated since the late 1970s has made possible the aspirations for liberty among numerous people in China like me and those I know. But the space appears to have been shrinking significantly over the recent years. That has been making the road to freedom for many more difficult than in a decade earlier despite it still could be much easier than in the tragic times of the 1950s through the 1970s.1
Although its title may seem to suggest otherwise, China’s Quest for Liberty is not so much a survey of the Chinese pursuit of freedom as it is a study of how the ideal of freedom emerged and took root in the West. Hsu does not address the concept of freedom (or lack thereof) in classical Chinese thought, nor does he cover the likes of Liang Qichao, Lu Xun, or even the Great Helmsman himself, all of whom sought to liberate China from various aspects of its past. As the subtitle suggests, the book is a much more a personal exploration contrasting meta themes of Western cultural development with the on-the-ground realities of life in early 21st century China.
Some readers may find Hsu’s detailed philosophical arguments or his meticulous timeline of events at Shouwang to be tedious. Hsu covers a lot of ground, and at times the juxtaposition of topics can be jarring. Yet for those willing to join Hsu on his journey, this important book offers a valuable inside view of an era of unprecedented openness for Christianity in China and a sober historical assessment of why that era could not last.
- Promise Hsu, “Whither the Growth of Freedom in China? A Postscript to China’s Quest for Liberty,” VoegelinView, December 20, 2019, https://voegelinview.com/whither-the-growth-of-freedom-in-china-a-postscript-to-chinas-quest-for-liberty/. Accessed April 29, 2020.
Image credit: Evgeny Nelmin on Unsplash.
Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding …View Full Bio
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