Grattan on Friday: Scott Morrison undeterred on COVID re-opening despite rise in toilet paper index


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Excess buying of toilet paper has become a leading indicator of public alarm about COVID-19. This week in Victoria, people were heading for the shelves again.

Just when Australians’ march out of our dark months was accelerating, Victorian numbers of new cases started ticking up. The state government reimposed some restrictions and declared dangerous hotspots.

Daniel Andrews asked the military to help on both the logistical and medical fronts. Other states were ready to assist. More negatively, the Berejiklian government, which has been insisting Queensland should lift its border restrictions, suddenly wasn’t too keen on traffic across the open NSW-Victorian border.

“Please reassess where you’re going in the next few weeks,” Gladys Berejiklian said on Thursday. “If you have a planned trip to Melbourne, please don’t go. Please do not welcome your friends, who may be intending to visit from Victoria, in the next few weeks, into your home.”

Australia remains balkanised.

Scott Morrison’s frustration is obvious. After reluctantly but wisely initially accepting more of a shutdown than he wanted, Morrison has his eye firmly on the exit sign. With the government announcing $250 million for the creative arts sector, he is asking national cabinet to give the entertainment industry a timetable for venues reopening.




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Government unveils $250 million for ‘creative economy’


Even chief medical officer Brendan Murphy, a fixture at prime ministerial news conferences for months, is vacating his role for a much-delayed start on Monday in his new job as secretary of the federal health department.

When the reopening of the economy began some weeks ago, Morrison and Murphy warned there would be fresh COVID outbreaks that would have to be managed. Now they’ve arrived, and how effectively they can be contained is yet to be seen.

Victoria’s daily tallies of new cases this week were: Monday 16; Tuesday 17; Wednesday 20; Thursday 33. Numbers are expected to rise with wider testing. The question for coming weeks is, when do selective outbreaks turn into a new “wave”?

Unless the health situation deteriorates dramatically, Morrison is determined not to take a step backward.

He sees Australia having the chance to emerge more strongly and rapidly from the crisis than most countries, a prospect reinforced by the latest figures from the International Monetary Fund. It revised its forecast for the Australian economy’s contraction in 2020 from 6.7% to 4.5%. But the broader picture became grimmer: the world recession is likely to be deeper and more prolonged than earlier thought.

Morrison believes in Australia we have reached the point where, with an adequately-reinforced health system and arrangements for dealing with limited outbreaks, we need to accept “that we live alongside the virus”. Speaking at the launch of the arts aid, he said with some force, “We can’t go, stop, go, stop, go. We can’t flick the light on and off, and on and off, and on and off, and on and off.”

But ultimately, it is the states that have the whip hands and in general the premiers, and not just Andrews, are a lot more risk-averse than the prime minister.

Andrews announced he was dispatching 1000 door-knockers to canvass a slew of suburbs, telling people to get tested at vans and ambulances stationed at the end of streets. “We again find ourselves on a knife’s edge,” he said on Thursday. “What we do now will determine what comes next.”

The Victorian outbreaks have stirred a blame game. Critics claim Victoria fell down on testing, didn’t spread the health messages effectively to ethnic communities, and failed to act strongly enough against the black lives protest.

Although only several protesters have tested positive and there’s no evidence the demonstrators in Victoria and other states spread the virus, the condemnation has become that they set a bad example, resulting in other people flouting restrictions and social distancing.

Morrison, who’s been outspoken about various states maintaining closed borders and censorious about the protests, is in general keeping himself in check. This is both to ensure his national cabinet works as smoothly as possible despite internal differences, and because he knows the public wants co-operation at this time, not political sniping.

In just-conducted University of Canberra focus group research ahead of the July 4 Eden-Monaro byelection, participants were in furious agreement with the proposition that in a post-virus world politicians needed to be more collaborative and less adversarial.




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Most participants felt Morrison had gone through a learning process and this was reflected in the creation of the national cabinet. But there were some fears the old, more negative politics would return.

Labor’s research in this seat it holds on a margin of less than 1% would no doubt be hearing the same messages, which fit with Anthony Albanese’s point, expressed when he became leader, that the public has conflict fatigue.

With an eye to Eden-Monaro, Albanese this week proposed his lets-get-together-and-talk initiative – that he and Morrison should negotiate a bipartisan “framework” for energy policy.

Albanese stressed he wasn’t seeking the impossible – bipartisan agreement on the detail. Rather, this was a quest for broad brush strokes to give investors the certainty they crave.

The Albanese move could be read several ways.

Some regarded it as a policy pivot by Labor, especially as its reference to support for carbon capture and storage meant – though it was not spelled out in the letter he wrote to Morrison – there was provision for the coal and gas industries.

And here was Albanese trying to juggle Labor’s strains over climate policy, where there’s pressure from some in caucus, notably resources spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon, to have the opposition’s 2019 position softened.

But primarily, Albanese was trying to put Morrison on the spot, given climate is an important issue in Eden-Monaro and voters are demanding a co-operative approach to politics.

In his letter, Albanese made no significant policy concessions. This was about a public political vibe.

For the opposition leader, there seemed little to lose. The push for bipartisanship echoes what business groups as well as the public desire.

Assuming it goes nowhere with Morrison, the proposal provides Labor with a serviceable line to run out in the last days of the byelection.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Vital Signs: rules are also signals, which is why easing social distancing is such a problem




Richard Holden, UNSW

Australia’s states and territories have begun relaxing the restrictions put in place to contain COVID-19.

From today, for instance, the most populous state, New South Wales, is allowing outdoor gatherings of ten people, the use of public pools and playground equipment, and home gatherings with up five visitors. Restaurants and cafes can also serve up to ten diners, so long as they follow the “four square metres rule” (meaning a premises will need a dining area of 40 square metres to seat ten patrons).

Many will welcome these developments. But they represent a difficult choice for governments.




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Allowing the public greater freedoms will help boost both morale and economic activity. But it risks a second-wave outbreak of COVID-19 and a return to more stringent restrictions.

Easing off on social distancing rules while keeping COVID-19 under control with good but imperfect testing and contact tracing is a tough balancing act.

It’s made even tougher by the fact government rules do more than simply define what is permissible.

The rules also send a message to the public about the information authorities have, influencing personal perceptions and therefore behaviour, regardless of whether it is permitted.

Hearing the wrong story

So governments need to take into account not just the direct effect of rules but, crucially, the broader message absorbed by the public.

There’s a risk people will hear only part of the story, interpreting the easing of restrictions as a sign we’ve beaten the virus and are on our way back to normal.

This, in part, explains why New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian urged continued vigilance when she announced relaxing of restrictions on May 10. “Just because we’re easing restrictions doesn’t mean the virus is less deadly or less of a threat,” she said. “All it means is we have done well to date.”

An extra layer of complexity

Trying to ensure the public doesn’t misinterpret government messages makes decisions on when and how to ease restrictions particularly complex.

The key risk, of course, is that people infer from relaxed restrictions that the government now thinks risks are minimal and everyone can go back to life as it was in January 2020.

This signalling effect means governments need to be more cautious about relaxing restrictions.

On the other hand, the longer they seek to impose rules, particularly if other jurisdictions are easing restrictions, the more they risk losing their authority.

This conundrum can be seen in Australia’s second-most-populous state, Victoria. It has regularly imposed rules going further than those recommended by the federal government.

ABC Q&A host Hamish MacDonald captured this nicely when he asked Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews this week:

Dan Andrews, you would have seen all of the images of people out in Victoria over the weekend, clearly going beyond what was formally allowed in terms of social distancing. Have some Victorians, do you think, seen this federal three-step plan, observed that you’re going to take somewhat longer to deliver on some of the steps, and just taken matters into their own hands?

It doesn’t help that the Victorian and federal governments differ despite both apparently acting on the advice of public health experts.

“Follow the medical advice” has been a powerful aphorism, but it is likely to weaken the further the response to COVID-19 moves from the “hammer” phase – using strict social distancing measures – to the “dance” phase – using more targeted measures such as contact tracing to contain the spread of the virus until there’s a vaccine.

Leading by example

One thing leaders can do to mitigate this problem is communicate to the public through their own behaviour.

Other countries have seen some some disturbingly mixed messages. Britain’s prime minister, Boris Johnson, for example, proudly talked about shaking hands with COVID-19 patients just weeks before he almost died from the virus. US President Donald Trump, among other things, has refused to wear a mask while Americans are being encouraged or required to.




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Australia’s politicians have generally done better. A notable example was federal Health Minister Greg Hunt admonishing mining magnate Andrew Forrest to maintain proper social distance at a press conference last month. That was a powerful reminder, as has been the sight of the prime minister, the chief medical officer and cabinet members standing appropriate distances apart.

The ‘horror-case scenario’

Perhaps what governments fear most is a breakdown in public compliance with social distancing that leads to large enough second-wave outbreaks to warrant a return to the conditions that applied in April.




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This would be a huge blow, both to the economy and the national psyche – which is what will drive business and consumer confidence. Household spending accounts for nearly 60% of GDP, so confidence is crucial to recovery.

That confidence will depend not only on what rules governments put in place but what messages they send to the Australian public in coming months.The Conversation

Richard Holden, Professor of Economics, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

It’s hard to know when to come out from under the doona. It’ll be soon, but not yet



Becca Schultz/Unsplash

Peter Robertson, University of Western Australia

In the wake of our success so far in containing the spread of COVID-19, the prime minister has been prodding us to come out from under the doona.

With the premiers, he has prepared a three-step plan.

The problem, he said on Friday, is that it would be tempting to stay in lockdown tucked up under the doona forever.

And you know, you’ll never face any danger. But we’ve got to get out from under the doona at some time. And if not now, then when?

The treasurer Josh Frydenberg says continuing the lockdown is costing the economy A$4 billion per week.

Economists have sharply polarised positions.

To stay safe, or to live boldly

The preamble to an open letter by 265 Australian economists published in The Conversation last month said that to use those costs as a reason to end the lockdown would represent a “callous indifference to life”.

Others seem to think that the lives lost matter less than the huge economic and social costs staying locked down.

In between those extremes lies a huge band of uncertainty.

A more circumspect comparison of the risks of unlocking compared to the risks of staying locked down suggests that, in purely economic terms, the restrictions make good sense so far.

You start by putting a value on lives

One way to evaluate the merits of relaxing restrictions is to put a monetary value on the fatalities avoided, and compare that cost with the cost imposed by the restrictions.

Putting a monetary value on human life is often viewed as unsavoury. But, whether explicitly or implicitly, it is what is being done every time a government or non government entity makes a decision that affects the risk of increased mortality, from whether to put up a road sign to how to conduct hospital triage.

Being explicit gives some assurance that the proposed measures are proportional. It can alleviate fears that what’s proposed is an under or over reaction.




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The calculus of death shows the COVID lock-down is clearly worth the cost


But numbers alone can not tell us what is the right thing to do. That requires making value judgements – which is the job of politicians.

It is nevertheless helpful to understand how the COVID-19 policy responses measure up to standards used in normal public health decision making.

Making this difficult is the is enormous uncertainty over some of the key variables.

It’s hard to know how many lives

A critical number is the infection fatality rate.

The Oxford Centre for Evidence Based Medicine puts the infection fatality rate at between 0.1% and 0.4% of the population.

For Australia, if 90% were infected, this implies 22,000 to 90,000 thousand fatalities.

This range could further be increased by as much as 50% if not enough intensive care units are available.

Professor Tony Blakely of the University of Melbourne, and Professor Nick Wilson of the University of Otago have reported a larger estimate of 134,000 fatalities.

For planning purposes the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet values a full statistical life, when converted to 2019 dollars – allowing for inflation and growth – of approximately A$5.1 million.

Reasonable arguments could be made that it should be many times larger or smaller.


Saved, Tony Bullimore’s book about the rescue.

As an example, when the lone British sailor Tony Bullimore was rescued from the Antarctic Ocean by the HMAS Adelaide in 1997, the nation celebrated as he emerged from under the hull after hour days trapped in winds of up to 160 km per hour.

Australia’s defence minister dismissed any criticism of the cost.

“We have an international legal obligation. We have a moral obligation obviously to go and rescue people, whether in bushfires, cyclones or at sea,” he said.

In today’s dollars it cost about $10 million to save 57 year old Bullimore’s life. When age is factored in this represents a value that is many times more than the normal value of a full statsitical life used by the prime minister’s department.

A reference figure is $150 billion…

Nevertheless, taking $5.1 million as a conservative estimate of the value of a full life and reducing it by two thirds to take account of the fact that most of the people who die from COVID-19 are in the final third of their lives, gives a conservative cost of 90,000 COVID-19 fatalities in a “do-nothing” scenario of about $150 billion, or 8% of gross domestic product.

By comparison, at $4 billion per week, the economic cost of the first month of restrictions amounts to a little under 1% of gross domestic product.

Spending many times that much to avoid a health crisis that could cost 8% of gross domestic product, and perhaps much more, seems reasonable.

This makes Australia’s lockdown and social distancing regulations eminently justifiable by standard public policy criteria.

…which means we can’t keep doing this forever

But there’s a catch: continuing the regulations indefinitely isn’t an option.

Lockdowns make more sense if there is an exit strategy or end game – such as a vaccine or medical intervention.

Unfortunately, neither are likely within six to twelve months, if ever.

Like cures for cancer, it’s possible they will always remain just over the horizon.

This kind of indefinite time-frame would see the economic and social costs of restrictions rise over time and potentially exceed the statistical value of the lives saved, all the while leaving the vast majority of the population susceptible. Even if COVID-19 were eliminated in Australia, so that economic activity resumed, this would impose substantial costs on tourism and accommodation sectors – potentially for ever.




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COVID lockdowns have human costs as well as benefits. It’s time to consider both


There is a danger of a double tragedy. Without a plan to exit and with no vaccine, we could find ourselves having spent 8% or more of gross domestic product in lockdowns and still face the threat of a national epidemic.

Waiting for a vaccine could become like having yet another go on the pokies – without a commitment to exit, you end up broke with nothing else to spend.

At the moment, the restrictions are justified in financial terms.

But rising economic and social costs mean we will need an exit strategy. This may simply mean learning to live with COVID-19.

With that end-game in mind, taking a cautious peek out from under the doona, soon, makes sense.The Conversation

Peter Robertson, Professor, University of Western Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The stepped approach out of lockdown is the only way forward, but how much we’ll allow the curve to rise is still an unknown


Tony Blakely, University of Melbourne

The federal government has laid out a three-step guide for the states and territories for relaxing the physical distancing measures that have served Australia so well. We need to get back to school, work and play.

Australia is one of the lucky countries, blessed by being “girt by sea”, with a little bit more time to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic – and some good, strong early leadership (such as closing the border to China). We have used that time well, getting the case numbers down to not much more than New Zealand’s low rate, even though they faced a more severe lockdown. Some states, such as WA, may even have succeeded in eliminating community transmission.

Morrison’s language last week of expecting ongoing outbreaks suggests the goal is not to eliminate, but to suppress case numbers. This means accepting there will be grumbling transmission of the virus that pops up here and there as (hopefully) small outbreaks we can stamp out. But there is a risk of things getting out of control, with a second wave of infections possibly much greater than the first.




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The best way forward in a suppression world

Think of it like a seesaw. On one side we have things we want back – the kids at school, going back to work, going to the pub, playing team sports. The problem is each one of these things will make it easier for the virus to circulate. If we went straight back to our old normal ways, it’s inevitable COVID-19 would take off as an epidemic that would swamp our health system – and cause substantial illness and death. We are not going to do that.

So we have to stack the other side of the seesaw with the counterbalancing of really good surveillance systems, testing, keeping our distance, and contact tracing (in which case, yes, the COVID-Safe App can help here).




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With each of these things together, it will in theory allow us to get out and about without the epidemic taking off again.

But we do need to remember it is a theory the world has not tested before. We need to approach this cautiously, learn as we go, and generate the evidence in real time.

How do we do that? By relaxing measures in batches. Hit “release” on the first tranche, then monitor what happens very closely for three to four weeks. (And do not stuff it up by muddying the waters with more loosening ups before the three to four-week window has passed.)

If by three to four weeks, there has not been an unacceptable surge in cases, then release the next tranche and repeat the cycle. If and when the case load gets too high, we then have reached the tipping point for the seesaw – and we will need to stabilise or even tighten up again.

Thus the stepped proposal by the federal government looks like a good framework to follow.

The issue, though, is how far we can get before the seesaw looks like it is tipping. We may get a rude shock; we may not get much of our liberty back before we have to equilibrate, and even go back into lock-down if there is a strong surge in cases.

The fear that is often mentioned is that of a “second wave” of infections that could surpass the first. That will happen in the states and territories that have not eliminated the virus if we open up too rapidly – hence the need for a stepped approach that can be stopped at or before the tipping point that will lead to an unacceptable second wave.

What is an acceptable level of community transmission in Australia?

Understandably, no politician has been brave enough to state publicly how much of an increase in cases is acceptable. But we will find out once restrictions are relaxed and cases start to inevitably rise.

The “acceptable” number of cases we want to remain under might be as low at ten cases per day – a number that would see low levels of death and severe illness. Alternatively, and perhaps better, we may use the number of outbreaks – something like no more than one new outbreak per week in each state or territory.

An outbreak could be defined as one new case with no detectable infection source, through to dozens of infections from the same source (as per the current abattoir outbreak in Victoria).

Learning to live with the virus in this suppression world is likely to be hard work. Which gives reason to pause and ask “is elimination really off the table?” For the country as a whole, probably. The government (and society) has decided to trade off the risk of more infections for some of our freedoms back. Which is understandable.

Everything about COVID-19 is calculated risk-taking. While some states, such as WA, may have achieved elimination, most have not. So loosening up now will likely mean elimination is unachievable, and suppression our only path forward.The Conversation

Tony Blakely, Professor of Epidemiology, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia starts to re-open, but the premiers have the whip hand on timing


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Scott Morrison has warned of a potentially rocky road as COVID restrictions are lifted to reopen the economy, saying the process must proceed even in the face of expected fresh outbreaks.

“This is a complex and very uncertain environment. But we cannot allow our fear of going backwards from stopping us from going forwards,” he said, unveiling a plan agreed by national cabinet, but to be implemented at different rates in different states and territories.

Morrison made it clear he would be opposed to reimposing restrictions once the unwinding was underway.

The aim is a “Covid-safe economy” in July. According to Treasury, 851,000 jobs would be restored in the months ahead.

The “road map” has three steps, laying down baselines for restarting activities.

In the first stage, rolled out any time from now, people can have up to five visitors to their house and gatherings of up to 10 will be allowed outside of the home.

Small restaurants and cafes can reopen, but only with up to 10 customers at a time.

Playgrounds can open, as well as libraries and community centres; outdoor bootcamps can restart and auctions will be permitted.

Local and regional travel for recreation will be allowed.

On the work front, the advice is “work from home if it works for you and your employer”, which Morrison described as “a difference in emphasis” compared with the stronger encouragement previously for people to work from home.

Under the relaxed rules, funerals can have up to 30 attendees outdoors and 20 indoors, and weddings 10 people in addition to the couple and the celebrant.

Step two will allow outside gatherings up to 20 people, and gatherings up to 20 in re-opened indoor gyms, beauty salons, cinemas, theatres and amusement parks, galleries and museums.

Cafes and restaurants will be able to seat up to 20 people at one time.

States and territories may allow larger numbers in some circumstances.

Some interstate recreational travel would be considered, depending on the jurisdiction.

The third stage sees gatherings up to 100 allowed and people returning to their workplaces. Food courts, cafes and restaurants will be able to operate with up to 100 people, as will saunas and bathhouses. All interstate travel will be permitted.

In this stage consideration will be given to opening bar areas.
Strip clubs and brothels would remain closed.

There would be consideration in this stage of travel between Australia and New Zealand, Pacific Island travel and travel arrangements for international students.

Morrison said the pace of lifting restrictions “will totally be up to the states and territories. They’ll be responsible for setting their own timetable and communicating that to their citizens and residents in their own states and territories.”

He also said premiers and chief ministers “have asked me to stress there should be no expectation of step one starting on day one, unless they are indeed already there”.

Moving on these steps would take some preparation, he said.

Movement from one step to the next would depend on three criteria – that the medical evidence suggested further easing wouldn’t be an undue risk, widespread testing was identifying community transmission, and public health actions were able to trace cases and trap local outbreaks.

“Testing, tracing, trapping, as they were saying in the Northern Territory recently,” Morrison said.

National cabinet will review progress every three weeks.

Asked whether, when expected fresh outbreaks came, states, territories and Australians needed to hold their nerve and not snap back to tighter restrictions, Morrison replied without hesitation, “yes”.

But he also made it clear if there was a widespread outbreak the government would take the health advice.

Morrison said Australia’s health system and testing and tracing arrangements put it in a good position.

In this plan to lift restrictions, “we walk before we run. We know we
need to be careful to preserve our gains”.

But “if we wish to reclaim the ground we lost, we cannot be too timid. There will be risks. There will be challenges. There will be outbreaks, there will be more cases, there will be setbacks,” he said.

“Not everything will go to plan. There will be inconsistencies. States will and must move at their own pace, and will cut and paste out of this plan to suit their local circumstances. There will undoubtedly be some human error. No-one is perfect. Everyone is doing their best.”

Victorian premier Daniel Andrews, who has been the most conservative of the premiers, said he would not make announcements until next week.

He also hinted he might open schools – which in Victoria are providing distance learning to all but a few students – earlier than the current arrangement. Victoria has angered the federal government with its hard line on schools. The national health advice has been that schools can be safely open and Morrison has pushed that issue.

NSW also will not act before next week, with premier Gladys Berejiklian noting the state had already moved to lift some restrictions.

The state breakdown of the Treasury forecast for the jobs restored in coming months is: NSW 280,000, Victoria 216,000, Queensland 174,000, South Australia 55,000, Western Australia 85,000, Tasmania 18,000, Northern Territory 9000, ACT 14,000.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Church Registration in Vietnam Inches Along


Assemblies of God obtains ‘operating license,’ but quest for recognition continues.

HO CHI MINH CITY, October 23 (CDN) — The Assemblies of God (AoG) in Vietnam on Monday (Oct. 19) received an “operating license,” which the government described as “the first step . . . before becoming officially legal.”

This operating license gives permission for all of the congregations of the Vietnam AoG to “carry on religious activity” anywhere in the country for the next year. During this time the church body must prepare a doctrinal statement, a constitution and bylaws and a four-year working plan to be approved by the government before being allowed to hold an organizing assembly. These steps, AoG leaders hope, would lead to legal recognition.

The operating license is the first one granted since five were granted two years ago. The last of those five churches, the Christian Fellowship Church, was finally allowed to hold its organizing assembly in late September. According to an internal 2008 government Protestant Training Manual obtained by church leaders, this assembly was delayed because authorities observed large discrepancies between the number of followers the group claimed and the actual number, as well as other “instability.”

Vietnam News Service reported on Sept. 29 that the Christian Fellowship Church has “30,000 believers nationwide.”

Should the AoG achieve legal recognition, it would be the ninth among some 70 Protestant groups in Vietnam and the seventh since new religion legislation touted to expedite registration was introduced in 2004.

The AoG quest was typically long, and it is not yet over. Though started in the early 1970s before the communist era, the denomination was deemed dormant by authorities after the communist takeover and restarted in 1989. Strangely, the Vietnamese religion law requires a church organization to have 20 years of stable organization before it can even be considered for legal recognition.

Though the AoG had been trying for years to register, only this year did it fulfill the 20-year requirement in the eyes of the government. Sources said AoG’s resistance to strong pressure by the government to eliminate a middle or district level of administration may also have contributed to the delay.

Ironically, the official government news report credits the Vietnam AoG with 40,000 followers, while denominational General Superintendent Samuel Lam told Compass the number is 25,000. He also said he hoped the advantages of registration would outweigh the disadvantages.

With no more operating licenses being granted, the future of registration is in a kind of limbo. Sources said a lower level of registration in which local authorities are supposed to offer permission for local congregations to carry on religious activities while the more complicated higher levels are worked out has largely failed. Only about 10 percent of the many hundreds of applications have received a favorable reply, they said, leaving most house churches vulnerable to arbitrary harassment or worse.

Leaders of all Protestant groups say that they continue to experience government resistance, as well as social pressure, whenever they preach Christ in new areas. They added that evidence is strong that the government’s aim is to contain Protestant growth.

Hmong Christians who fled the Northwest Mountainous Region for the Central Highlands a decade ago, developing very poor land in places such as Dak Nong, reported to Compass that they were singled out for land confiscation just when their fields became productive. They said ethnic Vietnamese made these land grabs with the complicity of the authorities, sometimes multiple times.

At the same time, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported on Oct. 19 that Vietnam has experienced a “sharp backsliding on religious freedom.” Among other incidents, HRW cited the late September crackdown on followers of Buddhist peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh. Some 150 monks were forcibly evicted from his sect’s Bat Nha Monastery in Lam Dong province on Sept. 27, and 200 nuns fled in fear the next day. As in recent land disputes with Roman Catholics involving thousands of demonstrators, authorities hired local and imported thugs to do the deed to present the image that ordinary local people were upset with the religion.

After a visit to Vietnam in May, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommended that the United States reinstate Vietnam as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC), the blacklist of religious liberty offenders. Vietnam had been on the list from 2004 until 2006.

The USCIRF, which experienced less government cooperation that on some previous visits,  observed that “Vietnam’s overall human rights record remains poor, and has deteriorated since Vietnam joined the World Trade Organization in January 2007.”

Some key Protestant leaders describe themselves as weary and frustrated at what they termed the government’s lack of sincerity, extreme tardiness and outright duplicity regarding religious freedom. They too said they believe that the lifting of Vietnam’s CPC status was premature and resulted in the loss of a major incentive for Vietnam to improve religious freedom.

Report from Compass Direct News 

CHINA: OFFICIALS REACH OUT TO HOUSE CHURCHES; RAIDS, ARRESTS CONTINUE


TSPM offers Bibles and “assistance,” but rights groups say efforts fall short.

DUBLIN, December 9 (Compass Direct News) – In recent months Chinese officials have attempted to build bridges with the Protestant house church movement even as police raided more unregistered congregations, arrested Christian leaders and forced at least 400 college students to swear they would stop attending such worship services.

With rights groups saying more effort is needed to address rights abuses and secure full religious freedom for Chinese Christians, two research institutes – one from the government – organized an unprecedented symposium on Nov. 21-22 that concluded with an agreement for house church leaders to begin a dialogue with government officials.

A delegation of six house church leaders from Beijing, Henan and Wenzhou provinces attended the seminar, entitled, “Christianity and Social Harmony: A Seminar on the Issue of Chinese House Churches,” along with scholars and experts from universities and independent research facilities. Members of the Minorities Development Research Institute, a branch of the China State Council’s Research and Development Centre, and the Beijing Pacific Solutions Social Science Research Institute co-hosted it.

In a report summarizing the forum, Beijing house church representative Liu Tong Su said that China’s religious institutions and regulations were clearly outdated and inadequate to meet the needs of the church.

At the conclusion of the meeting, house church delegates agreed to dialogue with the government, Liu said, though he insisted, “Only God can control the spirituality of faith. No worldly authorities have the right to control a man’s spirit.”

The government has been entrusted by God with the authority to maintain external public order, Liu added.

“If the government can limit its governing territory to areas of maintaining public order in external conduct, then according to the teachings of the Bible, the house church will definitely obey those in authority within the boundary that God has set,” he said.

Experts presented reports on the rapid development of house church networks, including the number of Christians, geographical distribution, cultural and ethnic make-up and connection with foreign Christians, according to the Gospel Herald.

A month earlier, the chairman of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) – responsible along with the China Christian Council (CCC) for overseeing China’s Protestant churches – told a gathering of 200 Hong Kong church leaders of his desire to assist Chinese house churches and provide them with Bibles, according to Ecumenical News International (ENI).

At the Oct. 22 conference entitled, “Chinese Church – New Leaders, New Challenges,” TSPM Chairman Fu Xianwei declared, “For those house churches without registration, we will try our best to be with them, to recognize them and to help them, so long as they have an orthodox faith, don’t stray from the truth and don’t follow heretics.”

Fu and 11 other members of the newly-elected leadership team of the CCC/TSPM also said they were willing to provide house churches with Bibles, ENI reported.

Bible distribution is largely the responsibility of Amity Press, China’s only official Bible printing company, which recently announced its intention to place more Bibles in the hands of rural Christians. Daniel Willis, CEO of the Bible Society in New South Wales (NSW), Australia, launched an appeal on Nov. 12 to support Amity in this goal.

Speaking at the launch, Willis asserted, “Smuggling Bibles into China places Chinese Christians at risk, and now with the new Amity Press operational in Nanjing, smuggling is a waste of resources.”

Amity opened a new multimillion dollar printing facility in May with a capacity to print 12 million Bibles per year. Most of those Bibles are printed in foreign languages for export outside China.

“China is experiencing a great freedom of worship,” Willis added. “With this wonderful change the church is spreading rapidly … Each Chinese Christian would like to experience the joy … that owning their own Bible brings – but unfortunately for many, obtaining a Bible is difficult and often out of their reach financially.”

The China Aid Association (CAA) issued a statement on Nov. 20 that Amity did not produce enough Bibles to meet the vast needs of the church in China or to replace lost or worn copies. It also pointed out that distribution was still strictly limited to government-approved channels.

Earlier this year, the Rev. Dr. Chow Lien-Hwa, vice-chairman of the board of Amity Press, stated in an interview with the NSW Bible Society that Amity was printing 3 million Bibles per year for mainland China. Chow also outlined a plan to allow Bible distribution through a chain of government bookshops and claimed that house church Christians could buy Bibles from TSPM churches without having to provide personal identity information.

Pastors from both house churches and official TSPM congregations have reported to Compass a shortage of Bibles and other Christian materials in Beijing, the northwest, the northeast, and the southwest. Church growth in tribal areas also has created an urgent need for Bibles in minority languages.

 

Raids, Arrests Continue

Rights groups pointed to recent raids and arrests, however, as confirmation that Chinese authorities still restrict freedom of worship for local house church Christians.

Police raided a house church gathering in Tai Kang county, Henan province on Dec. 3 and arrested all 50 Christians, CAA reported on Thursday (Dec. 4). Public Security Bureau officers also raided another gathering of 50 house church believers in Xiji town, Zaozhuang city, Shandong province on Dec. 2, arresting 20 Christian leaders and demanding a fine of 2,500 yuan (US$365) per person to secure their release.

CAA also confirmed that police carried out multiple raids on house church gatherings in Beijing and in areas near college campuses in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, from late September to early November, detaining leaders of the Local Church house church network. Four leaders in Zhejiang were sentenced to labor camp for 12 to 18 months.

Officers also arrested at least 400 Christian college students. After intense questioning, police forced each student to write a statement of repentance agreeing to forsake such gatherings.

Commenting on reports of persecution in China, Chow of Amity Press claimed victims were not true Chinese citizens, but Chinese with foreign citizenship who had entered China to carry out illegal activities.

“When we go to another country we must be law-abiding citizens of that country,” Chow insisted. “The law, whether you like it or not, says you can only preach in the churches, you cannot go on the street.”

Some house churches are actively seeking registration with authorities to avoid arrests and inconveniences, ENI reported in October. Such groups, however, prefer to register outside the CCC/TSPM structure, disagreeing that different Protestant beliefs can be reconciled under the TSPM as a self-described “post-denominational” umbrella organization.

House church members also object to the TSPM’s interference in congregational practices, according toe the U.S. State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report 2008. The report notes that many unregistered evangelical Protestant groups refuse to register with TSPM due to theological differences, fear of adverse consequences if they reveal names and addresses of church leaders or members, or fear that it will control sermon content.

 

Released from Prison

Responding to international pressure, officials on Dec. 2 released house church pastor Zhu Baoguo of Henan province, citing medical reasons. Authorities had raided a house church gathering on Oct. 12, arresting Zhu and four other leaders, before sentencing Zhu on Oct. 30 to one year in labor camp, CAA reported.

Officials also released house church pastor Wang Weiliang from prison on Nov. 25 for medical reasons, according to CAA. Authorities sentenced Wang to three years in prison in December 2006 for protesting the July 2006 destruction of Dangshanwan Christian church in Xiaoshan, Zhejiang province. Seven other believers were arrested at the time; authorities have released all but one, who remains in detention in Hangzhou.

 

A Breakthrough for China’s House Churches?

At last month’s symposium on Chinese house churches, officials from government research organs, scholars from government think-tanks and universities, independent researchers and an unprecedented delegation of six house church leaders from Beijing, Henan and Wenzhou attended.

At the groundbreaking conference, sponsored by the Minorities Development Research Institute of the China State Council’s Research and Development Center and the Beijing Pacific Solutions Social Science Research Institute and entitled, “Christianity and Social Harmony: A Seminar on the Issue of the Chinese House Churches,” participants discussed every aspect of the house church movement in China.

Statistics were a key issue, with most agreeing that the number of house church members was vast and rapidly increasing. Estimates ranged from 50 million to 100 million members of Protestant house churches, as compared with approximately 20 million members of registered Protestant churches.

Delegates were surprisingly bold in their discussion and criticism of China’s religious policy, and several put forward practical plans for the abolition of institutions such as the State Administration for Religious Affairs (formerly the Religious Affairs Bureau) and the Protestant Three-Self Patriotic Movement.

They also called for serious and ongoing discussions between the government and house churches, and Christian leaders called for the lifting of a ban on house churches and a review of restrictions on church registration and appointment of pastors.

Many participants agreed that the democratic management of house churches in accordance with the rule of law was a logical step to bring religious policies into line with China’s open-door economic policies.

While certain sectors of leadership may welcome these suggestions, others entrenched in the atheist system of the Communist Party were expected to balk at such reforms.  

Report from Compass Direct News