Lead Article

Chinese Christianity

Turning the Nation Around


Barreling along one of the new elevated expressways last July in the city of Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province, a coastal city about 450 miles south of Shanghai, the voice of American country singer Deborah Allen was serenading me from the taxi driver’s cassette tape player. “My baby is the rolling thunder. My baby is a southbound freight train.” As I looked out of the car window at gigantic red crosses atop very large and very new church buildings in this economically vibrant city, I knew I was onto something. Wenzhou by general Chinese and foreign estimation, is the most significantly Christianized city in China, with perhaps some 14 percent of its larger conurban (the city proper and the suburbs) population of seven million already eager churchgoers. China, if country music were the only indicator, is clearly being Westernized in interesting ways. But it is also clearly being Christianized in some ways like rolling thunder.

How fast that process is proceeding is a matter of sometimes passionate debate among observers of the religious scene, and especially the Christian scene, in China. Nobody disputes that the process is rapid. From a generally agreed figure of some 700,000 Protestant Christians and three million Roman Catholic Christians in China in 1949, it is broadly accepted that the figure for the overall population of Christians today is larger than that of 1949 by a factor of at least ten, and possibly even twenty. It is also agreed that the rate of growth has been exceptionally rapid during the past two decades, which also coincides with one of the most intense periods of foreign influence upon China in centuries.

Some of where Christianity is coming from in China today might be called largely cultural. During the month of December, it is near impossible to enter a Beijing hotel or one of the many gleaming new department stores without hearing Christmas carols—usually sung in English. The Jianguo Hotel in Jianguomenwai, for example, traditionally popular with visiting foreigners because of its proximity to many of Beijing’s foreign embassies, doesn’t play just “Deck the Halls” in its elevator and lobby music, it booms out “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “O come, All Ye Faithful,” in English 24/7 during the Christmas season. Nor is it just warm glue-wein for the guests in the hotel lobby. Cute Chinese grade school children show up in red velvet dresses to sing “Silent Night” in English. A few months ago, a national level official from the Public Security Bureau told a Hong Kong Chinese friend of mine he expected within a very few years, Christmas, not Spring Festival, would be the primary national holiday in China.

Christmas, of course, is indeed celebrated all over the world, often in countries that have as much connection to Christianity as America does to Zen Buddhism. In the U.S., of course, political correctness has come to dictate Christmas being referred to as “the holidays,” as though the birth of our Savior and the annual movement of the global clock were somehow conflated into a blurry December mush of office parties and family gift-giving. Christmas could, of course, be introduced into China as unselfconsciously and unspiritually as Deborah Allen or Madonna. But what are we to say about last December’s second annual performance of Handel’s Messiah, in Chinese, with a professional Chinese choir and orchestra, led by a top conductor who is an openly professing Christian, in Beijing’s Forbidden City Concert Hall? And what are we to say when the mostly Christian Chinese audience, after stirring up, through applause, an encore of the Hallelujah Chorus, streams out of the building sharing the gospel with the startled employees? Something very interesting is happening in China.

In fact, there seem to be about four different though related aspects to the current Christianization of China. First, is the continuing growth of the rural based house church movements, with a far greater degree of organization and training than hitherto. One aspect of this development has been the emergence of a keen overseas missionary aspiration. Some of the groups claim already to have sent missionaries (illegally, of course) across the border to nations like Myanmar. A second aspect is the emergence of urban cell-groups of Christian professionals. Business consultants, TV producers, college professors, artists, writers, regularly meet together for Bible study or prayer meetings that are, necessarily, semi-clandestine. Third, is the appearance in the past half-decade of academic centers for the study of Christianity at many Chinese universities. With courses taught by professors who sometimes call themselves “cultural Christians,” these programs focus, among other things, on the role of Christianity in the global rise of the West. Fourth, is what appears to be a continuing political debate—for the time being, still behind closed doors—at both national and provincial levels over how the new emergence of Christianity in society should be treated.

 In some ways, the most promising facet of these developments is the increasing ability of university students and professors to express their faith openly. A sociology professor at Shanghai’s elite Fudan University explained to me that all of his colleagues knew he was a believer, as did most of his students. The only restriction (which would apply to him also, of course, if he were on the campus of a US state university) was that he could not openly indicate his beliefs to students in the classroom. “In China there is no freedom,” he said, selecting his words carefully, “but there is tolerance.”

Even tolerance, of course, is a relative term. During three months of crisscrossing China last summer meeting Christian groups (both registered “official” groups and unregistered, largely underground house church groups), I found plenty of evidence of continuing harassment and persecution of Christians in some areas. Some counties in Henan Province, where two of the largest house church movements are based (Fangcheng Fellowship and China Gospel Fellowship) appear to have Public Security Bureau officials whose formative training was during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Even Wenzhou, whose officials allow house churches to construct their own buildings and to register with the city, not with the government-sponsored Protestant Three-Self Patriotic Movement, has revealed limits to its tolerance. A Washington Post report from its Beijing correspondent, John Pomfret, December 24, 2002, detailed a campaign approaching civil disobedience from Wenzhou churches against efforts by municipal authorities to close down their Sunday school programs. In the Wenzhou case, it appears that some of the city officials were more zealous in controlling, even suppressing Christianity, than their counterparts and superiors in Beijing. Wenzhou has since backed off from this policy.

Oddly, given the prominence of politics within it as the national capital, Beijing seems to be more tolerant of small cell group Christian gatherings than Shanghai. The sophisticated, economically advanced Chinese port city welcomes Western capitalism, but not too much of the Christian faith that, according to some sociologists, contributed to the rise of capitalism more than three centuries ago. Still, even Shanghai has its anomalies. A young Roman Catholic convert that I met over dinner, told how her search for Christianity took a Roman direction.  The Catholic cathedral was the only Christian church in the Shanghai phone book where someone answered the phone in a way friendly to enquirers, and where there were unrestricted classes for faith seekers. American Protestants, in fact, might reflect upon the overt evangelicalism of many young Chinese Catholics. In Beijing’s Jianguo Hotel, already mentioned, the afternoon lobby piano music consisted of a medley of Christian worship choruses (“Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God,” “Amazing Grace,” “I am the Bread of Life”) played by another young woman who told me she herself was a Catholic convert of just three years.

How much of a sense of this Christianization process is being observed, not to mention absorbed, at China’s highest political levels? Of course, without a transcript of Politburo conversations or after-dinner chit-chat at the annual Beidaihe summer vacation retreat for China’s leaders, no one knows for sure. There are anecdotal clues. A Chinese friend told me that he had heard from a guest at a Beijing dinner party, early in 2002, that President Jiang Zemin had said if he could impose one decree with surety upon all of China, it would be that Christianity emerged as the chief religion. If Jiang said that, it might have been a joke, of course. But even if he didn’t say it, the fact that the story has been told indicates some measure of significant discussion at the top.

And not just at the top, of course. Many Chinese house church leaders told me, in describing their various arrest situations of the past that China’s police officials, even at mid-level and lower level, often agree that Christians are “good” citizens and contribute to China’s welfare in important ways. One house church “uncle” related how a township party secretary in Henan Province had even arranged for him to have an evangelistic meeting in a large village. He had seen, the official told the “uncle,” how Christianity, if adopted sincerely, improves the lives of communities at the local level.

In the mid-1980s, this viewpoint was largely accepted at the national level under the premiership of Zhao Ziyang, who not only ordered a sociological survey (favorable to Christianity) of the impact of Christianity upon rural communities in Henan Province but called for investigation of possible new laws freeing up religious practice throughout China. Zhao’s plans, of course, were derailed by his own fall from grace during the Tiananmen crackdown of 1989. Then, New York’s 911 did not help either. The identification of Muslim enthusiasm among China’s minority, overwhelmingly Muslim, communities in the northwest with Islamic radicalism inadvertently tarred all religious believers in China with the brush of potential political dissent. Finally, the sudden and unobserved emergence of Falungong practitioners as overt opponents of the government probably frightened some Chinese officials into believing that religion was too dangerous to be left to its own devices as China continued to modernize.

It is certainly possible, and in the views of some Chinese Christian scholars, probable, that a new, more tolerant view of religious practice will emerge at the national level in China. It has been noticed that the overwhelming majority of foreign teachers of English in China are Christians who love China and wish well to the country. It is also clear that the Religious Affairs Bureau, whose policies are directed by the Communist Party’s United Front Work Department, is viewed by many, even in China, as a heavy-handed bureaucratic agency with no discernible contribution to the national well-being. Even China’s “official” Protestant and Catholic leaders chafe at the restrictions on their activities overseen by the RAB. Despite hints at the national level—a major conference on religion was attended by Chinese Politburo members at the end of 2001—that religion is now viewed by Chinese leaders not as “opium” in Marxist terms but as a potential source of good for China, it may be years before China’s laws on religious freedom catch up with reality on the ground. The stakes are very high. After all, if you permit the free expression of religious faith, can the free expression of political opinions be far behind? In the West they never were. To me the striking thing about this issue is that the majority of Chinese Christians, while eager to see freedom of religion, aren’t holding their breath for it. They are just continuing to evangelize their nation and preparing to send Chinese missionaries overseas. Christianity in China may not yet be a “southbound freight train,” but it is certainly “rolling thunder.”

Image credit: Dalian Skyscape by egorgrebnev via Flicker.

David Aikman

David Aikman, an author and former TIME Magazine foreign correspondent, has reported on Christianity on and off for three decades. He is currently writing a book on Christians in China. View Full Bio