Book Review

Jesus in Beijing


Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power, by David Aikman. Regnery Publishing, Washington, D.C., 2003. 344 pages including index. ISBN 0-89526-128-6, hardcover. Cost $27.95 at www.amazon.com.

Reviewed by John Peace

David Aikman has given us perhaps the most useful introduction to the explosive increase and growing influence of Christianity in China. With a PhD in history, the former Time magazine bureau chief in Beijing and Moscow possesses the necessary background for a big-picture assessment of the expanding role of Christians within Chinese society. Add to that an eye for personal detail, aggressive investigative reporting, courage, wit and a great deal of hard work, and you have the ingredients of a stirring account of one of the most momentous developments in modern times.

According to Aikman, we are talking not just about an incredible increase in the number of Chinese Christians over the past fifty years (from one or two million to more than 70 million), but what might become a fundamental shift in world power alignments. In other words, the spread of a vibrant Christian faith throughout all echelons of society could produce a “critical mass” of believers that would impact both domestic and foreign policy. Specifically, evangelical Christians could tilt their nation towards America in the global conflict between Islam and the West.

Despite such claims on the dust jacket and in the first and final chapters, the heart of the book lies in the vivid portraits Aikman paints of intrepid missionaries and fearless Chinese believers over a span of more than a thousand years.

Aikman begins with the story of early missionary efforts in China, from the Nestorians in the 7th century, followed by Franciscans in the 13th century, to the Jesuits in the 16th century. Each time, foreigners fell victim to Chinese politics and were driven out or suppressed.

The history of the Protestant church in China starts with the heroic efforts of Robert Morrison who arrived in Canton (now called Guangzhou) in 1807. His translation of the Bible laid the foundation for the substantial success of thousands of Protestant missionaries from the West in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century.

When Mao took control of China, however, all foreigners once again had to leave. Many wondered whether the Chinese church would survive. Jesus in Beijing offers thrilling proof, not only of survival, but of unprecedented growth.

Following a roughly chronological order, the author introduces us first to the “Patriarchs”—a handful of stalwart pastors who endured decades of harsh treatment in prison because they would not join the state-controlled Protestant Three Self Patriotic Movement “church.” Interviews with these brave men provide the basis for brief sketches of their sufferings and their profound impact upon the current generation of believers who have been inspired by the courage of their elders.

Next come the “Uncles”—leaders in their forties and fifties who now guide tens of millions of believers in “house church” networks. They, too, have undergone brutal persecution for refusing to bow the knee to Caesar, by joining the government-sponsored Three- Self Patriotic Movement “church” (TSPM). Imprisonment, cruel beatings, and the indescribable agony inflicted by the electric stun-gun have failed to dampen their zeal or commitment to evangelism.

Aikman also introduces us to “Aunts, Nephews, and Nieces,” who follow in the footsteps of the Patriarchs and Uncles to take the message of Christ to China’s millions. He traces the growth of house churches, describes miracles and quotes joyful believers from all walks of life.

Theologians will notice his bias towards “charismatic” forms of Christianity and his less-than-limpid analysis of their apparent misunderstanding of reformed doctrine. He does not dispute the belief among Chinese believers that twenty to thirty percent of their countrymen will be Christian within a few decades, but neither does he try to analyze what “Christian” might mean under those circumstances.

Currently, evangelism is done in such a way that millions of professions of faith result, but the reality or depth of those conversions is often questionable. The world view of such “Christians” usually lacks depth and breadth. Only a handful of them may have the means or opportunity to apply anything like a biblical standard to the questions of their society so that their political influence would be uneven at best. Nevertheless, in a chapter on “Artists, Writers, and Academics,” Aikman offers solid evidence for his optimism about the coming cultural impact of Christianity upon even the upper levels of Chinese society.

Aikman admits that China could still lurch towards aggressive nationalism in the near future. He does not mention the possibility that a strong anti-Christian reaction with ruthless and thoroughgoing persecution could push the church to the margins of society as has happened a number of times in the past several hundred years, but the book offers plenty of grounds for not being surprised if that happens.

However, Aikman is a reporter, not a theorist, and he keeps his focus clear: to relate to those on the outside the activities and attitudes of a truly remarkable array of ardent followers of Jesus.

Several well-researched chapters take us into the complex world of both the Three Self Patriotic Movement and of the two Roman Catholic organizations (one loyal to Rome, the other at least nominally subservient to the government). He includes a very balanced survey of the role of foreign Christians in China over the past couple of decades.

He has received some criticism for revealing more information about some Christian ministries operating in China than seems necessary. He responds by observing that the Chinese already know what Christians are doing and don’t really have time to listen in on every conversation. But his detractors, though admitting that the police know more than we would like, reply that it is better not to make the Christian work of foreigners so prominent that the government is compelled to crack down. Perhaps his role as a reporter has kept him from seeing things as would those who live and minister among Chinese.

He also points out the danger of splits, cults and heresies. The horrendous turmoil resulting from the Taiping Rebellion in the mid-19th century shows what a cult can do. China’s leaders are aware of that history and are zealous to quash any such movement. They do not know how to distinguish true religion from false; thus, their blows could (and often do) fall on orthodox groups.

In the end, however, Jesus in Beijing is mostly about the indomitable house church movement which, starting as a tiny seed in the dark soil of remote villages during the days of the Cultural Revolution, has blossomed into a marvelous garden of immense variety and beauty.

David Aikman (now an American citizen) joins the select company of English-born China researchers—Leslie Lyall, David Adeney, Tony Lambert, Ross Paterson—whose superb studies over the past four decades have refreshed the tired, complacent and sometimes even jaded hearts of Western Christians. May their tribe increase!

Image credit: Gaylan Yeung.

John Peace

John Peace, Ph.D., is a pen name for a scholar who has worked among Chinese in Asia and America for 25 years. View Full Bio