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Sunday, Aug. 20, 2006The War For China’s Soul
As Christianity begins to reshape the nation, TIME learns naew details about a crackdown on one churchBy SIMON ELEGANT / NANJING
Several weeks after the attack, the witness is still trembling. “Everyone knew trouble was coming,” the man says, describing the day last month that haunts him still. A fit-looking fortysomething wearing a T shirt and jeans, the man was a volunteer working on a half-completed church in a suburb of Hangzhou, a picturesque lakeside city 112 miles southwest of Shanghai. Financed by local Christians, the church was to serve a community of 5,000 parishioners. Hundreds of them gathered at the site on the afternoon of July 29, some joining the construction crew building the church. Others, many of them elderly parishioners, sat on plastic chairs surrounding the church, singing hymns.
The Christians surely knew they were testing the patience of local government officials, who insisted the building was illegal and had to be torn down. But few were prepared for what happened next. Witnesses told TIME that at about 2:30 p.m., thousands of uniformed police and plainclothes security officers appeared at the construction site. The police cleared a way through the crowds for a few drill-equipped backhoes, and the authorities then demolished the church.
Witnesses say police bludgeoned people indiscriminately with nightsticks. “They were picking up women–some of them old ladies–by their hair and swinging them around like dolls, then letting them crash to the ground,” says a man who watched the clash from across the street. A statement faxed to TIME by the information office of the Xiaoshan district government describes the scene differently, claiming that about 100 Christians “attacked and injured government officials” and that although the police detained a few protesters, none were injured. But the volunteer interviewed by TIME produced receipts from the local hospital attesting to his treatment for broken ribs, which he says many others suffered as well. “They treated us like dead dogs,” he says. “Some of them scoffed at us as we lay there, saying, ‘Where is your God now? Why can’t he help you? If you want to go to heaven, we’ll help you get there right now.'”
The crackdown in Hangzhou may seem unremarkable for a country where a public demonstration of any kind can still trigger a brutal government response. For openly religious Chinese, in particular, that’s a constant threat. Human-rights groups regularly report cases of harassment, temporary detention and even long-term imprisonment of priests and their followers. But the Hangzhou episode is also unmistakable evidence that Christianity is transforming Chinese society.
After four failed attempts over a millennium and a half by foreign missionaries to gain a foothold in China, Christianity is finally taking root and evolving into a truly Chinese religion. Estimates vary, but some experts say Christians make up 5% of China’s population, or 65 million believers. And thousands more are converting every day, the vast majority through unofficial “house” churches like the one that sparked the clash in Hangzhou. “Politically, China hasn’t changed at all,” says Dennis Balcombe, who has spent the past three decades evangelizing in China from his base in Hong Kong. “But as far as religion is concerned, it is much, much freer.”
The flowering of Chinese Christianity reflects a wider religious awakening. Long criticized by Western governments and human-rights groups for its virulently antireligious policies, China’s central government has in recent years adopted a more lenient attitude toward religious expression. Traditionally, the Communist Party allowed membership in five officially approved religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestant Christianity and Catholicism. Anything falling outside those groups was officially shunned. Even those adhering to “approved” religions have to register to worship in churches and temples approved by the state. But those rules are becoming harder to enforce. These days, Chinese flock to everything from mystical Taoist sects to huge, prosperous Buddhist temples and spiritually based exercise and meditation systems.
The growth of spirituality poses a challenge for China’s ruling class, which pays little more than lip service to communist ideology but still strives to control its restive populace. Faced with a social phenomenon that would use up huge amounts of time, manpower and international goodwill to curb, Beijing’s cadres have decided to tolerate the new churches so long as they keep a low profile. The more outspoken and organized such groups become, however, the greater the threat they pose to the authority of the Communist Party. For the moment, that influence is confined to local issues related to their faith, such as church building and education. But observers say the challenge could grow, as churches continue to spread out of the countryside and into the cities, where they draw from the ranks of the rapidly growing middle class. “If you look at Chinese history, all the rebellions that led to change of dynasty had some religious connotations,” says Jean-Paul Wiest, an expert in the history of Christianity in China who teaches at Beijing’s University of International Business and Economics.
“The authorities don’t like that.”
There may not be much they can do about it. Across the country, Christians are worshipping with a fervor once unimaginable in a communist society. Take the service held at 10 o’clock on a recent Sunday morning in China’s booming southern city of Shenzhen. Some 40 people are crowded into the living room of a small two-bedroom apartment. The regulars call the place the Home of Love, and like the majority of Chinese Christians, they worship in private because they can’t–or won’t–register with the government-controlled official Protestant Church, the so-called Three-Self Church (the church’s name refers to its three guiding principles of self-reliance). The cries of hawkers selling vegetables and fruits in the alleyway below drift through the grimy windows, but the worshippers have eyes only for the front of the room, where a plump, middle-aged preacher in a tight gray suit stands at a small lectern. Behind him is a large wooden cross draped with a white cotton cloth. Several pictures of Jesus hang on the walls, and Chinese characters phonetically spelling out Emanuel–“Yi-man-nei-yi”–frame an archway.
Because of fears that officers from the Public Security Bureau might disrupt the proceedings, which are illegal, services in house churches are often low-key. Not at the Home of Love. The congregation starts by belting out a series of hymns to an accompanying sound track booming out of several large loudspeakers. After the singing, the preacher launches into a sermon extolling the growth of Christianity in China. Then he steps among the tightly packed worshippers, holding their heads and praying over them, chanting what would sound to most Chinese like gibberish. Soon most of the room has joined him in fervent, noisy prayer, many swaying back and forth, eyes squeezed shut, moaning, shouting, wailing. One woman repeats over and over, “Oh mashalah, oh Yesu, oh mashalah, oh Yesu, oh Yesu, oh Yesu.” (Yesu is Jesus; mashalah seems to mean nothing.) The woman’s face is clenched in ecstasy; tears run down her cheeks.
So far, the government hasn’t done much to halt the spread of such hothouses of faith. But that may be changing, as evidenced by the assault on the Hangzhou church. The mandarins in Beijing have always reserved special venom for groups they label xie jiao, or evil cults. The most famous is the brutally suppressed Falun Gong movement, but the authorities may be tempted to extend that label to the Christian sects that are growing the fastest–those practicing fervid forms of worship that stress miracles and personal inspiration through prayer. A number of cultlike, pseudo-Christian offshoots have sprung up in the Chinese countryside in recent years, apparently inspired by this ecstatic form of worship. Often spawned by the personal ambition of their leaders, these highly secretive groups usually espouse millenarian views that make the authorities profoundly nervous. Members of a sect called the Three Grades of Servants were convicted earlier this year in Heilongjiang province on 20 murder charges, involving attacks on its main rival, Eastern Lightning, a sect that relies on kidnapping and beating to make converts. One of its central aims is the overthrow of the “Great Red Dragon,” a thinly disguised reference to Beijing.
Although Christians tend not to see themselves as revolutionaries, house churches have become one of China’s few bulwarks against government power. In Wenzhou, a city in coastal Zhejiang province known among Chinese Christians as “China’s Jerusalem,” 15% to 20% of the population is Christian, a fact that gives the church leaders much greater authority in confronting local party officials. In 2002, for example, a campaign of protests and appeals to Beijing led to the reversal of a city government decision to ban Sunday-school teaching. In Hangzhou, local officials say the clash–about which TIME was the first to hear eyewitness accounts–stemmed from the church builders’ long-running defiance of government regulations. The county government’s statement contends that three alternative sites had been offered to the Christian community’s representatives but were refused by church leaders.
Chinese authorities insist that they are not hostile to religion as long as it is practiced according to their rules. At officially sanctioned churches like St. Paul’s in Nanjing, a near puritanical attention to order is maintained. There are rows of wooden pews, a pulpit from which the sermon is preached, even a signboard on which hymn numbers are posted. The pastor of St. Paul’s, Kan Renping, 38, says his congregation has grown from a few hundred when he took over in 1994 to some 5,000 regular worshippers today. Many have to watch the proceedings on remote TV from four satellite chapels in a nearby building. Despite the growth, Kan isn’t a proselytizer. “Anyone is welcome to come in and have a chat with me about religion,” he says. “But if people want to come in and talk politics, that we don’t like. We only want to concentrate on religion here.”
In the long run, though, government attempts to circumscribe how people practice their faith seem unlikely to succeed–and could well spark more unrest. It’s telling that even in the face of such crackdowns, some Chinese Christians say they are confident that they will eventually win the freedom to practice their faith as they choose. Brother Chow (not his real name) is one. He is every inch the model of the modern Chinese Christian, a preacher who doubles as a businessman. Despite his pressed jeans, polo shirt and fancy mobile phone, he professes to believe in a deep, ancient faith, one that he says has carried many a Christian through persecution. “Why don’t I think it will be a problem? Because as time goes on, the government will get to know the Christian spirit and realize that God exists.” He smiles with the secret knowledge of a true believer. “And then,” he says, “they will become Christians too.”
Copyright © 2006 Time Inc. All rights reserved.
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