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Jesus in China: Christianity’s rapid rise
The rise of Christianity is reshaping the officially atheist nation, its politics and the way many Chinese view the world. The Tribune’s Evan Osnos reports from Beijing and the countryside.
By Evan Osnos
4:57 PM CDT, June 22, 2008
(BEIJING – June 28, 2008) Rev. Jin Mingri peered out from the pulpit and delivered an unusual appeal: “Please leave,” the 39-year-old pastor commanded his followers, who were packed, standing-room-only on a Sunday afternoon, into a converted office space in China’s capital. “We don’t have enough seats for the others who want to come, so, please, only stay for one service a day.”
A choir in hot-pink robes stood to his left, beside a guitarist and a drum set bristling with cymbals. Children in a playroom beside the sanctuary punctuated the service with squeals and tantrums. It was a busy day at a church that, on paper, does not exist.
Christianity — repressed, marginalized and, in many cases, illegal in China for more than half a century — is sweeping the country, overflowing churches and posing a sensitive challenge to the officially atheist Communist Party.
By some estimates Christian churches, most of them underground, now have roughly 70 million members, as many as the party itself. A growing number of those Christians are in fact party members.
Christianity is thriving in part because it offers a moral framework to citizens adrift in an age of Wild West capitalism that has not only exacted a heavy toll in corruption and pollution but also harmed the global image of products “Made in China.”
Some Chinese Christians argue that their faith is an unexpected boon for the Communist Party, because it shores up the economic foundation that is central to sustaining party rule.
“With economic development, morality and ethics in China are degenerating quickly,” prayer leader Zhang Wei told the crowd at Jin’s church as worshipers bowed their heads. “Holy Father, please save the Chinese people’s soul.”
At the same time, Christianity is driving citizens to be more politically assertive, emboldening them to push for greater freedoms and testing the party’s willingness to adapt. For decades, most of China’s Christians worshiped in underground churches—known as “house churches”—that avoided attention for fear of arrest on various charges such as “disturbing public order.”
But in a sign of Christianity’s growing prominence, in scores of interviews for a joint project of the Tribune and PBS’ FRONTLINE/World, clerical leaders and worshipers from coastal boomtowns to inland villages publicly detailed their religious lives for the first time.
They repeat a seemingly shared belief that the time has come to proclaim their place in Chinese society as the world focuses on China and its hosting of the 2008 Olympics, set to begin in August.
“We have nothing to hide,” said Jin, a former Communist Party member who broke away from the state church last year to found his Zion Church.
Jin embodies a historic change: After centuries of foreign efforts to implant Christianity in China, today’s Christian ascension is led not by missionaries but by evangelical citizens at home. Where Christianity once was confined largely to poor villages, it is now spreading into urban power centers with often tacit approval from the regime.
It reaches into the most influential corners of Chinese life: Intellectuals disillusioned by the 1989 crackdown at Tiananmen Square are placing their loyalty in faith, not politics; tycoons fed up with corruption are seeking an ethical code; and Communist Party members are daring to argue that their faith does not put them at odds with the government.
The boundaries of what is legal and what is not are constantly shifting. A new church or Sunday school, for instance, might be permissible one day and taboo the next, because local officials have broad latitude to interpret laws on religious gatherings.
Overall, though, the government is permitting churches to be more open and active than ever before, signaling a new tolerance of faith in public life. President Hu Jintao even held an unprecedented Politburo “study session” on religion last year, in which he told China’s 25 most powerful leaders that “the knowledge and strength of religious people must be mustered to build a prosperous society.”
This rise, driven by evangelical Protestants, reflects a wider spiritual awakening in China. As communism fades into today’s free-market reality, many Chinese describe a “crisis of faith” and seek solace everywhere from mystical Taoist sects to Bahai temples and Christian megachurches.
Today the government counts 21 million Catholics and Protestants—a 50 percent increase in less than 10 years—though the underground population is far larger.
The World Christian Database’s estimate of 70 million Christians amounts to a 5 percent share of the population, second only to Buddhism.
At a time when Christianity in Western Europe is dwindling, China’s believers are redrawing the world’s religious map with a growing community already exceeding all the Christians in Italy. And increasing Christian clout in China has the potential to alter relations with the United States and other nations.
But much about the future of faith in China is uncertain, shaped most vividly in bold new evangelical churches such as Zion, where a soft-spoken preacher and his fervent flock do not yet know just how far the Communist Party is prepared to let them grow.
“We think that Christianity is good for Beijing, good for China,” Jin said. “But it may take some time before our intention is understood, trusted, even respected by the authorities. We even have to consider the price we may have to pay.”
CHURCH ON THE RISE
The neon signs at Sauna City, a nightclub-and-massage complex in northern Beijing, offered little promise of spiritual comfort. But the rent was good and the landlord sympathetic, so Jin and his partners signed a lease in May 2007 on their improbable new home, a fifth-floor office large enough for 150 chairs, a choir and a band. Then Jin took a step once inconceivable for a non-sanctioned church in China: He printed business cards.
In proclaiming his name and number and the location of the newly christened Zion Church, he spurned the label of “underground” church. He describes his group as “open and independent.”
Jin, a bespectacled father of two with a shock of gray hair, has embarked on his experiment with equal cause for confidence and caution. Despite continuing arrests and crackdowns, Chinese churches have attained a more prominent role in public life than at any time since the founding of the People’s Republic.
Rev. Jin did not set out to be a religious pioneer.
The son of a secular ethnic-Korean family from China’s coal-choked industrial northeast, he was an earnest high school student who won a coveted place in the freshman class at elite Beijing University. Soon, like other strivers, he joined the Communist Party.
But it would take a turning point in China’s history to push Jin toward the church. In his junior year, China’s top leader ordered the People’s Liberation Army to end weeks of pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. The crackdown left hundreds dead, shaking the faith of young intellectuals like Jin who had placed their hopes in the state.
“It affected my generation of university students very deeply,” Jin said of the crackdown that is known in Chinese as “6-4,” for the date, June 4, 1989. “The university students in the ’80s were groomed by the country. Our fees and living expenses were paid for by the country. The 6-4 event left many students hurt. … Like all my other university peers, I felt an immense sense of hopelessness.”
For them, Christianity offered an alternative to China’s political orthodoxy. To those in search of something new in which to believe, the church promised salvation, moral absolutes and a sense of being part of an enterprise larger than China.
“We [had been] taught not to learn from God, that God is a fake,” said Wang Qingying, a 37-year-old member of Jin’s church who grew up the daughter of a Communist Party member. “After I started to believe, I realized that everything that happens is a part of God’s design.”
In a range of interviews, many Chinese Christians described Tiananmen Square as a turning point in the rise of religion. Jin is among them: During that summer, he discovered Christianity through a friend. He soon converted, baffling his parents, who had no experience with religion.
“They thought I’d gone crazy,” he said.
In 1992, Jin joined the state-controlled church known as the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, named for its commitment to “self-governance, self-support, self-propagation,” a credo designed to limit the influence of foreign missionaries. For more than 10 years Jin ministered to churches mostly full of elderly worshipers. The church was most active in the countryside.
But as China’s economic engine roared through the opening years of the 21st Century, something was changing. Migrants streamed into cities. Students explored new ideas. Communism drifted ever further out of view, leaving a spiritual vacuum. After a stint of studying in the United States, Jin returned to China last year but felt constrained by the official church.
“Originally, we used to have a huge government that controlled everything, but now the government is gradually shrinking and civil society is growing stronger and larger,” he said. “I felt that churches should make good use of that opportunity to expand and spread the word of God.”
Authorities were wary — “Officials tried to persuade me not to go down the illegal path”—but Jin reassured them that he had no interest in conflict. “They asked me to write reports to explain what I’m doing. I complied and explained who we are, what we want to do and gave them a schedule of our activities.”
The Zion Church opened its doors in May 2007 with just 20 people. Within a year its membership had surged to 350 worshipers. He preaches a non-denominational but relatively conservative brand of evangelical Christianity. Jin’s urbane services, full of contemporary references to the economy and education and pop culture, tapped a well of fervor among young, successful Chinese.
“Most of our members are highly educated—master’s degree holders, PhD holders, university professors,” he said. There also are executives, entrepreneurs and other professionals. Nine out of 10, he estimated, are younger than 40.
BUSINESS FOR HEAVEN
From the balcony outside his spacious office, tycoon Zheng Shengtao surveys a vast factory clanging with workers producing high-tech printing equipment. It is one of the plants that have made him rich. At 56, Zheng has worked his way up for a quarter-century, from a no-name supplier to CEO of a manufacturing giant, the Shenli Group, and head of the chamber of commerce in the prosperous eastern city of Wenzhou. A chauffeur squires him around town in a silver Rolls-Royce.
But like a growing number of other business owners, he believes China’s sprint to the free market—the very process that created his wealth—has weakened his countrymen’s sense of ethics and imperiled future growth.
“So what happens if I am trustworthy, but others are not trustworthy?” he asked. “Wouldn’t I end up the loser?”
Indeed, many of the church’s new adherents profess a common belief that 30 years of ungoverned capitalism, amid the fading of communist ideology, has opened a yawning spiritual gap.
A public debate in China over ethics in business has bloomed in recent years from an unlikely source: the same unsafe products that have bedeviled U.S. consumers. In the most infamous case, 13 Chinese babies died and 200 were sickened in 2004 when a manufacturer skimped on the ingredients in infant milk. The case became a symbol of an economy so out of control that people could no longer trust their countrymen to adhere to the most basic ethical standards.
Since becoming a Christian five years ago, Zheng has launched a campaign to raise ethical awareness and revive a “system of trust” among his colleagues. “For example, we do not evade taxes,” said Zheng, who serves on the provincial government’s advisory body known as the People’s Political Consultative Congress.”We do not make fake or substandard products. We will not change the contracts and promises made to customers.”
“We are not only doing business for man,” he added. “We are doing business for heaven.”
This awareness is taking root not only in the trenches of China’s new free market, but also among those who are helping to shape the country’s economic reforms.
Professor Zhao Xiao shuttles between the private sector and officialdom, giving elite management seminars to CEOs and advising government cadres on the economy. “If eating Chinese cuisine will make me stronger, then I’ll eat it, and if Western food makes me stronger, then I’ll eat that,” said Zhao, a 40-year-old Communist Party member and economist.
Zhao’s interest in Christianity began when he embarked on a study of how economies in predominantly Christian societies differ from non-Christian ones. He visited South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong. To his own surprise, he began advocating that Christianity could offer China a “common moral foundation” capable of reducing corruption, narrowing the gap between rich and poor, promoting philanthropy and even preventing pollution.
In lectures and writings, Zhao now argues that promoting the 10 Commandments would cultivate “a civilization based upon rules.” Likewise, providing business owners with “a motivation that transcends profits” might keep them from seeking shortcuts that have fouled China’s environment or cheated workers. And encouraging tycoons to donate some of their wealth would develop China’s civic institutions, Zhao argues, just as early American Christians founded Harvard and Yale Universities.
When Zhao took his theory public in lectures to political elites, he braced himself for criticism; as a party member, discussing his newfound faith could stymie his career. Instead he was stunned to discover that many people agreed with him.
He is no political heretic. On the contrary, he thinks permitting Christianity to play a greater role in society could help guarantee the party’s survival at a time when communist ideology is no longer visible in daily life. He believes it is comparable to the party’s decision, a generation ago, to embark on economic reform.
“We see that the Communist Parties of the Soviet Union and all of Eastern Europe have collapsed, and their countries have collapsed with them,” Zhao said. “But the Chinese Communist Party survives … precisely because it continues to change.”
Influential Christians such as Zhao have expanded the role of religion to where it is today in China. For a preview of the future, though, visit the fervent members of the generation that soon will inherit this country.
FUTURE OF FAITH
Down a narrow market street lined with dumpling vendors and vegetable stands, a rutted road in Henan province leads to a home that echoes with what sounds like a party. Men and women in their teens and 20s are packed into a room, dancing to a live guitar, piano and drums. The boys, jumping as though in a mosh pit, shout: “It’s the power of the holy spirit! Nothing can stop it!” A banner on the wall reads “Beijing belongs to God”—a provocative sentiment in a one-party state.
After their performance, they lower their heads and clench their eyes shut. Some have tears streaming down their cheeks, and a woman prays: “China will be a Christian nation.”
The 50 young men and women use this house as a dormitory and practice ground for a Christian performance troupe. The song-and-dance group survives in a legal gray area: Officials usually let them perform discreetly for other churches, with only occasional threats of arrest, said the group’s leader, Wang Guiyin.
Unlike their parents, these young Christians are coming of age at a time when Christianity is slowly shedding the stigma of illegality. Western religion even has a touch of glamor because of high-profile converts in recent years. Retired Olympic soccer goalkeeper Gao Hong is a Christian, as is television actress Lu Liping and pop star Zheng Jun.
Moreover, young Christians are more accustomed than their parents to life outside the official church. The notion that a pastor would need official approval in order to preach puzzles Ma Junyan, a 25-year-old singer in the troupe.
“Jesus tells us to preach to everyone, so they all can follow his words,” she said. “He never said, ‘You have to have this certificate in order to preach.’ I disagree with that practice. Why follow people, not God?”
Chinese authorities are gambling that Christians will agree to follow both people and God. And at Rev. Jin Mingri’s Zion Church, compromise has been the key to success so far. If the current rate of growth continues, it eventually will be a megachurch of 2,000 members. Jin is determined not to let that happen; he wants to limit the congregation to 600 people, to guarantee that he can provide enough individual attention.
Even so, he plans to rent more space. Eventually he wants to move out of the office and build a brick-and-mortar church. But he doesn’t know if that will happen. So far, religious authorities have let him leave the state church, they’ve let him rent office space and set up his own church, and they’ve even let him build a thriving independent congregation with a band and a choir in hot-pink robes. But a building of his own?
“Right now, we’re not allowed to do so,” he said. “But I’ve brought the subject up with the government officials on numerous occasions. We will keep trying.”
Just what kind of relationship his growing Christian church seeks with the state will help determine whether the church and the Communist Party can learn to share China’s soul. Jin is optimistic.
“The power enjoyed by each individual person has grown,” he said. “Naturally, that person will gradually be empowered to exercise his rights to religion. So maybe that’s our future.”
Researcher Xu Wan contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2008, Chicago Tribune
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