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Beijing Bows to Belief

In China there is growing government acceptance of religious participation -- but Western-style tolerance and religious freedom are still a long way off.

By 11.15.05

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This article appeared in The American Spectator's October issue. To subscribe, please click here.

What is God doing in China? The economic miracle of this emerging superpower gets well reported, but its more mysterious and some say no less miraculous spiritual development is far harder to chronicle. However, after recently spending five weeks on a prisons, pulpits, and public speaking tour of eleven cities and five countries in the Asia Pacific region, beginning in Sydney, Australia, and ending in Shenzhen, your High Spirits columnist is willing to try his hand at reading the latest tea leaves.

No statistic or conclusion is entirely reliable in the opaque and complex world of China-watching, but four clear trends are emerging. The first is a spectacular growth of Christian believers in China attending both the official and underground churches. The second is a recent rapprochement between the Catholic Church and the Chinese authorities. The third is a massive evangelistic and prayer support drive from Christians in the surrounding region for their Chinese brothers and sisters. The fourth is the intriguing new initiatives undertaken by the Department of State Administration for Religious Affairs in Beijing. Combined, these developments suggest growing government acceptance of religious participation in Chinese society, even though Western-style tolerance and religious freedom are still a long way off.

These trends are remarkable in themselves, given that less than 40 years ago Christianity appeared unlikely to survive in China. At the height of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s, Chairman Mao expelled the last of the old Western missionaries and ruthlessly persecuted what remained of their dwindling flock, which numbered less than half a million. Yet four decades later, there are at least 30 million regular churchgoers in the country (the official government estimate); probably over 50 million (the consensus figure among statisticians at Western embassies); and quite possibly around 100 million (the number proclaimed by underground church pastors, who say they are recruiting at the rate of 20,000 converts a day).

Whatever the statistics may be, I saw enough of official and unofficial church life during my recent visits to Shenzhen, Beijing, and Guangzhou to know that the spiritual vitality of ecclesiastical China is reflected in an astonishing rate of growth.

There used to be a view amongst Protestants that the officially authorized church, which bears the Orwellian name of the Three Self Patriotic Movement, did not preach authentic Christianity to its small congregations of elderly faithful, who were about as theologically alive as a geriatric ward of Episcopalians. Not anymore. In Shenzhen, a Southern frontier boomtown with a population of 10 million and an average age among its citizens of 26, there are now at least 500 official churches and an equivalent number of so-called "third churches," which are unofficial yet tolerated by the authorities. All are packed with youthful believers flocking to hear good biblical preaching of the Gospel.

The same pattern can be seen in Beijing. In that city I have a Chinese friend who is assistant pastor of a church that was "underground" when I visited it two years ago, in the sense that it was kept under regular police surveillance. These days my friend tells me that his church has doubled in size and is now "above ground," since the police have gone away and the services are advertised to all comers. "We make no trouble and we attract many intellectuals," says this pastor. "It has been accepted by the party that we are here to stay."

The inevitability of permanence and growth in China's Catholic community has also been accepted by Beijing's Department of State Administration for Religious Affairs (DSARA). According to Bishop Joseph Zen Zi-Kun of Hong Kong, Pope Benedict XVI has recently authorized a series of informal talks between his representatives from the Rome-based Community of San Egidio and the DSARA to explore the possibilities of restoring diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Beijing. One condition of such normalization would have to be assurances from Beijing that human rights violations against Christians would cease. This raises the issue of Beijing's wish to differentiate between official religions and "cults" -- a code word that in Communist-speak can apply to anything from an up-country Baptist church to Falun Gong, the mystical breathing exercises movement with alleged links to Taiwan.

What troubles the hardliners in Beijing about such so-called cults is not their theology but their organizational powers. Any unauthorized group, cult, or church that can organize the gathering together in one place of a few hundred single-minded people (in Falun Gong's case a few hundred thousand) is liable to get ruthlessly suppressed. Even in the case of well-behaved worshippers these suppressions can get extremely nasty, as the best-selling book The Heavenly Man by the underground church pastor Brother Yu has recorded.

However, as the new outward-looking China enjoys its World Trade Organization membership and prepares to host the next Olympics, it does not want to be pilloried in the global media for persecution of Christians. So instead it is becoming nicer to mainstream Protestants, Catholics, and even to its home-grown "third churches."

Perhaps sensing the evangelistic opportunity that the improved conditions within China for church growth are now offering, Christian organizations and churches all around the Asia-Pacific region are engaged in energetic long-term work to build bridges of support and understanding within China.

I GAINED SOME INSIGHTS into this gathering network because my speaking tour was organized by two Christian ministries that have active China-friendly outreach policies. One was Alpha, whose "Introduction to Christianity" courses have been taken by 7 million people around the world. They include tens of thousands of Chinese speakers in places like Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. This year the first Alpha conference in China took place in Shanghai.

Another groundbreaking conference that I attended in Shenzhen was jointly organized by Charles Colson's ministry, Prison Fellowship. The subject of the conference was Criminal Justice Reform with special focus on Restorative Justice. Our agenda was an exchange of ideas between academics and prison professionals. In terms of spiritual or political content we were only at the equivalent stage of the ping-pong diplomacy that preceded Richard Nixon's opening to China. Yet two or three years ago it would have been unthinkable that Christian ministries like Alpha or Prison Fellowship could be holding conferences in Chinese cities with distinguished Chinese participants. So the tea leaves are moving.

Perhaps the most intriguing tea leaf I came across was in Singapore. My hosts were the leading Christians of that remarkable city-state, and they were buzzing with fascinating revelations about their previous visitor two days earlier. He was a high-ranking Communist party official from Beijing, Mr. Ye Xiaowen, the director general of State Administration for Religious Affairs. What had Mr. Ye Xiaowen been doing amongst Christians in Singapore? I asked. "He came here with a delegation to take part in our seminar with the title 'Seek the Welfare of the City' (Jeremiah 29:7)," was the surprising answer. "He wanted to find out how we had integrated Christians and other faiths into our society, and how as fellow Chinese we had balanced the issues of church and state."

In China it can take years, sometimes generations, before a tea leaf turns into a trend. Yet my reporter's and ex-politician's nose tells me that the leadership of China is doing no more than bowing to the inevitable. For if China really does have a fervent churchgoing population that is approaching ten percent of the actual population, the Maoist options of marginalizing Christians, let alone suppressing them or persecuting them, are not going to work. So as the old Tammany Hall saying goes, it will be a case of: "If you can't beat them, join them." If that happens in China the most appropriate verse of Scripture will be Psalm 65, verse 13: "The Lord's valleys shall stand so thick with corn that they shall laugh and sing."

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About the Author

Jonathan Aitken, The American Spectator's High Spirits columnist, is most recently author of John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace (Crossway Books). His biographies include Charles W. Colson: A Life Redeemed (Doubleday) and Nixon: A Life, now available in a new paperback edition (Regnery).