Nicholas Kristof: Keeping Faith in China

Keeping Faith in China
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
Published: June 25, 2006

During the first half of the 20th century, Western missionaries swarmed all over China, yet they converted fewer than a million Chinese and left only a minor imprint on the country.

These days, China bars foreign missionaries, and the government sometimes harasses or imprisons Christians. Yet Christianity is booming as never before in China, and some giddy followers say China could eventually have hundreds of millions of Christians — perhaps more than any other country in the world.


This boom in religion, particularly Christianity but also including the Bahai faith and various cults, reflects a spiritual yearning among many Chinese. While China has an official Catholic church and an official nondenominational Protestant church, which are not suppressed and people can join freely, the fastest-growing churches are the underground ones — usually evangelical without any specific denomination — that are independent of the government. The total number of Chinese Christians today probably exceeds 40 million, and some estimates go far higher.

“This is growing explosively,” said Wang Wenjing, baptized a year ago and now caretaker of the Ark Church, a prominent underground church whose service I attended in Beijing. The Ark Church, one of thousands of “house churches,” meets in a rented apartment on Sunday afternoons. Forty people crammed into the living room, regularly crying “Amen!” as the minister spoke.

After two hours, I thought the service was over — and then it broke into smaller groups for two more hours. One of the groups heard from a Christian who had been jailed and told about wretched prison conditions, particularly for mentally ill inmates. The meeting also planned a clothing drive to help poor people.

One reason for the boom in Christianity is that China is going through just the kind of turbulent social change, including alarm at the eclipse of traditional values, that often drives people toward faith. And in China’s case, Maoism wiped out the traditional religions.

The rise of Christianity constitutes one more challenge to the Communist Party by establishing a network the party cannot easily control. That has already happened with Falun Gong, a religious group that China has suppressed at home. Falun Gong members abroad are now among the party’s biggest antagonists and developed the software that Chinese routinely use to see blocked Web sites.

In a supportive signal, President Bush met last month with three Chinese Christians in the underground church. One of them, a well-known dissident named Yu Jie, took me to Ark Church to attend its service.

“It’s like in South Korea in the 1970′s and 1980′s, when the church was a leader in the democratic movement,” Mr. Yu said.

The Chinese government cracks down on the underground church, but inconsistently and not nearly as harshly as it persecutes Falun Gong. The worst oppression is in rural areas; in rural Hubei a few years ago, I interviewed evangelical Christians who had been stripped, beaten and given electric shocks to force them to renounce their faith. One woman was beaten to death.

The China Aid Association, a U.S.-based group that monitors religious oppression, says that at least 1,958 Christians have been arrested in China in the last 12 months. The worst abuses are in Henan Province, where the police sometimes beat and torture Christians.

But such persecution is the exception in a country where tens of millions of people worship pretty openly and usually without any penalty. In half of China’s provinces, there were no known arrests at all. The security authorities don’t normally bother to raid ordinary house churches or even spy on them much, but the police do apply pressure on those that are considered potential troublemakers. The Ark Church, for example, has had to move six times this year because State Security keeps getting landlords to evict the church.

State Security also called in Mr. Yu’s wife, Liu Min, who has been a Christian longer than he has, and warned her to stay away from the church — and from him. State Security suggested that she divorce Mr. Yu; outraged, she told them off.

I complimented her on her boldness, and she replied: “Actually, I am scared. But this is the only choice I can make.”

More and more Chinese are making that choice, and their faith is reshaping China. One of the oddest legacies of the Communist dynasty may be that after 2,000 years Christianity gains a major foothold in China.

______________

Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 22 Comments

Interesting but rather inevitable that Americans always focus on the “rise” of Christianity in China, while ignoring the much more noticeable rise in China’s more traditional religions such as Buddhism , Taoism and Islam. It’s also taken for granted that the rise in Christianity is always a good thing, despite some disturbing Christian cults such as Eastern Lightning. Kristof makes a passing mention of other religons at the beginning of his piece but then it is straight on to how Christianity is challenging the Party’s control. 40 Million Christians out of 1.3 billion. That’s about 3% of the population – similar to the proportion of Muslims in the US population (6 million out of 295 million). If I wrote an article about how the rise of Islam in the US was challenging the Republican Party, would the New York Times put a similar positive spin on it?
Why should Christianity be expected to take a major foothold in China and not in Thailand, Japan or India? I suspect that the evangelical churches in the US are like the other western corporations who look to China and just see a billion potential customers.

June 24, 2006 @ 11:20 pm | Comment

zhuanjia, do you realise that Kristof is not a Christian? He’s Jewish. That’s, well, very different from being an especially biased supporter of Christianity.

June 25, 2006 @ 4:55 am | Comment

zhuanjia – The “growing” Muslim population you’re talking about does have influence in American politics.

“Muslims’ Vote: Muslims voted in bloc for President Bush in the US presidential election 2000. There is no exit poll information available about the Muslim votes. Nevertheless, based on three unscientific surveys of Muslim voters, Muslims voted 70% to 90% in favor of Bush with a significant 34% voting for the first time. Muslims, therefore, became the only bloc vote for Bush. In Florida, the last battleground, there would not have been any battle without an estimated 60,000 votes which Florida Muslims asserted that they delivered in favor of Bush. There are more than 200 Muslim organizations and communities in Florida.” In the same article, you see that Muslim median income is 50k to a high of 70k per year.
http://www.soundvision.com/info/yearinreview/2001/profile.asp

In 2004, Gore started out with support, but in the end lost.

check out http://www.cair-net.org/

Finally, if you think that Muslims DON’T have any pull in US politics, you’re sadly mistake. They do, and have had for more than 25 years. If you think their “small” population is not enough, remember that .5% of the US pop is Muslim, and they as a group (not counting recent converts) do tend to save money, make political contacts, give to charity.
Here’s another group with a “small” percent of the US population. 1.3% of all American’s are Jewish, including members of my family.
Are you saying that Jewish people have no affect on US policies?

As bad as the USA is today, you seem to forget that it’s STILL a democracy, albiet a weakened one, where people are involved in the political process regardless of religious beliefs.

Happy Reading

June 25, 2006 @ 5:59 am | Comment

zhuanjia – The “growing” Muslim population you’re talking about does have influence in American politics.

“Muslims’ Vote: Muslims voted in bloc for President Bush in the US presidential election 2000. There is no exit poll information available about the Muslim votes. Nevertheless, based on three unscientific surveys of Muslim voters, Muslims voted 70% to 90% in favor of Bush with a significant 34% voting for the first time. Muslims, therefore, became the only bloc vote for Bush. In Florida, the last battleground, there would not have been any battle without an estimated 60,000 votes which Florida Muslims asserted that they delivered in favor of Bush. There are more than 200 Muslim organizations and communities in Florida.” In the same article, you see that Muslim median income is 50k to a high of 70k per year.
http://www.soundvision.com/info/yearinreview/2001/profile.asp

In 2004, Gore started out with support, but in the end lost.

check out http://www.cair-net.org/

Finally, if you think that Muslims DON’T have any pull in US politics, you’re sadly mistake. They do, and have had for more than 25 years. If you think their “small” population is not enough, remember that .5% of the US pop is Muslim, and they as a group (not counting recent converts) do tend to save money, make political contacts, give to charity.
Here’s another group with a “small” percent of the US population. 1.3% of all American’s are Jewish, including members of my family.
Are you saying that Jewish people have no affect on US policies?

As bad as the USA is today, you seem to forget that it’s STILL a democracy, albiet a weakened one, where people are involved in the political process regardless of religious beliefs.

Happy Reading

June 25, 2006 @ 6:00 am | Comment

zhuangjie – May I invite you to the Duck Pond for a discussion about your comment? It’s impossible (for me) to post links in this part of the site.

Please come to The Peking Duck Pond
http://www.pekingduck.org/pond/viewtopic.php?t=369

I won’t bite. :)

Cheers!

June 25, 2006 @ 6:24 am | Comment

Yes I do know. My point is that the US and western media always look at religion in China through the Christian prism (regardless of the writer’s own faith), as if that was the only religion that mattered. There’s an assumption that Christianity is something the Chinese are missing out on, like democracy and drinking coffee. As I’m sure you know if you’ve been visiting China in the last decade, there has been a huge revival in Buddhism, Taoism and even Confucianism, China’s own own faiths of many thousands of years. But western accounts always assume that a “spiritual vacuum” will be filled by Christianity.
Maybe I’m a bit jaded because I’ve just finished a book written by former missionaries who came to bring the word of God to China in the 1940s. “About Face in China” is a fascinating account of their life before and after 1949 in Kunming, Beijing and Xiamen, until they got kicked out. Only nowhere in their book (written in 1995) do they show the slightest sympathy or interest in finding out what happened to the many ordinary Chinese they tried to convert (even though they suspected many may have been persecuted or even executed).
I was at mass at St Joseph’s church in Beijing recently and was very moved by the very obvious devotion of the thousands in the congregation (and the beautiful singing). But I was also greatly impressed by the humble Buddhist people of Mundon in Sichuan, who have built a beautiful temple as the centrepiece of their village. Why should their faith not be worthy of mention? It’s the Christians who get the column inches.

June 25, 2006 @ 7:23 am | Comment

Zhuanjia, I’ve read hundreds of articles about the suppression of Buddhists in China and Tibet. I thnk you are way off here.

June 25, 2006 @ 7:36 am | Comment

The problem isn’t so much that the Chinese are specifically missing out on Christianity. The problem is that they have been missing out on freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, and freedom to assemble peaceably.

June 25, 2006 @ 7:53 am | Comment

I’m not saying that Buddhists (or Christians) etc aren’t being persecuted in China. I’m just fed up with only ever reading about Chinese Christians “keeping the faith”. If you read the New York Times you’d hardly know there were actually other much more popular religions than Christianity in China. Is it because we as westerners still like to believe we (and our faith) can “save” China?

June 25, 2006 @ 8:18 am | Comment

Well then you can read other sources than the New York Times. I sure as hell don’t rely on the New York Times for my main information about other countries and their histories.

June 25, 2006 @ 9:10 am | Comment

Zhuanjia, I was actually going to make a similar, though less informed, comment. The degree of activity in Buddhist and Daoist temples in China today is amazing, when you compare it to 79, when most temples were closed and religious expression was prohibited (I don’t know when that prohibition was lifted, but I can tell you that in 79, you certainly did not see a lot of open religious expression of any kind). Now you go into temples and there are many, many worshippers; a lot of these temples have real monks, as opposed to fake costumed workers. Kristoff is really off here when he says that Maoism destroyed traditional religions. Maoism did its damnedest to do so, but they are coming back. I am thinking of people who may not be formal in their Buddhism, for example, but they do have some belief and some expression of these beliefs. And though I am not a religious person in any way, shape or form, I found visiting the Daoist Mountain, Qing Cheng Shan, to be, well, a spiritual experience, for lack of better vocabulary.

I also think Zhuanjia is right to point out the cultish nature of some of these “Christian” sects (their Christianity really stretches the boundaries of that definition), and I’m surprised that Kristoff didn’t mention this as well.

Not that the rise in Christianity in China isn’t worth mentioning, but I do think it is a part of this larger phenomena of spiritual expression, rather than an isolated trend.

June 25, 2006 @ 12:07 pm | Comment

I feel like I’ve read this Kristof article twenty times before. Articles on religion in China could be written by a computer program. They always go like this: “CPC suppressed religion, but now those disillusioned after the brainwashing of the Cultural Revolution are turing to Christianity to fill the spiritual void. CPC continues to suppress religion, so Chinese Christians turn to underground house churches, who bravely defy the authorities and may one day transform … etc etc”
While this isn’t incorrect, it’s not the whole story. If you visit Catholic churches around China you will find the congregations are predominantly older people. When I asked the Catholic priest in Kangding why there were so few young people at his mass, he gave an answer familiar to any parish priest in the west: “Young people are not interested in going to church. They have so many competing interests – when they are not studying they want to go shopping and to karaoke or rid on their motorbikes.”
Maybe there are more younger believers at house churches, I would not know. I did havea Chinese colleague who told me she was an “unofficial” Christian while in school. But she lost interest when she went to Warwick University in the UK and found that western Christians “did not practice what they preach”.

June 25, 2006 @ 5:58 pm | Comment

:) Zhuanjie, You’ll find a fair number of “Christians” around the world who don’t “walk the walk’ so to speak. And in all fairness, some of the “sects” of Christianity follow different ideals. Others are just plain old “Sunday Christians”.

But back to your post, my latest comments are in the pond.

Have a good day.

June 25, 2006 @ 7:11 pm | Comment

I’m an American who taught at the Protestant seminary in Nanjing (the national seminary) in 2001-2002 as an officially sanctioned foreign teacher; a missionary in everything but name (the Chinese government and Church didn’t use that term). I’ve attended many congregations throughout China and also have a few friends in the underground church.
Zhuanjia is correct that there is nothing new in Kristof’s article and that the revival of religion is evident and perhaps more prominent among other religions. NPR has reported a little on the rise of Buddhism, but also spends a lot of airtime on Christianity. I also have been moved watching the piety of new Buddhists learning the rituals of worship. However, Kristof’s point about religion filling an ideological void is very important in my opinion. Also the increase in Christianity is significant because of its history in the late 19th century. Allowing the rise of a religion that was so closely connected to the recent (by Chinese standards) hegemony of the West is noteworthy. I’ve not read “About Face in China,” but the Chinese church and mainline American churches (including Catholic) are well aware of that Christian missions were an arm of oppressive colonial policies in China and elsewhere.
Zhuanjia raises an interesting issue about the demographics of Christianity in China. The official Protestant church is growing very rapidly because it is now attracting younger persons; in some areas (but certainly not everywhere) this includes the well-educated. Previously churches were filled with the elderly, infirmed, and the poor; my impression is that this continues to be truer of Catholic churches. It is hard to know ho fast he underground church is growing, since there are many different groups and many “sects” are so extreme in belief (some are literal cults) that they would not be considered Christian by theologians like myself.

June 25, 2006 @ 7:28 pm | Comment

Jim,

Nice observations. It is nice to hear from a theologian.
As I posted in the Pond in detail, I agree that Kristof’s article was focused on the growth of the Christian religion in China.
I believe though that Kristof will bring more people to the “cause”, by focusing on one of the larger religious groups in The West,in this Christians, rather than focusing on the growth in a religion that is lesser known to The West.
If the goal is too “take the story home” to help the plight of ALL people in China unable to practice their religious beliefs without fearof persecution, I think The Western masses are going want to see about those of their own flock first.

June 25, 2006 @ 10:46 pm | Comment

Just to add some background to this debate, here are some links to some pictures of a few churches in China, from my recent travels:

Kangding Catholic church:

St Joseph’s, Beijing

Cizhong, the “Catholic church of Shangri La”

June 25, 2006 @ 11:58 pm | Comment

I thought Kristof was the descendent of Armenian Christians who immigrated a few generations back. And thus, Ivan, he is not a Jew.

June 26, 2006 @ 3:34 am | Comment

Looking at Taiwan might be a pretty good indicator of China’s future:

Taiwan:
Mixture of Buddhist, Confucian, and Taoist 93%, Christian 4.5%, other 2.5%

That would still be 60 million Christians though so not insignificant, just relatively so.

June 26, 2006 @ 10:10 am | Comment

There have been plenty of articles about the suppression of religions other than Christianity in China, but very few about the RISE of those religions, so I think Zhuanjia has a very good point. Just one look outside my balcony here in China shows quite a few red lights glowing at the many families buddhist altars. There have been plenty of articles almost exactly like the one above, but Kristof is one who points to the relative lack of suppression in many areas of China, which is interesting.

However, comparing how Islam might affect the Republican party to how Christianity might affect the CCP is apples and oranges. Its not Christianity per se, or even religion to a point, but the fact that there is this group that finds a higher control than the CCP might one day turn into a vehicle for giving voice to people. With the Islam/Republican party example, there are already myriads of ways that give voice to the people and ways that they can organize themselves. No one professes that the republican party is the arbiter of all (OK, maybe Limbaugh and a few dittoheads). Christianity, or other religions, just might provide that critical mass of organizational ability that would then be co-opted by the vast majority who are not religious in China, but nonetheless want a voice.

June 27, 2006 @ 1:56 am | Comment

[...] (though with considerable inconsistency from province to province). According to the US group, China Aid Association, from 2005 to 2006, 1,958 Chinese Christians were arrested by the [...]

August 28, 2010 @ 9:17 pm | Pingback

[...] (though with considerable inconsistency from province to province). According to the US group, China Aid Association, from 2005 to 2006, 1,958 Chinese Christians were arrested by the [...]

September 23, 2010 @ 8:49 am | Pingback

[...] (though with considerable inconsistency from province to province). According to the US group, China Aid Association, from 2005 to 2006, 1,958 Chinese Christians were arrested by the state.The likelihood is that this [...]

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