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 â€” 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 â€” usually evangelical without any specific denomination â€” 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 â€” 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 â€” 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.