The view from the ground.

China’s ‘Come to Jesus’ Moment

How Beijing got religion.

China Photos/Getty Images
China Photos/Getty Images
China Photos/Getty Images

BEIJING – Last spring, a delegation of 11 Chinese government officials visited Nairobi, Kenya. Their mission: to seek advice on how to promote Christianity in China. Wang Zuoan, director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, which regulates religion in China, reportedly told Kenya's Anglican archbishop that "religion is good for development."

BEIJING – Last spring, a delegation of 11 Chinese government officials visited Nairobi, Kenya. Their mission: to seek advice on how to promote Christianity in China. Wang Zuoan, director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, which regulates religion in China, reportedly told Kenya’s Anglican archbishop that "religion is good for development."

Amid growing social tension and an ominous economic outlook, some quarters of the officially atheist Chinese Communist Party seem to be warming to Christianity. Land is being donated, churches built, and research being conducted on positive Christian contributions — all by the Chinese government, which until recently treated religion as a harmful but unstoppable force. In 2001, Chinese President Jiang Zemin called for religion to be cautiously accommodated, but actively discouraged, and adapted to the socialist culture of atheism and materialism.

The traditional antipathy toward religion in the Communist Party stems from Karl Marx’s idea that it is the "opiate of the masses" that "dulls the pain of oppression" from capitalist aristocrats. In an egalitarian socialist society, there’s no need for this remnant of exploitation.

But recent moves toward religion suggest this ideological aversion is transforming along with China’s socioeconomic situation — albeit more slowly. Since Deng Xiaoping began opening China’s economy in 1978, its GDP has grown 40-fold with increasingly serious side effects. Corruption, yawning wealth inequality, environmental degradation, and the threat of a major banking crisis weigh on the Communist Party’s ability to maintain control. The religious opiate could be just what the doctor ordered for a nervous Communist Party.

Academic studies and think tanks devoted to studying religion’s political and sociological effects have been sponsored by government organs to explore topics such as Christianity’s role in developing the United States and Europe. And institutions like Fudan University’s Religious Studies Department in Shanghai and the Institute for Advanced Study of the Humanities and Religion at Beijing Normal University are becoming more common in Chinese academia.

"There’s a fair amount of overlap between the government agenda and the Christian agenda," says Gerda Wielander, who researches Chinese religion and politics at the University of Westminster. "When you speak to [Chinese Christians] or look at the data, they all emphasize what good citizens they are and what good citizens they want to be, so there’s a lot for the government to tap into there."

Last October, in the southern city of Foshan, a van ran over a 2-year-old girl. After pausing, the driver continued to drive over her again with the back tire. The video of the incident, which went viral and incited debate on the state of Chinese society, showed 18 bystanders walking past and ignoring the fallen girl until a scrap peddler eventually came to her aid. The driver later reportedly said he’d be liable for less money with a dead girl than an injured one.

For many Chinese, the incident highlighted some of the problems that have emerged from the post-socialist jettison of morality in the pursuit of material wealth. "The old moral system doesn’t work anymore, and the new one hasn’t been established," says Fenggang Yang, a professor at Purdue University and author of Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Communist Rule. "Many people in society feel kind of lost and don’t know what to do."

Twenty-one-year-old Nanjing college student Chu Zhen felt adrift before finding solace in Christianity. "About 30 years ago we had ‘Reform and Opening Up,’ and almost everything changed," he said. "But we don’t know how to accept it."

Four months ago he started going to informal Christian clubs and Bible studies on his campus. "At that time I just wanted to find a belief," he says. "I feared in the future I might do something really bad that I can’t undo. So I went to church and we sang songs, told stories. I found peace in my mind."

According to one estimate, around 10,000 Chinese are following suit every day. From under a million Protestant followers in 1949, there are now anywhere from 21 million Chinese Christians by official figures to 130 million by independent estimates. Within the next 30 years, that number could climb as high as 400 million — equivalent to 20 percent of the world’s Christian population. It is difficult to get an accurate estimate on the number of Chinese Christians, though, as many worship secretly in illegal house churches, which government figures don’t include.

These underground gatherings attract many Christians because their sermons escape government oversight. This doesn’t sit well with the Communist Party, which frequently cracks down on independent churches for fear that they might begin harboring political ambitions. A prominent house church leader recently spent six months in a labor camp, and groups like Beijing’s 1,000-member evangelical Shouwang Church regularly face evictions and detentions for defying orders to disband.

If You Build It…

Across town from Chu’s campus in Nanjing, the government has funded the construction of an officially sanctioned 5,000-person Protestant church, one of China’s largest. And the U.S.-based Christian group International Cooperating Ministries reports to have assisted in building 292 churches across China in recent years — with the government’s blessing. While this is partly in hopes of drawing followers away from underground churches, it might also be with the understanding that Christianity could be good for China’s economic development.

"Christianity is seen as useful from the official point of view because it’s not just about acting morally as an individual and being a good citizen. It’s about the work ethic," argues Wielander, adding that there seems to be an attraction to the argument that Protestantism curbed excesses like greed and corruption in the market economy of the West during the early stages of capitalist development.

Some have argued that the "Protestant work ethic" is beginning to have a similar impact on China as it did in the West. In the business hub of Wenzhou, which has a 20 to 30 percent Christian population, the government has begun to study the success of Christian-owned enterprises.

"Conservative Christian morality has, perhaps indirectly, contributed to Wenzhou’s success by helping maintain family stability and, thus, the stability of their family businesses in the context of perceived moral decadence," says Nanlai Cao, author of Constructing China’s Jerusalem: Christians, Power, and Place in Contemporary Wenzhou. "After all, the family is the basic unit of petty capitalist production for Wenzhou people." One Christian factory manager in Wenzhou in 2010 told the BBC that he prefers to hire Christian workers. "When they do things wrong, they feel guilty — that’s the difference," he said.

Over the past few months Wenzhou’s economic growth has started to slow, creating what looks to be the rumblings of a severe credit crisis. Shadow lenders are aggressively calling in private loans, and some business owners have fled the city or committed suicide to escape debt. The city’s Christians appear to be faring a bit better, though, thanks to a bond and sense of trust cultivated through regular interaction in churches. "In sermons, Wenzhou preachers have preached on Christian love and told the congregation not to expect full repayment on loans to church members because they are all brothers and sisters in the kingdom of God," says Cao. "By framing the debt crisis in a religious language and in the context of God’s punishment for human greed, Wenzhou Christians tend not to put pressure on lenders to repay loans."

International studies suggest there might be some merit to that sentiment. A study last year in The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, titled "Mean Gods Make Good People: Different Views of God Predict Cheating Behavior," found that those who believed in a vengeful God performed more honestly on a math test designed for easy cheating. "Fear of supernatural punishment may serve as a deterrent to counternormative behavior, even in anonymous situations free from human social monitoring," the study said.

While the allure of moral and economic development accounts for some of China’s new interest in religion, a quieter motive is perhaps in play as well: political control. In a 2006 interview, Reuters asked Li Junru, a high official in China’s top political advisory body, why India can handle being a democracy but China can’t. He replied that India has religion to control its people.

In December, when residents of Wukan expelled all officials in their small fishing village, they drew attention to a nationwide trend of corrupt officials seizing land from peasants in order to raise revenue and enjoy kickbacks from developers. China is showing many of the symptoms of the crony capitalist system Marx decried.

Under Marx’s theory of development, societies transition from feudalism to capitalism before moving on to socialism. When Mao Zedong came to power, he tried to jump over the capitalist stage — and he unleashed the "Great Leap Forward" socioeconomic campaign, which caused the deaths of as many as 40 million people.

But by initiating the Reform and Opening Up campaign in 1978, Mao’s successor, Deng, tacitly acknowledged that China would first have to embrace a capitalist economy, but not necessarily some of the other tenets of a capitalist society. Although Deng ended the de facto religion ban and allowed worship in heavily controlled churches, he still advocated atheism through schools and official channels. Religion remained a "feudal superstition" in official-speak — strongly discouraged but reluctantly accepted.

Now, however, some liberal Marxists within the party see religion as one way to pacify a public increasingly agitated over inequality. "In general, using and controlling religions is not something new in Chinese history. Almost every emperor knew the power of religion," says Peng Guoxiang, Peking University professor of Chinese philosophy, intellectual history, and religions. "For classical Marxist ideology, religion is nothing but spiritual opium. But recently, it is very possible that the authorities have started to rethink the function of religion and how to manipulate it skillfully, instead of simply trying to curb or even uproot its development."

Others support Christianity’s spread for more self-interested reasons. According to Cao, religious bureaus and lower-level government organs often want more registered Christian churches in their governed regions in order to enlarge their own power base and create more opportunities for rent-seeking from constituents. China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs didn’t respond to requests for comment.

To be sure, there still remains much opposition to religion within the Communist Party. In December, a senior official emphasized the ban on religious belief for party members by saying, "Hostile forces home and abroad are doing what they can to use religion for their separatist activities in the areas inhabited by ethnic groups."

The organizational power of religious groups is a major concern, especially in regards to those that may harbor loyalties to figures like the pope or the Dalai Lama. The Catholic Church’s role in bringing about the 1989 fall of communist rule in Poland raises worries, as does the rise of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, which staged a massive demonstration in Beijing in 1999, prompting a ferocious government crackdown. Even Protestantism is often associated with Western imperialism and aggressive missionaries of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

"There’s still quite an ambivalent feeling toward Christianity," says Wielander. "Both Buddhism and Daoism are fairly otherworldly. They’re more about how to escape from all this chaos and hide from this terrible world, whereas Christianity is very proactive. That can be a good thing for the government provided it manages to channel this energy into projects on the government’s agenda."

That may indeed be the direction the party intends to go. A 20-year-old evangelical convert from Jiangsu province, who asked not to be identified, regularly attends services at an illegal house church that now has over 150 followers. The authorities have known of the church for years but tolerate it, she says, and she doesn’t think Christian beliefs and the Communist Party’s agenda are contradictory.

She adds, "The Bible says we have to follow the rules of the government."

Eric Fish is a journalist and author of the book China's Millennials.

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