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China: The land of the rising sun?

Alex Monro

By 2030, China will be the world's largest economy - which makes the intransigence of its ruling party all the more worrying. But ALEXANDER MONRO believes the rapid spread of Christianity could signal the beginning of change.


In 2002 a lecturer from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences - the country's most respected research institute for politics and economics - addressed a tour-group of US Christian pastors on the subject of a government research programme he had worked on:

'One of the things we were asked to look into was what accounted for the success, in fact, the pre-eminence of the West all over the world. We studied everything we could from the historical, political, economic, and cultural perspective. At first we thought it was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system. But in the past 20 years, we have realised that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. That is why the West has been so powerful. The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don't have any doubt about this.'1

China's ruling class is avowedly atheist, but well accustomed to mixing competing doctrines.  Bureaucratic capitalism, as its current form of government is often labelled, is a mix of Communist and Capitalist principles, after all. And while school children are still taught that God does not exist - and many churches report an increase in state opposition since Hu Jintao took the presidency in 2003 - the number of Christians in China has continued to grow, to between 60 and 100 million by current estimates. That's comparable to the membership of the Chinese Communist Party (officially 76 million in 2009) - despite the fact that one organisation grants you better access to various high-powered careers, while the other can mean persecution and even imprisonment (most of China's Christians are in illegal 'house churches' rather than the state churches).

Clearly something is going on. Little wonder, perhaps, that the Party is unofficially taking an interest, and foreign journalists and historians are increasingly asking the previously unthinkable: Will China become a Christian country?

It is a question which has huge implications for the rest of the world. At current trends, China's economy is set to overtake the US economy by 2030. Already, it is the superpower in much of Southeast Asia and it has an enormous presence in Africa and Latin America too. Europe and the US rely on Chinese goods to keep inflation low while countries which have traditionally looked elsewhere for trade now have set their sights firmly on China, notably Australia and New Zealand.

And yet China's repressive political culture, its realpolitik, energy-and-minerals-driven relationships with repressive African governments (like Sudan and Zimbabwe) and its evident disdain for any binding climate deal at Copenhagen leave many countries unable to endorse the manner of China's ascent. Could the rise of Christianity change that? Han Dongfeng, the Chinese dissident who tried - and failed - to introduce independent labour unions to China, argues it presents the only viable future for the country:

'I tell people: China cannot be saved by democracy, nor by a multiparty system. Only Christianity can save China completely. Christian doctrine is incarnational and world-affirming, so the future of Chinese society and its development depend on Christianity. If Christianity cannot expand in China then China has no hope.'2


In fact, Christianity has ebbed and flowed through Chinese history for more than a millennium. The first recorded missionaries were Nestorians who arrived in the seventh century from Persia. They spawned a century and a half of Christian activity and culture in the country, until the rise of Islam and an 845 edict led to the banning of clergy.

A fresh awakening came under the polyglot, multi-ethnic and religiously tolerant Mongol empire at the beginning of the thirteenth century. Kublai Khan, whose own mother was a Christian, even ordered an Italian guest to ask the Pope to send a hundred missionaries so that the ruler could consider the wholesale conversion of his people and empire. The Pope sent just two and only one of them actually made it. An avowedly ethnic-Han dynasty subsequently suppressed the faith after the fall of the Mongol dynasty in the 14th century.

Another Italian, this time a remarkable Jesuit priest called Matteo Ricci, brought Christianity back into the national consciousness in the late 16th century, with spectacular effects. A late 17th century poem attributed to the Chinese emperor concluded:
The way to Heaven depends on God's son.

A 1724 Edict of Expulsion and Confiscation saw Christianity outlawed yet again but the largest-scale awakening began with the arrival of an Englishman called Robert Morrison in 1807 in Canton. Having translated both testaments, he died having seen just ten people convert, but the floodgates opened after him and by 1895 there were 641 Protestant missionaries in China. Sadly, Britain's shameful opium trading saw foreign traders attacked again in 1900 and missionaries generally tarred with the same brush. Work continued, but within a year of the Chinese Communist Party taking power in 1949, some 10,000 Protestant and Roman Catholic missionaries had been forced to leave. Soon schoolchildren were being taught that there was no God.

In retrospect it is easier to see that one of the great problems of Christianity in China was its failure to take local root. Thus it only took a wave of xenophobia, nationalism or Communism to cut it off. Yet there were plenty of attempts to graft Christianity into China's own culture and they found their greatest advocate in Sun Yatsen.

Sun is the only figure who unites all Chinese in admiration, whether mainlanders or Taiwanese, Communists or dissidents, atheists or Christians. While Confucius and Mao still provoke divergent reactions within their homeland, Sun commands enormous respect and admiration, despite enjoying the presidency of China for just three months. Yet behind the politics of the man who led China out of two millennia of imperial rule lay a deep-felt Christian faith. 'Even when I die I want people to know I am a Christian,' he once explained.

Born in 1866 to a Hakka family in the southeast, Sun followed his brother to Hawaii as a teenager, where he studied English, mathematics and science - and developed a particular admiration for Abraham Lincoln and his theory of 'government of the people, by the people, for the people.' Sun attacked both Marxism and laissez-faire capitalism, describing his own ideals as a fusion of anarchism and socialism, the two ideologies which dominated Chinese intellectual thought from 1912 until Mao Zedong's founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949.

In 1884 Sun began his studies in Hong Kong, the city where he would later be baptised. After plotting a Chinese coup in 1895 - it failed - Sun spent 16 years in the US, Canada, Europe and Japan. But his focus remained China's future and his ambition for the country was a comprehensive transformation.

But Sun's vision of a Christianised new China quickly fell away as first warlordism and then civil war shook the country, and the people's republic was born in 1949. Undergirded by the doctrine of Marx and Lenin, Mao became China's salvation, replacing old-fashioned religion with the Cultural Revolution and a new age of liberty and progress in which the intrinsically good human spirit would triumph. The result was suffering and destruction on a biblical scale, perhaps 60 million deaths3 from preventable famine. By the time the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, it was not the traditions and culture of ancient China which had been undermined but Marxist-Leninist-Mao Zedong Thought - and, by extension, atheism. Yet with all religion also outlawed, there was simply no ideology for Party or people to cling to.

Except, of course, capitalism. In 1978 President Deng Xiaoping announced the launch of a new 'reform and opening up' agenda. New mottos like 'To get rich is glorious' replaced the Maoist orthodoxy and, officially at least, capitalism could be legitimised as one of the stages Marx had argued was necessary on the road to achieving the communist ideal. Deng himself argued: 'It doesn't matter whether the cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.' China buried the Cultural Revolution and turned its attention to industry and business instead, with remarkable consequences. The 1980s were a hopeful, fast-growing and increasingly liberal time in China. As China opened to the world, foreigners poured in, many of them missionaries working as English teachers in universities.

We should not miss the scale and speed of the change which has taken place. Four decades ago China outlawed Christianity and believers were persecuted, imprisoned, tortured and killed. An avowedly atheistic government sought to cleanse China of religion, which it defined as superstition, so that the country could press ahead with its modernisation program.

But the Cultural Revolution, the more recent shock of the so-called 'Tiananmen Incident' of 1989 and state corruption combined to undermine popular faith in Marxism, Leninism, Maoism and the Chinese Communist Party. In the first, students turned against students, children against parents and the young against the old in scenes of violence, humiliation and false accusation. The death of so many unarmed protestors in 1989 showed that the Party's first priority was power, rather than the people it claimed to serve. Most of those demonstrating in the square had been asking for dialogue and reform, not regime change.

Such cumulative horrors suggested that human nature was not naturally inclined to good in the way Communism had argued - and instead made it easier for many Chinese to believe that mankind was essentially sinful and needed outside help. The great irony was that Marxism in China, which sees the dismissal of religion as a sign of human progress, had sown the seed for Christianity.

Currently, China's Public Security Bureau claims that China has at least 25 million Christians, some 21 million of them split between the Protestant and Catholic state churches, each with 15 million and 6 million believers respectively. But un­registered churches have been the motor of growth in China. Tony Lambert, whose book China's Christian Millions used empirical evi­dence to make deeply conservative estimates of numbers of Chris­tians in China, gives a figure of 60 million Protestants in China before 2000, most of them in the house church movement, with between 5-10 million in the Henan province alone. (In the 1960s the Party labelled Henan an 'atheistic zone'.) Lambert argues that the 1980s and 1990s in China saw 'the greatest ingathering of the church since Pentecost'.

It is easy to look to sociological reasons for China's turn to faith too, of course. Christianity appeals to women in China because it offers them a greater status than their own society has ever allowed them. It appeals to the poor and disempowered by giving them a fresh identity and a future hope. Its multiculturalism can appeal to China's ethnic minorities, especially those which feel sidelined by the dominant Han Chinese.

But none of these explanations is very convincing because, as Lambert and Aikman show in their books, Christianity has won converts from every corner of society: peasant farmers and businessmen, former Red Guards and industrialists, party cadres and students, intellectuals and the unemployed. Even the daughter of Li Peng, a former premier, is said to be a Christian.

In fact, there is only one human theme common through-out the rise of the church in contemporary China: suffering. China's most influential Christian leaders - Watchman Nee, Wang Mingdao, Zhang Rongliang and others - have all suffered extensively for refusing the join the state-sanctioned church (The Three-Self Movement)4 in China.

Wang Mingdao, often cited as the most respected Christian leader in China, was arrested in 1955 for refusing to join but then began to break as fellow prisoners told him tales of torture in the prison. He promised to say what the authorities wanted and was released the following year. But depression at his capitulation kept him from joining the state church. In 1961 the authorities came to his house to demand cooperation, but Wang withdrew his earlier confessions, calling them lies, and then spent 22 years in prison, where he was regularly tortured and humiliated until his release in 1980.

Such stories are commonplace among members of the underground congregations and many Chinese pastors view suffering as crucial to church growth. Zhang Rongliang, who provides a kind of oversight for a five million-strong network of Christians, was once asked by a visiting British cleric where he had undergone theological training. Zhang, who had never trained, replied 'Chinese prison is my seminary. Police handcuffs and the electric nightstick are our equipment. This is God's special training for the gospel.'


But while suffering may be the making of the modern Chinese Church, the second chapter of the story could yet be the Christianisation of Chinese society and even of national policy. Christianity, if it continues to rise across the board and begins to inform Chinese policy, might have three major effects in the short term.

First of all, it would be likely to encourage the rule of law, which is China's greatest political shortcoming, greater even than the lack of democratic elections. The rule of law is a very ideologically-driven political structure. Atheistic political systems tend to emphasise the rule of man; thus communism places the people of the Communist Party over everything, which tends to lead to the rule of one man over everything, although China has at least achieved a more collegiate form of top-level government than it had under Mao. But such religions as Judaism, Christianity and Islam have a strong belief in the need to keep human sinfulness in check and not allow anyone overarching power. Thus the rule of law dominates societies with strong religious faith or heritage, from the Ten Commandments and kosher laws to sharia to the supreme legal systems of modern states. In China, where corruption and injustice are endemic, this would not only improve justice but improve efficiency too.

Secondly, it would take some of the sting out of freewheeling Chinese capitalism by emphasising the importance of social responsibility and 'neighbourliness' on a grand scale. That is not to say that an enormous welfare state would be introduced overnight, but it would at least mean that marginalised groups and individuals in society would have better means of subsistence and protection - and tangible legal recourse too.

Finally, it should lead to a more open society, one better able to reflect on itself critically and to extol the strengths of its minorities and even of some foreign cultures. Part of this march towards greater freedom of speech would crystallise in a fresh newspaper culture, one in which newspapers are no longer simply the mouthpiece of government but are allowed increased independence in what they write about and what views they express.

But if China's government accepted Christianity as part of the furniture it could also have enormous potential influence beyond its shores, notably in its attitude to human rights and freedom of speech.  Its current diplomatic strategy, which is to befriend any country which views Taiwan as part of China, might thereby give way to some awkward questions about China's relationships with Burma, Zimbabwe, North Korea and Iran, questions which nobody in China is currently able to discuss openly.

Perhaps above all, it would make China's rise easier for the world to manage, making it a true partner of the US, as the focus of global power shifts to the Pacific for the first time.

But China's greatest Christian impact abroad will probably have far more to do with its Christian missionaries than with its government. Already, Chinese Christians are travelling into Central Asia and the Middle East as evangelists. Where Westerners are at a disadvantage because of their own countries' historic involvement in the Middle East, Chinese Christians carry no such baggage. A 'back to Jerusalem' movement is sending hundreds if not thousands of Chinese across Muslim Asia in one of the largest evangelism pushes in history.

The case should not be overstated, as evidence suggests that China remains a largely atheist country, albeit with significant and growing Christian and Buddhist minorities. But for the first time China has developed a Chinese Christianity with strong local roots. Even foreign missionaries now talk less of evangelising China and more of offering support to local Christians and to their evangelism projects.

At the moment Christianity in China is a groundswell and lacks true political legitimacy. The government has tried to encourage more liberal forms of Christianity, arguing the Bible is essentially Communist in outlook or that the point of Christianity is moral regeneration or seeking to play down talk of Heaven and the end times. In each case, the policy is to encourage believers to show highest loyalty to the Party. That policy has yet to work. Overwhelmingly evangelical in nature, grassroots churches are also socially engaged. In Southwest China, the governance of some villages has been left to local Christians by the regional authorities because of their success in cutting corruption and delivering better services.

So far, the party has been careful to keep Christians away from the central levers of power. A memorial to Sun Yatsen, for example, is notably absent from Tiananmen Square, the public space that is home to Mao's mausoleum, the National People's Congress and the National Museum of China. Instead, the park that carries his name lies in the grounds of the old imperial palace - touted as proof of China's past greatness, but hardly the stuff of their future.

And yet the Christian groundswell continues. Ninety-nine years after the fall of the imperial system, Sun's vision of a Christian China may be just around the corner.

1 Aikman, D: The Beijing Factor (Monarch Publications 2005),
page 5.
2 ibid.
3 Becker, J: Hungry Ghosts: China's secret famine (John Murray, 1997)
4 China's official Protestant grouping, founded in 1951. Its raison d'être was to allow the Party to control China's Christians and to ensure no foreign interference.