BEIJING: Christian v communist
Richard Spencer reports today from Beijing that there may now be more practising Christians in China than there are members of the Communist Party.
The precise figures cannot be known, in a country in which Christians are still persecuted. But the evidence suggests that there may be as many as 80 million or even 100 million members of underground Christian churches in China, unapproved by the state.
The Chinese Communist Party, meanwhile, has only 70 million members. If those figures for worshippers are even roughly accurate, then we are looking at a very remarkable development in the history not only of Asia but of all mankind.
Christianity and communism are fundamentally incompatible - one a spiritual creed, the other materialist. Christianity lays down that a man's responsibility to his neighbour is personal, a matter for his individual conscience, while communism decrees that all duties are collective, to be enforced by the state. At first glance, communism may look like the fairer system, and Christianity the more selfish.
In fact, of course, communism and its blood-brother, fascism, have been responsible - in Asia, Europe, Africa and South America - for more human misery over the past century than any other systems of belief thought up by man. By denying human beings their individuality, all totalitarian systems brutalise the human condition, reducing everyone in their sway to the status of ants, or cogs in a machine. Christianity teaches that each of us is a moral being, responsible for our actions to our Maker, and individually bound to love our neighbours as ourselves.
Xun Jinzhen, a Christian convert who runs a beauty salon in Beijing, put it eloquently when he said: "We have very few people who believe in communism as a faith. So there's an emptiness in their hearts."
The growth of the Christian churches in China is a story of great courage and belief in the special status of man as a moral creature, for whom good and evil are eternal truths that cannot be redefined by politicians. It gives enormous hope for the future happiness of a people who have suffered under the dying creed of communism for much too long.
Converts inspired by democracy protests and western values
By Richard Spencer
Among China's Christian converts are some of the most prominent figures from the 1989 Tian-an-men Square democracy protests - now mostly in exile.
Two, Zhang Boli and Xiong Yan - both on the list of "21 Most Wanted" student leaders published shortly after the Bei-jing massacre 16 years ago - have been ordained as priests.
Han Dong-fang, who was on a separate "wanted" list of workers' leaders, was converted through the US Chinese church movement.
He arrived in America in 1993 after being released from prison on medical grounds. He contracted tuberculosis in a Chinese jail and nearly died.
"I think human beings need something at a spiritual level," he said in Hong Kong, where he now broadcasts on labour issues for Radio Free Asia. "We don't want to believe we are coming from nowhere; going nowhere.
"In China we have traditionally followed Buddhism. We had quite a deep religion. But communism destroyed everything."
As a teenager, he was a passionate Marxist but, as an army recruit, became disillusioned at the luxuries enjoyed by the officer class.
"When communism became this corrupted thing which failed everybody, people still needed a belief. I think that's the reason for Christianity in China."
The present-day revival is not the first attempt to convert China. The Nestorians, an heretical sect, arrived in the seventh century, and Jesuit priests travelled to the Qing dynasty court in the 17th century.
In the 19th century, a wave of missionaries arrived with China's forced opening-up to foreign trade after the opium wars.
One unforeseen consequence was the Taiping Rebellion, an uprising by followers of a man who claimed he was the brother of Christ. The conflict led to 20 million deaths, and is said by many to have fatally weakened the last dynasty.
The Taipings and the association with colonialism are enough to damn Christianity in many leaders' eyes. But for others, the religion has become associated with prosperity and openness in the West.
Mr Han said: "When I went to the church in America, I got a different feeling from what I used to experience in China - a feeling of people being together, of sharing their feelings and experiences and difficulties of life. This kind of feeling was really new to me."
Christianity is China's new social revolution
By Richard Spencer in Beijing
The beauty salon near Beijing Zoo gives its customers more than they bargain for: not just facials and manicures, but the Word of the Lord.
Its owner, Xun Jinzhen, sees beauty salons as a good place to transform souls as well as bodies.
"I introduced 40 people to the church last year," he said.
Mr Xun, and millions of other Chinese Christian converts like him, may well be living proof that God moves in a mysterious way.
During the Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao's China turned on itself, torturing and killing hundreds of thousands of people. But the seeds were sown for an unexpected upsurge in Christianity.
In a social revolution that has prompted a heavy-handed response from the Politburo, it is spreading through town and countryside and Chinese communities abroad.
Protestantism and Catholicism are among the approved faiths, the others being Budd-hism, Taoism and Islam.
Buddhism and Taoism claim most worshippers but the state-sanctioned churches count up to 35 million followers. More significant are the underground or "house" churches, which are said to have 80 or even 100 million members.
Visits to villages in backward rural provinces or to urban churches in Beijing, where even on weekdays the young and middle-aged gather to proclaim their faith, confirm the ease with which conversions can be won.
"City people have real problems, and mental pain, that they can't resolve on their own," said Mr Xun. "So it's easy for us to convert these people to Christianity. In the countryside, people are richer than before, but they still have problems with their health and in family relationships. Then it's also very easy to bring them to Christianity."
One woman told a gathering of hundreds at Kuanjie official protestant church in Beijing last Saturday: "My brother's daughter had a virus which doctors had never seen before.
"She was on a ventilator and everyone had lost hope. But I prayed for her, and she recovered. Now her family follow Christ too." The association of Christianity with healing powers may be embarrassing in the West, but in China it is one of conversion's driving forces, particularly in rural areas, which lack health services.
The woman, 33, came from Anhui, a poor province of central China. In her village, she said, the house church had grown from five or six people to 100 in five years. Religion - and superstition - took off as ideological fervour declined and materialism grew under Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms, which followed Mao.
"We have very few people who believe in communism as a faith, so there's an emptiness in their hearts," said Mr Xun, 37. His mother is a Christian too, and his father, a retired county-level Communist Party secretary, is a sympathetic onlooker.
China's rulers are said to be ambiguous about Christianity's growth. Some see its emphasis on personal morality as a force for stability. House churches which go along with the authority and theology of the official organisations are often left alone.
But many reject the party's control over Christian practice and doctrine, and these are seen as a threat. After all, 80 million members would mean there are now more Christians than Communists in China.
Few believe that many of the party's 70 million members keep the faith burning any more.
This year the Politburo made it easier for churches to register, but at the same time launched a wave of persecution of those which refused.
Zhang Rongliang, the head of the China for Christ Church, said to be the biggest with 10 million members, was arrested last December and remains in prison. Scores of pastors and followers have been held, along with Roman Catholics, including underground bishops.
Overseas groups such as the London-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide say Christians are regularly beaten and one was killed in police custody.
Lawyers say the authorities try not to charge Christians with religious offences, for fear of criticism from abroad.
Mr Xun, the beauty salon evangelist, has never been in trouble. But perhaps by coincidence, a week after he fired an anti-Christian employee, there was a police raid.
It turned out the salon's acupuncture service lacked a proper licence.
Mr Xun received a heavy fine, which he could not pay, and he was forced to hand over the running of the business to others.
He wonders whether it was acupuncture that upset the authorities, or the Gospel.
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