Weekends in Beijing reveal sharp differences between tourists and residents of the sprawling Chinese capital. On Saturdays and Sundays, Beijing’s most famous sights — the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen Square — are crawling with visitors, making even Disney World at high season seem serene. Beijingers, meanwhile, flock to the flashy new shopping malls just east of Tiananmen, full of latte-swilling yuppies jabbering on mobile phones, and massive supermarkets offering everything from Parmalat milk to Peking duck.
Growing numbers of Beijingers also pack into a different kind of structure on the weekend. On Sundays, the capital’s government-registered Protestant churches overflow with as many as 5,000 worshipers each. Some are so crowded that believers who don’t arrive early must huddle in the basements, watching services on closed-circuit televisions.
And, since the Chinese government has limited the number of registered churches in Beijing and other cities, millions of other Christians worship underground. On a visit to Shanghai last year, I wandered into a registered Catholic church and witnessed nearly 1,000 Chinese participating in Mass — one of three Masses held that Sunday, to keep up with rising demand. Believers listened raptly to a sermon, and prayed fervently in unison.
Though the Communist Party all but destroyed the Protestant and Catholic churches when it took over in 1949, scholars estimate that the country now has at least 45 million Christians. Dennis Balcombe, pastor of Hong Kong ’s Revival Christian Church and an expert who has studied Chinese Christianity for two decades, believes that there may be as many as 90 million Christians in China.
There’s a tendency among some outside China to see the spread of religion as speeding political change and creating an ethical bond with the world beyond China’s borders. “As cultural and social traditions evolve, Christianity is poised to provide new ethical and moral foundations for the emergence of a modern Civil Society and State,” Sister Janet Carroll of the U.S. Catholic China Bureau told the Congressional Executive Commission on China in September.
But the fastest growing religious movements in China seem unlikely to provide salvation for the country. Though Catholicism, which in China comprises both a state-sanctioned church and underground churches loyal to the Vatican, is becoming more popular, the majority of new Chinese Christians are Protestants. And while the state-sanctioned Protestant church is growing, most Chinese Christians are joining underground “house” churches. These churches are generally found away from city centers, in outlying regions, hidden within communal areas and marked only by discreet signs of faith.
Many house church services are so passionate that they would surprise even the most committed American evangelicals. Many house churches hold prayer meetings, at which they recruit new members and affirm their relationship to God, that last for several days, even up to a week. The Crying School, a house church that reportedly has at least 500,000 members, holds three-day retreats at which adherents wail and cry en masse, repenting in anticipation of the apocalypse. Another underground movement known as the Shouters believes in screaming for hours on end, to attest to one’s faith. The Shouters reportedly shriek out a shortened version of the Lord’s Prayer while stamping their feet.
There are several reasons why Christianity is thriving in China. Between 1949 and the decline of Maoism, the Chinese Communist Party eviscerated the country’s traditional culture and institutions, denigrating Confucianism, ancestor worship, traditional family structures and classical Chinese education and arts. At the same time, the CCP suppressed civil society actors such as unions and rival parties.
Then, in the past two decades, the Chinese people have been tossed into a capitalist maelstrom of the most social Darwinist kind, with a paucity of social safety nets and an abundance of consumption. The government has tried to foster a new ideology based on Chinese nationalism, but it has not proven overwhelmingly popular. Shocked by the rapid transition of Chinese society, unconvinced that capitalism alone can provide a fulfilling life, and divorced from traditional culture, many younger Chinese have been turning to religion.
Indeed, not only Christianity but also many other faiths — Buddhism, Taoism, Islam and qi gong offshoots like Falun Gong — are gaining new adherents in the Middle Kingdom. As this newspaper has reported, Buddhist monasteries in central China have become so popular that they have drawn thousands of devout pilgrims, inspiring a government crackdown. In just five years, Falun Gong has grown from an obscure spiritual breathing movement into a national phenomenon capable of holding rallies across China.
Christianity is drawing older believers as well. Small farms and state-linked industrial enterprises have been closing in large numbers, especially in China’s old manufacturing heartland in the northeast. In these areas, unemployed workers — mostly middle-aged and older — mill on the sides of the road or sleep in parks and other public areas. As Kim-Kwong Chan, executive secretary of the Hong Kong Christian Council and a fellow at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, reported this year, Christianity “draws on the huge pool of dissatisfied unemployed workers or poor farmers, who may cling to anything that gives them hope.” House churches also often provide social services to the poor whom the government has abandoned.
Christianity — in particular, evangelical Protestant faiths — is in some ways even more alluring to Chinese than Buddhism or Islam. With its emphasis on individual relationships with God, evangelical Christianity is flexible enough to tailor its message to both the poor and the wealthy. What’s more, many Chinese, particularly in poor areas, associate Christianity with miracles. And house churches are not tainted by being registered with the government, which makes the state-linked church leaders appear to be party hacks.
Beijing has developed two methods of handling the rise of Christianity. On the one hand, the government has permitted worship at registered churches and increased the state budget for official houses of worship. At the same time, it has cracked down hard on house churches that have outspoken leaders who attempt to build a national membership. Last fall, Chinese police reportedly closed 10 house churches in Daqing and this summer, according to U.S.-based groups, the government arrested 100 Christians who attended a house church retreat. Yet this repression actually has encouraged many house church worshipers, who see those arrested as suffering a kind of martyrdom equivalent to that of early Christians.
Beijing’s harsh treatment of the popular house churches has enhanced their image abroad as bases of political dissent and harbingers of political change. Some scholars, such as David Aikman, author of the new book “Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity Is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power,” believe that the rise of Christianity might lead average Chinese to accept liberal political values and to demand that their government do the same. Aikman even suggests that, as China becomes more Christian and thus more liberal, it could become more willing to cooperate with the United States on international issues.
Richard Madsen, a scholar of Chinese Christianity at the University of California at San Diego, recently told National Public Radio that Chinese Christians “have in mind what happened in Eastern Europe [in the 1980s] . . . where the rise of and energizing of a variety of religious groups did, in fact, help to weaken the socialist states.”
In part because they believe that Christianity can transform Chinese politics, American, South Korean, Taiwanese and Hong Kong evangelical groups have made China a top priority for proselytizing. Tens of millions of Bibles have been delivered into China in the past decade, and many foreign missionaries have sneaked into the country, often posing as English teachers or businesspeople.
Still, it is unlikely that Chinese house churches will play the role of Catholicism did Poland during the 1980s, when it provided believers, laid-off workers and other groups with a unifying, liberal political structure. Unlike many priests in Eastern Europe, some Chinese house church leaders are highly conservative, focused on nothing other than evangelism and taking little interest in politics. Usually they are willing to challenge the state only when pressed to the wall, such as when Beijing tried to ban Sunday school education in several provinces.
What’s more, because Christianity was so harshly repressed in China, and because many Chinese seem to be looking for millenarian, miracle-producing faiths, many popular house church movements have developed into authoritarian fiefdoms themselves, with adherents following one charismatic leader, who often has little religious training. These underground leaders are hardly vehicles for liberal reform.
In some of these heretical movements, which mix elements of Christianity with folk religion, leaders announce that they are Jesus reincarnated or that they have direct links to the Lord. As the New York Times recently reported, one house church, Three Grades of Servants, is organized around its leader, Xu Shuangfu, who claims to speak with God. Three Grades now claims to have several million followers; Xu reportedly has ordered the killing of his religious enemies.
Three Grades’s sworn enemy, another house church known as Eastern Lightning that claims a similar following, is just as intense. Eastern Lightning also believes that Jesus has returned to Earth, and has taken the form of a Chinese peasantwoman. Like Three Grades, Eastern Lightning tries to force other Christians to join its group, allegedly kidnapping other house church leaders and trying to brainwash them until they join Lightning.
Some house churches, such as the longer-established and more urban-oriented Little Flock, which has thrived in eastern China, are more liberal, holding youth group meetings for Bible discussion and other intellectual activities.
But in rural and poor areas, it is the more apocalyptic groups like Eastern Lightning that appear to be growing fastest. And as China becomes more open while simultaneously more economically stratified, groups like Lightning, which cater to the uneducated masses, are only going to grow in power. If Aikman proves correct, and China one day has hundreds of millions of Christians, groups like Eastern Lightning could have tens of millions of disciples. By then, these extreme groups could foment change — but not the kind of change liberal reformers envision.
Joshua Kurlantzick is foreign editor of The New Republic.