Amid the sports stadiums, office towers, museums and performance halls being built in the frenzy of construction gripping the Chinese capital, communist officials showed off something rather more surprising at a prime site on the city’s fringes: models of two new churches that will be ready for worship by next year.
Young government architect Cui Tong said the angular new church in Chaoyang district, and another of a more curvy shape in Fengtai would each accommodate 1500 worshippers, and were designed to encourage contemplation.
“In these places, people can feel what is higher, what is spiritual, what is pure,” Mr Cui said.
Flash back to the Xiaoshan district of Hangzhou, a centre of Chinese high-tech industry inland from Shanghai, on June 26 last year. Hundreds of police arrived at the Tu Du Sha church, founded 70 years ago by the China Inland Mission and used by 1500 Protestant believers, and dragged worshippers outside before demolishing the building.
These are the two faces of the Chinese Government’s response to a largely uncharted but rapid spread of religious activity across the world’s biggest nation as frenetic economic growth and widening income disparities undermine the former socialist ideology.
The Government is trying to bring new religious adherents under the supervision of its religious affairs administration, which has branches for Catholics and Protestants, Buddhism, Islam and China’s traditional Daoism.
These agencies authorise the appointments of priests, supervise religious teaching and publication, and watch the content of sermons.
Existing smaller churches are holding Sunday services in shifts to accommodate worshippers, said Gao Ying, a vice-president of the officially approved Beijing Christian Council. “The growth is very rapid,” she said. “Just taking my own church: 20 years ago we had only 300 people, now we have 4000.”
While the official Protestant church claims to cover some 15 million adherents, and its Catholic counterpart about 5 million, at least an equal number of Chinese Christians are thought to have joined unregistered and underground churches, often at great risk of being sent to “re-education through labour” camps for up to three years, without the right of a trial.
A former Time magazine correspondent, David Aikman, claims in a new book called Jesus in Beijing that China now has about 70 million Protestants and 12 million Catholics – which would outnumber the membership of the Chinese Communist Party (66 million).
Even the more conservative estimate poses a dilemma for the communist regime.
The more approved churches they open, the more believers may come forward, and at some point those believers might find a conflict between the party and their religion.
Outside the capital, the bulldozer and the police are the more common response. The Tu Du Sha church in Hangzhou was one of a dozen pulled down in surrounding Zhejiang province at about the same time.
Two leaders of an underground evangelical church in Beijing, Liu Fenggang and Xu Yonghai, have just been charged with “revealing state secrets” to a foreign organisation after being arrested in Hangzhou while investigating the demolitions.
The charges could bring life imprisonment.