Christianity is China’s new social revolution

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 Buddhism, 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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The Daily Telegraph, UK
July 30, 2005
Richard Spencer in Beijing

Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday July 31, 2005.
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