China, already the world’s most populous country, could someday rival the United States in global economic, military and diplomatic influence as well.
But will the emerging China be stable, open-minded and constructive, or inward-looking and dangerously nationalistic?
Much depends on the country’s burgeoning Christian minority, according to “Jesus in Beijing” (Regnery), a clear-eyed, well-reported and thoroughly fascinating account, probably the best on this topic in many years.
Author David Aikman, a lay Episcopalian, was a Hong Kong and State Department correspondent and the Beijing bureau chief for Time magazine. In mainland travels during recent decades, Aikman collected information about churches and he returned for three months in 2002 to gather fresh material.
China boasts one of the world’s biggest and fastest-growing Christian movements, an often overlooked phenomenon.
China had only a few million Christians when communists took power in 1949, but officials there privately put today’s total at 25 million. The U.S. State Department’s estimate is 52 million to 115 million. Aikman thinks the total could be 80 million or more, though “no one knows for sure.” Protestants well outnumber Catholics, observers agree.
If present rapid growth continues, Aikman says, possibly 20 percent to 30 percent of Chinese will be Christian within three decades. That would greatly alter Chinese society because of a vacuum in ideology and moral resources.
Simply put, nobody believes in communism anymore.
Aikman reports that Christians are turning up in positions of cultural influence, not only as democratic activists but intellectuals, artists, businessmen, and even military officers and party officials.
Moreover, there’s wide interest in Christian thought among Chinese who analyze the past progress of western civilization. Christian studies institutes operate at many universities and small religious study groups are proliferating.
Because of pressure from the atheistic regime, Protestants and Catholics are both split between “patriotic” churches that register and accept government control and semi-underground churches that insist on autonomy and — for Catholics — loyalty to the pope.
The unregistered Protestant “house churches,” the biggest Christian segment, insist on freedom to evangelize Chinese. Some hope to launch missions to Muslim countries.
Key house church leaders managed to stage a precedent-setting secret conference in 1998 and issued a confession of faith. Among other things, it says “the Bible is the complete truth and without error” and advocates separation of church and state so believers are left alone.
China’s rich Christian history dates from 635, a tale Aikman nicely summarizes. The country often shunned foreign influences but “has never been as intellectually and philosophically open to the outside world as it is today,” Aikman writes.
Various analysts note that global Christian vitality is shifting southward and eastward away from western Europe and North America. Aikman thinks China is destined to become a powerful part of that pattern.
If so, he’s convinced, “China’s moment of its greatest achievement — and of the most benefit to the rest of the world — may lie just ahead.”
Aikman profiles heroic Christians who suffered for their faith. Though matters have improved in recent times, local police continually repress unregistered churches, thus harming China’s reputation in America.
Chinese Christianity’s internal problems include rivalry between the government-approved and unregistered factions, and the spread of bizarre heresies among people who have been denied religious education.
Some sects reject parts of the Bible or spurn the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, saying instead that God the Father is greater than the Son and the Son is greater than the Holy Spirit. Others demand absolute obedience of leaders.
The most troublesome group, Eastern Lightning, believes Jesus has returned as a mystery woman living in Henan province. House church leaders say this group targets them for beatings, blackmail, kidnappings and even murder.