November 25, 2004


Violence Taints Religion's Solace for China's Poor (JOSEPH KAHN, 1/25/04, NY Times)

The demise of Communist ideology has left a void, and it is being filled by religion. The country today has more church-going Protestants than Europe, according to several foreign estimates. Buddhism has become popular among the social elite. Beijing college students wait hours for a pew during Christmas services in the capital's 100 packed churches.

But it is the rural underclass that is most desperate for salvation. The rural economy has grown relatively slowly. Corruption and a collapse in state-sponsored medical care and social services are felt acutely. But government-sanctioned churches operate mainly in cities, where they can be closely monitored, and priests and ministers by law can preach only to those who come to them.

The authorities do not ban religious activity in the countryside. But they have made it so difficult for established churches to operate there that many rural Chinese have turned to underground, often heterodox religious movements.

Charismatic sect leaders denounce state-sanctioned churches. They promise healing in a part of the country where the state has all but abandoned responsibility for public health. They also promise deliverance from the coming apocalypse, and demand money, loyalty and strict secrecy from their members.

Three Grades of Servants, a banned Christian sect that claims several million followers, made inroads in Huaide and other northern towns beginning nearly a decade ago. It lured peasants like Yu Xiaoping, as well as her neighbor, Ms. Kuang, away from state-authorized churches. Its underground network provided spiritual and social services to isolated villages.

But it also attracted competition from Eastern Lightning, its archrival, which sought to convert Ms. Yu, Ms. Kuang and others. The two sects clashed violently. Both became targets of a police crackdown.

Xu Shuangfu, the itinerant founder of Three Grades of Servants, who says he has divine powers, was arrested last summer along with scores of associates. Mr. Xu was suspected of having ordered the execution of religious enemies, police officers said.

Yet such efforts rarely stop the spread of underground churches and sects, which derive legitimacy from government pressure.

China's Gibbon will lament the rise of Christianity too.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 25, 2004 10:11 AM

Assuming what the NY Times is reporting is true(a dubious assumption at best) the presence of charismatic mountebanks using religion for personal gain, while encouraging their followers to kill competing mountebanks is not a good development for China.

Posted by: Bart at November 25, 2004 11:23 AM

Why not? All Western progress came at the edge of a sword.

Posted by: oj at November 25, 2004 12:50 PM

And therefore any violence is constructive ?
That hardly follows.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at November 25, 2004 1:19 PM

Most. 9-11 for instance, though a tragedy in itself has been a global blessing.

Posted by: oj at November 25, 2004 1:32 PM

A new religion is born every minute. More thoughts at my blog.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at November 25, 2004 3:10 PM

But one has 2 billion adherents.

Posted by: oj at November 25, 2004 5:58 PM

That one is really many.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at November 25, 2004 6:00 PM

Hmmm. 150 years ago, Christianity led to the deaths of half the population of south China. One sees why the authorities might be wary.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at November 25, 2004 10:04 PM

Chinese authorities aren't noted for minding dead Chinese.

Posted by: oj at November 25, 2004 10:13 PM


While it was undoubtedly the greed of individual Christians, including the titular head of the Church of England, which led to the Opium War, I think it is difficult to lay the blame for what happened on 'Christianity.'

Posted by: Bart at November 26, 2004 1:25 AM

OJ: a canard. Read the article you referenced on Gibbon, then read Gibbon. The great historian would be impressed by the parallels between China in the 21st Century and Rome in the 3rd.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at November 26, 2004 3:12 AM

It should be obvious that a communist Chinese police officer quoted in the NY Times is speaking nothing but the truth, eh?

Reminds me of how the government persecuted George Fox (founder of the Quakers).

Yet, China will be revolutionized by Christianity, just like South Korea, and the NY Times will be left asking, "Wha Happen?"

Posted by: Randall Voth at November 26, 2004 9:05 AM

The Taiping Rebellion was a very, very, very odd form of Christianity. Other than calling its leader "God's other Son," it had very little to do with Christianity. So do cults like Eastern Lightning.

If China was smart, it would allow the mainstream forms of Christianity to freely prosleytize. Less chance of kooks and cults creating problems if you allow Catholics and mainstream Protestants to convert freely. Catholics, in particular, take a dim view of heretics.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at November 26, 2004 4:56 PM

If Orrin can be a Christian, anybody can be.

It's not my job to tell people who say they are Christians that they are not, Chris.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at November 27, 2004 2:29 PM