November 28, 2004


Chinese Christians Are a Force, But What Kind? (Joshua Kurlantzick, November 28, 2004, Washington Post)

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. [...]

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.

Never mind that a strong civil society outside of state influence is the key ingredient of any stable liberal democracy, Mr. Kurlantzick badly underestimates the degree to which accepting government that is both secular and limited requires millenarianism.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 28, 2004 1:38 PM

These journalists sure don't know their history.

Posted by: Randall Voth at November 29, 2004 8:01 AM