The New Republic
Issue date 09.06.04
On a visit to China several years ago, I happened to be in Shanghai after Jiang Zemin announced his theory on how the ruling party should update its ideology, so that Chinese communism would come to represent not only workers but also the country's history, culture, and most productive economic (read: capitalist) forces. This mind-numbingly boring theory, which Jiang called "The Three Represents," dominated discussion at party meetings in Beijing. So I spent my time in Shanghai chatting with acquaintances about the Three Represents. Shanghai has always been China's most urbane city, so surely its intellectuals would be feverishly arguing about Jiang's ideas. But the professors had almost no interest in Jiang's theories. At the city's markets, where sellers have encyclopedic knowledge of bad Chinese action films, reporters found that no one seemed to have heard of the Three Represents. At Shanghai's newest and hippest watering hole--Starbucks--Chinese yuppies' conversation revolved around business deals and new clothes. And only a few blocks from Starbucks, average Shanghainese were paying rapt attention to another theory--actually, a set of imported theories. When I walked into a small structure near Nanjing Lu, a main shopping street, I saw hundreds of Chinese sitting in rows, listening to a man exhorting everyone to love one another, to create grassroots networks, to give themselves over to a power uncontrolled by the party. The audience listened raptly. This scene was hardly unique. In the past decade, millions of Chinese have sought community, philosophy, and spiritual comfort outside the confines of communist ideology and their immediate families. In the first half of its reign, the Chinese Communist Party destroyed the institutions that had undergirded China's society for millennia, replacing them with Mao Zedong's all-destroying totalitarian ideology; and in the second half of its reign, the CCP embraced the very offense with which the chairman used to charge his worst enemies. But capitalism is not a political ideology, and money offers no theories on the nature of man, nor thoughts on death, nor ideas of how to organize a society. The party has scrambled to devise an alternative mass ideology based in part on Chinese nationalism; but judging by the response to the Three Represents, it is not exactly thrilling the population. Instead, average Chinese are desperately seeking an ideology even as Beijing has repressed many of those secular actors--liberal democrats, trade unions, non-governmental organizations--who might have provided alternatives to Marxism or the state's new cult of money. For this reason, many Chinese are looking beyond secular civil society. Across the country, the old opiate of the people has returned, and the masses are mainlining it. China is in the early stages of its own Great Awakening. In fact, the greatest threat to Beijing today may not be George W. Bush or Chen Shui-bian or the Dalai Lama or Harry Wu, but rather an old, old figure who has played a role before in the collapse of venal Chinese regimes. I am referring to Jesus Christ. Communism is about as relevant today in China as it is in Las Vegas. Since 1979, the Chinese government has slashed subsidies to state enterprises, unleashed private entrepreneurs, and exhorted its population that making money is every citizen's new mission. Despite skeptics like myself, who fear that China's breakneck growth disguises a morass of economic problems, China has become the sixth-largest economy on earth. Last year Beijing for the first time welcomed entrepreneurs into the Communist Party, and across China the rawest forms of capitalism now are on display like open wounds. In Shanghai, vendors at markets brusquely grab customers' shoulders to pull them into their stalls, while homeless people beg on the streets. Factories in Guangdong, the region abutting Hong Kong that has become the manufacturing capital of the world, employ workers in Industrial Revolution-style conditions so horrendous that The Economist last year ran an article bearing the headline "Does China have 10 million slaves?" The freeing of China's economy has come with an idolization of capitalism's heroes and an orgy of consumption. Chinese entrepreneurs are lionized the way the country once worshipped working-class heroes such as the peasant soldier Lei Feng. At Chinese universities, majors most conducive to obtaining a business job are increasingly popular, and the allure of the liberal arts is fading. Wealthy Chinese have made the country one of the top markets for luxury cars. When a rebel group devoted to Maoist revolutionary principles several years ago began organizing Nepal's poor in a war against the government, the Chinese government hastily disavowed the Maoists. All this has been placed on top of Beijing's decades-long evisceration of civil society and Chinese tradition, so that the one modern ideology promoted to average Chinese--social Darwinist capitalism--is not buttressed by anything else. No real democratic opening. No social welfare system. No plan for how to ultimately regulate capitalism. No real modernization of Confucianism and other traditional ideologies--the kind of reform that, in Thailand, has created modern Buddhist organizations devoted to socially progressive causes. After coming to power in 1949, the Communists announced that Chinese traditions--including Confucianism and Buddhism--were despicable legacies of feudalism. The worship of traditional gods was discouraged, violators were punished, and Confucianism was banned from the schools. The government created official versions of traditional religions staffed by party hacks. Chinese Catholics who continued to profess loyalty to Rome rather than to the state "patriotic" church were severely punished, as were Protestants who worshipped outside the party-linked church, known as the Three Self Patriotic Movement. Meanwhile, Beijing outlawed independent unions and non-governmental organizations, imprisoned thousands of dissidents, and placed informers in workplaces. In the past decade, Beijing has modernized its methods of control. President Hu Jintao and his colleagues came of age in the time of Tiananmen Square and the collapse of the Soviet Union, two developments that greatly frightened them. Hu and his peers have therefore developed a new, two-pronged style of repression. Rather than uniformly crushing anyone who questions the party, Beijing has tolerated a limited increase in social and political freedoms while at the same time harshly repressing groups that might develop a national following. Beijing has made it easier for average Chinese to get on the Internet, but has simultaneously instituted perhaps the most comprehensive system of Web monitors and firewalls in the world. Some Buddhist temples have been re-opened, but when Falun Gong developed a national following, it was brutalized. In the summer of 2002, Beijing allowed Chinese youths to hold their "Woodstock," a rollicking rock festival in the southern province of Yunnan. But young Chinese who attempt to organize independent labor unions are quickly muzzled. This bipolar style of repression is extremely dangerous. Average Chinese are gaining a measure of freedom and are increasingly unwilling to surrender these gains. Yet when they push against Beijing, the state cracks down harder than in the past. At the same time, the ranks of China's unemployed are swelling as the government privatizes state-owned enterprises. Already there are more than 100 million jobless adults, and that number may more than double in the next decade. Little wonder, then, that the number of labor protests has more than quadrupled in the past decade, and the northeast, China's Rust Belt, makes Detroit look like a thriving metropolis. What's more, precisely because of the CCP's repression, there are few outlets--whether political parties or civil society actors--to channel this anger and this desire for something more fulfilling than cash. The China Democracy Party, a grassroots organization, has been crushed. State churches and temples remain tainted by links to the party. Even hobby clubs that gain a national following risk being targeted by the authorities: in June 2003, Beijing dissolved more than sixty private hobby groups, including the notoriously dangerous China Fisherman's Association. And the old Confucian values--what many Western experts, desperately trying to understand Asia's economic miracle, once called "Asian values"--are long gone. The CCP has tried to reintroduce Confucianism as a national philosophy, but it had so discredited Confucianism during the Maoist period that older Chinese will not embrace Confucius again. Younger Chinese, reared on raw capitalism, see little use for traditional Confucian beliefs. Thus most mainland Chinese have been severed from their past and thrown into a variety of capitalism that lives only for the present. Many are not satisfied believing in nothing but materialism. Younger Chinese, the first to succeed in a newly capitalist economy, are finding themselves spiritually, socially, and politically unfulfilled even after they have made their fortune; as Time recently reported, only "daily pilgrimages" to local religious institutions soothed rich women's feelings of emptiness. Meanwhile, as Linda Jakobson, author of A Million Truths: A Decade in China, has written, "middle-aged and elderly Chinese ... brought up believing that they had a mission in life [to further the goals of communism] ... mourn the loss of an ideology" and seek an all-encompassing replacement for Marxism-Leninism. For their part, China's millions of unemployed are desperately searching for something to convince them that life is still worth living. Even Fu Qingyuan, director of the Research Institute of Marxism-Leninism at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the country's most prestigious communism think tank, admitted to Time that "many people in China are facing a crisis of faith." For Qingyuan to make such an admission is like John Paul II telling the Catholic faithful, "Well, maybe Martin Luther was right." Trying to fill the ideological vacuum, average Chinese are turning in staggering numbers to religion. In Jesus in Beijing, David Aikman, a former Time correspondent in Beijing, chronicles China's embrace of Christianity. Since many Chinese Christian groups are highly secretive, Aikman's book contains a wealth of new and important detail. The numbers touted by Aikman, who clearly believes that this Great Awakening will radically transform China for the better, are awe-inspiring. By his estimates, China may have nearly 100 million practicing Christians. Christianity in China is reportedly growing by more than 7 percent annually. Some scholars think that China will have 200 million Christians within two decades, making it perhaps the largest Christian country on earth, though others, such as Jason Kindopp of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, are more skeptical of these growth rates. As Aikman writes, "From the grassroots of the peasantry to high within China's establishment, the country [is] being seeded with believing Christians." Even in Beijing, new churches are being constructed that will hold more than four thousand worshippers each. To be sure, other religions are enjoying revivals as well. When I last visited Kashgar, a city in the western province of Xinjiang, the central mosque was packed with hundreds of Muslim worshippers. Tibetan Buddhism is gaining new seekers; earlier this year The Washington Post reported that a Buddhist center in Sertar, a remote region of western China, has drawn as many as ten thousand pilgrims. Next: The regime's denial of religious freedom only encourages Chinese to join house churches, which may be viewed as not only places of worship but also as ways to resist the government. But Christianity--primarily the Protestant evangelical kind--is spreading like wildfire. In part, this is because evangelical Christianity, flexible enough to tailor its message to different groups of believers, offers the kind of personal empowerment that complements an increasingly individualistic society while offering an all-encompassing ideology for former devotees of communism. In part, it is because Christianity offers impoverished Chinese social welfare and a promise of a new life, since many Chinese associate Christianity with the life-changing miracles highlighted by evangelical groups. In part, it is because Christianity seems foreign--and thus enticing--to many Chinese, but it also has a history in the country and so it is not completely unknown. Christianity probably was first introduced to China in the seventh century. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries a wave of missionaries came to China; and in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the number of Chinese Christians grew rapidly. In the mid-nineteenth century one charismatic Chinese Christian, Hong Xiuquan, launched a theocratic revolt against the crumbling Qing Dynasty that became known as the Taiping Rebellion. Though the rebellion was crushed, it fatally weakened China's last royal court. Few Chinese Christians today are joining the state-sponsored churches. Instead, Aikman writes, they become members of either underground evangelical organizations known as "house churches" or underground Catholic churches loyal to the Vatican. The house churches are growing the fastest: even in Beijing there are more than seven hundred. In other provinces, such as Henan in central China and Wenzhou in eastern China, house churches, identified by discreet red crosses, dominate the landscape. Chinese evangelical groups proselytize across the country; Aikman follows the Fancheng Fellowship, a Chinese evangelical organization that now has several million members, as it quietly cultivates new worshippers all over China. The regime's denial of religious freedom only encourages Chinese to join house churches, which may be viewed as not only places of worship but also as ways to resist the government. In the past three years, Beijing has acknowledged that religion has become a permanent part of Chinese society and even contributed some government money to build new state-sponsored churches. Yet in keeping with its bipolar repression, the government has simultaneously eviscerated house churches that were building up their congregations. A remarkable set of secret documents uncovered by Freedom House in 2002 reveals that the Chinese authorities, across twenty-two provinces, tortured young evangelical girls by sticking electric rods in their vaginas and burning their breasts, killed more than one hundred evangelicals, and jailed some twenty thousand believers. One of the "crimes" of which the authorities accused detained evangelicals was "praying for world peace." Aikman also captures the scope of repression against underground churches. His book is poorly organized, flitting from one aspect of Christianity to the next, but its most compelling sections include long profiles of Chinese Christian leaders who have been detained for years. In these compassionate portraits, Aikman shows how the limited opening of Chinese society has not resulted in an easing of pressure on Christian leaders--though in doing so, he may have exposed too much detail about leaders who did not want the state to find them. Many house churches hold enormous fevered meetings that would shock even the most inspired American evangelicals. At some house churches, four thousand worshippers meet in secret locations, where they vigorously attest their ties to Jesus. One house sect, known as "The Shouters," scream "Jesus is Lord!" over and over. Another underground sect has become known as "The Weepers" because it emphasizes prolonged sobbing, which it is convinced has some theological value. Another, known as "The Disciples," reportedly believes that the devil exists in all humans, and that true believers have to physically beat their friends to expunge Satan. But the explosion of Christianity in China is not only an affair of the soul. It could have enormous political consequences, a point that Aikman highlights by subtitling his book "How Christianity Is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power." Aikman argues that the Christianization of China will lead many Chinese to adopt liberal and compassionate views of governance and of international relations. The growth of Christianity, he believes, will come with an acceptance of the "Augustinian sense of international responsibility ... a profound sense of restraint, justice, and order." Though he admits China's house churches are cautious about pushing for political freedom, he believes a Christianized China--especially one catalyzed by evangelical Protestantism, with its focus on individual empowerment--would change the nature of the country, preparing it for reform. And a Christian China would be less likely to see international interactions as a zero-sum affair: it would share with the United States "a common worldview on many thorny questions of international affairs." Aikman even suggests that a Christianized China might become a powerful advocate for Israel, a democracy and a country of obvious importance to evangelical Christians. Other commentators share his sentiments. Ian Buruma, in his book Bad Elements, a study of Chinese rebels, notes that many Chinese dissidents exiled to the United States have turned to evangelical Christianity, in part because they believe that religion will be a force for change in China. Tony Lambert, the author of China's Christian Millions, another book on the country's Great Awakening, argues that, after the Tiananmen massacre, thousands of Chinese intellectuals turned to Christianity because they believed that only a complete spiritual overhaul--which could ultimately lead to a political overhaul--could truly transform China. In this spiritual overhaul, Lambert believes, Chinese Christians are increasingly deciding that, when they have to choose between the state and God, they will come down on the side of God--a defiance of Beijing that ultimately can lead to a wider revolt. "The heart of the house church movement takes a conscious stand on the authority of Scripture and has worked out a biblical view of church-state relations," Lambert writes. "If clashes [between church and state] arise, then they are prepared to say ... 'We must obey God rather than men.'" Unfortunately, Aikman and Lambert, as well as many Christian organizations in the West, which have made China a prime target of evangelism, are too charitable in their interpretations of how this Great Awakening will affect China's political course. Certainly, Christianity could be a threat to the party's brittle rule. Any institution capable of organizing large numbers of people outside of state control has the potential to challenge the party, as happened with Falun Gong. And because Chinese evangelicals already possess a network of churches operating underground but maintaining ties to overseas organizations, they are well equipped to conceal political activities from the government and are prepared to step into any political vacuum. Moreover, Christianity has proven particularly popular in regions of China with some of the highest unemployment rates, like the northeast Rust Belt and increasingly impoverished rural areas. "Is it too speculative to see a connection between the desperate suffering of the people [in certain areas of China] and the subsequent great openness of the peasants to the Christian gospel?" asks Lambert. House churches could provide an organization that united laid-off workers from all over the country, who thus far have mounted numerous but relatively isolated protests. This is not a new idea--the combination of church leadership, subversive Christian theology, and angry unionists and peasants was what made Solidarity successful against communist Poland. And there is some evidence that Chinese Christians are already beginning to direct their attention to the regime. John Pomfret, The Washington Post's Beijing correspondent, found in 2002 that Wenzhou's Communist Party leadership tried to halt all Sunday-school religious instruction, expecting house church pastors to back down meekly. Instead, the pastors organized Christians, including Christian businesspeople, to prevent the closure of Sunday schools; Wenzhou Party officials desisted. Similarly, during last year's SARS crisis, when the government banned all public meetings, many Chinese pastors simply refused to follow orders, holding congregations throughout the SARS epidemic. More aggressively, other house churches have used their pulpits to call for an end to Communist Party rule, have played larger roles in organizing unemployed laborers, and have refused to submit to government orders not to baptize believers. But just because they work against the regime does not mean that these Christian groups are reformers. Many house church leaders are quite conservative and narrowly focused on evangelism. Put down for so long--the church in China was much more harshly suppressed than in Poland--many house church members have little knowledge of the Bible or of liberal, and liberating, theology. Evangelical Christianity is spreading so quickly in China in part because it is so emotional, so experiential. The Bible is used "as a talisman, like Mao's Little Red Book," Richard Madsen, a scholar of Chinese Christianity, has observed. Lambert admits that there are only about twelve hundred students across China engaged in full-time theological training--the kind of education that would help them to teach average Chinese about the textual basis of Christianity, and about the potentially liberal aspects of the faith. There are few well-trained Protestant pastors; Time has reported that in the Chinese countryside there are some fifty thousand believers for every cleric. This lack of training only plays into the hands of the most demagogic and least intellectual evangelical groups. Consequently, while some house church leaders are knowledgeable about textual and traditional Christianity, too many house church worshippers gravitate to the most superficial and most heterodox elements of the religion. Though some house churches, especially those in urban areas, seriously study biblical themes, often house churches focus on the unthinking and the superstitious--miracles, instant salvation, acts of physical transport such as weeping and shouting. Faye Pearson, a foreign teacher of Christianity in China, told Time that seven out of ten converts to Christianity in the country "come to faith through illness": they believe that Christianity has healed them. Even Lambert admits that "Chinese Christians adhere to a robust biblical supernaturalism which believes in a sovereign God who can answer the prayers of his people in remarkable ways." In fact, many Chinese Christians follow what is essentially folk religion with only minor Christian elements. All this is not exactly the basis for the kind of intellectual ferment that produced liberation theology, or Solidarity. Worse, in contrast to the idea that evangelical Christianity will empower worshippers, creating a pool of questioning Chinese who can build an open society, house churches too often simply develop into authoritarian fiefs, with worshippers unknowledgeable about Christian tradition and theology focusing their energy on one charismatic leader. There are many instances of Chinese groups using Christianity to promote individual leaders--groups that essentially turn into cults. Just like the party mandarins, few of these charismatic leaders have much knowledge of or care for liberal democracy, civil society, or the innate rights of non-believers and atheists. And though some house church leaders have made efforts to work with their peers, many of the more charismatic leaders encourage their flock to ignore or attack other churches. Where is Chinese Christianity's John Paul II or Joseph Zens, the democratic reform-minded Catholic bishop of Hong Kong? Instead there are "The Weepers," who inculcate absolute fealty to their leader, Peter Xu. Lambert recounts how a charismatic preacher in Henan convinced gullible peasants to wait all evening for Jesus to appear out of a local river; when the peasants waded into the river, they were all swept away and drowned. There is the South China Church, which demonstrates similar fealty to its leader, Gong Shengliang. There are "The Disciples," a group that gained more than one hundred thousand followers in one province, who were so apocalyptic that they forced local farmers and students to stop working. There are groups such as these in nearly every province in China today. And while these organizations do not comprise the majority of Chinese Christians, they are by far the loudest, and the most intensive recruiters. In a state that makes it difficult for all religious groups, including more moderate house churches, to recruit and to educate, more heterodox groups are likely to gain among the uneducated masses. A total breakdown in social order, meanwhile, is only likely to fuel these fringe groups. In some of the more heterodox organizations, leaders even proclaim that they are the Sons of God. One organization, called Established King, grew up around a peasant farmer who proclaimed himself the messiah and soon drew thousands of followers. (After having sex with hundreds of women, its leader was arrested in the mid-1990s.) In the most extreme case, a sect called Eastern Lightning, which claims hundreds of thousands of members, believes that Jesus has returned to earth and taken on the form of a woman living in central China. Eastern Lightning devotees worship this woman and try to force other Christians to worship her as well; just like the CCP authorities, the group uses brutal methods to get its way, kidnapping members of other churches--and sometimes torturing them--until they pledge allegiance to the cult's Christ-figure. American evangelicals have failed to understand the true nature of many of the house churches. In authoritarian nations, liberal democrats are often thrown in jail; but being thrown in jail in an authoritarian nation does not make you a liberal democrat. Yet the Bush administration, and American evangelical organizations that smuggle Bibles into China and send thousands of missionaries into the country, seem unwilling seriously to probe their counterparts in China. (Indeed, it is hardly surprising that Aikman's relatively positive account of Chinese Christianity was picked up by Regnery, the conservative press that brought us Oliver North's War Stories and Ann Coulter's shrieking nonsense.) In the 1990s, the Chinese founder of Eastern Lightning came to America and appealed for political asylum, claiming that he would be persecuted as a Christian back in China. He apparently was granted asylum without the United States even questioning his background; and as a result America did not discover that Eastern Lightning was a dangerous group known for kidnapping and torturing other Christians. China's Great Awakening is just as likely to result in the kind of tumult that happened in the wake of the Taiping Rebellion--which started with a mix of Christianity and native folk practice--as it is to create a liberal revolution. Back then, a decline in state control; a rise in unemployment, migration and population pressures; and an increase in heterodox, charismatic religious movements created violent political change, in which the state was weakened and ultimately overthrown, only to be replaced by warring interest groups who fought among themselves and against remnants of the old regime. The Taiping Rebellion ultimately resulted in some twenty million deaths. China is a much more populous country today.
Joshua Kurlantzick is the foreign editor at TNR.