Seasoned journalist David Aikman is author of the new book Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity Is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power. He spoke to NRO about the state of Christians in China.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: How many Christians are there in China?
David Aikman: [There are] about 70 million Protestants and about 12 million Catholics.
Lopez: How have that many Christians managed to flourish in China, largely underground? What drives them?
Aikman: During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) every single church building (and mosque and temple as well) was closed in China. The formal, permitted structures of Chinese Protestantism and Catholicism had also been dissolved by Mao’s Red Guards. Christians become used to gathering in totally clandestine situations, in homes, fields, forests. Because the government was so overtly hostile to religion, Christians took the view that the best response was open and energetic evangelism wherever and whenever they could. Even when China began to open up in 1979 and the “official” churches were permitted to function once more, the “house church” networks had established such a powerful presence all over China that it made sense to continue to operate completely outside of the domain of any Chinese officialdom.
Lopez: Many of the Christians are elites–scientists, intellectuals. How did that happen?
Aikman: Several of the Chinese students and scholars studying in the U.S. and other foreign countries become Christian. Many of these also returned to China and meet up with colleagues of similar professional attainment who were holding private Christian meetings. Those attending these meetings then began to invite others. Word spread that Christianity “worked,” that is, that people who were Christian were genuinely concerned for each other’s welfare and that prayers often produced remarkable physical healings from difficult illnesses.
But another factor has been a very open-minded approach by many Chinese intellectuals into such phenomena as the remarkable historical primacy of Western civilization around the world. How could this happen? What were the core principles of Western civilization that enabled it, time and again, to correct itself rather than plunge into cyclical and eventually permanent decline? Many concluded that it was Christian ethics and the dynamism of a faith based on a profound hope in the future and a belief that history was not cyclical, as Buddhism and even Confucianism proclaimed, but linear, and with a specific end goal.
Finally, Christians in the fine and performing arts have shown that there is a way out from the often-nihilistic cycle of modernism and postmodernism. This can be very attractive to artists who would prefer a hope-filled universe in which to develop their creative skills.
Lopez: How harassed–and persecuted–are Christians in 2003 by the Chinese regime?
Aikman: In some parts of China, notably Henan province, where there are large communities of Christians, and in Anhui, the persecutions have been repeated and severe. There have been reports in the past few weeks of at least one Christian woman beaten to death in prison, and several more seriously injured as a result of beatings. One Christian whom I met in 1998 when I attended a gathering of house-church leaders was sentenced to two years in a labor camp for having written in his private prayer journal, among other things, that he was praying for a Christian constitution for China. The journal was seized during a fishing-trip search of his home. When a Chinese friend phoned the interrogator up to ask on what conceivable grounds this non-political and irenic citizen was being punished, the interrogator replied, “Mr. Zhang doesn’t have a criminal problem, he has a mind problem. He is too superstitious.” Translation: Zhang is a man of prayer.
Lopez: Are there some Christian denominations more targeted for crackdown than others?
Aikman: There are no “denominations” as such in China, only different kinds of Protestant house-church networks and some basically underground Catholic networks. In general, the authorities don’t pay any attention to theology (i.e., whether a group, for example, is Calvinist–”once saved, always saved”) but to how active a group is in spreading the Gospel and organizing meetings. The most active groups are frequently harassed and their leaders arrested and beaten.
Lopez: Are democracy advocates in China more likely to be Christian than not?
Aikman: No. There are plenty of pro-democracy secular activists in China. What has happened, however, is that some intellectuals who were dissident within China and then came to the West and became Christian, have integrated their faith with proposals for a new democratic governance in China. It is nevertheless true that all of China’s Christians would strongly support democratic change in China.
Lopez: You write that Christians in China are pro-Israel. How could a Christian China change global alliances and relationships?
Aikman: If Christians began to fill positions in China’s foreign ministry, strategic think tanks, and even high places within the government as a whole, China would become far less opportunistic about supporting any Middle Eastern group that happened to be critical of, or hostile to, the U.S. In addition, if China ever became open enough to be willing to permit Chinese missionaries to travel overseas, it would probably be supportive of efforts of Chinese missionaries to evangelize the Islamic world, especially the Arab Middle East. This, of course, would render China far less popular in the Muslim world as a whole and thereby far more likely to try to be “even-handed” in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
Lopez: Is there any one person or two people who best exemplify/exemplifies Christianity in China?
Aikman: One man who epitomized Chinese Christianity until his death in 1991 was Wang Mingdao, an evangelical Protestant who had started a church in Peking (as it was then called) in the 1930′s. When the Japanese occupied Peking and North China, Wang refused to join one of their puppet Christian organizations, at some considerable personal risk. Later, after the Communists came to power in 1949, Wang similarly refused to be used in their own efforts to manipulate Protestant churches for political ends. Starting in 1956, he spent a total of 22 years in labor camp, steadfastly refusing to kowtow to the regime. Yet when he was released from camp about a decade before his death, he was completely lacking in rancor of any kind.
Another, contemporary figure who has been quite public about his faith is the prominent conductor Timothy Su. For three years Su has conducted first-class orchestras and choirs in public performances in Beijing of Handel’s Messiah in Chinese. He was permitted to conduct one performance in Guangzhou, but local authorities in Shanghai and other cities canceled the performances. Su is highly respected as a musician, and he is publicly known to be a Christian, a fact that has caused him problems when it comes to more performances of Christian worship music.
Lopez: How directly can U.S.-China policy affect Chinese Christians?
Aikman: The U.S. should constantly make it clear to the Chinese government that freedom of conscience is the only acceptable form of policy on religious matters. It should bring up at every opportunity in bilateral discussions specific cases of Christians who have been detained or mistreated because of their faith. At the same time, the U.S. government should not couch arguments in favor of religious freedom in forms that could be considered aggressive or threatening. Chinese officials visiting the U.S. should be encouraged as often as is practical to visit thriving American churches as well as synagogues and mosques in order to press home the point that religious freedom and diversity provides strengthens a nation’s cohesiveness.
Lopez: What do Chinese Christians tend to think about the U.S.?
Aikman: China’s Christians tend to be very pro-American. They tend to support the war on Iraq and Washington’s support for Israel. They greatly admire U.S. religious freedoms and the vigorous functioning of democracy. Most are not naïve about American social and cultural shortcomings.
Lopez: How can Christianity change China in coming years–and how soon will a dramatic difference be seen?
Aikman: Chinese Christians hope that by the year 2008, when China hosts the summer Olympic Games, China’s government will have radically improved conditions of religious life in China. In fact, many Chinese Protestant Christians hope that there will be an opportunity openly to celebrate the bicentennial in 2007 of the arrival of the first Protestant missionary to China, Robert Morrison (who settled in Canton).
Many Chinese Christians believe that a broad Christian constituency throughout China will be one of the few assurances that China can make a successful transition to democracy governance without violence.
Lopez: How will a Christian China affect the rest of the world?
Aikman: The question to ask before answering that is: What would a non-Christian China be like if it became a superpower capable of rivaling the U.S.? Probably dangerous and unpredictable. A Christian China would be far more likely to view its role in the world as containing a global moral responsibility, an “Augustinian” national self-view, if you like. In practice, a Christianized China would be far more likely to see eye-to-eye with the U.S. on many international issues.
Lopez: What did you find most surprising about present-day China during the course of writing Jesus in Beijing?
Aikman: I was struck again and again by how widespread the Christian presence is in China: taxi drivers in Beijing, businessmen in Wenzhou, academics in Shanghai. I was also powerfully aware of how many serious problems there are in the country that are festering away beneath the surface. Take Beijing’s 100,000 cab drivers: I would always ask them how many days off in vacation time they received each year. Some said two; most said none at all. I do not think such working conditions can be sustained for long in a country eager to develop into a stable, modern state.
Lopez: If there were only one thing readers could learn from your book, what would you hope it would be.
Aikman: I would like readers of Jesus in Beijing to grasp how Christianity, though assumed by many in the West to be outmoded and irrelevant to modern life, is regarded by many Chinese as the absolute key to a successful, peaceful, powerful modern China in the future.
Lopez: In terms of religion, are there any president-day or historical countries China resembles?
Aikman: Yes, the Roman Empire in the period approximately 200-300 A.D. Christianity thrived in the Roman Empire, but it was frequently–though inconsistently–suppressed harshly. Yet it is interesting that, by the end of the third century A.D., that is, before Constantine issued a decree of religious tolerance in (I think, 311 A.D.) there had been a “tipping point” in Roman culture and philosophy. The most celebrated Roman intellectuals and teachers were increasingly Christian.
In the modern period, the country that has set a precedent for China’s possible future development has been South Korea. Though Christians are not a majority–maybe they are about one third–South Korea is effectively “Christianized” in the sense that Christians fill very important positions throughout society and government. It was in many ways the self-organizing experience of Christian churches in Korea that enabled that nation to make a successful transition from dictatorship to democracy.
Lopez: Why do you think rather few journalists seem to have paid any attention to China’s Christian phenomenon?
Aikman: Because journalists in general tend to be secular and are often quite tone-deaf in their ability to grasp the significance of religious developments in any country.