Converting China

Saturday, January 24, 2004

hina, 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," 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 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 has seen an increasing interest in religious and spiritual matters since the mid-1980s, said Ron Winstead of Jackson.

He and his wife, Ina, just returned to the states in late December after spending four months in Taiwan. They had served as teachers and Baptist missionaries for several years in the country.

"Those people who have an interest can pursue those interests now," Winstead said. Under communism, any religious interest was discouraged; that isn't government policy now.

20 to 30 percent

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.

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, with its tradition of belief that history is cyclical, according to Buddhism and even Confusianism. Christianity is a faith based on a profound hope in the future, and that history is linear, with a specific end goal, Aikman said.

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.

The unregistered Protestant "house churches," the biggest Christian segment, insist on freedom to evangelize Chinese.

But the idea of an "underground church" is a misnomer, Winstead said. There is not any church or religious group meeting in China that government officials aren't aware of. Some local leaders choose not to interfere. "If it's doing good in society, they just ignore it."

Easing suspicions

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.

But China has a history of emerging religions causing unrest among the people, so there is a tendency for the government to be suspicious, Winstead said.

But if the people trust you, they are more likely to cooperate and allow a religious group to work among the people, Ina Winstead said. The Winsteads have worked through the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship to build schools, hospitals and improve conditions among the rural poor in China.

When officials see those kinds of improvements in neighboring provinces, they are willing to accept help from Christians, Ron Winstead said.

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."

Features editor Laura Johnston contributed to this report.

Moreover, there's wide interest in Christian thought among Chinese who analyze the past progress of western civilization.

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